Newspapers Must Convince Advertisers, Not The Government, To Survive COVID-19

Do the papers really need bailing out? That seems to be what publishers are asking for when we read between the lines when the Government is asking for help.

Sure, it could be a tax break. It could be buying a bunch of ad space to gift to local businesses, or perhaps making media company employees key workers who are free to work in the office. On that latter industry call, I'd point out that the Government already lists journalists working on COVID-19 stories as key workers so, to be fair, that one is ticked off the list.

I think many businesspeople, and certainly businesspeople in the media, will have a lot of sympathy for the newspapers -- but like me, would probably struggle to see what more the Government could be doing.

The huge issue right now for newspapers is that they have a lot of attention, but they just cannot monetise all of it because so many advertisers have brand safety tools loaded with triggers around COVID-19 that prevent their name from advertising against bad news.

The Government has been asked to help, and the Culture Secretary made an appeal to advertisers to relax these rules and reward top-level journalism by advertising against quality, factual reporting on the pandemic. The official appeal has been backed up by further calls from bodies such as ISBA and the IAB UK.

Other than that, I'm wondering what the Government is supposed to do. There are a variety of views on the subject, but I would suggest what is already available looks pretty good. Staff can be furloughed and paid by the taxpayer, rent holidays can be asked for, government loans can be taken out and essential staff covering COVID-19 can go about their daily business.

When it comes to aid, you can also throw in a COVID-19 advertising spree worth tens of millions of pounds, following shortly after a doomed GBP100m Brexit deadline advertising campaign last Autumn (pitched around a day when the UK did not leave the EU). 

One of the big areas of contention is that print sales have fallen through the floor now that we're all housebound. The truth is that they were already on their way down and the losses newspapers incur from declining print sales have always been above the gain they get from digital viewers. 

This is a massive shift for all news organisations and it will not come without some heavy losses, the types of which we are already seeing in local papers where many titles have merged or closed.

But here's the thing. What is the Government supposed to do about this? If people don't want to buy papers, what is Whitehall supposed to do? If traffic soars but to stories that advertisers don't want to be seen next to, what can the Culture Secretary do other than write to 100 leading advertisers asking them to support newspapers in this difficult time?

To be brutal, news organisations and advertisers are going to need to sort this one between them. Demand is clearly soaring (although perhaps now plateauing) for factual reporting from responsible news stories.

It's a case of monetisation. Governments usually only step in where there is a sudden massive loss of demand where temporary help will tide a business over until it's back on its feet.

That's not where we have here. There's plenty of demand, news organisations have to make money from it and decide how they organise an orderly managed retreat from print while getting around advertisers] lack of appetite to be around what make look like bad news stories.

It may sound like a tall order, but third-party tracking is on its way out, and who knows their readers better than a publisher?

The future is looking brighter on the data front. They just need to sort out print and over zealous brand safety first.

First-party data will be of far more use than holding out a cap to Boris.

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