Covering the Pandemic

Coronavirus continues to take its toll on the media industry

April 20, 2020

It’s hard to imagine an industry more poorly prepared for the arrival of a global pandemic than the media business. Even before “coronavirus” became a household word, the industry was already reeling from a series of body blows, most of them delivered by Google and Facebook and their dominance of the advertising market. Since 2008, nearly half of US newspaper journalism jobs have disappeared, according to the LA Times, leaving fewer than 38,000 reporters, photographers, and editors. Waves of layoffs have become the norm, not just for large chains like Gannett and McClatchy but for smaller papers, and even for digital giants like BuzzFeed and Vox, who at one time were seen as the future of online media. Then along came COVID-19, and with it the unprecedented shutdown of entire cities, and the erasure of huge swaths of the advertising business. For many outlets, it will likely become what media analyst Ken Doctor calls “an extinction event.” For some it already is.

The LA Times profiled one example of this sad trend. Jeff VonKaenel, 69, owner of the Sacramento News & Review and sister publications in Chico and Reno, has been running weekly newspapers for almost 50 years, and has survived wildfires, recessions, and being sued by a mayor. But the extinguishing of almost all his advertising in the wake of COVID-19 left him no other choice: four days after the virus was defined as a pandemic, VonKaenel shut down his presses for the last time and laid off all 40 members of his staff. “This could be the death knell, not only for us but for the dailies that we compete with,” he said. VonKaenel told the Times he is still trying to come up with a way to continue serving the community, possibly by partnering with a non-profit. But he could no longer cover the $45,000 a week it took to run the paper (last year, he and his wife borrowed against their home to keep it afloat).

A similar story has played out across big and small publications over the past month. The Jewish Chronicle, first published in 1841, and Jewish News in the UK recently shut down and liquidated all of their assets. Alternative weeklies across the US and Canada have cut back on printing and laid off staff. Meanwhile, a broad range of large and medium-sized publishers and news outlets have implemented cost-saving plans that consist of both paid and unpaid leave for significant numbers of staff and reduced salaries for others. According to a recent estimate by the New York Times, roughly 33,000 workers at news companies in the US have been laid off, been furloughed, or had their pay reduced in the past month. Schneps Media a local news publisher that recently acquired the free newspapers amNewYork and Metro New York, has laid off or given paid leave to about 30 employees at its roughly 50 community publications, or about 20 percent of its workforce.

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The LA Times, which was bought by local biomedical billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2018 along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, spent 18 months rebuilding its newsroom and expanding its coverage, only to get hit by the virus downturn. “Advertising revenue has nearly been eliminated,” the president of the holding company that owns both titles told staff in a memo last week. Salaries for senior management are going to be reduced, and about 40 staff were told they were being put on leave for 16 weeks — leave that may turn into outright layoffs, the company said. Tribune Publishing, the company that owns The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and The New York Daily News said it will permanently reduce the salaries of those making more than $67,000 by between 2 percent and 10 percent, and will offer an undisclosed number of buyouts. Some executives will also take pay cuts.

The list goes on. Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker says it is cutting pay by 10 to 20 percent for those making more than $100,000 (a little over half its work force), for five months starting in May, including senior executives such as artistic director Anna Wintour. “It’s very likely our advertising clients, consumers and therefore our company will be operating under significant financial pressure for some time,” CEO Roger Lynch said in an April 13 memo (he is cutting his salary in half). Fortune magazine is laying off 35 people, or 10 percent of its staff, and CEO Alan Murray will take a 50 percent pay cut (other executives will have their salaries reduced by 30 percent). Gannett, publisher of USA Today, The Detroit Free Press and more than 250 other daily newspapers, has ordered the majority of its 24,000 employees to take five days off per month without pay in April, May and June.

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Many of the publishers making these announcements are saying they are short-term responses to the pandemic, and that they are hopeful that laid off staff may be rehired, or that paid leave won’t turn into layoffs. But is that a realistic hope? In many cases, it may not be. The media industry wasn’t exactly known for having excess cash flow even before the virus arrived, which means many outlets were already living on borrowed time. COVID-19 has only sped up their inevitable demise. What comes next remains unknown.

Here’s more on the struggles of the media industry:

  • What to do? On CJR’s Galley discussion platform this week, we’ll be speaking with a number of media industry observers, analysts, and other experts about what kind of response there should be — from governments and others — to the unprecedented decline of ad revenue and the resulting layoffs and closures, especially among smaller outlets. Among others, we’ll talk with Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania, Craig Aaron from Free Press, David Chavern from the News Media Alliance, and Anne Nelson from Columbia.
  • Now it’s pouring: Vice Media is halting 401K matches and freezing promotions, in addition to enforcing pay cuts for top employees. CEO Nancy Dubuc is taking a 50% pay reduction. “We organized a union with @WGAEast to have a seat at the table, especially during rainy days. Well, now it’s pouring,” the Vox Media union said on Twitter. The union said it got management to agree to the full cost of health insurance paid for, with co-pays and deductibles reimbursed, during furlough, a buyout option that adds four weeks of severance to the CBA-guaranteed severance, and a guarantee that they will not be replaced by contractors
  • Financial ruin: National newspapers in the UK could close unless the government finds a way to support the industry, according to the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stanistreet, who has said many outlets are facing financial ruin as a result of coronavirus. The NUJ is calling for an immediate windfall tax on tech companies to help support the journalism industry through the crisis, with the money provided on the condition that large publishers rethink how the industry operates. Stanistreet told the Guardian: “Many, many local titles and some national titles will go to the wall if nothing is done. I think we will see national newspaper titles being casualties.”
  • Platform help: Facebook and Google have both announced attempts to help the media industry. In late March, Facebook announced $25 million in emergency funding for local news through its Facebook Journalism Project. “The news industry is working under extraordinary conditions to keep people informed during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when journalism is needed more than ever, ad revenues are declining,” the company said, adding that it would also spend $75 million to buy newspaper ads. Last week, Google announced its own $100 million journalism fund “to deliver urgent aid to thousands of small, medium and local news publishers globally.”


Other notable stories:

  • Covering Climate Now, the global journalism collaborative co-founded by CJR and The Nation, kicks off its second week of coordinated coverage this week, focused on solutions to the climate crisis. Covering Climate Now has 400 partner media organizations, reaching an audience of 2 billion people around the world, with the aim of improving the quality and quantity of climate coverage. In a note about the coverage that will come this week, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, and Mark Hertsgaard, the collaborative’s executive director, say: “The overlaps between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis are many, and the same best practices when it comes to reporting are needed. Here, too, newsrooms must let facts, especially scientific facts, be our guide.”
  • Facebook and Google will be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies after the Australian government instructed the competition watchdog to develop a mandatory code of conduct for the digital giants amid a steep decline in advertising brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. In its response to a digital platforms inquiry in December, the federal government asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to develop a code between media companies and digital platforms including Google and Facebook.
  • Facebook said in a blog post that it’s going to start showing messages in the News Feed to people who have “liked, reacted or commented on harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that we have since removed.” The messages will connect people to myths that have been debunked by the World Health Organization, including ones that Facebook removed from its platform because they might lead to “imminent physical harm.” The company said that the messages should start appearing in people’s feeds over the next few weeks.
  • Quartz has taken over stewardship of the Political Ad Collector, an effort to analyze the behavior of Facebook’s political advertising machine by getting users to submit the ads that they see. The project was originally started by ProPublica. “Facebook ads were a mess during the 2016 US election. And in the 2018 midterms. And they still are a mess,” Quartz said. “The social media site maintains it’s trying to clean up the disinformation and shenanigans, but questionable schemes run rampant and influence peddlers often hide their identities. So we’re redoubling our efforts to watch what’s happening.”
  • A tweet calling for Muslims and journalists to be lined up and shot stayed on Twitter for nearly a day before the platform permanently suspended the account that tweeted it. The tweet, which falsely blamed Muslims for spreading the coronavirus in India, was posted from the verified account of Rangoli Chandel, manager and sister of popular Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut, on Wednesday morning. “f***k the history they may call us nazis who cares,” the tweet said. The tweet was retweeted more than 2,000 times and received over 8,000 likes.
  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says the Trump administration is muzzling government scientists, and argues that it’s essential to let them speak candidly to the press again. “We’re now at a moment when experts must be free to share their knowledge and front-line workers must be free to tell their stories without being muzzled or threatened — and certainly without being fired,” she writes. “It’s no exaggeration to say that lives depend on it.”
  • The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s board of directors unanimously approved a plan to divide the corporation’s $75 million in federal emergency relief funds between public television and radio stations. In a memo sent to GMs Thursday, CPB President Pat Harrison reported that federal funds will be evenly split into two pools of $37.5 million each for television and radio. Each pool will provide additional funds to stations that meet CPB’s criteria as small and rural stations. The 158 public TV stations in its Community Service Grant program will receive $200,000 in stimulus funds, according to the memo.
  • Slate is launching Gerrymander Puzzles, a new feature that includes a weekly puzzle highlighting the worst and weirdest gerrymanders in the country. “The idea is to find out how quickly you can put these states back together while learning everything that’s at stake in the next round of redistricting,” Slate says, noting that the puzzles will show “just how crazy some of the states have drawn districts based on partisan lines.” The new feature is part of Slate’s Who Counts? initiative that was launched in September of last year to analyze election coverage.
  • CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin wrote a personal essay about her fight with COVID-19, and how it taught her about “the gift of connection.” Baldwin said her battle with the virus took her “to some very dark places, especially at night. Evenings would bring on an eerie melancholy, which was particularly odd for me — a glass-half-full/chemically blessed kind of gal. But under the influence of coronavirus, as each day came to a close, I would often cry, unable to stave off the sense of dread and isolation I felt about what was to come.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.