Signs of hope, amid turmoil – COVID-19 and the news media

By Konrad Bleyer-Simon and Roberta Carlini

News media has been among the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, suffering above-average losses. A recent technical report by the CMPF investigates the first wave’s effects on media revenues, employment and working conditions, as well as the role public support played. While the overall impact was devastating, digital news media show signs of resilience.

Is COVID-19 a “media extinction event”? The question spread across newsrooms and the news media industry around the world. UNESCO’s event on “Journalism as a public good” organised for World Press Freedom Day addressed, among the main threats that media pluralism is facing,  the theme of media economic sustainability and the initiatives needed to ensure it. A recent technical report published by the European University Institute’s Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) looked at the media landscapes of a set of EU member states to understand what happened to their media markets during the first wave of the pandemic. 

The Media Pluralism Monitor project has been run by the CMPF since 2014 to assess the risks to media pluralism in the EU and some candidate countries. It features a specific indicator for “media viability” conditions that assesses economic sustainability.. In the wake of the pandemic, in 2020, the CMPF ran a special, interim data collection to analyse the impact of the first wave of COVID-19 on some of the indicators of media pluralism (MPM-COVID-19) prior to its assessment of the whole year (MPM2021, forthcoming). A part of this exercise focused on economic sustainability, collecting data on revenue trends, employment and salary trends, as well as public support. The data have been collected by the national MPM research teams Although provisional and – for the sake of this exercise – limited to 18 EU countries, the MPM-COVID-19 results offer some evidence in an attempt to answer the question above, namely:

  1. the impact of the economic downturn on the different media sectors
  2. its effects on employment and working conditions of journalists
  3. the role of the extraordinary public aid provided in some countries

1.  The “great lockdown” severely hit the news media industry. In the 18 EU countries covered by the research, revenues for news media experienced an average decrease that was beyond the overall GDP decrease during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the fact that the news media did not halt its operations (unlike tourism, the aviation sector and other activities), and a “corona bump” that saw an increased  demand for the news that occurred in almost every sector (broadcast and digital media), the economic consequences were severe.

The decline is driven by the fall in advertising expenditure, which also decreased by more than the percentage of GDP decrease, in all the European countries covered by the research. The economic downturn due to the pandemic exacerbated a long-standing tendency with news media providers struggling to survive in the digital markets.  The shift to digital, which was experienced in consumer behaviour (including an increased willingness to pay for online content), and reflected in business strategies, has not managed to counterbalance the decrease in advertising income. 

Different trends were visible in different news media sectors. Legacy television and radio stations, whose business models substantially rely on advertising, were severely hit, whereas video-on-demand and video-platforms benefited from a surge in subscriptions. The long lasting crisis of newspapers and local media has worsened, as they suffered hits from both advertising and print sales, with digital subscriptions not making up for the losses. Closures of and lay-offs in news media outlets were not so wide-spread  in the first wave of the pandemic, partly due to extraordinary job retention schemes; still there were some examples, particularly for newspapers and local media. Digital news media performed relatively better, especially outlets whose business models were based on pay-models rather than on advertising. 

A number of news outlets started experimenting with alternative revenues – especially some form of reader-generated revenue online (such as donations, subscriptions or membership). The experiences of some successful digital media efforts give some grounds for optimism.

2.  Employment and salary trends highlight a high risk for the economic safety of journalists. In this case, differences may be traced with regard to the contractual status of journalists, rather than to the sector in which they work. Journalists employed in newsrooms on a regular basis have been relatively protected by the widespread use of job retention schemes, suffering eventually from salary cuts, but still keeping their jobs. But the support programs often fell short of covering all journalists, protecting at a smaller extent, or not protecting at all, freelancers and journalists with non-standard contracts. The economic situation of freelancers worsened in all  countries covered by the research. 

3. Public support was available in the majority of the countries covered, even including extraordinary subsidies, but the amounts provided to the media were often seen as insufficient in light of the much larger pandemic-induced losses.

In the conclusions of the technical report on the MPM-COVID-19, a series of measures to improve the viability of the EU media landscape in the post COVID-19 era are suggested:

  • to include the news media sector in the national recovery and resilience plans, with an emphasis on incentivising investments that support the transition towards digital
  • to design new labour and social policies, aimed at eliminating or at least mitigating the dualism in the journalistic labour market: a universal protection scheme for all journalists, both employed and freelancers, should be studied and implemented
  • to strengthen public subsidies and base them on transparent criteria, putting an emphasis on innovation and supporting journalism that contributes to public good. In parallel, public aid should be carefully designed to avoid political capture, distorting the market (for example, by favoring large, established media at the expense of newcomers) or creating dependence.

Konrad Bleyer-Simon and Roberta Carlini are research associates at the CMPF.