• During this crisis, more people are turning to trusted local news sources.
  • But the pandemic is causing huge harm to this sector at the same time.
  • Here's how advertisers can help save the industry - and help themselves in the process.

One of the great disasters hiding inside the coronavirus catastrophe is the imminent loss of local news. Financial pressure on local news has increased, and very few organizations have the resources to weather the scale of the current crisis. The great irony is that while the business model for local news continues to crumble in front of our eyes, readership is skyrocketing.

Local news organizations in every corner of the world have been on the precipice of ruin for years. In the decade since the Great Recession, the US alone lost more than 1,000 local news organizations. One in three US citizens now lives in a news desert, defined as a community without a daily newspaper.

The shift away from print, a trend that accelerated in the last financial crisis, crippled many news organizations, but was felt most acutely at the local level. According to eMarketer, Google and Facebook take 77% of local digital ad revenue, leaving crumbs for local publishers. Digital subscriptions, meanwhile, have not filled the gap left by the decline in advertising and print revenues. The result is a hollowing out of newsrooms, producing what media critic Ken Doctor calls “ghost papers”, organizations unable to provide the type of in-depth news and information that functioning democracies require.

Local newspaper provision by US county
Local newspaper provision by US county
Image: Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, UNC

Arrive the coronavirus

Just as it has been indiscriminate in its infection of the human population, the coronavirus' impact on the publishing universe has been widespread. Local advertising – the last thin lifeline for many local outlets – has been cut in half overnight. The past several weeks have seen a dramatic uptick in paycuts and furloughs across the US. According to the Wall Street Journal: "Local advertising spending could fall this year by at least a quarter, amounting to a decline of more than $30 billion, according to one estimate." And that’s just in the US market.

Similar patterns can be found in every corner of the world. In the UK, the Guardian Media Group reports an anticipated a revenue shortfall of £20m. In South Africa, the Mail & Guardian, a leading independent news organization, reports advertising revenue has fallen by 70%, making it difficult to meet payroll. “Our partners around the world, independent news organizations of all types, are seeing an immediate reduction in revenues of up to 30%,” said Jeanne Bourgault, President of Internews.

Many advertisers are adding significantly to this pain. Concerns about ads appearing adjacent to grim news is fuelling a wholesale exit from news, with some brands avoiding it entirely. Others use technology to avoid placing their ads next to stories about unpleasant issues, like coronavirus; however, as there is little else in the news these days, blocking the keywords “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” is almost the same as blocking news altogether.

Advertisers can help

Ironically, news has never been stronger in its ability to deliver a quality, impactful audience to advertisers.

During trying times such as these, people actively seek information. That means news consumption goes up - and these engaged readers are paying attention. Research by Newsworks shows the average time a reader stays on a page is 1.4 times higher in a hard news environment, meaning there is greater opportunity for an ad to be seen. Readers also trust local news and that trust rubs off on advertisers. Finally, recent research from Integral Ad Science suggests that most people do not think negatively of brands for advertising in a “hard” news space provided the creative messaging is appropriate.

The figure below, based on research carried out by Neuro-Insight for Newsworks, shows that brains are more actively engaged with 'hard news' editorial - which can mean a higher likelihood of ads' key messages to become encoded in memory:

We believe that national and global advertisers who still have budget to spend are a critical part of supporting quality news at the local level in this time of crisis. To meet this need, there are three simple things that can be done.

1. Work with journalism associations to ensure that you have added to your inclusion lists all of the local news outlets that accept digital advertising. That is a quick way to focus spend where it is needed.

2. Media agencies and ad tech companies can create a “white list” of reputable, brand-safe local newspapers and add them to the preferred list in their digital advertising buying process.

3. If you are blocking news, we ask you to reconsider. Review your semantic avoidance strategy and develop a more nuanced approach to your brand safety concerns. Don’t just block “coronavirus” or avoid hard news. Outside of articles focused solely on death, death tolls, miracle cures and virus-related disinformation, there may only be minimal risk associated with advertising in “hard” news environments.

These approaches will be made simpler in coming weeks through the efforts of United for News and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM). GARM, a global alliance of advertisers, agencies, media companies and platforms, plans to launch an open-source methodology that will enable advertisers to place ads near coronavirus content based on their individual risk requirements. United for News, a coalition of industry, NGOs and publishers, will be launching a global, open-source whitelist of reputable media with a particular focus on regional and local publishers.

The need to support local news will exend well beyond the immediate crisis. Many critics agree that the coming recession will be the real test for local news, one that it is wholly unprepared to weather. If advertisers would commit to focusing their spend on reputable news, with a particular focus on local news, this could make a real difference. While this is not a panacea, digital advertising revenue can be an important revenue stream when combined with other approaches such as subscriptions, membership and events.

Local news is the cornerstone of democracy

When we lose local news, we all pay the price. It is local reporters who hold public officials to account, track local budgets and spending, and cover local policies and elections. Without solid, local reporting, corruption rises. Local news helps support an informed and politically active local citizenry. Without local news, voting rates drop, people join civic organizations in lower numbers and they run for office less frequently.

And that’s just during normal times.

In a pandemic, local news plays an even more important role. It is imperative that we all have truthful information about our local context. Misinformation and rumours, which thrive at the local level and often spread unchecked across social media, must be addressed with solid reporting. We need to understand what our mayor is doing, what the local health department is saying, what the capacity of our local hospitals is, and so much more.

COVID-19 content is going to be a focus of consumer attention for some time to come. It is time for brands to reassess their advertising strategies to ensure that dollars are supporting high quality news and information. If we are going to live in a world where the ad-supported internet is our primary source of news, we all need to work together to ensure we are supporting the healthiest and more necessary aspects of it. It truly is a matter of life and death.