Jon Fletcher 2020-07-16

No more COVID: Should publications filter out pandemic news?


The TL; DR: 

  • Readers are becoming more desensitized to COVID-19 news stories and advertisers are blocking all virus-related keywords

  • Some publishers are offering the option to filter COVID-related news from websites 

  • Other publishers are offering dedicated COVID sections in an attempt to 'normalize' their homepages with a balance of content 

As advertisers pull their creative from COVID stories, news publications are facing an uncomfortable choice. Should publications downplay or filter out COVID stories in favor of content advertisers want to feature in?

Despite the pandemic still occupying nearly every headline in the news, readers have COVID Fatigue.

You can see from this Google Trends report that interest in COVID-related news hit a sharp spike in March and since then has settled to a static, low rumble. Like sports and weather, COVID-19 has become a daily staple rather than breaking news.

And this shift happened fast. Just weeks ago, publishers were using COVID to make sure they reached their audience that wanted news of little else. Speaking to Digiday, "Unless corona was in the headline or was central to the theme [of a story], it wouldn't cut through,"

Now the mood is very different. Rather than unvarnished truth, readers want to let more good news and optimize into their news feeds. Branden Harvey, the founder of Good Good Good, said in the New York Times
"More than just wanting to be distracted from Covid, they want a genuine sense of hopefulness in the response to Covid. It's not that people don't want news about the coronavirus, They just want news about it that's more positive. '' 

And with this migration of readers, advertisers have fled, too. Blocking ads on COVID keywords means between March 16th and April 4th, news sites saw a decrease in CPM of 34%.

This has given rise to the COVID news dilemma, to keep reporting as it happens, or give readers a little more of what they want.

Mask on: COVID filtering 

Mask on: COVID filtering As an extreme option, some publications are offering a toggle on/off filter for COVID stories from their websites. There are plugins available for readers to set their own keywords to block, curating their own homepages.

A censored homepage, designed to cut out COVID content.
Readers are reaching a limit on how much they can stand to read about the virus, and publishers are finding it difficult to monetize this content.

With the option to filter out these stories it gives readers easier access to stories that give them an alternate perspective on the world and helps publishers promote articles with better monetization options.

But, journalistic standards would say that a newspaper shouldn't give readers control over what news appears on their site just because it's unpalatable or upsetting. With readers and advertisers turning their back on the wave of pandemic news, publishers need to find new ways to package the news nobody wants to hear.

Standalone sections

Standalone sections Rather than hiding all COVID-related news, one such option, taken by publishers, has been to give COVID-related news its own section in the menu. Rather than flooding the homepage with a wall of pandemic stories, this presents a more varied and familiar front page.

Readers can access and find COVID news, but it is not all they see on the homepage of a publisher. Like the 'new normal' COVID can slot in around our other concerns, not ignored, but also not at the expense of all else. It gives readers agency, doesn't hide the uncomfortable stories, and gives access to stories with a higher chance of being monetizable.

Euphemism and doublespeak

Euphemism and doublespeak Since the onset of pandemic fatigue, advertisers have put terms including "coronavirus" and "COVID-19" onto their keyword blocklists.

Now, revenue teams have advised that editors refrain from including the words in stories unless absolutely crucial to the story. This might sound difficult to adhere to, but consider how many articles about COVID lockdown exercises, recipes, playlists or films you've seen. These are now the best 'stay at home' exercises. So in addition to avoiding making absolutely every story themed around COVID-19, publishers are resorting to masking their language.

By avoiding sensitive keywords, publishers can still write content that addresses their editorial remit to report, but in a way that can still be monetized. By swapping trigger words for euphemisms, publishers can bypass brand safety triggers without avoiding the issue.

COVID becomes 'The new normal', pandemic morphs into 'unprecedented times'.

Semantic Contextual Targeting

While publishers do adapt their content to encourage advertisers to return, there is a group of advertisers that are not averse to inventory in COVID-related stories. 

Attracted by the cheap inventory and high traffic, some advertisers are opting for a pragmatic approach that doesn't automatically consider all pandemic news to be unsuitable. Rather than blocking all news content, or just individual keywords, The IAB recommends using semantic contextual targeting to take the context from the text to assign a level of brand risk to the associated ad inventory.

Brands can choose to appear content like 'coronavirus quarantine workout tips', while avoiding extreme, negative stories. The sentiment of the context is more important than the keyword and lets advertisers find valuable placements amidst pandemic news. 

Publishers can't wait for advertisers to return as the news continues to be dominated by the pandemic, publishers have to find a balance between their duty to report and what can be monetized. Techniques such as these can help them remain impartial yet profitable. 

Just as publishers need to produce a variety of content, with multiple ways for readers to find the way through it, this highlights the importance of having an adaptable monetization set up. Publishers with just direct campaigns will have had to fill a major gap left by voided contracts. Those relying on programmatic will see their CPMs dwindle unless they can adapt to offer more value to advertisers still searching for inventory. 

So while publishers may not want to pretend COVID-related is going away, they do need to adapt. Just as readers need variety to keep returning, advertisers need to see a new value proposition in the new normal.

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