The coronavirus has made people hungrier than ever for reliable information about world events, but the extraordinary measures required to check the pandemic threaten to destroy many of the news organisations we rely on to inform us.
At first sight, it may appear as if newspapers and other sources of news are better prepared than most to ride out the crisis. Not only is demand for their output higher than ever, but most of the work of journalists can be carried out remotely. Even field reporters do not need to be in a crowded office to do their work.
And yet while we think of the information that media organisations provide as intrinsically intangible, in many respects the way in which we consume news remains very much physical. And what’s more, it is physical products that still provide a large proportion of the revenue needed to pay journalists.
The coronavirus – or rather, the social distancing it necessitates – has already had a significant impact on the free publications given away primarily to commuters. The Evening Standard has cut its distribution by a third to 500,000, and has begun delivering copies through Londoners’ doors. City AM, which was distributed to 90,000 people in the City of London each weekday morning, has ceased print publication entirely and asked all staff to accept a 50 per cent pay cut.
Entertainment magazine Time Out has gone online-only for the first time in its 52-year history, and been rebranded Time In, while Stylist, which is distributed at hotels, gyms and shops, has also ceased print publication for what it hopes is “a relatively short period of time”. Metro, one of the big success stories of UK newspapers (with a free circulation of 1.4m), has not yet announced plans to scale back distribution, but it is likely only a matter of time.
The situation is not necessarily much better for newspapers that charge. Many older people, who are far more likely to have retained the habit of popping out to buy a newspaper each morning, are in complete isolation. The average age of readerships hovers just below the cut-off point for those considered to be most at risk from Covid-19.
In some respects, the coronavirus is simply accelerating existing trends away from print that were affecting virtually all publications. London’s free publications had maintained or built circulation by giving print copies away, but the looming introduction of mobile data reception on the Underground was already threatening to dent their readership.
Meanwhile, national and local newspapers that still charge have been wrestling with annual declines in the number of copies sold, often in double percentage points, for well over a decade. Assuming the post is still delivered, some publications may not be as badly affected, but social distancing will inevitably mean fewer people picking up a print publication, whichever one they would have chosen.
Even if print readers return to their old habits once restrictions are eased, the damage the virus is doing to the economy will provide a second blow. The ad market has always been incredibly susceptible to market shocks and it tends to track the health of the overall economy.
The 2008 financial crisis hammered print advertising and, as economies recovered slowly, much of that money, instead of returning to newspapers, went to digital advertising, in particular Facebook and Google. This pandemic is likely to deal an even bigger blow to the global economy, and history suggests that a wider recovery will not be mirrored by print advertising. That will pose an existential threat to many newspapers and magazines, even if their readerships suddenly rush out to buy a paper as soon as restrictions are lifted.
There is one small reason for optimism, one that ironically reflects the problems news organisations have faced in recent years. As print sales and advertising have plummeted, many have already begun to shift emphasis towards digital subscriptions. Those publications charging for news online in some form will get a chance throughout the pandemic to demonstrate to their readers why they are worth paying for. Recent changes to VAT rules, which give digital subscriptions the same exemptions as print, will provide extra reward for those efforts.
But the pandemic’s curtailing of the simple act of picking up a print newspaper or magazine, combined with the economic shock around the corner, will leave a lasting mark on many of the news organisations currently battling to keep the public informed.