The program’s rapid ascension to the top of the Nielsen rankings was the most visible sign of the tsunami that has hit the news industry. With millions of people isolated at home and hungry for the latest information about the pandemic, the covid-19 outbreak has sent a surge of viewers and readers to some media organizations. But it is also threatening to drown others outright amid an economic crash.
The outbreak has created massive uncertainty about the future, including questions about whether advertisers — some of which are shutting down — will maintain their support in the face of deepening economic peril. The pandemic has already tipped some smaller news outlets into suspending publication or laying off staff, an especially agonizing decision as they struggle to cover a story with implications global and local.
“Everyone here is working not for the paycheck but because we give a damn, and that’s why we do the journalism we do,” said Kevin Moran, executive editor of New England Newspapers, which on Tuesday announced a one-week furlough of its entire staff.
For the moment, national news providers have seen a steadily building wave of public interest, as major developments arrive multiple times per hour — reports on the spread of the virus, stock market crashes and recoveries, actions by the federal government.
Newscasts rarely lead the TV ratings or even come close. News programming was the most-watched on TV following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that was driven, in part, by the relative lack of alternatives. Unlike 2001, when news reports preempted regular programming around the clock, the networks have so far maintained their regular entertainment and prime time schedules.
Yet last week, in addition to its ratings-leading broadcast on Thursday, “World News Tonight” had four other weekday broadcasts among the top eight most-watched programs on the air. And “CBS Evening News” saw its biggest viewership in more than two years.
Online, CNN.com, one of the world’s most-viewed news sites, had six of the seven busiest days in its history during the past week. It has averaged more than 50 million daily unique visitors over the past six days. On Monday, that figure hit 55.4 million, just short of the record 58 million on Election Day in 2016. NBCNews.com also said it has recorded four of its top five days in March.
Traffic to The Washington Post and New York Times’s websites has also grown, though spokesmen for both organizations declined to provide details.
A data-visualization article published by The Post on Saturday that illustrated various scenarios for the virus’s spread quickly became the most-viewed article ever on The Post’s website. The Times had its own traffic magnet: A feature piece published Saturday about a man in Tennessee who bought thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer on speculation but couldn’t resell them. The story and a continuously updated “live” briefing drove “a substantial surge in readers” to the paper, said Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman.
On cable, the perpetual ratings leader, Fox News, said its audience averaged nearly 2 million viewers per day since February, a 31 percent increase compared with last year, and 3.4 million in prime time, a 36 percent increase.
With the exception of Tucker Carlson, Fox’s prime-time pundits had played down the seriousness of the pandemic — and spread misinformation about it — until Friday, when President Trump declared a national emergency.
Like others, Fox is expanding its news coverage of the virus, adding live reports from midnight to 4 a.m. It will also produce a nightly three-minute news report for Fox-owned and affiliated broadcast stations, anchored by Bill Hemmer.
For MSNBC, the virus story has led to a brief boomerang in its daytime audience. The network was alone among its cable news peers in losing viewers compared with last year between the end of January and mid-March. Between March 6 and Monday, however, the network said its daytime audience grew 31 percent, to 1.3 million viewers, over the previous month, an increase it attributed to interest in its reporting about the coronavirus.
Yet it’s simply too soon to say whether the increased Web traffic and viewership will float the financial fortunes of those media organizations — because it remains unclear whether their key advertisers will be in a position to support them.
And the picture for the news industry is more dire elsewhere, especially on the local level, which was financially troubled long before the new coronavirus made its way around the world.
Faced with an abrupt halt by its advertisers, Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper, the Stranger, laid off its 18 employees on Friday. It posted a plea for donations the same day, reading: “We need your help. . . . We pride ourselves on having navigated many storms in the world of independent local media, but this time is different. Ninety percent of our revenue — advertising, ticketing fees, and our own events — is directly tied to people getting together in groups. The coronavirus situation has virtually eliminated this income all at once.”
A similarly grim scenario is playing out at the other end of the country. New England Newspapers on Tuesday instituted a one-week furlough for all of its staff, essentially paralyzing a string of community papers that includes the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., and the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal in Vermont.
“We have taken the action necessary to protect our company from a lot of the uncertainty that this situation has created,” said Fredric Rutberg, the president and co-owner of the company in an interview. Rutberg, along with other local investors, bought the Eagle and its sibling papers in 2016 from Digital First Media — a hedge fund-owned publishing group that has been widely criticized for ordering deep cuts at the Denver Post and others of its papers — returning the papers to local ownership.
The group prides itself on its local ownership and its dedication to the community, said Moran said. “Everyone here realizes the importance of what we are doing here for all of journalism in general, but especially at a time like this with the coronavirus,” he said.