Coronavirus is laying waste to whole industries. The spectre of mass unemployment looms. Economists forecast a slump to rival the Great Depression.
Against this backdrop, the future of newspapers might seem a point of niche interest but the Covid-19 lockdown is edging our trade closer and closer to the wall. Journalists don’t expect to be trampled by well-wishers but we look at free-falling circulations and advertising revenues and understand something more than next month’s rent money is at stake.
Readers are stuck at home and many outlets where they would ordinarily pick up a paper are either closed or grinding under unprecedented queues. The shutdown of all but essential services means there is much less to advertise and an existential disruption to high street trading means ad spends are far down the list of priorities for many firms. Readers cannot get to newspapers and the revenues that supply oxygen to the press have suddenly shut off. After years of strain and ill-health, print journalism is suffering a massive heart attack.
The newspaper industry needs immediate attention or much of it will die. Last week, the Times paid to place an advertorial in several newspapers urging support for the local press, which it described as ‘a fourth emergency service’. In times like these, newspapers, and especially local ones, are vital to communicating accurate information, raising awareness of medical advice and giving a voice to smaller communities. As the Times put it: ‘Rarely has access to reliable news been more important in saving lives.’
Given the scale of this pandemic, it is tempting to dismiss the woes of one industry as a concern of a lesser order. Tempting, but a fatal error. The existence of a free press able to hold authority to account is fundamental in the best of times but in the worst all the lofty talk about seeking truth and defending freedom ceases to be academic. Britain is locked in its fiercest battle since 1940, basic civil liberties have been suspended, and 10,000 lie dead with many more expected to join that toll.
Now more than ever, the facts must be recorded, public health responses understood, and governments questioned. Now more than ever, when the state has vastly expanded its own power (albeit for good reason), we need the press to function as both national informer and sceptical awkward squad.
Those who would wave away these points and reassure themselves that other forms of media can fill the role of print journalism understand neither the industry nor the moment. A well-informed population is essential to the speedy remedying of the Covid-19 outbreak: messages about quarantines, medical services, shopping deliveries and much more must reach every nook and cranny of the country.
For the most remote parts, where broadband services are not as robust, a printed newspaper can be a more effective public information tool than the most digitally savvy awareness campaign. True, broadcasters are trusted but they are also heavily centralised and offer only minimal locally-produced content. Covid-19 doesn’t spread uniformly. Lochaber has different concerns than London and needs journalism that reflects those differences.
Locally and nationally, newspaper readerships also skew older. This is the very age group most at risk right now and also the one most likely to read and trust printed newspapers over online media. It’s all very well getting public health messages trending on TikTok but the people who need to hear them aren’t on TikTok and would cast a decidedly askew glance at anything that appeared alongside videos of celebrities trying to do handstands. The attitudes and value systems of older Britons have to be taken into account when fighting a contagion that thrives on even the smallest pockets of non-compliance. You can’t ‘OK, boomer’ coronavirus.
‘What about the BBC?’ you might ask, but there are things Auntie cannot do because of her charter. BBC reporters peppered government with questions about face masks and testing for NHS staff but only newspapers, not least the one you’re holding right now, could campaign and editorialise for ministers to change their approach. Newspaper leader columns still put the fear into the powerful and long may they continue to do so.
It is not just our response to Covid-19 that risks being undermined by the abrupt disappearance of well-established newspapers and the dumping of their staff onto Universal Credit. Let the watchdogs go and you let the dogs off their leash. Think of the relief felt by a councillor on the take, a minister up to no good, or an employer underpaying his workers when they hear there will be even fewer journalists to investigate and expose their activities.
I am not the only one filled with foreboding at what coronavirus could mean for print journalism. John McLellan, chair of the Scottish Newspaper Society, warns: ‘Historic titles which have been a bedrock of their communities, some for over 200 years, are facing collapse by the end of the month unless the Scottish Government steps in to help. This is not scaremongering but the reality facing Scotland’s local press and hundreds of jobs are at risk.’
I asked McLellan what practical steps government could take to alleviate the situation. Top of the ticket for him is extending the rates holiday already announced for retailers and others businesses to news organisations. ‘For reasons the Scottish Government has not explained it is clearly reluctant to do so,’ he says. Representations have already been made to Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and Economy and Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop. Forbes in particular should heed the pleas for rates relief. Her Highland and islands constituents will be among the hardest hit by the closure of newspapers. Indeed, all MSPs should be alive to the danger of losing the most reliable link to their local communities.
McLellan also laments the Scottish Government’s decision to spend a chunk of its communications budget on Google and Facebook, money that could go to Scottish outlets producing native content and employing Scots. It is a bizarre upturning of standard practice from the Nationalist government at Holyrood. It is also perverse to reward the very social media platforms where coronavirus misinformation is spreading beyond all containment. The Scottish and UK governments could both support the newspaper industry by investing in a large-scale print advertising campaign that would keep the public informed and keep as many journalists as possible in jobs.
The banks have a role here too. McLellan says some are ‘taking a very hard-nosed approach to emergency loan applications’. Banks should look at news organisations as essential services and government should remind an industry that was bailed out itself not so long ago that it has a duty to the public interest.
We all do. Taking out a newspaper advert, if you are a business, or simply buying a newspaper, if you are a member of the public, is an investment in an open and well-informed society.
McLellan believes in ‘assistance rather than a handout’ from government but if coronavirus is with us as long as I fear it will be, the Treasury may have to consider a bailout package as a last resort. The young, the metropolitan, the digitally literate, and Left-wing critics of the Press might object to such an intervention as corporate welfare. Print is an industry of the past and if it can’t sustain itself through this crisis then market forces should be allowed to take their course. It doesn’t take much to turn some socialists into social Darwinists.
But to their readers, newspapers are part of daily life. They are the extra family member at the breakfast table, the break-time friend and afternoon companion. They inform, entertain, provoke and reassure. They unify in times of disaster and comfort in times of grief. A paper is the news junkie’s fix and the casual reader’s diversion. It is a lifeline to the lonely and a champion to the unjustly treated.
Newspapers are not perfect. Nothing that is the work of human beings ever can be. At their best, they are a load-bearing wall of free societies, and they are more often at their best than their reputation allows.
I am a romantic of print, of the deadly thrill of a newsroom approaching deadline, of the cynical idealism and cut-throat solidarity that drives this industry in ways outsiders could never understand and insiders barely can either.
But this is about more than inky sentiment: newspapers are essential to overcoming coronavirus and they will be no less important when we come to rebuild society on the other side. There is a lot to do right now but take the future of newspapers seriously. You wouldn’t like living in a country without them.