Things are shitty.

Mapping the changing Media Consumption Habits in the Face of a Pandemic

Johannes Klingebiel
Mar 25, 2020 · 10 min read

The global Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences — mainly working from home, slashed budgets and a general economic downturn — have an impact on the way people consume media and news in particular. Especially if we use the lens of the „attention economy“ as a framework to look at the shifts in where people decide to spend their time.

With every 2020 forecast and strategy down the drain, I want to collect and map some of those changes in consumption and to lay out some trends, as well as unanswered questions. Please note, that I‘ll try to focus on US and German numbers and will update this piece from time to time.

If you want to keep your own brain busy in these times, you might want to check out this article on how to map impacts and implications by the futurist Scott Smith. Just plug in any observation from this article and do some private foresight.

Changes in news consumption

According to a new survey from TV analysis company Magid, 51% are increasing their consumption of news amid the coronavirus outbreak, with 49% checking on the news multiple times a day.

Pew Research confirms this increase in news consumption. According to a survey of American adults, 89% are following news related to the outbreak closely and 70% say the media covered the crisis well.

The same holds true for TV news. ABC‘s „World News Tonight“ found itself suddenly on the top of the Nielsen ranking, beating shows like „The Bachelor“ or „American Idol“ with a record-breaking 10.8 million viewers (+21% above average).

Here in Germany, we can see a similar increase. According to Meedia, TV news achieved record ratings between the 16th and 25th of March. The daily evening news format “Tagesschau” by the public broadcaster ARD was viewed by 5,42 (+55%) million Germans. But this increase isn‘t limited to the ARD, but holds true for every other daily TV news format across the board.

There‘s also an increase in app downloads and social media interactions with news stories. But interestingly enough news aggregators seem to skim off some of this new need for information, at least when it comes to app downloads.

Data: Apptopia; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. News Break is a local news aggregation app, via Axios.

Changes for national News: more traffic & less ad-money

The number of minutes spent by readers at news sites increased 46 percent from the same period ending a few days ago last year, and overall visits rose 57 percent, according to a study of more than a dozen general news websites by comScore, a media measurement company. (…)
Outlets showing big gains included The Atlantic, Business Insider, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Wired, all of which doubled or nearly doubled the number of visits. Most outlets have made coronavirus-related articles available free to nonsubscribers.

German news publishers also report an impressive increase in traffic. Der Spiegel was visited by 6,7 Mio. users (+81% YoY), NTV even jumped from 2,27 Mio. to 6,55 Mio.

As mentioned above, most publishers opted to make Covid-19 related news available for free. Driven, not in small parts, by messages and tweets from readers, pushing for virus-sized holes in the paywalls. But the increase in traffic does not translate to an increase in ad-revenue. This is due to the fact, that advertisers either slashed their ad-budgets and put their campaigns on hold or black-listed virus-related keywords.

The New York Times, for instance, forecast to investors that digital ad revenue would decline 10 percent. Business Insider, meanwhile, tells Ad Age that CPMs, or cost per thousand impressions, have fallen 10 percent. And a recent report from cybersecurity company Cheq says $2.8 billion was lost due to “incorrect blocking of safe content on premium news sites” in 2019.

Buzzfeed also reports a sharp increase in advertisers blocking their own campaigns from appearing on news sites or Covid-19 coverage.

On the other hand, there seems to be an increase in new subscriptions for national news sites, again according to the NYT:

There were 57.5 percent more new subscriptions to U.S. news sites last Sunday than on an average Sunday, according to the media software company Piano. The Journal, Bloomberg and The Daily Beast said they had signed up a much greater number of new subscribers than usual in recent weeks.

The same trend holds true for German publishers. According to Meedia there‘s a clear increase in online subscriptions, but without reporting any hard numbers.

So taking a step back and looking at the whole picture, things aren‘t that clear-cut for big national news sites it seems. And we‘re only looking at about two weeks worth of data.

So here are some loose thoughts on my part:

  • It‘s hard to tell if advertising budgets will decrease even further or not in the coming days or weeks. So we might want to keep an eye out for that.
  • There‘s a clear chance for big publishers to win subscribers by proving the worth of their reporting to them without making them feel like having to pay for vital information. Jacob Donnelly suggested in his newsletter that taking a page from The Guardians playbook and asking for support might be the best way forward for newsrooms to balance the business needs with the need for information without risking the ire of anxious readers.
  • There‘s also a need for non-virus content. I don‘t have hard numbers on that, but if publishers can offer some escapism for readers as well, this is the time to promote those pieces and features. News avoidance is still a thing and too much information might not ease your readers anxiety, but on the contrary make things worse.

Unanswered questions:

  • So far I haven‘t found numbers on German traffic, subscription and ad trends. I will update the text accordingly.
  • The outbreak's impact on the sale print-editions in kiosks or stores and the delivery of subscriptions is also unknown.
  • The economic impact of canceled events for publishers is also something to keep in mind.

„Fun“ Facts:

  • Playboy announced on March 18th to finally shut down its print edition, citing the Covid-19 crisis. It will still publish online with occasional print issues from time to time, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Changes for local News: oh my…

“Ninety percent of our revenue — advertising, ticketing fees, and our own events — is directly tied to people getting together in groups. (…) The coronavirus situation has virtually eliminated this income all at once.”

Some alt-weeklies have already announced their closure, you can find a list of them below the Niemanlab article. Buzzfeed‘s Craig Silvermans warns of an „extinction event“ for US newspapers with an impact even worse than the 2008 financial crisis.

In Germany it seems that some local newspapers still profit from the Covid-19 traffic-bump. The Berliner Morgenpost saw an increase in traffic by almost 680% from 0,25 Mio. visits to 1,95 Mio.

Unanswered questions:

  • So far I haven‘t found data regarding the situation of local or regional dailies.
  • And I am still on the look-out for German numbers, as well.

„Fun“ Facts:

Podcasts: Uneven Change

To put specific numbers to the trend, Podtrac, the analytics company that publishes those industry rankers, found that weekly podcast audiences in the US decreased by 8% in the week of March 16, a greater drop than the 2% decrease in the previous week, at least for its measurement set.

A couple of days later Podtrac published more detailed data on the way the podcast consumption seems to change amid WFH and lockdown. Broken down by genre we can see some things quite clear.

Almost every category lost some amount of listeners, except Science, Fiction, Kids & Family, News, and Business, which seem to grow against the overall trend. Though big shows tend to to better than smaller ones.

So it‘s fair to say that the COVID-19 news-bump seems to affect newsy podcasts as well:

Many news organizations have bet on podcasts to fill the void. Slate’s coronavirus-related podcasts have received more than four million downloads, according to a spokeswoman. A Vox Media executive said its podcasts had been downloaded 50 percent more than usual, with newsy shows like “Today, Explained” and “The Weeds” especially popular.

One interesting thing to note is how the loss of a daily commute seems to have affected consumption patterns, again Quah:

tvhe nature of the change is interesting. “The download time windows have shifted, according to one of our ad tech vendors and their data,” the team wrote. “Previously the majority of the downloads were early-day downloads, 7 a.m.–9 a.m. local time, while recent data shows downloads over a longer window with a high concentration later in the afternoon, 4 p.m.–6 p.m. local time.”

And the industry-wide increase in subscriptions might manifest for podcasts, too. Patreon reports an increase in new patrons as well as creators for the first weeks of March, but also a wave of canceled subscriptions, though not enough to offset the increase of new ones.

The podcast industry is a complex field and still dominated by indie-productions, which more than often rely on direct support rather then ad-revenue. There are no clear indications of how the ecosystem is changing, but we can still observe parallels to the larger news business. For example, Patreon reports an increase in new patrons as well as creators for the first weeks of March, but also a wave of canceled subscriptions, though not enough to offset the increase of new ones. But to end this part on a somewhat historical high-note from Quah:

“Podcasting was born from adversity,” she said, referencing the fact that the modern podcast business and many of the bigger shows we know today — like WTF with Marc Maron, 99% Invisible, and Comedy Bang! Bang!, among others — originally started in the immediate wake of the Great Recession. “I think podcasts are the scrappy survivors of the media industry. We’re not so big that we’re too fixed in our creation process and vulnerable to changes like this, but we’re not so small that we’re entirely dependent on a small group of advertisers to keep us alive.”

Music Streaming: The commuting Gap

In Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus, the top 200 most streamed songs on Spotify within the country averaged 18.3 million total streams per day in February 2019. Since Italy’s prime minister announced a national quarantine on March 9th, the total streams for the 200 most popular songs have not topped 14.4 million. There was a 23% drop in top 200 streams on Tuesday March 17th compared to Tuesday, March 3rd. (…)
The trend is similar in the US. On March 17th, total Spotify streams of top 200 songs fell to 77 million streams. This was the lowest number of top-200 streams in the US for any Tuesday in 2020, and about 14 million streams fewer than just a week before. Total top-200 streams are also down in the UK, France, and Spain as well.

It‘s hard to tell if those numbers are only true for the most 200 popular songs on Spotify or are part of a broader trend throughout the platform.

My personal guess is the decrease in music streaming exists and is caused by a change of habit. Mainly the missing daily commuting time from and to the office.

Notes on the Infrastructure

Still, as far as I know, there haven‘t been any major outages reported so far, though promised max-speeds by internet providers won’t be reached due to the ongoing high-usage in residential areas.

Change Log

27.03.: Added Buzzfeeds coverage on rising ad-blocking rates from advertisers, as well as Patreons numbers on the increase of patrons and creators.

31.03.: New data from Podtrac on changes in podcast audiences by genre.

Johannes Klingebiel

Ein unregelmäßiges Zine rund um Technologie, Internet…

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