As I religiously scan our national newspapers and specialist media websites each day, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the havoc being caused to the UK economy by the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdown is wreaking collateral damage on our local, regional, national newspapers and magazines. The newspapers and magazines are losing advertising revenue hand over fist, and circulations are falling away as the lockdown – now in its fourth week, and almost certainly to run for at least another three weeks – means many retail outlets are no longer available as key selling points.
Even the Mail on Sunday
), which along with its stablemate, the Daily Mail
, are the bedrocks of the country's most successful newspaper group, suspended publication of one of its magazines this week. MOS
told readers: 'All across the land, thousands of cinemas, theatres, galleries and concert halls are locked in darkness – with little prospect of reopening in the near future. It is for this reason that we have, with the greatest reluctance, taken the decision to suspend publication of Event
, our entertainment and listings magazine, until this health crisis is over'. However, much of the magazine's usual editorial content has been moved into the main newspaper.
The publishing crisis allows me the opportunity to quote at length from a very incisive, considered piece in The Guardian
by the highly-respected media commentator Roy Greenslade, who observes, with the utmost feeling after more than 50 years in the newspaper business, that it is the bleakest of ironies that the biggest news story in a lifetime is killing off the very industry that exists to report it. Coronavirus is destroying newsprint newspapers across Britain, delivering the coup de grace to businesses that were already in the process of dying.
Explains Greenslade, who is Emeritus Professor in Journalism at City University, London, and a former editor of the Daily Mirror
and past managing editor (news) of the Sunday Times
: 'Local and regional newspaper publishers have found it economically unsustainable to go on producing papers. In response, they have suspended the publication of scores of titles and placed hundreds of journalists on paid leave. "Furloughs" have become part of the new pandemic lexicon.
'At national level, print runs have been drastically reduced because of distribution problems, most obviously resulting from the widespread closure of retail stores. Edition sizes have also been cut back due to the drop-off in advertisers. Similarly, many magazines are also forsaking print in favour of digital-only publication. Although formal announcements by publishers stress that their dramatic COVID-19 measures will be temporary, there is reason to believe some may be permanent. Newsprint, the transmission of news by ink on paper, might not recover from the contagion in what could eventually be seen as a transformational moment for the 380-year British newspaper history.'
Greenslade, who was resident media commentator of The Guardian
for 12 years, and who also wrote a column for the Evening Standard
for 10 years, asserts that there will not be a post-pandemic 'old media' recovery because it seems inconceivable that publishers, already struggling to fund journalism, will return to the previous status quo. That is, he says, because the status quo was, itself, one of perpetual fragility in which publishers were engaged in the delicate task of managing newsprint decline while, in parallel, seeking to create a digital journalism business model.
'As is well known,' he points out, 'their central problem has been the failure to find any viable alternative to advertising as newspapers' major source of revenue. Throughout the past 20 years, papers have defied forecasters who predicted that advertising income was on the verge of disappearing. Instead, it has lasted well enough to sustain newspapers, even though its decrease has necessitated severe cuts to editorial budgets and a consequent diminution in the quality and quantity of content.
'Advertising's surprising durability has been important because it enabled publishers to play circus performers – riding two horses at the same time to provide funds for both newsprint and digital platforms. But sensible newspaper owners, managers and editors have long realised that there would come a time when advertising would dry up, newsprint's ever-decreasing audience would vanish, and they would need to find a way to fund digital journalism without ad support.'
Greenslade concedes that it is undeniable that there is a hunger for online news. For the past month, he points out, every major publisher has been reporting record numbers of website visits. 'Page views each day have been off the chart,' he reports. 'Dwell time, one of the key metrics to show the depth of reader engagement with individual articles, has increased, too. One result, according to some national publishers that impose charges for online access, has been a rise in subscriptions.'
He goes on: 'To put this in an even more positive perspective for newspapers, the expansion of interest in their content has occurred despite record viewing figures for TV and radio news and current affairs broadcasts. This interest is obviously due to coronavirus being, as everyone emphasises on a daily basis, an unprecedented event... What is not emphasised, however, is the certainty that its aftermath will also be unprecedented. Economic activity will surely be slower to revive than optimists, such as Government ministers, would like us to believe. Indeed, it wasn't in a healthy state prior to the shock of COVID-19.'
He maintains that by the time the lockdown ends – and that light appears to be a long way down the tunnel – many companies may not be in a state to recover. 'It is true,' he agrees, 'that some could seek to revive their businesses through advertising; but financial constraints on potential consumers, because of depleted income during the emergency, will make the outcome of such initiatives uncertain'.
Post-lockdown, publishers will be reassessing the state of their businesses. Aside from the difficulties they face in winning back advertisers, they will need to make rational decisions about their bottom lines. 'Did the closure of this or that title really matter,' he asks. 'How much money did we save by publishing fewer newsprint issues? Do we need expensive offices when our papers have been so effectively produced by journalists operating remotely?'
Greenslade, still very productive at the age of 73, relates that in mid-March, noted historian, Peter Hennessy, conveyed the epoch-making significance of the pandemic during a BBC Radio 4 interview, pointing out: 'Future historians, he said, will divide our age into BC and AC: "Before corona and after corona"'. And Greenslade, a man with so much expertise and experience, comes to a sad and infinitely worrying conclusion: 'I am convinced media analysts will make the same division. AC will likely mark the final stage in newsprint's long decline'.
A former LADbible
PR chief, Peter Heneghan, has been appointed deputy director of digital communications at Downing Street, reporting to Boris Johnson. Heneghan spent two years as LADbible's
head of communications until moving to Number 10 and the Cabinet Office in March. Before his spell at LADbible
, he was head of communications for the UK and Europe at Buzzfeed
; a publicity manager at Channel 4, and a BBC News
publicist. He joins former Daily Mirror
reporter, Lee Cain, in Downing Street. Cain is the Prime Minister's director of communications.
Two former Guido Fawkes
journalists – Ross Kempsell and Hugh Bennett – have become special advisers under Johnson's Tory Government. Kempsell, most recently political editor for Talkradio, is now a special adviser focusing on reform of Whitehall and the public sector. Bennett, who was Guido Fawkes's
news editor, is working for the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
In these most troubled times, for some delicious light relief, please dip into the HuffPost's
website where Ash Percival explains: 'One of the unexpected outcomes of lockdown has been that it has let us into the living rooms (and kitchens) of the rich and famous... Many broadcasters are having to appear on TV shows from the comfort of their own homes as they adhere to the Government's strict social distancing rules to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic. We've loved having a good old nosey at everyone's home decor, and as a result, we've come over all Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and ranked 20 of the most notable'. Percival proceeds to give us a rundown of his top 20.
Media website, HoldTheFrontPage
), has spotlighted Edinburgh's Evening News
for taking to the stage to provide inspiration for its front page after a major event on its patch was cancelled. It reported: '[It] covered the cancellation of this year's Edinburgh Festival due to the coronavirus pandemic by splashing on the message – "We'll be right back… after the break". The front page… depicted various performing artists on a stage with curtains closing'.
Editor Euan McGrory said his newspaper wanted to provide a 'reassuring message' to readers that the famous festival would be returning, and told HTFP
: 'We wanted to mark what is a landmark decision for the life of Scotland's capital with a nod to the reassuring message that our festivals are determined to return once life gets back to something like normal'.