Newspapers struggling to survive during the coronavirus pandemic must be designated “essential service” status to protect them from financial collapse, according to a new report.
Print media, including hundreds of local newspapers, are of such importance to their readers that their closures could exacerbate the Covid-19 crisis and further isolate vulnerable households, the study by media research group Enders Analysis argues.
It calls on the government to grant the industry the same protected status already given to healthcare, food chains and utility companies.
Doing so, the research says, should then unlock a package of measures to prevent closures – including emergency funding for journalism, guaranteed government advertising and a 100 per cent holiday on business rates.
It also says journalists should be considered key workers and given priority access to Covid-19 tests – like health workers – so they can keep reporting events.
“Right now, we need to mobilise government funding to make quality news a public service,” the report states. “We assume the government will design measures to help industries like auto and airlines. It needs to do the same for news media.”
And it adds: “These media are highly trusted environments, with incomparable reach if applied simultaneously across national and local, print and online. They have a responsibility to help address and alleviate people’s fears.
“Local media play a critical role in local communities. A role that will prove to be even more important than normal in the weeks and months ahead.”
The call comes as the report’s research found that if newspaper advertising dropped by a third – not an unrealistic figure given the predicted economic turmoil ahead – it would take some £330m out of the sector.
To add to the industry’s woes, distribution lines have been significantly hit during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a drop in sales. “We envisage newsstand sales could decline 50 per cent in the very near term,” the Enders report says.
The twin blow exacerbates long-term structural problems already faced by the industry.
Many smaller local newspapers have been operating with virtual skeleton staff for years as parent companies seek to reduce costs in the face of falling advertising revenues and declining circulations. Even so-called regional giants, such as the Yorkshire Post, have seen swingeing cuts to editorial jobs as sales plummet.
The independently owned London-based free newspaper City AM, meanwhile, became the first paper to cease publication as a result of the pandemic when it closed earlier this month.