Media Insider: Coronavirus News Consumption Surges, Facebook Launches Grant Program for Local Newsrooms, Plain Dealer Cuts Staff

Welcome to Media Insider, PR Newswire’s round-up of media stories from the week.

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Publishers Face Difficult Tradeoff in Making Coronavirus Coverage Free

Reader worry is driving a surge in news consumption about the coronavirus, with pageviews up 30% year over year, according to data. But publishers face a tough choice when it comes to using this reader interest. As the scope of the virus’s impact widens, publishers face pressure to move their stories about the virus in front of their paywalls, stunting a key area of revenue growth. Approaches to this uncomfortable problem vary: Some publishers are creating coronavirus exceptions for their paywalls; some are treating it as an opportunity to spread their content to as many new readers as possible; others are extracting more information in exchange for their content, requiring visitors to register to read content on their site; and some business-focused publications have gone another way. The Wrap, for example, moved more of its reporters onto a unit dedicated to producing content for the Wrap Pro, its premium subscription product. Last week, subscribers got eight exclusive stories, up from the two or three promised as part of their subscription. So far, readers’ intense need for information has been good for business. Since pivoting most of its newsroom to focus on the coronavirus about two weeks ago, The Atlantic had its single best week of subscriber growth, even with coronavirus coverage not counting against its metered paywall. And Stat News, a health and science publication owned by Boston Globe Media, decided to put all its public health reporting about coronavirus in front of its hard paywall; as a result, traffic has soared 225% over the first two months of the year.

The report measures content performance for a network of more than 3,000 high-traffic sites.

Facebook Donating $2M to Local Newsrooms, Fact-Checkers Covering Coronavirus

The tech behemoth, which has weathered criticism for its handling of false information on its platform, announced it is partnering with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association to award a total of $1 million in grants to local news organizations covering the outbreak in the U.S. and Canada. It also is joining the International Fact-Checking Network to launch a $1 million grant program to support fact-checkers. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a statement, “As the COVID-19 outbreak escalates, our focus has been on keeping people safe and informed by making sure everyone has accurate information, supporting global health experts and stopping misinformation.” The grants, which will be up to $5,000 each, will come from a pool within Facebook’s Journalism Project that awards funds of up to $25,000 to local newsrooms three times per year. The funds to reporters are meant to help with unexpected costs related to coronavirus reporting and increases in overall coverage about the coronavirus to communities. The grants for fact-checkers are intended to help expand their capacities and translate fact checks to different languages, among other things.

The announcement is part of a broader campaign from Facebook to invest more than $100 million in grants to help 30,000 small businesses around the world amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Plain Dealer Announces New Round of Newsroom Layoffs

Less than three months after announcing plans to eliminate 29 jobs by shifting its page-production work to a centralized outside system, The Plain Dealer notified staff last week that it plans to eliminate an additional 14 newsroom jobs. Plain Dealer President and Editor George Rodrigue blamed a continuing decline in advertising revenue for the cuts. “Since around 2001, newspaper advertising revenue has been plummeting,” he said in an email to members of the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild, Local 1, which represents the affected reporters and editors. “It’s below the level of the 1950s now. This has forced newsrooms around the country to make painful adjustments.” Two production staffers will move to the newsroom, Rodrigue said, reducing the net loss of jobs there to 12. Members of The Plain Dealer’s production staff, including copy editors, illustrators and designers, can apply for non-union jobs with Advance Local, which has been contracted to produce the paper. With the latest cuts, the newsroom operation will have been reduced by 80% from the level of seven years ago.

Across the country, local alt-weeklies are shutting down or laying off staff as a direct result of the coronavirus:

Advertising Budgets Could Take a $3B Hit Over Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic could slash as much as $3 billion from advertising and marketing budgets in 2020, according to a new report. “This is a global human disaster that impacts every company,” said Jack Myers, who authored the report and who has been tracking the ad spend market since the 1980s. Myers released a new forecast on the ad spending impact of the COVID-19 outbreak — tripling his previous forecast of a $1 billion blow. Before the coronavirus forced retailers, restaurants, and entertainment venues to close their doors, Myers was predicting $227 billion would be spent on advertising and marketing in the U.S. this year— a 6.2% increase from 2019. The $3 billion decline — to $224 billion — represents a 1% drop from the earlier forecast, meaning ad and marketing spending could still be up 4.8% from a year ago. Myers sees a 3% decline for digital news site advertising, but says the coronavirus may actually help newspaper ad spending, which he now predicts will be flat.

Related: The White House is teaming up with the Ad Council, media outlets on a series of coronavirus PSAs.

Gray Television Withdraws Tegna Offer Amid Coronavirus Rout

Gray Television has withdrawn its offer to acquire larger peer Tegna because of concerns about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on U.S. regional TV station operators, people familiar with the matter said. Gray had offered to buy Tegna for about $8.5 billion, including debt. After Gray’s stock tumbled on the news and concerns about the pandemic’s financial impact became widespread, the Atlanta-based company decided this was not the time to pursue the transformative acquisition, one of the sources said. Private equity firm Apollo Global Management Inc and media mogul Byron Allen, which also had made $20-per-share all-cash offers for Tegna, remain in contention to buy the company and deal negotiations are continuing, the sources said. There is no certainty there will be a deal for Tegna, given the economic uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus crisis, the sources said, asking not to be identified because the matter is confidential. 

ICYMI: The Sacramento News & Review suspends print publishing after coronavirus cancellations.

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Maria Perez is Director, Web Experience & Operations at Cision. In her spare time, she runs Bags of Love Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides cancer patients with care packages aimed at making their treatment more comfortable. She also enjoys kickboxing, baking, and cuddling with her dog Toody, who thinks he rules the world.

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