Senior media figures have warned of the coronavirus “perfect storm” hitting newspapers, saying the drop in circulation and ad revenue could lead to some outlets disappearing completely.
A sector that has been struggling for a while due to readers moving online, the coronavirus lockdown – now in its seventh week in the UK – has accelerated its decline.
Jim Waterson, media editor of The Guardian, says consumer habits have changed dramatically while people are staying indoors.
“Things they predicted to happen over the next five years have been happening in the space of five weeks,” he says. “So everything that people thought was going to happen in the medium-term has suddenly happened almost overnight.”
As many people have stopped commuting to work, those who previously read a physical paper are “suddenly realising they are happy for the online equivalent”, he says.
Newspapers in this country are heavily reliant on print sales to subsidise free online content – so a drop in circulation, combined with advertisers pulling their content, has had a devastating effect.
“This is basically a perfect storm,” Mr Waterson says. “This is an already struggling industry that has seen one of its main sources of revenue collapse at the same time that its other source of revenue has also collapsed, and the end result might be that we see closures of outlets that people take as part of everyday life.”
Local news has been hit particularly hard – 50 titles have stopped appearing in print, despite them being a lifeline to local communities and people self-isolating.
Alice Pickthall, senior analyst at subscription research service Enders Analysis, says local papers are feeling the strain most acutely.
However, she says the industry as a whole could lose well over a billion pounds by the end of 2020. Circulation has fallen by around 40% since lockdown started, she says, while ad revenue is down by between 50% and 80%.
“It’s a very bad situation and we’re talking about everyone in this ecosystem and those who are the most vulnerable are the local media,” she says.
“The risk there is if that revenue collapses and they cannot sustain themselves, we could lose a very large number of journalists in this country.”
The cruel irony of the situation is people are flocking to news outlets in higher numbers than ever as they search for information about COVID-19.
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The Times editor John Witherow says digital subscriptions are up significantly, with readers looking for trusted sources of information.
“We are selling fewer newspapers so those figures are down and of course advertising is adversely affected, so economically it’s not great for newspapers,” he says. “But the plus side is there’s a huge demand for news and especially for papers like The Times.
“We rely on being trustworthy and checking things incredibly carefully and that’s what readers want.”
Mr Witherow reiterates that the main concern is for local papers, which were already struggling before the pandemic hit.
“There’s a big issue for the country as a whole, because we all want local newspapers, they’re really important for communities and giving guidance to people,” he says.
“If they start to disappear, as some already have, I think that’s a real problem.”
At the News UK printing site in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, where The Times and The Sun are printed, it’s pretty much business as usual.
The printing machines fire up at around 9.30pm and minutes later, copies of both papers fly off the presses. Staff tell me they’re proud to be keeping the service going and relieved to be working as normal in such uncertain times.
It’s a real thrill to see the machines slowly power up and watch as ink starts to appear on the vast sheets of paper overhead. It makes you appreciate the physical paper even more when you see the work that goes into it.
As Nick Taylor, the site’s printing manager, sums it up: “It’s just nice to have it in your hand: see it, read it, feel it – smell it, even.”
The Sun editor Victoria Newton says she is “confident they will come through this very well”, despite sales being hit.
Papers are still selling and there are more deliveries, she says, and while some ad revenue has gone down, it has increased in other areas.
“We’re lucky, we’re still in business and able to produce newspapers and a considerable number of people are still buying them,” she says.
Ms Newton is also optimistic about the paper’s online performance, with traffic increasing as people seek “analysis and information about how they would be affected”.
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One solution being offered by MP Damian Collins, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, is to capitalise on the success of the internet; he wants tech giants to pay for the news shared on their sites.
Big platforms such as Google and Facebook have never “really compensated the news organisations properly for the value of the content shared through those services”, he says.
And if nothing is done, he warns: “We’re going to see more news organisations go out of business and more people increasingly reliant on the sorts of disinformation and low quality news that circulates like a virus through social media.”