How does journalism survive the Covid-19 crisis?
A crisis is a ruthless tool that exposes weaknesses in our systems. And our journalism ecosystems are being stress tested as never before. How do we navigate these difficult times?
What will journalism look like at the other side of this crisis?
I'm using the word "journalism" very carefully here, because I'm interested in more than just the news business. I'm talking about journalism in the widest sense - people who are in the business of connecting communities through reporting of all sorts. Those communities can be national, local, profession-based or interest-based. It doesn't matter. We need to think about all of them, because we're going to need them all in the weeks and months ahead.
We're going through one of those periodic phases where we tend to equate "journalism" with "news", and they are not synonyms. But it's hard to see beyond news when, well, there's so damn much of it. News reporting is critical at times of crisis. And, generally, the press has risen reasonably well to the challenge.
Sure, there are things we should challenge - for example, why is it that the daily press conferences in the UK are attended solely by the political reporters? Where are the science and health reporters in this? We have political statements as parts of the conference - but also scientific and medical ones. Are political reporters really the best placed to challenge those well?
But I don't want to dwell on this particular angle, because a lot of focus is going on the survival — or not — of mainstream news reporting already. There's a lot of attention being paid to it both in terms of resources, planning, thinking and in in some level of supportive funding.
That doesn't mean that we won't see some problems exacerbated by this crisis, though - and the most serious of these may be the continued growth of "news deserts" where there is no effective local reporting.
The rediscovered need for local journalism
Local journalism is more needed than ever right now - but not all outlets are rising to the challenge. Pretty much everyone is now locked into a geographically constricted life unlike anything many of us have known. I've only been off the small peninsula we live on once in the past three weeks, for a supermarket visit. Never has the need for genuine local reporting been more necessary, because it's hard to tell what's happening, when you don't leave the immediate area of your home much.
Sadly, right now, I'm seeing that a lack of focus on community needs, rather than the abstract goal of providing "news" is hurting the journalism business.
In my local town, Facebook groups and hastily-created PDFs are being used to keep track of things like which local businesses are still open, and which are offering delivery services for those who are in 12 week self-isolation. That should be the role of the local press - but the papers here are so denuded of staff and resources, and so focused on the traditional news value, that it hasn't happened.
A vital opportunity to make local news sites a hub of trusted community information is being lost, day by day, and greater control of our information architecture is being handed over to the Zuckerberg empire.
The hidden strengths of journalism
If you want to see what should be happening, you need to look only at the B2B press. For example, look at this tweet:
Information about treating Covid-19 patients is evolving rapidly. This disease is not much over 100 days old, and the medical professions are learning how to treat it on the fly. The faster that information gets out to nurses and doctors - the better. And who is better placed to do that then specialist journalists in their field?
Now, "the trades", as B2B publications are often referred to in the journalism world, are rather looked down upon. They've always been seen as the lesser cousins of the mainstream news media and the consumer press.
But think about the critical role that specialist journalists in fields like medicine, science and even distribution infrastructure and groceries have at times like this. These business are crucial information support elements in our national infrastructure. We, as a country, and as individuals, need high quality journalists in these jobs, making sure the right information gets to the right people in a timely manner. Because otherwise, the quality of our lives, our food and our care is going to take a downward spiral.
And so we need to start treating the trades — and specialists journalists generally — with a hell of a lot more respect. What role could the national press play in amplifying this specialist reporting? What role could specialists play in helping mainstream coverage stay accurate, informed and up-to-date?
What about the consumer press?
The consumer press is in a lot of trouble right now, with its advertisers pulling marketing, and print copy sales most likely in freefall, as fewer people pop out to the newsagent. And some areas of consumer or hobby interest reporting have all but disappeared. But this is one area where we could stand to learn from the tech world, and that horrible jargon word: "pivot".
For example, the sports journalists might all be furloughed. One can understand why, with sports off the table. But what about eSports and gaming more generally? This is a traditionally desperately under-reported field, outside of its own specialist titles, but online gaming is booming even harder than normal during this period of lockdown, as people look for entertainment and distraction.
It's a genre that is less vulnerable to the impact of social distancing than most, with less of a need to gather people physically to produce or consume titles. While TV show production might be halted, game design and coding can continue - and the products don't require venues to show them like movies do.
Atlantic Media's The Idea newsletter explored this in detail during the week:
Alternative ways publishers are responding to increasing interest in online gaming. Some digital-native media companies have had gaming-specific verticals for awhile — namely Vox Media, which launched Polygon in 2012, and Gawker (now G/O Media), which launched Kotaku in 2004. Last fall, The Washington Post rolled out a new vertical dedicated to gaming and esports called Launcher.
Yes, you could just furlough staff and hope for the resumption of business-as-usual in a few months. But is that the best use of this time? Could we start reshaping what we do around the times - and see what of that is successful enough in both readership and revenue terms to continue afterwards? The gaming companies might be one of the few groups with money to spend…
As for the rest of the consumer world, well, it can seem very threatening. If you're a travel mag, well, gulp. Gardening is possibly doing rather better. But, at heart, these are community publications, that need to remember that serving the community is what they do, not just churning out the normal sorts of features.
What can you do both online and in print to serve you old audience in new ways? How can you help reinforce the bonds of a community, through their shared passion, even if that passion is denied to them, for now? On advantage a lot of consumer titles have is that they are people's passions, and passion doesn't fade with denial. It often sharpens it. People are starting to understand what they really miss.
Survival might well force you to strip your understanding of your audience down to a naked core: what is their actual passion, and how can that be manifested in times of lockdown? How can you help keep that community together during these times?And by "community" I include the businesses that are the key advertisers, too.
Your community do want to find ways of keeping you and your advertisers alive. Because, after this is all over, they will want to go back to riding or kayaking or hill-walking or dancing or clubbing or whatever their passion might be. And if you help them get through this time, they will remember it.
And there will be a time after this crisis. One way or another, through vaccinations, effective treatments, or the slow spread of immunity across the population, we will find our way out of lockdown and into a new normal.
But what role should journalism play in that new world? And what can we do to survive that long - and prepare to prosper in the time afterwards? This is the critical discussion for the next few months.
Three big questions
There are three big questions we need to be asking:
- What should we be doing now, that we aren't?
- What are we doing now that needs to be built in a way that it outlasts the crisis?
- What should we be preparing for in the post-crisis period?
These are all big, important questions. So, let's start a conversation about that.
That's what I'm going to be doing here on One Man & His Blog in the coming weeks. I'd be delighted if you would join in.
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