Honner survey: what COVID-19 has meant for the way financial journalists work

It’s not an easy time to be a journalist.

On the one hand, newsrooms are busier than ever, with reporters working frantically to cover the developing COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on people, the economy and markets.

At the same time, the lockdown has not only forced them to rethink the way they work but also continued to put more pressure on an industry that was already being dramatically impacted by digital disruption. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact our society at large, it is challenging media outlets both big and small and resulting in the loss of more journalist jobs as ad revenues continue to fall.

At Honner, we wanted to get a clear idea of how the lockdown has impacted Australia’s financial journalists, in particular, as they face the pressure of keeping up with the escalating pace of economic, market and corporate news from their loungerooms.
We wanted to know how journalists are coping, where they need help, and what their priorities are during this exceptional time.
So, we asked. In May, Honner surveyed a national database of active reporters from across the trade and mainstream financial press. Here’s what we found:

The news cycle is speeding up
More than 80% of respondents said they have been busier and working harder since the impacts of COVID-19 took hold in Australia in March.

A key pressure has been filing stories quickly as financial markets reel from daily COVID-19 news—made more difficult by the fact journalists are working in isolation.

People are worried about their jobs

Journalists also reported growing concerns around job security, with 60% saying they were much more concerned, or more concerned, about the security of their role.
Over the past three months, several newsrooms have closed permanently, and dozens of other mastheads have suspended operations, resulting in hundreds of staff being laid off or stood down.

Other journalists are feeling the brunt of cutbacks, including pay cuts, forced leave and reduced hours as the pandemic causes a sharp fall in advertising revenue in an already fractured media landscape.

They want insights – and it’s not all about COVID-19
When asked about the most important assistance market commentators could provide right now, journalists ranked news insights as number one, followed by research data to support story angles and ‘getting back to me quickly’.
Nearly 80% of respondents said they are not under pressure to deliver a COVID-19 angle for every story, but rather are looking for a more diverse range of stories.
The top areas of interest for financial reporters included investment strategies to navigate markets, the impact of COVID-19 on sectors such as superannuation, property and financial advice, and Australia’s economic environment.
Virtual story-gathering – from home
While working in isolation presented some difficulties, such as not being in a newsroom environment and not being able to interview people face to face, many respondents said working from home had proved less stressful. Thirty per cent of respondents said they didn’t miss the commute to work and 25% liked being able to work at their own pace and time of day.
A substantial 70% of respondents said they would prefer to continue working more days from home as social distancing measures eased.
In terms of changed work practices, the majority of journalists have embraced virtual news gathering as a new reality under lockdown. More than three quarters of respondents (78%) said they would like to attend more virtual briefings and nearly half (48%) said they would like to connect virtually with more offshore spokespeople to discuss events across global markets.
Virtual briefings should be short and snappy however, with nearly 4 in 5 respondents (79%) suggesting 30 minutes as the right timeframe for a briefing, and 21% suggesting 60 minutes. Twenty per cent of respondents said they would look to use video interview footage from briefings for broadcast purposes.
When asked about various ways they’d like to virtually connect for media interviews the humble telephone call remained the preferred method for an interview (68%), while 55% of journalists also chose written email comments as an option and 41% were happy to interview via Zoom.
Audiences are up
One of the positive factors that came out of our survey was that audiences are up. Nearly 50% of respondents said their audience numbers were up by greater than 20%. Twenty per cent of respondents said audiences were up more than 50%.
The whipsawing of financial markets in recent months has added to the financial worries of investors and savers across the country, and they have been thirsty for information.
With ongoing economic uncertainty, the pressure remains on financial journalists to deliver news and explain the impacts to everyday Australians, as well as those working across Australia’s substantial financial sector.
What this means for financial services brands
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way brands engage and communicate – with media, but also with other stakeholders such as employees, customers and the industry at large.
In times of uncertainty, effective and timely communications is more important than ever. And with social distancing in place, we now need to do that differently.
To help clients cut through, Honner has partnered with a number of leading providers to help our firms deliver their message through visual digital platforms: engagement that is efficient, cuts through and is personable.
For a copy of our Business as (un)usual during COVID-19 – Engaging in a time of uncertainty deck or further insight from our journalist survey, please contact me on paul@honner.com.au or 0427 755 296.

Media in the new normal of COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has changed every aspect of our lives, and this has been especially true for the media, who have been working round the clock like any other front-line essential worker.

With everything else around the world practically coming to a standstill, the news cycle has picked up pace, buzzing with demand for trusted, timely and relevant information like never seen before.

Journalists have rapidly pivoted to remote guests, phone interviews and socially distanced press conferences. The speed and intensity of the crisis has also created wall-to-wall COVID-19 coverage, as every sector of the economy has been impacted.

This also created a shift in the working relationships of journalists and PR professionals as everyone was effectively adapting to the new normal.

I was fortunate enough to hear from Erin Bouda (Supervising Producer at Weekend Today), Michelle Stephenson (National News Director at Nova) and Aleks Vickovich (Wealth Editor at the AFR) as they discussed the media landscape in the new normal of COVID-19 in a recent PRIA webinar.

Below are my key take outs from this insightful session to help friends in the PR industry (and brands) understand the new best practice in working with print, broadcast and radio journalists, as well as what the future looks like for journalism after the crisis passes.

“Change is the only constant”

Greek philosopher Heraclitus couldn’t be more accurate when he said this. As the situation escalated in Australia and WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, news changed, plans changed, narratives changed, graphics changed, work and travel arrangements changed. Everything changed.

News bulletins were renamed as COVID bulletins, breaking news was scheduled for every 15 minutes instead of twice a day, and newsrooms were transformed to ‘home sweet newsroom’.

As the journalists in the webinar said, “who knew we can pull together a full newspaper or co-host a national breakfast show from home?”

Recognising that people are spending so much time in their homes due to social distancing restrictions, radio adapted quickly and started promoting their content available via smart devices such as Apple podcasts, Spotify etc.

In addition to the public health coverage, the economic reporting became equally important as a 10-year bull run in the stock markets came to a halt and various stimulus packages from the Government started to roll over, including the early release of super.

Opportunity for PR: Adapt or leave

All journalists in the webinar were unanimous in their opinion that the PR agencies and consultants who were agile enough to adapt quickly to this crisis, came off very well for their clients.

“It’s all about gauging the shifting appetite and the relationships you can tap into,” they said.

My understanding of the media’s expectation of PRs is to go through two self-assessment filters before pitching their clients or stories during this crisis.

#1: Is this what people want to watch / read / wake up to / care about today?

While the journalists admitted to their COVID-19 reporting fatigue, they also confirmed COVID-19 stories continue to attract the highest traffic and engagement from their audiences. So your pitch still needs to be relevant and pivot back to the pandemic.

Perhaps not so much on what has already happened, but more about planning life on the other side of this crisis.

#2: Is my spokesperson equipped to talk about this topic?

A one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate, as all companies and spokespersons are not thought leaders on a crisis. Experts that are reliable, and have relevant data and projections, or have made positive changes to their business should be unleashed as it’s their time to shine. If they don’t’ fit any of these criteria, don’t encourage them to speak outside their area of expertise.

Another evergreen best practice that is particularly relevant now is to present your pitch in the format that makes sense and saves time for the journalists who are already time-poor. For example, when pitching to radio, attach ready-to-use audio grabs to make it easier for the journalist and avoid all the back and forth in a rapidly evolving news environment. For television, if your client has previously spoken on TV or YouTube, feel free to share those clips to give the producer a sense of their talent.  

Broadcast journalists also admitted that due to virtual systems, expectations of quality have dropped in some cases. While this holds true for video interviews (mostly held over Zoom or Skype), audio grabs still need to have top sound quality.

In print media, however, readership has doubled for leading publications as they have attracted new digital subscribers. There is no question of compromise on the news quality to ensure new readers are engaged.

Lastly, while it’s easy to assume that since journalists are working from home, they’re more open to interviews, you might want to reconsider. They are under a lot of pressure and anything you can do to ease that pressure will go a long way in building a long-term relationship of trust.

“It is heartening to see people re-engaging with media sources again, and transparent reporting of how this crisis is affecting everyone, including us, has generated goodwill for the media,” the webinar ended on a warm and fuzzy note.

Honner will soon release a survey of Australian journalists looking at their experience of working during COVID-19.