Commentary

Keeping Up With The News

For President Trump and his most ardent supporters, the election was not over when major news outlets called the race for his competitor, Joe Biden, on November 7. Nor was the election over for the journalists covering the administration's court challenges.

Most news consumers, on the other hand, redirected their attention.

Before the election ended, news consumption was at a peak. Pew Research Center reported that 36% of U.S. adults followed election results almost constantly, with another 34% checking in fairly often.

Despite the growth in streaming and social media this year, cable news was the top platform to watch election results and boasted the most insatiable viewers. Fifty-one percent of those individuals following cable news said they followed the election almost constantly. That viewership dropped precipitously after President-Elect Biden's acceptance speech.

While President Trump continued to challenge the election results, the decline in attention to election news was abrupt and decisive.

Fox News, the leader in cable news ratings, decreased total viewership by 49% between the week of November 2 and the week of November 9; CNN declined by 54% and MSNBC by 44%. Meanwhile, fellow cable networks ESPN and History increased by 30% and 37% respectively, Nielsen analysis shows.

People were not just turning away from news on TV: in the week after the election -- news podcast downloads dropped 9%, while history podcasts increased 20% and true crime 17%, according to Podtrac.

According to comScore's weekly media trend, time spent on news websites declined by 10%.

News websites declined by 10% (comScore SVE). As the pandemic worsened across the country, consumers turned to this trusted source to understand what was happening in their area, with respect to the virus and new restrictions intended to mitigate its spread.

At least one news source remained relevant. Consumers kept their attention levels steady when it came to local news.

For the top 10 local markets, local news viewership the four weeks after the election only fluctuated between -1% and +5% compared to the four weeks prior, per comScore.

As the pandemic worsened across the country, consumers turned to this trusted source to understand what was happening in their area, with respect to the virus and new restrictions intended to mitigate its spread.

Local news will still be critical for consumers and for advertisers, despite the cyclical ad revenue decline that follows any election and the prospect of widespread vaccine distribution. News and advertising's symbiotic relationship likely will reflect other trends that the events of 2020 illuminated:

Brand safety gets redefined. News is too important to consumers for the blunt instrument of blocking controversial terms or topics.

Content doesn't have to be banal to be safe. Expanded use of technology like BrandGuard will improve advertisers' ability to support transparent, credible news organizations and defund misinformation and hate speech.

Soft content subsidizes hard-hitting journalism. There is clearly an appetite for escaping from difficult news. Expect news publishers to continue to advance their coverage of trends and topics outside news and politics, and invest in expanding distribution formats such as podcasts, newsletters, TikTok videos, and Twitch streams.

Podcasts explode. As the pandemic winds down and commuters return to their cars, the sky is the limit. The Daily emerged after the last presidential inauguration and continues to be a chart topper and a model for audio journalism. Lydia Polgreen, former New York Times reporter and HuffPost editor, has brought a news and current affairs sensibility to her new role at Spotify's Gimlet.

Newsletters pivot to survive. News publishers expanded free newsletters this year, as readers signed up for regular updates about the COVID-19 pandemic. These news brands and their journalists have developed relationships with consumers that they will need to respect and reassess as the news cycle shifts.

We can expect some of the newsletters behind paywalls to open to advertising for financial support, as the economics of subscription fees become untenable for readers. These represent great opportunities for brands to align with trusted voices.

This year, industry curated by the ARF Cognition Council proved news context to be highly effective in communicating brand messaging, especially when the audience's values align with the news content.

As we look to 2021, news organizations and the advertisers that sponsor them will need get creative to regain momentum in the upcoming non-election year. News media will continue to be an important area for brands to reach engaged citizens and consumers across a broad range of formats.

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