Journalists share how the pandemic affected their work and the profession in Business Wire’s annual Media Survey.

It’s hard to find any industry or profession that was not impacted in some way by the spread of COVID-19. When trying to think of an industry that was not, beekeeping was the first profession that came to my mind. Sadly, not even that naturally socially distanced job was immune to the spread of the deadly virus. It turns out that they rely heavily on the shipping industry to move queens around the world, which was enlightening news to me.

But what about the industry of news? Was the pandemic harmful or helpful?

I imagined the thirst for knowledge and facts about the virus in the early days/weeks/months of the pandemic, and the subsequent spikes in the numbers of people contracting the disease in the fall, drove massive traffic to news sites and/or subscriptions to newspapers and/or people tuning in to their local television news – surely buoying ad revenue across the board. But was that offset somehow by reduction in staff or a sudden lack of budgets for advertisers? It’s why I wanted to include the question “How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your newsroom?” in our recent global media survey sent to thousands of journalists around the world.

It was the question that generated the most responses, but it did little to make clear the effect of the virus on the news industry. For some, the pandemic was a boon for business, generating new readership/viewership and ad revenue. For others, it was a bust because with other industries slowing or shuttering business, they had little to report on and little ad money available. And for some, they simply broke even.

Here are a few of the more illuminating responses we received:

  • We lost a number of summits and trade shows which were valuable for article ideas. Some went virtual, which were arguably not as good.
  • We’ve seen a lack of stories given that a lot of industries are closed and/or on reduced working hours.
  • We’ve stopped taking on freelancers.
  • I got more readership and extra business.
  • We do (among other things) 300+ new product hands-on reviews each year, and the pace of new product introductions is way down, making the task of finding enough to get in more challenging.
  • Lost revenue due to closure of outlets BUT increase in subscriptions has offset this to an extent.
  • Lots of distractions and general disruption … and a lot of difficulty in reaching people.
  • I am now a one-man editorial team.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents to Business Wire’s Media Survey reported a surge in news consumption/online traffic. Fifty-six percent, though, reported reduced or lost revenue. Another 27 percent of journalists reported their newsroom suffered furloughs and layoffs as a result of the pandemic and 21 percent noted these furloughs/layoffs presented a lack of resources for their organization.

I spoke to David Nelson, editor of the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Washington, early in the pandemic for Business Wire’s Meet the Media video series. I asked him how the pandemic was impacting his paper and he said: “We learned what the public thirst is when there’s something this big. Breaking news is always big for us … but we haven’t experienced one like this before. To see the end of March/early April (2020), just the thirst for any sort of update … any sort of news was unbelievable. We’ve never seen readership numbers like we have in those couple of months.”

Kitsap Sun editor, David Nelson, shares pitching tips with Business Wire in this 2020 video.

I followed up with Nelson recently to see if his readership numbers continued to be elevated or if they had returned to a more average level a year into the pandemic. He explained that readership was indeed lower now than when COVID burst onto the scene in early 2020. “Last (2020) March-April-May was a string of record-breaking days, and we don’t see those day-in-day-out numbers right now,” he said. Nelson also noted that they did see a strong rise in digital subscriptions between April 2020 and September 2020 before it plateaued. He has also seen an increase in subscriptions in the early part of 2021 as well, but cannot say for certain if these bumps were purely COVID-related.

Globally, the effects of the virus on the journalism industry were also uneven. Africa’s journalism industry was hit hard. Nigeria’s independent radio network Dandal Kura International, which gained prominence when taking a stand against Boko Haram in 2016/2017, saw its advertising revenue dry up and is in dire straits. Journalists in Bangladesh, India, Turkey, Malaysia and other countries have been detained for COVID coverage as various governments leveraged the pandemic to silence critics. In the UK, the Guardian Media Group cut over 180 jobs citing “unsustainable annual losses in future years unless we take decisive action” to reduce costs. In the U.S., some outlets saw a significant spike in traffic. FIPP reported that Tribune Publishing saw a 293 percent increase in digital subscription sales in March 2020. What’s New in Publishing reported traffic up by 150 percent at the San Francisco Chronicle, 120 percent at the Seattle Times, and 100 percent at the Boston Globe early in the pandemic. According to Lucinda Southern at Digiday, the curve in subscription growth started to flatten in late May of 2020 but publishers including Bloomberg Media and The New York Times anecdotally said they are seeing signs of stronger retention rates from subscribers.

While the effect of the pandemic on the journalism industry leans negative, journalists remain optimistic about the future with 64 percent seeing themselves being in the field five years from now, according to our survey. Further, only 19 percent of our respondents had an overall negative outlook when it comes to the future of the media industry. Somehow a positive viewpoint remains despite an incredibly challenging year. Let’s hope there’s not another pandemic in our future to cloud over this sunny optimism.

Learn more

Read more insights from the 2020 Business Wire Media Survey on our blog.

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