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Journalism’s financial free fall: Impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 is a generation-defining global crisis. But how does it affect those upon whom we depend for critical, balanced and accurate information?

The following is an extract from the Thomson Reuters Foundation report on the impact of COVID-19 on journalism. It explores the untold story of how the COVID crisis has impacted on journalists – and journalism – in Emerging Economies and the Global South. It’s a story told not only through the insights of industry leaders, advocates and media experts – but critically, through the voices of the journalists themselves, too often unheard or silenced.

“It’s a paradox that, as more and more people realise they need high-quality factual information to navigate the crisis, the business models that sustain that information are collapsing,” the non-profit International Media Support (IMS), explains

“The global economic shutdown has severely reduced the advertising revenues that many media outlets depend on.”  As a result, “worldwide, countless independent news providers are being forced to scale down, lay off reporters or close altogether”.

This financial backdrop is just one factor shaping the response of news organisations and journalists to the pandemic. But it is an important part of the COVID equation.

Advertising’s cliff edge

Globally, many companies have cut their marketing budgets, or switched their advertising spend to digital platforms, often dramatically cutting revenues for news providers in the process. As industry commentators Media Post reported

“The global advertising economy will shed $70 billion this year and will fall 11.8% (excluding US political advertising) to $517.5 billion, according to the latest forecast by GroupM (including political, the drop will be 9.9%).”  

In contrast, they add, “a year ago when the firm issued its first forecast for 2020, it expected to see healthy growth of 4.8%”.

Other companies offer slightly different projections, but the trendlines are clear. Across most platforms and advertising verticals, advertising spend is down, often substantially. 

Image: Projected impact of COVID-19 on advertising platforms, 
via Marketing Charts using data from WARC.

Subsequently, with many media outlets still heavily reliant on advertising income, there have been fears that the pandemic could create an “extinction-level event” for many news providers around the world

This situation can be further compounded in emerging economies and the Global South where TRF alumni have suggested that advertisers may be more likely to use their marketing budgets as potential leverage over content. 

“It is common for advertisers on the TV station to strike down stories they think are not in their best interest.”

TV news reporter, Uganda

Moreover, with many newsrooms under increasing financial pressure as a result of the pandemic, there are also legitimate fears that these types of pressures may escalate, and even become more commonplace.  

“Kenya’s mainstream media is heavily dependent on advertising revenue for its survival. Though debatable, advertisers wield more power on press freedom than the state and powerful politicians. 

Most recently, Kenya’s Council of Governors, Wednesday September 9th, decided to stop advertising with the Nation Media Group after the media group published a story the governors found unfavourable. 

This set a precedent, particularly for other journalists exposing graft (political corruption) at the time of a pandemic.”

TV journalist, Kenya

The impact on newsrooms and journalists 

As a result of lost advertising revenue, layoffs, furloughs and closures have been seen across all media sectors worldwide. 

In South Africa, for example, 17 magazine titles disappeared as a result of the closure of two publishing houses, Caxton and Associated Media Publishing (AMP), in May. Two months later, Media24 – another South African company – announced the closure of five magazines and two newspapers.

It’s a story that has been seen time and time again, regardless of the country. The one constant is that no type of organisation appears to be left unscathed. 

There are a number of direct consequences for journalists and journalism. The most obvious is that thousands of journalists have lost their jobs and there are fewer opportunities for them to be re-hired elsewhere.

“Many jobs were laid off and this included journalists and freelance correspondents losing their jobs. Where is the job security in the midst of a pandemic?”

News editor, Sri Lanka

Those that remain often face continued uncertainty, pay cuts and increased workloads, all while often working from home – with all of the potential additional complexities that this introduces. 

“Employees [had their] salary cut to half without any consultation apart from a circular issued through email.”

Science correspondent, Kenya

Freelance journalists can also face these, and other, challenges. TRF alumni described a landscape of reduced opportunities and greater competition. 

“I have been a freelancer for over a year. With several journalists having lost their job in India in the lockdown, the number of freelancers suddenly swelled – I was told by some outlets that I had been submitting to that they could not take as many reports each month as before, as they were stranded for funds and had a flood of reports from freelancers.”  

Freelance journalist, India

“As a freelancer, the biggest challenge is the reduced opportunity to pitch more stories to publications. I understand that funding, particularly of smaller media outlets, has been affected by the pandemic as well, so editors have been very picky with pitches.”

Freelance journalist, Philippines

Freelancers who have been commissioned to work on assignments also outlined further challenges related to their personal safety – especially regarding PPE – and to navigating increased access restrictions to many locations as a result of lockdowns. 

“I am a freelancer and have got limited assignments during this time… Most clients have shown a lot of concern though few have offered hazard pay. 

But all the risky shoots have eventually fallen through. Just yesterday a US-based publication decided to cancel an assignment due to security concerns as it required travelling to a remote area where mask protocols may not be followed. They were gracious enough to offer me a kill fee.

As a freelancer, I have had no training on how to cover COVID yet. I have largely been told to keep distance and wear masks. I have read up written guidelines shared on social media by other journalists. But one does feel very vulnerable especially when you have to travel, as no organisation tells you how much they will help if you show symptoms and need to be quarantined outside your home state.”

Freelance photojournalist, India

An acceleration of long-term trends

Job insecurity is nothing new in the world of journalism. 

The Great Recession (from December 2007 onwards) saw large numbers of job cuts in newsrooms. Meanwhile, the decade-long migration of advertising revenues to digital platforms like Google and Facebook has impacted on the traditional business models of many news outlets.

Shifting revenue and delivery mechanisms for news have meant, to an extent, that the sector appears to be in a state of constant flux. Restructures (such as pivoting to digital, or increasing efforts related to video, social, etc.) have become a way of life for many journalists, creating instability and job insecurity in newsrooms around the world. 

“I have to admit it takes into huge consideration to stay in this career when it comes to compensation. Still, I choose to stay in this industry because I believe in its value. Besides, I hope that if I prove myself to be someone with values and abilities, it will be paid off in the end.” 

Online journalist, Thailand

Back in 2018, the Pakistani journalist Umer Ali shared with Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) how in Islamabad “reporters had gathered to protest random and immediate layoffs by their media organisations”.  

“Over the past few weeks, dozens of journalists had been fired, their employers said, because of ‘financial crunch’. A television news channel shut down; salaries at several others remain either unpaid or have been drastically cut.” 

Jump forward to 2020, and Shakeel Qarar, the president of the National Press Club in Islamabad, told Voice of America earlier this year that in some cases newspaper owners and television channels had not paid their employees for at least 10 months.

This type of behaviour is not unique to Pakistan, nor the pandemic. But the financial impact of COVID-19 has made incidents like this more commonplace. 

“The pandemic has further worsened the job security and salary. While many are working without proper safety measures, a good number of journalists have lost their jobs whereas some are working on a salary reduced by a half. 

People also seem to be losing respect for the profession gradually as the journalists oftentimes do not get treated with proper dignity or find cooperation in getting information.”

Sub-editor, Bangladesh

NGOs and platforms bridge the gap

In response to some of these financial issues, a range of funders, NGOs and platforms have mobilised to support journalists and newsrooms. In some cases, revenues from readers – in the form of subscription, donations and membership fees – have also increased. 

Examples of some of these efforts include:

  • Internews launched a Rapid Response Fund which supported more than 80 local media outlets and individuals in more than 40 countries, to ensure that life-saving health information can continue to be shared. 
Regional Distribution of the Google News Initiative 
Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF), July 2020. via Google

While these efforts are laudable, and provide a welcome stopgap, they are nonetheless far from a panacea. Funders have been overwhelmed with applications and it’s clear that the need for financial assistance is greater than these initiatives can support. 

“It would be a great mistake to think that the industry has saved itself, or that it will be able to in the nearby future,” cautions Rieneke Van Santen, a global media consultant and press freedom advocate based in the Netherlands.

“Governments need to step in and commit themselves to supporting independent media and press freedom projects for the coming years if they want to save journalism,” she says.

“Information saves lives. Journalists save lives. Period.”

The full report is available for download at covid-report.trust.org

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the corporate foundation of Thomson Reuters, the global news and information services company. As an independent charity, registered in the UK and the USA, it works to advance media freedom, foster more inclusive economies, and promote human rights. Through news, media development, free legal assistance and convening initiatives, it uses the combined power of journalism and the law to build global awareness of critical issues faced by humanity, inspire collective leadership and help shape a prosperous world where no one is left behind.