As the coronavirus continues its relentless spread across the world, infecting over a million people and killing tens of thousands, news stories of lockdowns, social distancing and overwhelmed hospitals have been making the headlines.

Newsrooms have been working to keep the communities they serve updated.

Audiences have surged. Apart from news reports, people are seeking out analysis and commentaries, videos and explainers, to help them make sense of the fast-evolving and far-reaching crisis.

Many newsrooms are finding that content related to Covid-19, has been viewed, and shared, by record numbers.

Amid the welter of information swirling about on social media, professional newsrooms which have long invested in building expertise, have been meeting the public’s hunger for objective reporting, providing context and perspective, drawing on historical knowledge and institutional memory.

These have helped inoculate communities against that other virus that is on the rampage – fake news – which is sowing anxiety and confusion, as well as undermining the public’s trust in the reliability of information they receive at this crucial time.

In the process, several journalists have succumbed to the virus while on the job, having to be isolated and quarantined. In some cases, this has led to some newsrooms having to evacuate hurriedly, with staff rushing home, laptops in hand, to strive to keep their platforms updated and the presses rolling.

But here’s the heart-breaking news: among the victims in the intensive care unit, gasping for breath, are some of these media organisations themselves, alongside many others from sectors that have also been hard hit, from aviation to retail.

Several, especially smaller, local and vernacular titles, might not be able to meet their financial commitments, or even pay staff salaries, in the months ahead.

Advertising is drying up, plunging from 30 per cent to 80 per cent, according to a recent survey by the World Association of Newspapers and Publishers.

Revenues from media-related events, a new and growing source of funds, have also plunged, as social distancing measures are put in place.

Many newsrooms, including The Nation, have also made content on the pandemic freely available, as a public service, thereby constraining their ability to grow revenues from subscriptions.

The upshot of this is both ironic and tragic: at a time when audiences are turning increasingly to established media titles – recent surveys show a rise in trust in the television programmes and newspapers, as opposed to information being shared on social media – newsrooms are seeing their resources gutted, and some are even being shut down.

In the United States, the largest American newspaper chain, Gannett, announced last week plans to cut salaries and lay-off some staff temporarily, while Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has said it will stop print editions of 60 newspapers in Australia, to deal with plunging ad revenues.

This has heightened concerns about the emergence of “news deserts”, meaning communities with no access to local news as reporting on local government and community affairs dries up for lack of resources.

There is also much angst over “ghost newsrooms”, titles which are snapped up by investors because they are still profitable, but which then see their reporting teams slashed to boost margins, resulting in a lack of resources to produce any local, original or independent content.

The implications of these developments for societies are grave. At a time when communities are most in need of critical information, many newsrooms are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver on their mission.

This has led the World Health Organisation to warn of a coming “infodemic”, with the public suffering from an overload, and the spread of misinformation threatening to undermine public trust at a crucial time.

To be sure, the financial struggles faced by media organisations is hardly news in itself. Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash pointed to this in a keynote address at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland in May 2017.

He said: “Very simply, the Internet is destroying the business model of newspapers. For at least two centuries, we have had a public good – news, the information we need for democracy – delivered by private means.

“Our good fortune was that, for nearly two centuries, that model worked because people would pay for a newspaper and (there was also) advertising revenue. The Internet has just knocked away both these pillars. So the newspapers produce the information. Facebook and Google get the profit.

“And this has a very negative effect on the newspapers on which we have relied for our news...The amount of serious news, investigative journalism and foreign reporting is going down because that’s expensive.

“This is a real problem for the journalism we need for democracy. What we have here is potentially a market failure in the marketplace of ideas.”

Covid-19, however, has mercilessly compounded this challenge, hastening both the shift to digital and the plunge in advertising.

In the face of an existential challenge, newsroom leaders in the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia, have turned to their stakeholders, to make the case that the survival of media organisations is in the public interest.

So, what’s the antidote? Among the proposals on the table are:

- Declaring the media an essential service: to enable journalists to go about their jobs during lockdowns, keeping newsrooms functioning, and news agents and delivery services running, as has been done in Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, elsewhere;

- Granting financial assistance: these include tax breaks or holidays, short-term loans and wage subsidies to help newsrooms pay their staff and bills in the face of falling revenues. Denmark has set up a Euro 25 million fund which will grant news outlets that have recently suffered falls in advertising revenue of 30 per cent to 50 per relief of up to 60 per cent of their losses, and offered to pay up to 75 per cent of staff salaries if newsrooms do not lay off staff. In Lithuania, state subsidies are also given for critical infrastructure such as broadcasting and printing facilities;

- Giving tax incentives for advertisers and subscribers: In Italy, for example, advertisers in newspapers and online media can claim tax deductions of 30 per cent, while Canada allows subscribers to claim tax relief;

- Stepping up government advertising: public education campaigns related to the pandemic can help make up for the fall in private advertising, as seen in Switzerland, Singapore, Latvia, Romania and elsewhere;

- Regulating the big technology platforms: cajoling or even legislating that these make more meaningful contributions to support the news organisations they rely on for content, as France has done.

While these measures might help see media groups through the current crisis, they are not without risks, not least of which is the damage that could be done to their credibility if they become overly dependent on state funding. This is especially a concern in some societies, with painful experiences of governments seeking to muzzle the media, through cuts in funding and advertising, shutdowns of newsrooms and even arrests of journalists.

To safeguard against this, beyond the crisis, new business models will also have to be fashioned to ensure the media remains viable and sustainable for the long haul.

Various experiments are now underway. While some big players like the New York Times and Financial Times are relying increasingly on subscription revenues from readers, others such as the Washington Post, the South China Morning Post and Los Angeles Times, have been bought by wealthy businessmen, who have injected new resources into these newsrooms, giving them a boost.

Elsewhere, media groups have been given mandates by the state, with funding for public service broadcasts and journalism, as in France, Britain and some Scandinavian countries.

Other newsrooms are opting to become public trusts or not-for-profit companies, with a mission to provide public service journalism, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Salt Lake Tribune in the US, following the leads of The Guardian in the UK and Japan’s Nikkei group, which have operated as such for decades.

Which of these models is the way forward for newsrooms remains unclear. Nor indeed is there likely to be one model that works for all, given the very different political histories and cultures that newsrooms operate in around the world.

Yet, Duke University public policy professor Philip Napoli summed it up well in an editorial for Wired magazine when he noted that the ongoing crisis could help awaken the public to the vital role of news media in societies, democratic or otherwise.

“News is what economists call a public good, a type of product for which it is particularly challenging for the market to capture its full value,” he said. “The price we pay for news and the price advertisers pay to reach news consumers doesn’t reflect the news’ full economic value.”

This much is clear: the coronavirus pandemic might have begun as a public health crisis. But some wrenching economic, social and political changes could follow in the months to come.

People and communities will need help to make sense of the bewildering developments unfolding around them. Citizens and voters will need news organisations they consider credible, which they can rely on, and trust.

This opinion piece was signed and endorsed by members of the Board of the WEF, in solidarity with newsrooms around the world.

 

The writer is President of the World Editors Forum, a network of editors that is part of the World Association of Newspapers and Publishers.