2020 in Review: How COVID-19 Impacted the Media

 . Year in Review: 5 Ways COVID-19 Impacted the Media

It feels like a miracle that we’ve made it through 2020. Many of us started the year with a “new decade, new me” attitude that only lasted a few months before the world was turned on its head.

Although the 24/7 news cycle has been in place for some time, 2020 was something else entirely. The big story of the day seemed to change every few hours.

And while there were many big stories over the course of the year, one had an impact on just about everything else.

The coronavirus is an “everything story” that has affected our personal and professional lives and been interwoven into journalists’ reporting on the presidential election, climate change, and social justice, among all the other huge stories this year.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Journalists

We all thought the election would be the story of 2020. But COVID-19 took over early in the year, never let up, and became an integral part of the election news itself.

What started out as event cancelations and what we thought would be a temporary switch to working from home quickly expanded to media layoffs, a sea of misinformation for reporters to wade through, and even a wave of new products to help disseminate the latest information to readers.

Here are five big ways COVID-19 impacted the media this year.

1. Layoffs & Closures

As companies reined in ad budgets to save money when the pandemic began, publishers were hit hard.

And with the decline in ad revenues came a tidal wave of layoffs and furloughs – a huge blow to an industry that already lost nearly half of its employees from 2008 to 2018.

The Stranger, a Seattle newspaper, was one of the first to announce it would be temporarily laying off employees. Poynter has a list of layoffs, furloughs, and closures that it updates regularly – it’s a tough but important read.

Here are just a few of the cuts the media industry saw this year:

  • The Tampa Bay Times cut 11 journalists, furloughed other staffers, and suspended five days of print.
  • Gannett introduced 25% pay cuts for executives.
  • 22nd Century Media, a community publisher in Chicago, closed for good.
  • Portland Tribune owner Pamplin Media Group laid off 40 staffers, 20 from the newsrooms.
  • McClatchy furloughed more than 4% of its staff at newspapers across the U.S. and later laid off some of them entirely. The company also announced the closure of several physical newsrooms for the rest of the year, including the Miami Herald, The Modesto (CA) Bee, and The State in Columbia, S.C.
  • The New York Post laid off 20 staffers in April and cut another 5% of its staff in July.
  • The New York Times cut 68 jobs, mostly made up of advertising positions.
  • CBS had several rounds of layoffs, including 400 at ViacomCBS.
  • Fourteen staffers at Minnesota Public Radio accepted voluntary buyouts.
  • G/O Media laid off 14 employees.
  • Vox furloughed more than 100 people.

In the first six months of the year, it was estimated that more than 11,000 journalism jobs were lost, with thousands more expected by the end of the year.

There were some bright spots among all the darkness, however. Several new outlets launched or expanded despite the pandemic, including The 19th, The Oaklandside, and The Matchup.

And one recent study found a “significant majority” of independent news outlets are surviving the crisis – some are even thriving. According to NiemanLab’s breakdown of the findings, “The report found these ‘winners’ tend to be small- or medium-sized online outlets, appear online-only, and invest more of their operating costs in their newsroom.”

How COVID-19 Impacted the Media: Closeup of a newspaper article titled "City Layoffs: More COVID-19 fallout"

2. Nonstop News & Misinformation

As the COVID-19 crisis blew up, so did the amount of information. Not all of it was accurate.

Journalists found themselves dealing with a mountain of conflicting information and fringe theories to weed through.

Early on, part of the process was figuring out how to share the information with readers while also avoiding unnecessary panic or fear. As Poynter’s Al Tompkins explained in his March tips for covering the coronavirus, “The public is starting to freak out. Don’t add to it with screaming clickbait headlines and scary generic images.”

But even trying to get to the truth was a challenge in many parts of the world, as attacks on journalists and press freedom spiked in the early days of the pandemic.

It also didn’t help that the bulk of misinformation was coming from the White House itself, according to a Cornell University study. The study also found that “of the more than 38 million articles published from Jan. 1 to May 26, more than 1.1 million — or slightly less than 3 percent — contained misinformation.”

Misinformation and disinformation was a growing topic of discussion as the election approached. The Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer found that articles about disinformation and censorship spiked more than 50% from September to October, and views of stories related to disinformation increased a whopping 717% over the same period.

All the hard work reporters did to navigate the flood of information started them off on the right foot. In a survey by Pew Research Center in March, 70% of respondents said the news media were doing very or somewhat well with their virus coverage, even though nearly 50% said they’d been exposed to at least some made-up news and information.

As the months went on, news fatigue set in and reader interest in the coronavirus waned. In November, NewsWhip reported data via Axios that showed engagement was the lowest it’d ever been during the pandemic. Professor and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci argued that the media is “overproducing the article of the day” and advised outlets to publish less: “People are publishing readable stuff but are over-simplifying.”

How COVID-19 Impacted the Media: Smartphone displaying a Bloomberg news story about COVID-19 infections

3. New Products and a Focus on Subscriptions

After an initial traffic bump to news sites in the early weeks of the pandemic seemed to level off, publishers had to figure out how to keep readers coming back and potentially convert them to subscribers.

It forced the media to get creative with how content was delivered to readers. Outlets experimented with new products to help increase subscriptions and replace some of the lost ad revenue.

The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post were among the publishers to launch pandemic-specific products. NiemanLab’s Hanaa’ Tameez explained, “If you’re itching for more information about coronavirus and its specific impacts, there’s a product for you and it’s probably free.”

Large publishers like McClatchy and Gannett even dropped their paywalls on coronavirus content as “an important part of our public-service mission,” according to McClatchy’s president and CEO, Craig Forman.

The increased focus on subscriptions does seem to be working for some. Gannett, for one, reported more than 1 million digital subscribers in its third-quarter earnings report. And in August, The New York Times announced in its quarterly report that digital revenue exceeded print revenue for the first time in its history.

Graphic of a hand reaching out of a laptop screen holding a "subscribe" sign

4. Impacts on Mental Health

In addition to reporting on this new complex topic and navigating the large amounts of (mis)information, journalists also had to cope with the crisis that has touched their lives personally, all while adjusting to a work-from-home lifestyle, home-schooling, and more.

All of it has had an impact on journalists’ mental health.

In July, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Toronto surveyed journalists about their current state of emotional wellbeing. They found that around 70% were experiencing some levels of psychological distress and 26% showed indications of clinically significant anxiety.

The team explains, “As journalists continue to report on a fast-moving story to a bewildered and mistrustful public, this support is vital. Reporters can only continue to provide accurate information about the crisis if they are able to and supported to cope with the demands the pandemic impose on them.”

As a result of increased stress across the industry, perhaps this year more than ever, we saw outlets publish self-care tips for journalists.

In October, Columbia Journalism Review published findings from another survey to see how journalists were faring. “The coronavirus highlighted the importance of a vibrant press; reporters felt a renewed zeal for their work as news consumers relied on them to stay alive,” according to CJR staffers. “At the same time, the crisis introduced new levels of instability and viral disinformation, which piled on to the stresses of an industry already overloaded with plenty.”

multicolored post-its on a wall with phrases 'stay home,' 'be safe,' 'keep your distance,' and other self-care advice

5. Reporting on the Election

Not only did the coronavirus factor into most election stories, it also impacted how journalists reported on the campaign trail.

After an outbreak of the virus among the president’s close circle in October, several large outlets decided to pull their reporters, citing a lack of safety precautions being taken to protect the press pool. Normally considered an enviable reporting job, it became one that the White House Correspondent’s Association had to “scramble” to fill.

That same outbreak also meant a pause on in-person rallies for the media to cover and a canceled presidential debate.

And with the highest-ever number of mail-in ballots, networks had to figure out how to report the vote counts. Many moved away from “precincts reporting” phrasing and instead listed the percentage of total votes reported.

Reporters had the tough task of updating the public on a slow-moving vote count over the course of a week. Overall, many agree they did a good job of stressing patience, stating the facts, and being cautious about calling a winner for any particular state. As Tom Jones said in his Nov. 7 newsletter for Poynter, “They practiced responsible journalism. It wasn’t easy. It was sometimes messy. But it was right.”

But as Ben Smith of the New York Times argued, the Trump presidency would forever change the media, regardless of who won. “President Trump, after all, succeeded in making the old media great again, in part through his obsession with it. His riveting show allowed much of the television news business, in particular, to put off reckoning with the technological shifts — toward mobile devices and on-demand consumption —  that have changed all of our lives. But now, change is in the air across a news landscape that has revolved around the president.”

a face mask laying on top of a mail-in ballot envelope

Conclusion: Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on the Media

In October, What’s New in Publishing released a new report, “The Publisher’s Guide to Navigating Covid-19.” The report looks at trends that have emerged globally and strategies that publishers have implemented during the pandemic.

As the report writers state, “For some, it could be an ‘extinction-level event’ with outlets around the world being affected. Others may emerge stronger, as a result of increased digital subscriptions, revenue diversification, and reduced – or hollowed-out – competition. Whatever happens, it’s likely that the industry will look very different on the other side of this crisis.”

From ad revenues to media consumption habits, product development, and subscription models, we’re sure to be feeling the effects of COVID-19 on the media industry for a long time to come.

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Rocky Parker is the manager of Audience Relations at PR Newswire. Check out her previous posts for Beyond Bylines and connect on LinkedIn. When she’s not working, Rocky typically can be found cooking, binge-watching a new show, or playing with her puppy, Hudson.

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