LMA survey: Remote work, new products, workforce cuts among media changes most likely to be ‘new normal’


By Jay Small • Chief Operating Officer, LMA

Of all changes local media leaders made to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, remote work, new modes of communications with ad clients, new products, and workforce cost reductions may have the most staying power once the crisis abates, according to results of a Local Media Association survey that ended Friday, May 22.

Media leaders’ opinions vary regarding how long it will be before that happens: half said nine months or less, and the other half said more than nine months.

How the survey came about

Local media leaders started hearing about, then feeling direct effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis all the way back in … um, February and March:

That’s what happened to us and around us since the start of the pandemic, in these many hours that have seemed like days. We at LMA wondered what media leaders did about it — and how much of what they did might last beyond the crisis, becoming standard operating procedures in the “new normal”* that emerges. And we wondered how long media leaders thought it would take to get to that new normal.

So we asked**. Our survey, “Crisis and New Normal,” wrapped up at the end of last week with 127 responses, from proprietors of media groups, local newspapers, TV and radio stations, digital news sites, and companies providing products and services to local media. Here’s the breakdown:

My company owns/provides:

Media types chart

Respondents could pick more than one type of media or R&D entity. More than 56% indicated their company portfolio included local newspapers, while just less than a quarter have local TV or radio stations.

Though 83 of them (66%) chose “Local news websites/mobile sites/apps,” only eight of those did not also select another product category — meaning most also were local newspapers or broadcast outlets. The same was true of local digital agency services. And 15 of the 35 respondents who selected “Other” indicated magazines were part of their portfolio. About one in 10 survey respondents came from industry product/service providers.

Changes media companies made

Almost nine of every 10 respondents said their companies enabled remote work for employees as COVID-19 took hold, and most of them also implemented technologies to support that remote work.

More than half also made changes in how they communicate with advertising or business clients. Nearly half implemented ad-dollar matching or discounting programs, as well as business status (“We’re Open”-style) directories. Here’s what we asked, and all the predefined answers:

What types of strategic or tactical changes did your organization make as part of its response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Change(s) made Percent Responses
Enabled employees to work remotely where possible 89.0% 113
Implemented new technologies to support remote work 62.2% 79
Changed how you communicate with ad or business clients 55.1% 70
Implemented ad-dollar matching, crisis-related ad discounts, or other ad subsidies 48.8% 62
Implemented business “status update” directories or similar services for local businesses 48.0% 61
Developed other new products or services 47.2% 60
Temporary or permanent workforce cost reductions (pay cuts, furloughs, layoffs) 46.5% 59
Developed crisis-related niche content brands 36.2% 46
Travel bans or restrictions 35.4% 45
Began accepting community donations 34.6% 44
Implemented new sales training/sales transformation programs or modified the pace of existing programs 34.6% 44
Implemented new subscription programs or modified existing ones 26.0% 33
Adjusted PTO/vacation/sick leave policies 21.3% 27

 

Among write-in answers, a few respondents indicated they removed website paywalls from some or all content, and a few print-based respondents indicated they reduced print distribution days.

TV and radio broadcasters among the respondents were even more likely than the rest to implement remote work (100% of 26 responses) and enabling technology (24 of 26, or 92.3%). At one major broadcaster, remote work now runs practically end-to-end.

“We’re running our entire businesses remote,” said Tom Sly, vice president of revenue, The E.W. Scripps Co. “Master control for all of our TV stations is happening from kitchen tables and home offices. … Fifty percent or more of our news anchor teams are broadcasting from home studios, [and] podcasts are being produced at home in closets or makeshift studios. Through this crisis we have not missed a newscast or a story. We’re producing differently and in fact producing more local content to inform our communities than we do in normal times.”

Compared to responses overall, broadcasters were less likely to implement workforce cost cuts (38.5% vs. 46.5% overall), new subscription programs (15.4% vs. 26% — no surprise given very few broadcasters rely on consumer subscriptions), or community donations (7.7% vs. 34.6%).

Newspapers, on the other hand, were more likely to do ad matching (65% vs. 48.8% overall), workforce cost cuts (57.7% vs. 46.5%) and community donations (52% vs. 34.6%).

What changes will stick?

Of the changes our survey respondents noted, which will persist, fully or partially, past “crisis mode” operations and become part of a company’s new normal?

  • 71 of the 113 (63%) who enabled remote work for employees plan to keep enabling it, and 55 of the 79 (70%) of those who implemented technology to support remote work will keep it, too.
  • 45 of 60 (75%) who developed new products and services during the pandemic expect them to carry on past the crisis.
  • 40 of 70 (57%) who changed the ways they communicate with clients plan to retain all or some of those changes.
  • 31 of 59 (53%) of those who implemented workforce cost reductions will keep those.
  • But only 14 of 62 (22.5%) of those who put forth ad-dollar matching or discounts during the crisis expect to carry those programs forward.

Some changes, even as they may help the bottom line, have consequences in other aspects of the business. We asked which changes might have the most long term value, and here’s one telling response:

“From an operational, expense reduction perspective — reduction of print and delivery days,” said Stacey Hill, executive vice president and chief operating officer, NPG Newspapers, Inc. “Albeit a pro for expense savings, the risk to reader revenue is significant and well-recognized in our organization.”

Timing of ‘new normal’

Not many respondents expect a fast escape from crisis mode — only 7.2% said 3 months or less. Almost half think a semblance of normal eludes us until Spring 2021 or later.

How long do you think it will be before your company, your local economy and society arrive at a “new normal”?

'New Normal' time frame

Filter results to just newspapers and the percentages hardly change. But filter to just TV and radio broadcasters and the answers are more pessimistic: No one in that group indicated a return to normal in 3 months or less, and a bit more than half fall in the 9-months-or-more camp, though a lower percentage of broadcast respondents think it’ll be more than a year.***

Better or worse?

Sure, we invited wide-range speculation when we asked participants what ways the new normal might be better or worse, and what other predictions they had for a post-virus-crisis world. What we got were many thoughtful, instructive replies, including:

  • “I worry that the acceleration to a digital news environment will continue to diminish the ad revenue we receive on legacy media (TV), and that our network contracts will become untenable in the long term.” — Emily Barr, president and chief executive officer, Graham Media Group
  • “The pandemic allowed us to expand our partnerships with businesses and organizations like schools, and reinforced the products’ value in the community. It just remains to see if enough of those businesses stay in business to get us through. Hard not to see a continued drop in revenue.”****
  • “We will have proven to ourselves that we are innovative when forced and that can be applied to other areas of innovation without that force.” — Glen Hale, vice president, digital content and audience development, Gray Television
  • “We have to pivot and think digital first even faster and more furious than before.” — Emily Walsh, publisher, Observer Media Group, Sarasota, Fla.

* With apologies to anyone already weary of the term “new normal” even before we get to it.

** Before we fielded this survey to LMA members and e-newsletter subscribers, we started by asking members of our Chief Digital Clubs — their replies inspired us to broaden the reach of the survey.

*** We attempted geographic filters on the time-to-normal responses, but the sample size is too small to lead to any useful findings.

**** We left quotes from survey responses unattributed if their authors did not approve use of their names.