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Few winners, many losers: the COVID-19 pandemic’s dramatic and unequal impact on independent news media

Authors:
Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen
Federica Cherubini
Dr. Simge Andı
Source:
Reuters Institute and University of Oxford
Contributor:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
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Peru's President Martin Vizcarra talks with journalists at the Jorge Chavez International Airport after more than six months of lockdown. REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda
Peru's President Martin Vizcarra talks with journalists at the Jorge Chavez International Airport after more than six months of lockdown. REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda

 

Key Findings 

This report presents findings from an analysis of 165 responses to a survey of a strategic sample of known and identified independent news media organisations on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted them, combined with interviews with a critical sample of seven independent news media operating in middle income countries with some or significant limitations on media freedom across the globe. The bulk of the survey responses were collected from June to August 2020.

Key findings include:

  • Audience reach up for most: a clear majority of independent news media who responded to our survey say that their overall audience reach has increased during the COVID-19 crisis, though almost a fifth of respondents (primarily print newspapers) report that their overall audience reach has declined.
  • Revenues down for most: 22% of respondents expect a significant (1–20%) drop in their 2020 revenues, 21% a very significant (21–30%) drop, and worryingly more than a third (36%) severe drops of 30% or more. 14% of respondents report they expect stable or evengrowing revenues in 2020.
  • Variable impact: among our respondents, commercial news media are hardest hit by the crisis, especially those that are advertising-based, as well as newspapers and local media. These are parts of the news industry often already severely challenged by the move to a digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.
  • Who are doing well? The respondents who expect stable or even growing revenues are often smaller online newsrooms, some of them non-profits. While typically smaller than the traditional mainstays of the industry, these independent news media often invest a far larger share of their operating cost in their newsroom. (See the case studies for more details on how some such organisations are navigating the crisis.)
  • What kind of support would be beneficial? The most widely named kinds are funding support (84%), product development and innovation support (61%), and technical training in digital media skills (39%). (See the case studies for more details on different perspectives on what support could help.)
  • What is the single most important kind of support sought? Funding support is named most important by 65% of respondents. (See the case studies for details on frequent requests for long-term investment rather than project funding and small cash grants.)

Introduction 

The global coronavirus pandemic and government responses to it have had a dramatic impact on independent news media across the world.

The crisis has provided a powerful reminder of how central news organisations are to helping people stay informed, especially in difficult and uncertain times (as documented by research including e.g. Nielsen et al. 2020), and a multitude of important investigations have illustrated the role professional journalists play in holding governments and others to account for how they handle the crisis and sometimes try to mislead the public about what they are and are not doing.

But the crisis has also impacted independent news media, with some governments using the pandemic as an excuse for further crackdowns on journalists (as documented by e.g. UNESCO 2020), and with the consequences of the economic downturn leading some to fear a ‘media extinction event’ (Silverman 2020).

To better understand the impact COVID-19 has had on independent news media, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has worked with members of the Independent News Emergency Relief Coordination (INERC) to collect data from across the globe. The survey responses collected and interviews conducted for this report paint a grim picture, though one with important exceptions and nuances. Our sample of respondents is not representative, and should thus be treated with care, but if the organisations covered here are indicative of the wider situation in the global news industry, newspapers alone are looking at a loss that could amount to a decline of thirty billion dollars in expected revenues in 2020. Such a drop would have dramatic consequences for the number of journalists employed, especially at the local level and in poorer communities and countries.1 At the same time, we also find in both our survey and in interviews, that a significant minority of independent news media are finding a way through the crisis, and some, often smaller and medium-size online newsrooms, have seen stable or even growing revenues.

INERC was a temporary initiative started in May 2020 that ran for six months to help and supplement the important work done by others to coordinate media funding and media development by:

  • Collecting data to identify areas of greatest need from independent news media across the world, including both for-profit and non-profit, but excluding government-controlled and state-owned media.
  • On this basis, advising funders as to where they can make the greatest possible difference.
  • Providing optional overall guidelines for those considering offering to provide funding help for independent news media during the coronavirus crisis.

Founding members of INERC include BBC Media Action, the Center for International Media Assistance, Facebook, Global Forum for Media Development, Google, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Luminate, WAN-IFRA, and the World Association of News Publishers. Since the initiative started in May 2020, the following new members have joined: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Democracy Fund, European Journalism Centre, International Center for Journalists, International Women’s Media Foundation, and Open Society Foundations: Program on Independent Journalism. Meedan is a supporting partner of the project. INERC is chaired by Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, the lead author of this report.

All data for the project is collected by the Reuters Institute, and only select details are – with explicit permission from respondents – shared with INERC members. All decisions about the INERC research are taken by the Reuters Institute.

Data and Methodology 

This report is based on two different kinds of data. First, responses to the INERC survey, distributed by members of the INERC group to independent news media across the globe. Second, a set of interviews with a small critical selection of independent news media who have shared more details about how they are navigating the coronavirus crisis.

The INERC survey is a survey of news media organisations specifically and focused exclusively on how the pandemic has impacted audience reach, business models, revenues, and what kinds of support might be helpful. It supplements other important efforts underway elsewhere to understand the impact on individual journalists and wider issues including advocacy, development, and policy.

The INERC survey is a rolling survey fielded exclusively through INERC group members directly to their contacts and networks. It has been fielded in English, Spanish, Arabic, French and Portuguese. See the full questionnaire. To ensure high quality responses, the survey was distributed solely through INERC members to their contacts and networks with unique links to each respondent. The survey was emailed directly to specific individuals who responded on behalf of their organisation. The respondents are a non-random, non-representative sample of known and identified independent news media organisations. There is no up-to-date fully comprehensive list of the tens of thousands of different large and small news media in operation across the world, and thus no way to arrive at a random or representative sample in a strict sense. Instead of focusing on the volume of responses, for example through a publicly available survey (with the concomitant risk of lower response quality), we have focused on collecting data on a strategically selected population of independent news media already known to one or more INERC members. This was a rolling survey started in mid-May 2020 and we stopped the data collection mid-September 2020. Most of our responses were collected June–August. As of September, we have had 165 responses with enough variation to get at sense of how different independent news media are impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

Figure 1 reports how respondents describe their news media organisation. Legacy newspapers and broadcasters make up about half the respondents, and about one-third are online-only media. This represents the network of contacts that INERC members distributed the survey to. It is important to remember legacy media still represents a clear majority of the news industry globally.

FIGURE 1

Figure 2 reports how respondents describe their funding model. Again, the comparatively high number of non-profits and the profile more broadly reflects the contacts INERC members distributed the survey to, and the decision to exclude government-controlled and stateowned media. While non-profit news media play an important role both locally, nationally, and internationally (see e.g. Bunce 2016, Cagé 2016, Konieczna 2016), commercial organisations represent the vast majority of the news industry globally.

FIGURE 2

Most respondents have given us permission to bring their organisation to the attention of INERC members by sharing contact information and information about what kinds of support would be useful to them. All other information collected through the survey is only available to researchers at the Reuters Institute, and only reported in an aggregated and fully anonymised way.

The interviews we have conducted complements the survey data by providing more detailed information about how a few, select, independent news media in different settings are impacted by and navigate the coronavirus crisis. Just as the survey focuses on a strategic, non-random and non-representative sample, the interviews focus on a critical sample with a selection of a small number of important cases we judged likely to yield the most information and add the most value to the data already collected through the survey.

We have deliberately focused on interviewing key people at digitally-oriented independent news media from outside high income countries with a good media freedom situation, because organisations like these are likely to be more indicative of how the crisis is impacting organisations that will define the future of independent news media in most of the world in the years ahead. This means that our interview data does not represent the most privileged parts of the world and further underrepresents legacy broadcasters and newspapers – still the majority of independent news media world-wide (and who make up more than half of the INERC survey respondents).

Almost all the cases we look at more closely operate in countries that are ranked as middle income by the World Bank (a category that accounts for 75% of the world’s population), and most of them are in countries broadly in the middle of Reporters without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index. This means that the interview data also does not cover the experience of news media operating in the poorest parts of the world or in totalitarian contexts. The cases covered are amaBhungane in South Africa, Animal Político in Mexico, Chequeado in Argentina, the Daily Maverick in South Africa, Daraj in Lebanon, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland and Malaysiakini in Malaysia. They include a mix of commercial, hybrid, and non-profit organisations, different funding models, and range from small to medium-sized to relatively large newsrooms and operate on five different continents. We provide short profiles of these cases at the back of the report after presenting the main findings from the INERC survey.

Findings 

A clear majority of respondents report that their overall audience reach has increased during the COVID-19 crisis, as shown in Figure 3 (the responses should be read in light of the fact that the development of the crisis differs from country to country, as do the exact timing of each response). This is in line with other data reported publicly throughout the crisis both by individual news media themselves and what has been found in independent research (e.g. Newman et al. 2020). It underlines that people seek out news and information from independent news media during times of crisis and uncertainty.

It is important to recognise, however, that almost a fifth of respondents report that their overall audience reach has declined during the crisis. This is primarily the case for local and national newspapers among our respondents, and reflect how print distribution has been complicated by lockdown measures and print runs in some cases reduced as advertising dried up.

FIGURE 3

To understand the impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on independent news media who have responded to the INERC survey, it is important to recognise that this is a very diverse set of organisations in terms of the size of their newsrooms, their cost structure, and their revenue models.

If we look first at the reported size of newsrooms, shown in Figure 4, respondents are about equally split between very small (1–5), small (6–20), medium-sized (21–100), and large (100+) newsrooms. This is an important reminder of just how heterogenous the news media industry is, and that the large newsrooms that often are the focal point of discussions around the present and future state of news, while important, are a small minority of the wider industry. In line with what we expected, smaller newsrooms are often found among non-profits and among the local broadcasters or local newspapers that still make up the bulk of the news industry in many countries. Most of the medium and large newsrooms are in commercial national and international news media.

FIGURE 4

Looking next at the reported share of total operating costs that respondents say goes to the newsroom, we again see very pronounced variation, as shown in Figure 5. The majority of respondents report their newsroom accounts for 50% or more of total operating cost.

FIGURE 5

It should be noted that previous research suggests these are very high numbers, and not representative of the news media industry as a whole. Estimates are not widely available, but an indicative point of comparison is a 2012 study from the United Kingdom suggesting that 23% of newspaper revenues are invested in news, 13% of radio revenues, and 4% of television revenues (Mediatique 2012). Roughly comparable figures have been estimated in the United States (Picard 2011).

The higher figures reported by many of our respondents are often from small non-profits including online-only and local broadcasters, who do not have the overhead and distribution costs associated with print newspapers and television broadcasters. The higher figures may also in part reflect the relentless cost-cutting over the last decade where many legacy news organisations have cut other costs even more than they have cut newsroom budgets.

The independent news media who have responded to the survey fund their investment in news and journalism on the basis of different revenue models. When asked to identify their main sources of revenue, advertising, grant funding (primarily for non-profits), subscriptions, and sponsorship are the most widely named. (See Figure 6.)

The median number of sources of revenue that generate 10% or more of a respondent organisation’s revenue is six, a clear illustration of how most respondents have worked hard to diversify their income streams and avoid being reliant on only a few sources of revenue.

FIGURE 6

While most respondents rely on several different sources of revenue, when asked to identify their single most important source of revenue, we can see a clear divide between a majority that identifies commercial revenue streams (most important is advertising at 38% and subscriptions at 13%), and those identifying grants (30%), shown in Figure 7.

Again, relative to the news industry as a whole, which is overwhelmingly commercial and thus based on advertising, subscription, and other such sources of revenue, we should stress that our sample of respondents greatly overrepresent grant funding due to our decision to focus on a strategic sample of independent news media known to INERC members and the consequent high number of non-profits among the respondents.

FIGURE 7

Recognising the above differences are important for understanding the unequal impact of the COVID-19 crisis on independent news media. Overall, the impact has been dramatic and negative, as was feared from the outset. That said, there are variations in how hard independent news media have been hit, and patterns in who have been hit hardest.

Figure 8 shows how much respondents expect their organisation’s total revenues to decline in 2020. A large majority expects a drop, often a significant drop. These declines in revenues will, in many cases, have direct and severe impact on independent news media’s ability to invest in the newsrooms who deliver professionally reported information about COVID-19 and many other issues of public importance to communities across the world.

Overall, the picture is grim, though with important nuances. 22% of respondents expect a significant (1–20%), 21% a very significant (21–30%) drop, and worryingly more than a third (36%) severe drops of 30% or more in their 2020 revenues. Though this does not help the organisations and communities hardest hit by these declines, it is important to note that we also have 14% who report they expect stable or even growing revenues despite the impact of pandemic.

When we look across our different types of independent news media who have responded to the INERC survey, we can see that commercial news media are hardest hit, especially those that are advertising-based. This means that it is often organisations with relatively large newsrooms that are hard hit, but these are also organisations that typically invest a relatively smaller share of their total operating costs in their newsroom.

Simply put, the consequences for investment in news of any given drop in revenue necessarily depends not only on the drop itself, but also what share of revenues a given organisation invests in its newsroom. As noted above, this varies greatly across our sample.

FIGURE 8

At least among the respondents to the INERC survey, it is possible to identify a range of different impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on independent news media.

First, among the 36% facing severe drops, many are commercial advertising-based media with medium or large newsrooms, often national newspapers hard hit by declines in print advertising and sometimes print circulation too. Others are smaller non-profits or small local news media. For the former, this is a hard hit that will often lead directly to layoffs, but where organisations with robust finances and owners committed to the long term will often be able to weather the storm and look towards the future. For the latter, a severe drop, even if just for a year, can be an existential threat and may well result in many organisations closing down.

Second, among the total of 43% expecting a significant or very significant drop in 2020, there will often be consequent cuts to newsrooms, but again, financially robust organisations with committed owners will in many cases be able to withstand the blow, as hard and unwelcome as it is.

Third, importantly, a significant minority of 14% of our respondents expect stable or even growing revenues. These are often smaller online newsrooms, some of them non-profits. It illustrates how the big traditional mainstays of the news industry (newspapers and broadcasters) are suffering more than some newer and smaller independent online news media, at least among our respondents.

Because INERC is meant to identify areas of greatest need and advise funders on how and where they can make the greatest possible difference, we have also asked all respondents to identify what kinds of support their organisation would benefit from. The most widely named kinds of support that respondents identify as beneficial are funding support (84%), product development and innovation support (61%), and technical training in digital media skills (39%), as shown in Figure 9.

FIGURE 9

There are two main kinds of need identified by our respondents. One is about ensuring the sustainability of their organisation in a difficult moment and protecting its ability to invest in independent news and journalism at a point in time where it is especially important and sorely needed. The other is about the ongoing work of adapting independent news media to a challenging and rapidly changing, increasingly digital, mobile, and platform-dominated mediaenvironment.

Finally, when asked to identify the single most important kind of help that would make a difference right now, during the COVID-19 crisis, funding support is by far the most widely named at 65%, see Figure 10. Understandably, surviving today is a more urgent challenge than preparing for tomorrow.

FIGURE 10

 

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