20th April 2020
By Hannah Storm

In a pandemic, furloughing journalists is the last thing we need

By Isabelle Roughol

In my house, the 8 am, 1 pm and 7 pm news on public radio have become family appointments. We sit around the dining table, in the hamlet of nine houses we haven’t left in more than a month except for grocery trips I can count on one hand, and we listen. It’s our most vital tie to our community, our country and the wider world.

As the coronavirus spread, we all flocked to the news to understand our new reality: visits to major US news sites shot up more than 50% between the first week of February and the third week of March, according to traffic analysis firm SimilarWeb. For local news sites, it was 158%!

Yet even as their traffic soared, their revenue plunged. Advertisers and donors pulled out as their own businesses suffered. Subscriptions did not increase in kind. Print distribution was limited. Those who’d been smart enough to diversify revenue saw events canceled and shops closed.

Independent news publishers – small outfits like these – are hurting especially. In the UK, they reach 14.9 million people online, often the sole news source in their town or village. The Public Interest News Foundation (disclosure: I am a trustee) surveyed them in late March: 75% of independent news publishers in the UK said they were at risk of temporary or permanent closure because of Covid-19. “It’s utterly devastating,” one publisher told us. “We are watching the 14 years of hard work and dedication we’ve put into building this publication and bringing change to news reporting in our area fall apart in front of our eyes in a matter of weeks.”

The response has been, like in all other industries, to cut costs and hunker down. The New York Times calculated that at least 28,000 news media employees in the US have been laid off, furloughed or forced to take pay cuts. In the UK too, the list of furloughs and pay cuts lengthens by the day: The Guardian, Telegraph and Financial Times; JPI Media, Reach, Newsquest and News UK; City AM and The Evening Standard. And countless independents you probably won’t have heard of. In total, more than 2,000 jobs lost already in the UK media business, according to a running count by Press Gazette. And it’s not like we hadn’t gone through a decade of cuts already.

The pace of change gave even healthy businesses little chance to adapt: “We could see it happening, but the speed has been stunning,” wrote the editor of the Riverfront Times, a celebrated alternative weekly in St Louis, Missouri, in a blog post announcing the layoff of most of his staff. “One day, you’re a profitable newspaper, doing better every year; the next, almost all of your ad revenue is wiped out with no clear sign of when it will return.”

Furloughing staff is the only answer these businesses have, but it’s not the right one. We need journalists working. “‘Business hibernation is not possible due to the nature of what we do,” one small publisher told PINF, “and ironically if anything now more than ever we need to be growing our output to help connect communities.”

Independent local outlets can be the sole source of information about how community life is being reorganized, from social care to recycling. Nearly two-thirds of our respondents say they’re also the ones setting up food collections or dispatching volunteers in their area. They are a glue for their communities and an indispensable watchdog at a time when public spending explodes and authorities are making literal life-or-death decisions.

The furlough scheme won’t help journalists who must keep working. Fiscal relief won’t help small newsrooms with little or no tax or rate bills. The news media needs support, and independent news publishers in particular are falling through the cracks of government aid in the UK.

PINF and the Independent Community News Network have joined in a campaign to #SaveIndependentNews. They are asking that:

  • News organisations addressing the crisis should be allowed to continue working and access the same benefits available to furloughed workers. News organisations are in a unique position as they are private businesses providing a public benefit. Their bottom line may be hurting, but their service isn’t any less needed.
  • Any government spending on public health advertising should be shared fairly across the news industry. On April 17, the UK government announced an advertising campaign with major national and regional newspapers, excluding smaller independent and online titles. That’s a disservice to the millions of British people they serve, sometimes exclusively. This decision urgently needs to be reversed.
  • The government and all stakeholders should come together to create a recovery plan for the news industry. It was in crisis before the current crisis, and there will still be a mountain to climb after it.

While we’re working on that, if you’re not hurting financially, please consider subscribing. Support a newsroom near you, especially the little guys, like you would your neighbourhood café or bookshop. The news business has been hurting for a while. Now is not the time to once again debate everything the media has done wrong to get us here relitigate that. It’s enough to know that this crisis could be the death blow, and we’d all feel the pain.

I was supposed to share all this in an interview for an independent news site last  week. It won’t happen now. The journalist was furloughed.

Author photo:

Isabelle Roughol is an independent writer and consultant on media leadership and innovation. She was an early joiner on LinkedIn’s editorial team and led its global expansion across Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia from 2012 to 2020. She is a trustee of the Public Interest News Foundation, received a Bachelor’s of Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked as a reporter and editor at The Columbia Missourian (USA), The Cambodia Daily (Phnom Penh) and Le Figaro (Paris). She’s usually in London but is now locked down in Normandy, France.