Publishers Report an Increase in Traffic Due to Coronavirus Coverage

Publications are seeing historic highs in readership during the pandemic

Coronavirus coverage has captured the minds—and eyeballs—of readers everywhere. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

The rate in which readers are consuming coronavirus coverage has led to some record-shattering page views for media organizations, at least according to Parse.ly, a measurement website used by a slew of those publications.

Media execs aren’t exactly eager these days to talk about how they’re planning to profit on the one topic that seemed to grind the news cycle to a screeching halt. Publishers say these page views are leading to an increase in subscriptions, which is good news for the handful that put their journalism behind paywalls, particularly in the last couple of years.

For example, the most-viewed story so far over at the Washington Post’s site was a series of graphics that showed how the coronavirus would spread with varying degrees of social distancing. At least, that’s what The Washington Post itself reported, citing an internal document, though the company declined to comment for this story.

While CPMs will inevitably change, digital advertising is poised to be an entire segment of an industry that could see major blows in the shadows of coronavirus but might instead see publishers relying even more on programmatic advertising. Indeed, one media company executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t allowed to speak to the press, said their company is seeing more programmatic buying and selling as sales reps and buyers work remotely 

For what it’s worth, ad tech vendors (for now) say they’re not worried about business, despite advertiser blacklists.

The wave of coronavirus coverage was swift, as publishers ramped up production of articles related to the pandemic and created new products, like newsletters, to promote them. Many also dropped their paywalls so readers could more readily access key information.

And readers noticed. Politics, as a category, dominated the most-read area of coverage among publishers, according to Parse.ly, from the fall of 2019 until about two weeks ago, when that category became “dwarfed” by health and science, said Andrew Montalenti, co-founder and CPO at Parse.ly. He said the new readership seems to be additive, with overall traffic growing up to 40%.

“There is such a big turn to work from home, and knowledge workers just use the internet more,” Montalenti said. “There is more content readership activity during working hours.”

Until coronavirus came on the radar, all Parse.ly trends were suggesting that the Democratic primary would dominate the news cycle this month. Instead, traffic for coronavirus coverage is 19 times more than coverage of the primary.

Coronavirus has also overshadowed Trump coverage, which has hovered around 15 million views over this past week, versus coronavirus, which is double that at around 30 million views.

“I’m not waking up today thinking, ‘How am I going to monetize this?’ I’m thinking, ‘We’re in an entirely new world, how do I make sure people feel safe and healthy and supported and well-connected and have access to the information they need?’” said Hayley Romer, The Atlantic’s CRO and publisher.

The Atlantic, which did not provide specific figures, has had multiple days of historic traffic, including doubling its prior single-day record. Since its creation of a paywall last year, it has seen significant subscription growth, particularly since covering the coronavirus.

Media organizations that decide to bring down the paywall could “increase exposure and long-term, boost subscriptions,” said Rebecca Lieb, co-founder and analyst at Kaleido Insights.

“But media outlets cannot for a moment let themselves be seen as trying to capitalize on a global catastrophe,” Lieb said. “It’s time for media to do what they do best—and in this case, essentially—and cover this crisis for the public good. The hope is that additional readership, public need and exposure will lead to rewards down the line.”

So far, consumers still seem interested in the coverage area. About half of U.S. adults said they were following the news about it closely, according to a Pew Research study released today, with 70% saying the media was covering it well (30% felt it was very well and 40% felt it was covered somewhat well).

As the crisis continues, it’s up to publishers to decide to appropriately disseminate this news.

“What if news publishers do have to continue to provide high-quality information? Does that mean they really have to think carefully about how they present and package that information? Or is that actually dangerous and can be distracting because maybe this crisis resolves,” Montalenti said. “That I don’t know.”


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@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.
Publish date: March 18, 2020 https://dev.adweek.com/digital/publishers-increase-traffic-coronavirus-coverage/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT