PA chief: Government made Covid-19 reporting 'difficult' - Press Gazette

Reader-revenue model better for journalism than ad-driven 'churnalism' says PA managing director

Covid-19 reporting Polly Curtis

PA Media managing director Polly Curtis has said that the shift to online subscriptions rather than advertising is good for journalism.

And she also criticised the UK Government’s handling of Covid-19 communications, in comments made at a conference held by press regulator Impress.

Curtis, who took up the agency post in October, told the conference that the “continuing tussle” over information to be released from Government was one of the low points of the pandemic for news media.

In May, two-thirds of Press Gazette readers rated the Government’s Covid-19 media relations operation as poor or very poor.

One national press journalist, who asked not to be named, said: “It has become a daily battle to get information out.”

Curtis said a low point was “the continuing tussle over how information is released by the Government, which has made reporting really, really difficult at times. Not straightforward.

“And I think it has made it very difficult at times to responsibly report – where they’re fuelling competition for information it’s hard to report in a way that is actually in the public interest [with] as clear information as possible.”

The anonymous journalist pointed out in May that membership of scientific advice group SAGE and care home death figures were each only published “after lots of pressure”.

“Everything seems to have to be pulled out of the system rather than it being proactively released,” they said.

The Cabinet Office, which coordinates the Government’s media response to the pandemic, said in response to Curtis’ comments: “The Government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy to protect our NHS and save lives.

“Throughout this crisis we have set out clear instructions to the public about what they need to do in order to delay the spread of the disease. The vast majority continue to play their part, washing their hands regularly, wearing face coverings and following social distancing rules.

“We also work closely with local authorities to share best practice and insight on communications, and have delivered a paid marketing campaign according to local risk levels in England to ensure our messaging lands locally.”

‘Existential threat’ to news revenue

Curtis, who until earlier this year was a partner at slow news operation Tortoise and previously worked as editor-in-chief at Huffpost UK and digital editor at the Guardian, urged publishers to ensure they seize the disruption that hit the industry in 2020 to make difficult, but necessary, structural changes.

She said: “The amount of change that we’ve seen in ways of working, ways of reporting from across all different kinds of news media is really epic.

“But there is now a real existential threat on revenue to support news and that’s the thing that I hope people will grasp this moment and actually make the changes that have been hard to make, because change is hard, over the last ten years.

“There’s no choice now but to move and some of the things we’re seeing around the rapid shifting of business models is really interesting.”

Curtis noted the move away from traffic-driven “churnalism”, which she said was never good for quality public interest journalism and is now not good for business either.

“The advertising model is broken,” she said. “Churnalism only really existed to fuel a hits-machine-to-gather-advertising model. That model is now essentially broken, it’s very difficult to sustain any kind of journalistic operation on that…”

Instead she said: “I think a subscription world is so much better for journalism because every new brand whether you are a small local brand or whether you’re a national, whatever you are, you have to think about your purpose and who your core readers are and you have to be true to that so you have to really deliver the value that you’re offering in the reader-revenue world. So I think much, much better journalism.”

However, she shared concerns about subscription models being elitist as they exclude people who can’t pay for journalism – and praised the BBC for filling this gap.

“I think we’re incredibly lucky to have the BBC in this country to fill the market failure – where there isn’t good information for everyone, to have the BBC is something that’s precious and important.

“So I worry about if we all rush to a subscription model there won’t be quality journalism and diversity in quality journalism available to wider people.”

But she added: “I just don’t believe there is one right model. The best, richest environment we’re going to have is if we have the full diversity and make sure that people get as many different choices as possible within that.”

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Picture: Huffpost