May 21, 2020 - Economy & Business

No media publisher is immune in the coronavirus era

Illustration of a newspaper boat caught in a giant wave
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 has accelerated the shrinkage of journalism.

Why it matters: If it could happen to The Atlantic, where 68 staffers were laid off today, it could happen to any media company.

The big picture: 2.4 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, reports Axios' Courtenay Brown.

  • The pre-COVID record number of filings was set in 1982 at 695,000.
  • New York state's Labor Department told reporters this week it has paid out 4.5 years' worth of unemployment benefits in just over two months.

Between the lines: The coronavirus hit diversified publishers on multiple fronts.

  • Advertising: Publishers who enjoyed record COVID-19 web traffic weren't able to monetize it, as ad rates collapsed.
  • Events: In-person events, where The Atlantic focused considerable attention and where publishers can command a premium, are currently out of the picture. Virtual events are on the rise, but they don't command the same price point.
  • E-commerce: Amazon and big mass retailers have cut affiliate fees, cutting commerce revenue from many publishers.
  • Subscriptions: Many publishers have pivoted toward subscriber models, but with a few exceptions, those gains aren't even close to enough to compensate for the lost ad revenue.

What's next: Layoffs like this in crisis usually happen in waves, so a fall coronavirus resurgence could bring another round of job losses.

  • In the future — as more companies integrate remote work into their culture — other jobs will begin to get eliminated too, like in-person sales teams or teams that help produce print products that will not come back.

The bottom line: The Atlantic's troubles, combined with the struggles at other billionaire-backed publications like the Los Angeles Times, serve as an important reminder that the industry has few sustainable paths forward without viable business models.

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