Coronavirus Coverage Drives Surge in Audience and Subscriptions for News Publishers in Europe and U.S.

Piano finds significant increase in news subscriptions tied to COVID-19 outbreak.

New York, March 24, 2020

Piano’s global data across hundreds* of major news publishers shows surging demand for news — with the Coronavirus crisis generating significant increases in both media consumption and digital subscriptions.

“In times of this global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, people want instant news updates, thoroughly researched background stories, as well as access to entertainment and distraction — content that is often behind paywalls. With many countries imposing national lockdowns and encouraging social distancing, people are most likely to spend the coming weeks at home. Our data shows that people are consuming more content and are more inclined to buy media subscriptions. In Europe, for example, over the past week we saw a clear ‘Covid bump’ of 199% more subscriptions than the average week in 2020 prior to the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic,” says Trevor Kaufman, Piano CEO.

This bump is not evenly distributed. The subscription spike is most pronounced in Europe, particularly among European newspapers and digital natives that are keeping their paywalls intact. For European newspapers, subscriptions rose 267% last week. In the U.S., where many news publishers are putting COVID-19 coverage outside the paywall in service of the public health, digital subscriptions rose 63% in the past week. 

The situation in the U.S. has escalated more recently than Europe — which means the U.S. bump may have just started. The week before last, European subscriptions were up 84.5%, in the same ballpark as U.S. numbers over the past week. As more U.S. publishers put up messages asking readers to support their coverage — even when it remains openly accessible — these numbers may continue to climb. 

That approach of reminding readers of the value of journalism or of explicitly asking for donations to support coverage is one way to balance open access and revenue. Another is to offer access in exchange for registration instead of payment. And there are other coverage areas that readers also value more in the midst of a crisis. While many publishers understandably feel compelled to make life-saving information openly accessible, there are fewer reservations around locking business content — and the recent market turmoil has caused subscriptions for investment-oriented publications to more than double in some cases. 

Paired with this subscription bump has been a huge increase in audience. Overall, last week Piano saw 73% more pageviews and 62% more unique visitors on a weekly basis than average. Once again, this bump is concentrated in certain content verticals and regions — with newspapers in Europe seeing a 111% increase in pageviews last week. 

Unfortunately, these additional pageviews aren’t worth much to news outlets. Many advertisers are wary of having their advertisements adjacent to coverage of a deadly virus. And entire industries have sharply cut their ad spend — cruise ships, hotels, airlines, concerts, restaurants, bars, and many other businesses aren’t going to drum up much business with ad campaigns right now, no matter how brilliant the creative. 

That means to sustain these news operations, it’s even more urgent for their leaders to find the balance between providing open access to the information people need to navigate an unprecedented crisis and bringing in reader revenue to offset the costs of reporting that news. And the readers themselves, through their surge in usage, are demonstrating just how valuable a role news organizations play in providing reliable facts that citizens around the world need to stay informed and safe.  

* Piano analyzed audience traffic and subscription acquisition data from January 1, 2020 through March 21, 2020. There were 510 websites in the traffic analysis and 295 websites in the subscription analysis.

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