[Video] Exclusive Interview with Fran Wills, Part 2: COVID-19 Will Not Break Publishers

We’re living in unprecedented times — as everyone keeps reminding us. 

And in our industry, we’re all feeling the impact. Whether it’s decreased readership, a decline in overall revenue, continued layoffs and furloughs, or the shuttering of newsrooms — COVID-19 has definitely hit home.

No one understands this better than Fran Wills, CEO at the Local Media Consortium.

“Our publishers, as you know, have been impacted financially, particularly with COVID, so they are looking for ways to save costs. But they are also looking for ways to realize new revenue opportunities.”

Given Fran’s hectic schedule, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with her about COVID-19’s effect on publishing, including how local media can continue to adapt and survive, as well as the lessons she’s taken away from this pandemic.

While we’re staying home as the pandemic unfortunately continues, Fran’s words might just inspire you to do your part in supporting local media (or, consider new revenue monetization opportunities, if you’re in publishing yourself).

Be sure to read on! And, if you missed it, don’t forget to check out Part I of our interview with Fran, as she tells all about the LMC’s newest partnership.


Q:  From the pandemic the political landscape — there’s a lot going on in 2020. What do you think the roles of platforms and advertisers are during a time like this to help support local publishers given the hardships they are currently facing?


To start, tread lightly with your keyword blocking — both to avoid missed opportunities with local audiences, and to help publishers monetize their high-traffic pages, often connected with excluded topics, such as COVID.


“We’re working on a few initiatives, actually, right now.

Several months ago, keyword blocking started to become even more popular with advertisers where they were blocking not only local news, but then they started blocking COVID-19 coverage. So, we started working very quickly with Brand Safety Institute and Scott Cunningham to look at a way that we could differentiate local media from other content sources in the programmatic channels. And we came up with an idea around creating a local news advertiser inclusion list, and we started outreach to brands and advertisers, and we’ve actually seen a lot of positive response — we’ve got a lot of brands and advertisers who have downloaded the list or are looking at how they could incorporate it into their programmatic strategies.

So, I think, at this point in time, brands and advertisers are starting to wake up to the fact that by using really aggressive keyword-blocking, that can cause them to miss out on connecting with a lot of local audiences in ways that are important to them and to their communities. So, we’re trying to educate advertisers and publishers on how to better connect and free up the ability for advertisers and publishers to advertise through programmatic channels in ways that benefit local publishers more than it does right now.”

Q: And what about the consumers? Anything they can do to help support local media?


Support can be as minimal as visiting your local news site or signing up for a local media newsletter — though do consider what’s next, from subscriptions to donations.


“You know another positive impact that all this disruption has had is the consumers have been flocking to credible local news sources to find out about testing centers, school closings, what businesses are open — so they’re relying a lot on their local media outlets to find out that information. So, we’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in consumer traffic directly to news websites. A lot of consumers are engaging by visiting those websites on a regular basis.

We’ve also seen more consumers sign up for newsletters, make donations, sign up for subscriptions — so the audience side and consumer side of publishers businesses, which had been in decline, is now turning around and seeing an increase to how consumer revenue is starting to become a significant revenue stream for publishers.”

Q: As a result of the happenings of 2020, we’re seeing local media publishers innovate much more quickly than they have in the past. Do you think these will be short-term fixes or will they adopt them as long-term strategies?


Both. Local media publishers need low-lift, low-cost, high-efficient ways to grow their businesses.


“I think that we’re all looking at programmatic actually — it’s growing and a lot of innovation is happening in that space. We do think there’s an opportunity to use this point in time to make some adjustments to the ways programmatic is set up for publishers and advertisers so that publishers could potentially see more of the dollars that come through directly to them from advertisers. So, we think there is an opportunity right now to make some adjustments and look at how we structure the ecosystem to better benefit the publishers. We’re working also on where the opportunities around scale — so how can we help publishers represent themselves in a more scalable way to advertise.

And I think while there’s a lot of very sophisticated publishers that have programmatic teams and have technology teams that can implement, and analyze, and make advancements in programmatic, there are a lot of medium, and smaller, and community publishers that don’t have those resources. So, one of the things we also see an opportunity is to, through our partners, help look at developing or assisting in the development of tools and technology that can help some of our publishers that maybe don’t have as much digitally savvy — help them migrate to having more support and more success as they transition into the more digitally-focused model.

So, lots of small and community publishers need our help right now to provide them with low-cost, very low-lift, and very efficient ways for them to participate in and grow their digital business.”

Q: Have you seen much innovation around content creation during the pandemic given journalists aren’t able to go outside or travel to cover stories as they once did?


Much content collaboration to be had, and more Branded Content opportunities to come.


“There’s more content collaboration going on particularly between media outlets within the same state or same region, we’re seeing quite a few content collaboration initiatives that are popping up.

The Matchup is one of the ones we are introducing around sports coverage, but the AP also has a story-sharing initiative that they are working on that helps publishers collaborate on their platform. News Catalyst is also an initiative Aron Pilhofer out of Temple University is working on that’s going to provide a tool for journalists to collaborate and share best practices and share some tools and technology that help on the newsroom side of the business. So, I think from a content standpoint, you know, there’s a lot more openness to collaborating and sharing content.

Another trend that we’re seeing is around Branded Content — we have a Branded Content initiative that is going on, through a partnership with Facebook and the Local Media Association, we’ve helped almost 50 publishers understand how to grow their Branded Content business, and seeing a lot of success in helping all-size publishers in that program.

And Branded Content is a trend that seems to be resonating with advertisers and is growing, and local publishers are ideally suited to produce content that is appealing to local, regional, and national brands. And we’re looking again at a scalable way to potentially run Branded Content across our membership so that if we do have a large national brand that wants to run a Branded Content series across local publishers, we’re actually going to be introducing a way to fill it.”

Q: Is Branded Content accepted more now by the smaller news publishers who may not have been able to separate pure editorial from the branded side of the business before?


Definitely — and we’re in Beta for a Branded Content project for our members, coming soon.


“That’s part of what we’ve been able to accomplish through the Branded Content project is we do have a lot of very small publishers that are showing some significant success with Branded Content and learning best practices around how you structure it within your organization, how you label it, how you go to market with it, who writes it. So lots of best practices and sharing go-to-market approaches have been happening amongst the publishers that are participating.

We had an Alpha group of seven, and then we added on a Beta group — 50 publishers that are participating are understanding what works and what doesn’t work from an internal perspective, a consumer perspective, and an advertising perspective. Which you really have to figure out how it works with all three stakeholders to make it be successful for your organization.”

Q: In a year from now, will these crisis-inspired, short-term trends stick? And what other trends do you see stemming from this experience?


From consumers seeking out more credible news sources to newsrooms ensuring they have diverse voices represented across their channels, there’s much to come for local media.


“So, you know, what the future looks like — I think we will continue to see further engagement with consumers and more consumer demand for credible, reputable content. I think there are indications that consumers are definitely searching and seeking out credible news sources and not just relying on social media or the internet at large for their news and information. So, I think that that consumer trend will continue. And I think that publishers need to continue to make sure they’re writing content that’s relevant to their communities.

We’re also seeing a diversity in the type of content and the type of audiences publishers are serving. So, we think that making sure that publishers have diverse voices in their newsroom and their in organizations as a whole so that all communities are represented through their content — and that, we’re seeing good progress on that and we think that will continue on — that diversity in representing all aspects of your community is going to be important to publishers.

And then the other encouraging trend is this trend around advertisers wanting to connect more with local publishers at scale. So, I think if we take this moment — although it’s been disruptive with third-party cookies going away, and first-party data, and privacy becoming more and more important with the reinvention of how advertising works with consumers — I think it’s an opportunity for publishers to regain some of the advertising dollars that they may have lost in the last ten years.

We’re optimistic that through some of the changes that are taking place in the advertising ecosystem, there’s an opportunity for publishers to benefit from that.”

Local Media, Global Learnings

While 2020 has been difficult for publishers to navigate, the future is clear — there’s more opportunity for local journalism now than ever before. So long as they keep up with the tools and technologies needed to connect and communicate with their local communities (and monetize the engagement, as they do).

How You Can Help:

  • Consumer? Visit your local credible news sites. Engage with the content. Sign up for a newsletter. Subscribe to access gated content. Donate. The little things go a very long way for local media.
  • Advertiser? Careful with your keyword blocking — you may be missing opportunities with local audiences. And that said, consider direct local media buys such as Branded Content — or advertise with a Native Ads provider (such as Outbrain!), who help to support sustainable journalism.
  • Publisher? Local news outlet, but not an LMC member? Consider a change-up! Not a local news outlet? Consider new technologies to not only monetize your site, but to also further engage your readers.

Huge thank you to Fran and the team at the Local Media Consortium — we’re now proud partners of the LMC, and couldn’t be more excited for our future collaboration.

And hey, if you’re a publisher — local news or mainstream media — be sure to check out how native advertising is not only a pillar for monetization, but further, for reader engagement and longevity.

Launch your Campaign!

Create full funnel campaigns that drive real business results.

Start Now