Most immediately, the focus is on surviving long enough to participate in the recovery that will start as cities and states ease lockdowns on businesses that provide the financial lifeblood for local news outlets. Congress is said to be considering how to help local newspapers in its next COVID-19 relief package after many of them were excluded from past efforts, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.
The bailout funding has led to debate about whether media outlets can be expected to maintain their role as public watchdogs when they rely on government handouts to survive. That's an important question, but it's more likely that publishers will adapt their business models to be more self-sustaining, instead of hoping for grants from the government, wealthy benefactors or Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook.
Local newspapers most likely will need to redouble their efforts to generate reader revenue from digital paywalls and print subscriptions. The strategy will depend on providing exclusive content that national media outlets ignore in duplicating each other's efforts to cover spoon-fed events like White House press briefings.
It will also require publishers to undo reader expectations that online information is free, which mostly has been the case since the internet was commercialized in 1994. Unfortunately, only a handful of publishers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have developed digital paywalls into a significant source of revenue.
However, a shift is occurring as media consumers are being trained to pay for content, Joe Hyrkin, CEO of digital publishing platform Issuu, recently told Publishing Insider in an exclusive interview. He likens the evolution to changes in consumption habits for music and video streaming, which mostly depend on subscription revenue.
“In the early days of the internet, people thought they should get music for free, and we've essentially shifted that toward people understanding you had to pay for it," he said, citing file-sharing services like Napster, which music labels sued out of existence. "That facilitated the massive growth of independent creators that could start to get paid for their content.”
A similar evolution is happening in quality video content as people demonstrate a greater willingness to pay for streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Disney+ that have exclusive programming. As recently as a few years ago, there was considerable debate about whether consumers would be willing to pay for video content while canceling pay-TV subscriptions.
"We're going to see the same thing around publisher content," Hyrkin said.
He's most optimistic about the possibilities to monetize local news and enthusiast content as the coronavirus pandemic keeps people confined to their homes and neighborhoods. Those consumers will cultivate hobbies and interests while also seeking information about what's happening in their communities, he said.
“Local publishing businesses are starting to realize the content still matters, but the ways in which we've distributed it and monetized it is going to evolve," he said. "In the same way that people have demonstrated a total acceptance of paying for music and video, we're going to start to see opportunities for clever businesses to leverage that around publishing, too.”