The Media Today

How the coronavirus could hurt the news business

March 13, 2020

The paywalls are coming down. As the news about the coronavirus has intensified, major outlets—including Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, the Seattle Times, and McClatchy, the newspaper chain that recently filed for bankruptcy—have made some or all of their virus coverage available for free to non-subscribers. Yesterday, the New York Times followed suit. (It’s collated its free coronavirus content on a special landing page; you’ll need to create an account to access it, if you don’t have one already.) Yesterday, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, said, on a call with staff, that the virus is the biggest story the world has seen since 9/11.

At moments like this, offering up-to-date, reliable information that everyone can access is a good thing to do. It could also be good for business. As Tom Meyvis, a professor at New York University, told Adweek’s Sara Jerde yesterday, for some outlets, freeing up information on the coronavirus may reach new readers, “who may stick with the publication afterward and perhaps be willing to pay later if they are impressed.” There is enormous interest in the news right now, and major national news organizations have moved quickly to capitalize; collectively, they’ve flooded the market with coronavirus podcasts, newsletters, and other products, many of them free. BuzzFeed, for instance, launched a newsletter called “Outbreak Today.” Its logo is an emoji wearing a face mask. The coronavirus has dominated regular programming on cable news, as both CNN and MSNBC have broadcast special programming in which medical experts have answered viewers’ questions. Last week, CNN hosted a coronavirus town hall with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, its chief medical correspondent; last night, it held another one, with Facebook and Instagram users from around the world asking questions. There was no studio audience.

ICYMI: The infinite scroll

Still, the disruption caused by the coronavirus risks impinging on news organizations’ ability to function. As I wrote earlier this week, routine reporting will become harder the more society is walled off. And as Joshua Benton, of Nieman Lab, has noted, the virus has the potential to pull the bottom out of an advertising market that has been tough on many media companies for years. Last week, the Times said it was already seeing an advertising slowdown, which executives attribute to uncertainty caused by the virus—and that was before the rapid escalation of recent days. If the economy tips into recession, the effect on advertising could be dire.

As Benton has observed, the coronavirus could prove to be a disaster for local outlets, in particular. Despite industry-wide declines in print circulation, many newspapers still rely on dead-tree products for the bulk of their revenue; what happens when newspaper carriers become virus carriers, and get taken off their routes? Swathes of the local news market are controlled by a handful of financial firms that have already made painful cuts to their media properties; if owning newspapers becomes an (even more) unattractive proposition, the moneymen could simply decide to bail, and what then? Even the nonprofit news model—which has often been held up as a viable alternative to the caprices of private ownership—is not immune. As markets sag, major foundation funders might scale back their giving to protect their endowments.

Some local outlets are hurting already. Yesterday, Sarah Scire, Benton’s colleague at Nieman Lab, pointed to the example of The Stranger, an alt-weekly (which publishes biweekly) in Seattle, Washington, where the coronavirus first caused major problems on American soil. The Stranger derives 90 percent of its revenue from holding its own events and providing a marketplace for others—in short, its survival depends on “people getting together in groups.” On Wednesday, The Stranger’s Twitter account urged readers to donate to keep it afloat. “We pride ourselves on having navigated many storms in the world of independent local media,” the post read, “but this time is different.”

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In recent years, we’ve gotten used to hearing dire prognostications about the complete erosion of the local news business in the United States. The coronavirus risks accelerating almost all of the malign trends. Its impact could end up looking loosely analogous to that of the virus itself. Big media companies with healthy finances and growing subscriber bases will likely survive, and could even profit. Outlets with serious underlying health conditions might die.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a judge ruled that Chelsea Manning, the former US intelligence analyst who became a source for WikiLeaks, be released from prison immediately. Manning—whose original sentence for leaking state secrets was commuted by President Barack Obama, in 2017—was detained again last year. She’d refused to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. That grand jury has now concluded its business, the judge decided, rendering Manning’s continued incarceration unnecessary. The day before this ruling, Manning was taken to hospital after trying to kill herself, her lawyers said.
  • Yesterday, The Atlantic launched Floodlines, an eight-part podcast, hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II, reassessing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, 15 years on. Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, made a case that the series is timely, since it tackles “the importance of competent government leadership” and its absence.
  • Last year, after the Times produced the 1619 Project—a special edition of its magazine focused on slavery in America, accompanied by events, educational materials, and much more—some historians criticized an assertion that the desire to maintain slavery was a key driver of the American Revolution. This week, the Times revised that claim, clarifying that slavery was a primary motivation only for some of the colonists, not all.
  • For CJR, Cecilia Butini reports on a court case in Germany, where a group of international journalists is challenging a federal intelligence agency’s surveillance powers. Reporters in Germany have privacy rights, but currently, “foreign reporters’ emails, text messages, and calls with sources are liable to be caught in the net” of the agency’s overseas operations.
  • In Pakistan, officials arrested Mir Shakilur Rehman, the owner and editor in chief of the country’s biggest independent newspaper and TV group, on charges linked to a decades-old real-estate graft case. The arrest, the AP reports, “comes amid increasing pressure on journalists in Pakistan by state institutions and security agencies.”
  • And Reporters Without Borders built a virtual library inside Minecraft, one of the world’s most popular computer games, that allows players in repressive countries to access otherwise-censored information. In places where press freedom is limited, “Minecraft is still accessible by everyone,” and is “hidden from government surveillance technology.”

ICYMI: I’m not under quarantine. Am I?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.