Coronavirus and the media: building trust and breaking down paywalls

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It seems there is value in public news services after all. At least, that is what must be gleaned from the media’s collective response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Across the country – and indeed the world – news organisations have been lifting online paywalls to meet the demand for the latest updates and information on COVID-19.

From the Times and the FT to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, subscription-based newspapers are opening up access to their journalism. When it comes to the Coronavirus, you can’t put a price on information.

Even the Telegraph, derided for initially publishing an article by Health Secretary Matt Hancock behind a paywall, has now provided limited access for non-paying subscribers.

It’s a responsible step. These titles have a reach and credibility that is vital at a time when communication with the public is key. The government confirmed as much when it named reporters and print newspaper distribution staff as key workers for the duration of the pandemic.

In financial media, Bloomberg has removed its paywall restriction, prompting its daily subscriber count to triple since February to record levels. The Investors Chronicle has made many of its articles free to access “to help investors navigate the Covid-19 crisis with clear heads and come out on the other side with their wealth intact”. A noble aim indeed.

Among non-paywalled media, digital news consumption is booming. Just look at MailOnline: it has reported a 50% uptick in website traffic as readers refresh their screens for the latest COVID-19 news.

But for those newspapers and magazines heavily reliant on footfall, it has been a very different story, forcing them to alter their distribution models. City A.M. has tacked to a digital-only copy. So too has Time Out – now rebranded as Time In, an apt reminder of our new social distancing world. The Evening Standard and Manchester Evening News have gone one step further, delivering print copies directly to the doors of Londoners and Mancunians respectively.

Despite their best efforts, not all news sources can be shielded from the economic fallout. Regional newspapers have seen their revenue models impacted on two fronts: cash-strapped local businesses have pulled advertising spend while sales are collapsing as elderly readers stay at home.

The Bedfordshire Times & Citizen, MK Citizen, Luton Herald & Post, Northumberland’s News Post Leader, Brighton & Hove Independent, North Tyneside’s News Guardian, and the Mid Sussex Gazette… all have sadly had to cease print publication.

Meanwhile, the back pages have been left reeling from the slew of sporting cancellations. So often the source of journalism’s most read stories, sports desks have been forced to cut back on content. Several sports writers have joined the ranks of furloughed workers, while a handful of specialist publications have even been forced to stop printing altogether.

The Racing Post, for example, has temporarily halted publication following the suspension of horse racing in Britain and Ireland and the closure of many betting shops. Subscription-based sports website The Athletic – recently valued at $500m on the back of an aggressive expansion into English football coverage – has opted to extend its free trial period for new readers from 7 to 90 days.

But with the sporting calendar painfully bare for many weeks yet, who knows how long these “temporary” measures could last.

Away from print, a staggering 27 million Brits tuned in live as Boris Johnson announced the unprecedented step to put the nation on lockdown. Meanwhile, the BBC reported an 18% rise in radio listening figures last week, fuelled by demand for “news and analysis but also for music, entertainment and companionship”, according to BBC Radio and Education director James Purnell.

It’s painfully apparent that the economic shock caused by the Coronavirus will have a disruptive effect on the media industry. The extent of this shock is still hard to judge, however it is likely to leave an indelible mark on our own perception of many media titles and the way we engage with their content, be it in print or digital, behind a paywall or not.

Irrespective of the revenue models that will emerge, one thing cannot be disputed – the public’s thirst for knowledge and information is as insatiable as ever.

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