[Publishing during a pandemic] Content innovation: reconnecting with readers

This article is written by Piet van Niekerk and Pierre de Villiers


During the very early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, Wired recognised how vital it would be to cover the disease and the impact of it comprehensively. In January the magazine started to shuffle budgets away from other editorial areas to double down on science, politics and business – sections the team predicted people want to read more about if the epidemic became worse and developed into a pandemic.

Wired UK editor-in-chief Greg Williams told Press Gazette their planning paid off. The website’s digital audience has since “exploded”, he said. By March, year-on-year traffic had tripled. One story about life after lockdown in Wuhan, China received 1.8m views on Apple News alone.

Wired was already in a good position to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. During the past three years, under Williams’ editorship, the title repositioned itself from a magazine about gadgets to one competing with the likes of Bloomberg, The Economist, the Financial Times and The Washington Post.

“If you do quality journalism, if you have authority, which I think we have in this space, and there is integrity and quality to what you’re doing, then fortunately there is a big audience for that,” Williams said.

The spike in traffic since the coronavirus outbreak has created an opportunity to show audiences the scope of Wired content – especially to those who still held the view that it was only a gadgets magazine.


Wired Covid-19 content ()

Wired UK’s content on Health and Covid-19


Appetite for information

Similarly, Verizon Media, the owner of Yahoo, in the early days of the pandemic noticed a surge in a desire for news updates relating to the virus’ global reach and impact. Not only were more people shifting online, but more people were consuming news digitally as they sought trusted sources.

When the lockdown started to keep people at home, the company realised they needed to experiment with new online experiences and value-added content that helped people cope with the crisis, Rico Chan, co-head for APAC at Verizon Media, told The Drum.

These included online education, food and grocery deliveries, online shopping, video and music streaming, gaming and e-sports, indoor fitness, and upgrading their personal IT system. “Even as news consumption continued to surge, we also saw a shift towards content that helped people manage and cope in the crisis, such as working from home, finances, entertainment, self-care, and guides on how to cook,” Chan said. “Interestingly, in Singapore, ‘how to make’ searches rose by 64 per cent as users sought to whip up their favourite dishes at home.”

In the process, Yahoo saw a massive uptick in content viewers, with a 5,000 per cent increase in views for articles on diseases and medical conditions in Singapore and a 5,200 per cent increase in the Philippines for articles on nutrition. Yahoo also saw an increase in Covid-19 related searches (up 130 per cent in Singapore and 427 per cent in India). In response, its editorial network in the US, UK, and Singapore, united for 24h up-to-date coverage of the crisis.

Humanising the pandemic

With reams of grim statistics being released every day during the Covid-19 outbreak, it’s easy to overlook the names and faces behind the numbers and graphs. Some publishers have taken on the responsibility of humanising the crisis with hardhitting coverage as the public started to suffer from ‘Covid fatigue’.

In late May, as America approached 100,000 total recorded Covid deaths, The New York Times published a striking Sunday front page. Under the headline, “US Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss” the newspaper ran a list that named Covid victims in the US, each with a mini obituary.

Simone Landon, an editor on the paper’s graphics desk, told the Columbia Journalism Review it was to demonstrate the humanity behind the numbers, amid what was “a little bit of fatigue” with Covid data, “both among ourselves and perhaps in the general reading public” .

Other outlets followed suit, with the front page of USA Today showing the faces of 100 Covid victims, next to a graphic demonstrating scale. Meanwhile, The Washington Post portrayed victims as beams of light shooting up from a map of the US and the cover of The Economist turned the 100,000 figure into a literal milestone casting a shadow across an empty road. Its headline: “The American way.”

There’s been some coverage of the rising death count since late May, but not in the same depth and breadth as when America reached the sad 100,000 milestone. As writer Jon Allsop pointed out in the Columbia Journalism Review: “It’s hard to avoid feeling like it exposed the arbitrariness of using round numbers as news pegs for human life.”

According to Allsop there is a danger that, through sheer fatigue, the pandemic is not properly covered in the coming months.

“Too often, the Covid coverage we’re now seeing feels tired, as if it’s going through the motions. That’s understandable.” he said. “After years of whiplash news and months of this particular cycle, journalists are exhausted – not to mention furloughed, underpaid, unemployed, arrested, assaulted and so on. The pandemic story has been especially demanding to cover – for logistical, scientific, and emotional reasons – and also to consume.

“Fatigue isn’t limited to the press; as Robinson Meyer and Alexis C Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic, America as a whole ‘slowly seems to be giving up’ on the battle against the pandemic. But we have to fight such feelings. The stakes are too high not to.”

NYT and The Economist ()

The New York Times and The Economist cover America’s grim Covid-19 death toll


The feelgood factor

Serving your readers during tough times is not only about informing, but also inspiring. With people looking for light at the end of the Covid tunnel Modern Luxury stepped up and generated some positivity by turning its May/June magazine into “The Hope Issue”.

Folio reported that, as the title suggests, the issue was packed with inspirational content, including profiles and interviews with Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Tyler Perry, Scott Wapner and more.

The issue was also a fundraising vehicle for Feeding America – the US-based NGO that has a network of more than 200 foodbanks. According to Modern Luxury all profits from “The Hope Issue” will go to the organisation, along with $1 million in media support across its print and digital channels.

Meanwhile, Imbibe, the “liquid culture” magazine dedicated to beverages, donated $5 for every subscription it sells in May to Another Round Rally Tip Jar Fund, which provides emergency relief funds to hospitality workers affected by Covid-19. The publication also donated $5 from each subscription sold to The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, an advocacy and action non-profit created by and for restaurant workers, Group Nine Media’s lifestyle brand Thrillist has not sat idly by as Covid-19 devastates many of its reader’s passions. To give back to this community, the brand has also partnered with The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, offering its platform and content as a tool to fundraise for local workers and businesses in need across local markets. To draw even more attention to the challenges restaurants now face, Thrillist launched a limited docuseries “Ghost Kitchen” which spotlights chefs and restaurants going above and beyond to deliver food across the country at risk to their own health.


Making dough

In early March, when it became clear more people would be staying home, Taste of Home’s editorial team identified the content categories and topics they could organise around in a way that was true to the brand and its audience during the pandemic lockdown, Beth Tomkiw, Trusted Media Brands Chief Content Officer, told Publishers Daily.

Following its first meeting, Taste of Home content director Jeanne Sidner put together a task force of stakeholders from distribution channels, including search, social, newsletters and partners.

“The goal was to meet daily to look at real-time content performance data, share ideas and use our learnings to boost visits and engagement

across all channels,” said Tomkiw.

The team currently meets once a week to “check our brand stance on new issues that arise and create relevant new content, while moving away from topics that are slowing down”.

 Taste of Home ()

Taste of Home’s homemade bread challenge on Instagram


Some of the most popular collaborations across the Taste of Home teams include one focused on bread baking, which has seen the brand’s Basic Homemade Bread recipe clock in 4.4 million visits since 1 March. The newsletter team created breadspecific sends, while the social team created a Homemade Bread Challenge.

The brand’s culinary team members created “Cooking from Home” videos that repurposed the basic recipe to create mini breakfast pizzas, apple dumpling pull-apart bread and cinnamon rolls.

After reviewing data that revealed banana bread was among the most popular recipes in the U.S., the Taste of Home team created a My Bakeable Challenge themed around it. The challenge had the highest engagement for any Bakeable challenge ever.

Taste of Home has also seen success with gardening articles, which experienced a spike in late April that still continues.

Family Handyman has relied on its service journalism and calm voice during the pandemic. The brand’s DIY University reported a 53 per cent increase in transactions during April over the previous month, with a 72 per cent increase in revenue, as it provided readers with howto stories, such as “How to Power Your Home with Renewable Energy,” “How to Build a Backyard Shed” and “How to Build a Deck”.

Noted Tomkiw: “We have forwardthinking brainstorms and discussions about where we need to go next. Being a journalist is fantastic these days because you have data to help inform decisions and data to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t.”


Home comforts

With tourism all but drying up during the pandemic, publishers who bring out travel magazines have been chomping at the bit to start promoting destinations again – even if that is closer to home than usual. In Italy, where people are cautiously coming out of lockdown, CN Traveler will dedicate its next two print issues, summer and fall, solely on the country and its many amazing sites, local restaurants and scenery.

The expectation is there will be some international travel by then, but Condé Nast Italia editorial director Luca Dini is quoted by Digiday in late May saying he doesn’t expect Italians to leave the country. “The tourism industry is struggling enormously, we want to show support for local restaurants and hotels. There’s a big emphasis on alfresco and sitting outside,” he said.

With people in lockdown over the last few months, the publisher has built its social media presence, which was low in Italy. Traffic to the title has been higher than average, said Dini, and only two print advertising campaigns were rescheduled for later in the year.


Star gazing

For magazines that pride themselves on getting up close and personal to celebrities, the outbreak, and its social distancing rules, has caused major logistical problems. Undeterred, some publishers have found ingenious ways of making sure their readers still had stars in their eyes.

For instance, Vanity Fair’s June 2020 cover, featuring singer-songwriter and actress Janelle Monáe, was shot via video conferencing platform Zoom. Collier Schorr photographed Monáe for the June issue of the entertainment magazine, from a distance. The celebrity bible is not the only publication to think outside the box.

Vanity Fair Janelle Monae ()

Vanity Fair’s June 2020 cover, featuring singer-songwriter and actress Janelle Monáe, was shot via video conferencing


The Cut’s May cover was also shot via Zoom. The issue features actress-designer Chloë Sevigny, photographed by Elizaveta PorodinaPorodina called in from Munich, and Sevigny from Manhattan.

“It’s not a big trick to go online and take a screenshot of someone,” Porodina told The Cut. “The big trick is how can it be truly your piece that you’re really proud of. In this situation, the subject has a lot more control and much more artistic license than usual. They’re going to be the one adjusting the camera. They’re going to be the one making decisions.”

Sevigny had her own location scout, hair stylist, makeup artist, costume designer and creative director, according to The Cut.

In a different take, Fast Company creative director Mike Schnaidty created virtual backgrounds for Zoom, with templates of different magazine covers and cover lines. Anyone who downloads the images can upload them to Zoom and look as if they are featured on a Fast Company magazine cover, as “Most Creative” or “Most Productive.”


The new normal

Many predict that behaviour and habits formed during lockdown will endure after the pandemic and publishers should be ready to take advantage of these changes and opportunities.

“People are going to continue to stay online, looking for new experiences that fulfil their needs and passions,” says Rico Chan, co-head for APAC at Verizon Media. “For brands, this is a new opportunity. For example, in China and Taiwan we’ve seen consumers purchasing more fashion apparel, sports gear, while previously it was home appliances and cleaning products.”

Yet, publishers should also be aware of changes in consumer needs, he points out. “In some countries in South East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region that have seen early successes in flattening the curve, we are noticing a shift towards (the need for) positive content,” added Chan.

Ian Chapman-Banks, chief executive and co-founder of Sqreem Technologies, an AI platform aiming to identify, target and engage audiences through their online behaviour, says marketers (and publishers) are operating in almost an entirely new world “and one that is continuing to change rapidly”.

That means that many old assumptions and learnings will need to be tested and revalidated. In this world, data and technology will be the key to success because it will no longer be enough to rely on human acumen to discern the right strategy for reaching audiences.

Chapman-Banks told The Drum that this is best reflected in a recent Comscore study, which found that instead of the usual media spikes during commuting or meal hours pre-pandemic, there is more of a flat rate of consumption throughout the course of the day.

“We need to remember that this is a continually evolving situation as governments impose new restrictions and recommendations or lift existing restrictions, consumer behaviour will change with it,” the chief executive added.

“So, instead of second-guessing what may happen, we let data and technology work its magic, reacting to behavioural changes and optimising campaigns in real-time… Consumption of media especially when we are all working from home has changed drastically. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when consumers would engage with media as there really is no distinction between work and play.”


This article is an extract from FIPP’s report Publishing during a pandemic: Emerging from the Covid-19 crisis (June update). You can download the report here. Click here for the May edition of the report, which looks at the immediate effects of the Covid-19 crisis on the media industry.



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