It seems no one is safe from the coronavirus. Whether it’s the infection itself, the economic impact or the realities of life under lockdown, Covid-19 has wormed its way into all our lives in some way or another, and at the moment there are no winners.
The latest victim is the UK’s news industry. The demand for quality content has arguably never been greater as millions in lockdown are consuming news stories and features at a record level. The problem, as always, is how to get people to pay.
Of course, with people confined to their homes, newspaper sales have taken a turn for the worse. But there are problems with online revenue too. Last week ministers told off advertisers after it emerged brands are using keyword blocklists to stop their adverts appearing next to stories about Covid-19. It means that even though news websites are getting record traffic from readers, they are earning barely any money from the clicks.
Coronavirus isn’t sexy or inspiring. Brands don’t want to see their products being advertised alongside news about a virus that’s claiming tens of thousands of lives across the globe. Reports about a pandemic don’t exactly put readers in the mood to splash out on a new car or a luxury hair product. The ongoing cycle of news stories is nothing but doom and gloom. There’s no sellable or exciting narrative there.
It’s already having a knock-on effect. Newspapers and press agencies have had to put journalists on furlough, with local and independent news outlets facing the most severe financial strains. Last week the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News announced they are to close after their parent company ran out of money, and Channel 4 is to cut its programming budget by £150 million and furlough almost 100 staff.
Freelancers are struggling to get pitches accepted, and Enders Analysis is predicting up to a third of frontline journalism jobs could be lost in the forthcoming recession. It’s a worrying time for news, which means it’s a worrying time for democracy.
Outlets are adapting to the crisis. Big Issue North is now being sold in shops for the first time in the magazine’s history, with another option to access the full magazine online.
The media has never been more important. We cannot trust the government’s press team to tell us the truth about the Covid-19 pandemic. The Prime Minister and his colleagues didn’t tell the truth about the danger of the virus, they didn’t tell us the truth about their herd immunity strategy, and they’re not telling us the truth about the death toll.
When the government tells us there were so many hundred deaths in hospitals in one day, we need local papers reporting that, actually, there were multiple deaths in a care home on their patch that day, or that a much-loved grandmother died in her home.
We are living through history, and those who are lost during this pandemic deserve to have their names printed. They should have their stories told.
Key workers working on the frontline need to have somewhere to turn when they want to voice their concerns about PPE or social distancing guidelines. In the midst of all the madness, authorities still need to be held to account.
So please next time you’re out buying lockdown essentials, make sure a newspaper – or Big Issue North, of course – is high up on your shopping list.