The ailing US news industry is bracing for more turmoil, with the COVID-19 pandemic expected to deliver an economic shock to the sector — just when people need credible information the most.
The impact is expected to be especially difficult for the country’s newspaper sector, which has endured a decade where 2,000 publications have disappeared and newsroom jobs have fallen by half.
News organizations are expected to take a hit from drops in advertising in an economic downturn, and could see declines in subscription revenue as readers pare expenses.
Conferences and events that some organizations have used to supplement their incomes are also likely to disappear as long as the health emergency persists.
“If you’re ad-supported and now heading into a period of short-term economic contraction, that’s very bad for your business,” said Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California who follows industry economic trends. “For smaller local players that’s a direct hit they can’t easily recover from.”
The free Seattle weekly The Stranger last week warned of an impending crisis and asked readers for donations, saying that “90 percent of our revenue — advertising, ticketing fees and our own events — is directly tied to people getting together in groups. The coronavirus situation has virtually eliminated this income all at once.”
At the same time, the epidemic offers “an opportunity to turn the tide of the past few years” and rebuild trust with readers, University of Oregon journalism professor Damian Radcliffe said.
“At a time of a national and international public health crisis, communities need reliable, informed journalism more than ever,” he said.
Radcliffe said several news organizations have dropped online paywalls as an effort to show “journalism as an act of public good.”
Kahn agreed that for many newsrooms, “this is the moment they can develop a connection with their audience and establish their value.”
Joseph Lichterman, head of editorial and digital strategy at Lenfest Institute, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, said that news organizations would face huge challenges in covering the crisis as well as an opportunity.
“People tend to trust local media more than national media, so you want to have strong local news organizations,” he said.
However, he added that news organizations are being pressed to expand coverage as the health crisis worsens, creating additional problems.
“They have to deal with the logistics of keeping the business afloat and making sure their staff is safe,” he said.
Some research has pointed to the importance of local media in dealing with an epidemic, among other public interest matters.
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