While there is a surge in traffic on news sites and the digital editions of newspapers are being obsessively refreshed by an audience of unwilling keyboard jockeys under house arrest, in the crisis that is only beginning, many of the newspapers that have somehow managed to survive during the last few years are teetering on the edge of collapse.
Even with the increase in online users, with the coming economic collapse we are also facing the prospect of a collapse in the ad revenues on which newspapers depend, especially in the free market regime that reigns in the United States. Among the sectors being wiped out by the pandemic we find tourism, hospitality, restaurants, sports, music, events and shows, etc. The violent contraction will only accelerate (if that’s the right word for “push off a cliff”) the decline in advertising revenue going to newspapers.
The closures of local and independent newspapers are already coming at a worrying pace, with editorial offices that had already been decimated and budgets slashed by the advertising void created by the social giants. A report published by the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard focuses on the “alternative weeklies” that are still being printed in many American cities. Its title begins with the telling words, “Total Annihilation.” In the case of these independent city weeklies, chronically underfunded and almost entirely dependent on local restaurant and entertainment ads, the collapse of those sectors is practically a deathblow.
The next ones in line to reckon with an imminent and potentially catastrophic economic crisis will be the broadcasters of the public radio circuit, dependent on subscriptions. In many cases, their shows have been cancelled to be able to offer live coverage of the emergency on a daily basis. In any case, this moment of widespread uncertainty is obviously not conducive to voluntary contributions, which have a lower priority when people are confronted with personal emergencies.
Online sites—many of which (like il manifesto) have brought down their paywalls—are in many cases hanging by a thread. Even if the current extreme pressure is relieved, the prospect of a prolonged recession is a gloomy one for a sector that is already without a profitable “business model” and which might not survive. For many outlets, their life expectancy is likely to be cut down to a few months—or even weeks.
As for many other sectors, the crisis has explosively revealed the dynamics that have been playing out for years, a situation that is also bound to punish—most severely of all—the increasingly large cohort of precarious workers and freelancers that is a feature of the journalism of the digital era.
This is not only the case with the US: from Australia to the UK, the news are more and more worrying, and a bloodbath is expected that could overwhelm all newspapers not linked to large conglomerates—as is also happening with publishing and music.
Craig Aaron, the head of Free Press, a nonprofit organization advocating for the journalism industry, sounded the alarm: “In the face of this pandemic, the public needs good, economically secure journalists more than ever.”
In an appeal published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Aaron called for a doubling of federal contributions for the information sector, targeted contributions for local editorial offices (after 2,000 regional outlets have had to close over the last 15 years) and the creation of a First Amendment Fund to support journalism.
However, there is very little likelihood of government action. In the $2.2 trillion emergency stimulus bill that was just passed by Congress, there is no specific reference to the information sector, notoriously not an object of sympathy on the part of the president (who even tried to shut down NPR, the national public radio station).
In The Atlantic, Steven Waldman and Jack Sennott are proposing that the government should direct a part of its public service communication funds (a current expense of $1 billion, higher because of the health emergency) towards minor and local newspapers, instead of concentrating it exclusively on social media platforms and large media groups.
Waldman and Sennott (who run Report for America, a foundation that supports small newspapers and promotes internships) underline the current paradox: “Reporters are continuing to go to work, often putting themselves at risk, to provide a public service that is profoundly important right now. In many states, news providers have been classified as ‘essential’ organizations precisely because public health officials understand the importance of accurate information in fighting a pandemic.”
Paradoxically, the need for local information to allow people to stay up to date on the official directives and give them practical guidance in times of an emergency has never been more obvious. This has led to some unexpected phenomena, such as a spike in ratings for the old national prime time news shows, “dinosaurs” that had been nearly forgotten in the fragmentation of social media and the information sphere, which are now experiencing an unexpected revival in a time of confined families with a lot of free time and with an anxiety-fueled need for news.
In this framework which is magnifying the system’s anomalies and systemic fractures, Buzzfeed recently called the coronavirus an “extinction level event”: a potential massacre of independent media that risks being wiped out altogether, leaving the post-pandemic field open for domination—truly unchallenged this time—by a handful of conglomerates with deep enough pockets to survive—and, of course, by the social media giants of the digital oligopoly.
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