What the Pandemic Means for Publishers

Experts and analysts on the rocky road ahead for an already-ailing industry 

Prior recessions and other tragedies only provide so much of a blueprint for digital and print publishers navigating Covid-19.
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The global pandemic has been devastating for nearly every industry, but especially for print and digital publishers.

Having spent the years since the Great Recession refining what they hoped would be a sustainable business model—from erecting paywalls to diversifying into offerings like branded events—they’re now facing yet another serious threat to their existence. And the most vulnerable among them might not survive.

“The media business is very much like the human population,” notes Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. “If you had preexisting conditions going into this, you’re in deep trouble.” 

In some ways, the media industry is still recovering from its last major setback. The late 2000s decimated many print publishers, wiping out magazines like Portfolio, a business magazine from Condé Nast, Gourmet, Spin and SmartMoney.

Advertising took five quarters to return to print’s pre-recession levels—not fast enough to save the print editions of titles like Redbook and Seventeen at Hearst Magazines, Family Circle at Meredith and Glamour at Condé Nast.

Publishers began experimenting with printing so-called special issue publications for the newsstand, marking up the price of a magazine to make up for a lack of advertising. 

The news was better on the digital front, with advertising making a comeback after the recession. “Pent-up demand” led digital advertising to return in just three quarters, said Ken Harding, senior managing director at FTI Consulting. 

Still, digital media also put greater focus on getting readers to pay for information. The industry saw a surge of digital outlets putting up a paywall, as with The Cut, or creating membership programs, like Quartz and BuzzFeed—complete with gimmicks like exclusive newsletters, access to editors and tote bags thrown in.

Meanwhile, technology and media companies continued to innovate new tools to court advertisers and measure KPIs.

Publishers were headed into this year with a re-emphasis on using their first-party data to attract more ad dollars and prepare for a future without third-party cookies. Their competitors? Not just other media organizations but also Amazon, Facebook and Google, companies that can sell advertisers reach at scale. Total ad revenues for Alphabet, Google’s parent company, for example, reached $33.8 billion in Q1.

Trying to gain an edge with greater scale, digital media outlets began merging and acquiring one another at the end of last year. Bustle Digital Group made a business of acquiring media sites for cheap, and Vox Media and New York Media merged last year, as did Group Nine Media and PopSugar and Refinery29 and Vice Media. All entered 2020 with newly integrated editorial and business staff and shared infrastructure to theoretically attract readers and advertisers in a bigger way.

Diversified revenue streams also became key. Both print and digital publishers have entered the worlds of podcasting and live events. Bizzabo, an event software company, says its clients—publishers like The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and CNBC—generated roughly $22 million in event registrations last year.

Despite these strategies, publishers have had to do more with less. Newsroom employment has continued to steadily decrease since 2008. In all, U.S. newsrooms were operating with about 25% fewer employees in 2018 compared to 10 years prior, according to Pew Research.

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March, it was back to square one for some publishers. 

In the middle of March, Future Media Group (owner of magazines like Surface and W) furloughed at least 17 employees, Future plc (with sites like TechRadar and Space.com) laid off 15% of employees, alt-weekly owner Euclid Media Group laid off 70% of staff among its publications in five states and American Media (publisher of Us Weekly) cut employees’ pay.

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