Like all industries, the events of the past year have had a profound effect on the media landscape. Plummeting print circulations, the first drop in advertising spend on record, redundancies, furlough, and newsrooms forced to turn virtual as journalists worked from home are just some of the challenges the media has had to grapple with. But with the coronavirus vaccine being rolled out and a roadmap towards some sort of normality in place, the industry is looking forward to a brighter 2021.
As a former journalist, I’ve been in regular touch with friends and ex-colleagues to check how they’ve been faring, both personally and professionally. One former colleague at the Evening Standard told me: “Working from home was a huge and unprecedented technical challenge for a newspaper, but we showed it can be done. But I miss my colleagues, and the buzz of a newsroom on a busy day – such as the recent Budget Day – is irreplaceable. My concern is we may never get it back.” Indeed, Daily Mirror publisher Reach has just announced it is closing its London office and making most staff permanent home workers, saying that a majority of its staff found home working “suited their needs”.
Another friend, a BBC News desk editor, recalled an initial state of unpreparedness, with lots of people suddenly leaving the office to work from home. “It took a while for equipment to reach them, leaving those still going into the office very stretched. Also, there were so many strands to the coronavirus story it was challenging to tell the story coherently. You could end up overwhelmed by too many facts and figures, which didn’t necessarily tell you what was important,” she said.
Statistics for the industry bring the scale of the challenges of the past year into sharp relief. Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) show national newspaper circulation down across the board, with “commuter papers” hardest hit – the Evening Standard down 39% and the Metro by a whopping 58% – as the Tube became virtually deserted and people worked from home. There is a glimmer of hope, however, as the latest figures from ABC show the current lockdown has not hit circulations as hard as last year’s strict restrictions did.
In a double whammy for the industry, advertising revenue for print media, including newspapers, magazines and their digital extensions, fell by 23% last year, according to media agency GroupM. However, there is better news for this year, with revenues expected to rebound by 13%. It is hoped that this will fuel a reversal of some of last year’s layoffs, and it’s encouraging to see the i paper recently announced it was recruiting 20 journalists.
The crisis has provided a powerful reminder of how important news organisations are in helping people stay informed, especially in difficult and uncertain times. A multitude of investigations has illustrated the role professional journalists play in holding governments and others to account for their handling of a crisis. However, a recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University showed that news use has declined during the crisis after the initial surge, trust in news has fallen, trust in the Government as a source of information about Covid-19 has dropped dramatically, and a large minority of the public – an estimated 20 million people – do not feel that the news media and/or the Government have explained what they can do in response to the pandemic. So there’s clearly a big job to be done to restore trust when the pandemic finally blows over.
Finally, there have been unexpected consequences of the pandemic, together with other seismic events of the past 12 months, which have the potential to change journalism for good. Whether it was doctors taking us behind the veil of Covid-19 intensive care units or a teenage girl shaping history by filming the horror of George Floyd’s death, user-generated content (UGC) has had a huge impact on news media over the past year. Lockdown conditions created unimagined restrictions on news reporting but the growing willingness of the public to film and share what they witnessed ensured that hidden stories were still told. So both the pandemic and UGC have changed the very practice of journalism, and the media landscape may never look the same again.
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