Why leaner, wiser news industry will bounce back stronger from pandemic in 2021

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With three coronavirus vaccines now proven to be effective, investors are pricing in a robust recovery for the news media sector next year.

As an industry we will emerge blinking into the sunlight next spring, smarter, leaner and – dare I say it – stronger than we were a year earlier.

Here are three lessons from the pandemic which may help publishers progress into a more prosperous 2021.

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1) The pandemic has taught us that news media is far more resilient than we thought

When nearly every aspect of the global economy ground to a halt, news – like food – was one of the few things people could not do without.

Future, The Spectator and the Telegraph are among the media companies to have given furlough payments back to the Government voluntarily because the impact of Covid-19 had not been as bad as they’d feared.

Web traffic to news publishers has surged during the pandemic, as has subscription revenue for paid-for sites. Even print has been stubbornly resilient. Sales of most titles are down, but nowhere near as much as they could have been considering the fact that simply going into a newsagent could be life-threatening for some.

The surging revenue for home-delivery experts Newsteam suggests that the printed newspaper and magazine industry could have a profitable second life even if newsagents go the way of other High Street retailers.

Newsteam general manager Tom Crawley’s comments to Press Gazette this week about the passion of newspaper buyers is not to be discounted:

“I had one 18-year-old girl from Liverpool who was just desperate to make her grandad stop going to get his newspaper because she was so scared he was going to catch Covid.”

The switch to home deliveries isn’t just a plaster for a bleeding industry. It actually hints at a far more sustainable future for publishers. Named customers who give you trusted access to their letterbox, and in effect their home, are far easier to monetise than anonymous newsagent punters.

Every publisher selling online subscriptions has reported an uptick during the pandemic, and for B2B specialists like Informa (which lost £1bn from cancelled events in 2020) it is this revenue which has kept the ship afloat.

In recent years some B2B publishers have neglected their newsrooms to focus on advertising, sponsorship and events as the floors where the money was made. All that has changed, as Health Service Journal was among the first to find out.

Editor Alastair McLellan told Press Gazette: “Our view is investigative journalism is the best way to understand a subject and build context. This allows us to produce big breaking stories and in-depth analytical pieces which we sell for four-figure sums in terms of subscriptions.”

[Read more: Expert comment from Press Gazette, including Lionel Barber, Alan Rusbridger and Eleanor Mills]

2) The newsroom, as we knew it, is dead

The best reporters were seldom seen in newsrooms anyway. They were known by the coat that was left on the back of the chair and seen when they returned to file their expenses.

The last eight months have shown us that even complex daily national newspapers can be produced entirely remotely.

The Daily Mail (which even on Christmas Day would normally have 200 people in the office) was produced without a single journalist entering its Kensington HQ for three months.

The office will return – and there is often no substitute for in-person collaboration – but having proven that we can do without it for so long, visits to the office will have to be for a reason and are unlikely to be as frequent as they were.

This means an immediate and significant cost saving for most, as office space is consolidated. But it also opens an opportunity to reimagine what many media businesses look like.

Regional newspaper publishers have sought to consolidate production of multiple titles in factory-style office-park locations.

The rise of home working opens up the opportunity for reporters and editors to be based on their patches and in some cases to perhaps even become entrepreneurial one-person publishing operations.

I’ve long felt that having fewer, better paid, properly incentivised journalists was the answer for some local titles. Perhaps the shift to home-working could allow this decentralised revolution to happen.

3) The tech platforms have had a bad war

Going into 2020 Facebook and Google reigned supreme over the digital media ecosystem, and they still do in terms of money spent on digital advertising.

But they have had a bad pandemic and failed lamentably to halt the spread of coronavirus misinformation on their platforms. This has undoubtedly cost lives, as those who get all their news from Facebook and Youtube conspiracy videos have spurned social distancing and mask-wearing because they think a virus that has killed 1.4m globally, at the time of writing, is a hoax.

The age of platforms profiting from news without taking responsibility for what they are publishing is coming to an end. It is just too risky and, for advertisers, creates a potentially toxic environment.

As Google and Facebook strike up new deals with regulators I expect them to retreat from providing a neutral neutral platform for anyone when it comes to public service content and to instead find ways to partner with trusted outlets for this aspect of their offering.

Professional news media has, almost without exception, had a good war. Publishers appear to have learned the lesson of MMR, when many fell for the false theory that the joint Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine caused autism.

This is a public health story where none of the misinformation has come from the mainstream media. In fact, journalists like The Independent’s health editor Shaun Lintern have had their hands full shooting down conspiracy theories which have been popping up on social media like mushrooms after an autumn shower.

He told us back in March: “I think a lot of journalists are now spending their time chasing things down and checking the rumours. It’s taking an enormous of my time to check rumours that, if they’re true, would be incredible stories.”

At the start of the pandemic most publishers raised their game and realised that this was their time to shine, to provide essential information when readers desperately needed it.

My bet is that this investment will start paying off next year and will pay a dividend which long outlasts the pandemic.

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