November 23, 2020

When local print subscribers get their Thanksgiving newspaper, it will be the biggest weekday edition of the year.

But even in a generally disappointing year for advertising, a drastic shrinking of the traditionally bulky package of ads, surrounding news copy and preprinted inserts has publishers alarmed.

“The pandemic has taken a toll on many newspaper advertisers and revenue is certainly down, including Black Friday sales events,” Dean Ridings, CEO of America’s Newspapers, told me. “Retailers are aware that a rush to sales on a single day would likely create superspreader events, so Black Friday for 2020 will be a lot like the rest of this challenging year — rather bleak.”

The window for holiday shopping seems to widen every year with emails and TV ads starting around Halloween, so Thanksgiving and the day after may have lost their central place.

On the digital side, prospects are not much brighter. Gordon Borrell, who analyzes local digital and print ads, told me the small businesses he surveys say they are poised for an average 13-14% increase in their marketing spend next year. Newspapers are an exception though, likely to see a further 8% reduction from 2020.

The big prospective increase was a surprise. Borrell emailed me. That’s “quite healthy — it’s typically only 3-4%. This indicates (advertisers) are ‘poised’ instead of reticent, as is typically seen in recessions. Many have held back ad budgets earlier in the year, and many are likely to spend some of that held-back budget in the fourth quarter.”

“Radio, TV, newspapers and outdoor are currently seen as expensive and less measurable.” he continued. “Their biggest interest currently is ‘being found’ on the internet and ‘interacting,’ so we’ve seen sustained or increased spending for social media, SEM/SEO, direct mail, and email. 

“Obviously, the lockdowns and general fear have local businesses spending a lot more time developing their websites with ecommerce capabilities and finding ways to drive traffic to them than trying to convince people to come in the store.”

(Borrell Associates)

For the results shown in the chart above, Borrell told me, he surveyed 2,263 local businesses. Of those, 917 used newspaper advertising and their planned spend will be 8% less in 2021. By contrast, 1,527 used social media. So a fuller measure of the losses to legacy media would take into account advertisers who have left newspapers altogether.

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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