COVID-19 is disrupting the business models and work of news reporters and publishers alike. The changes are likely to be profound and lasting.
By Charles Gorrivan
COVID-19 is disrupting how America’s newspapers operate, perhaps indelibly.
Everything from the way reporters cover stories to how publishers provide and fund the news is being affected by the global health crisis.
From shoe-leather news reporting to virtual communication
Demand for news soared in March and April, according to an Nieman Lab article on the coronavirus-related traffic bump to news sites. But that doesn’t mean all reporters are busy.
Some journalists who until recently covered sports or culture now find themselves without a beat as the novel coronavirus has forced the cancellation of large sporting and cultural events for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 is forcing many reporters to work remotely and follow social distancing guidelines. Reporting has shifted from “old fashion shoe-leather reporting” to “phone calls, emails and aggregation,” said reporter and author Lauren Sandler, who until COVID-19 had generally reported in person.
Sickness can be an unwelcome obstacle to working, Sandler said, who at one point suffered COVID-19 symptoms.
Because the public is inundated by COVID-related articles, statistics and doomsday scenarios, it can be a challenge to offer original, captivating stories, said Justin Lane, the European Pressphoto Agency’s New York bureau chief.
In normal times, reporters ferret out information from a handful of sources, often in search of that scoop, or exclusive. During this crisis, everyone is affected one way or another, Lane said. “That makes covering the story extremely overwhelming. There isn’t one place where you have to go to just exclusively get access to tell the story.”
Hard news decisions
Reporters and editors are grappling with how to cover COVID-19 responsibly.
The New York Times has had to make hard decisions about whether to concentrate on reporting simply what is happening or on promoting safe public health behavior, said assistant managing editor Monica Drake.
For example, it can be difficult to decide how to cover protests in some states against stay-at-home orders or a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese laboratory. Such stories can include quotes that, if read incorrectly or taken out of context, could propagate misinformation and promote dangerous behavior, Drake said.
Still, the newspaper cannot turn a blind eye to events involving large numbers of people, even if they have a dangerous mindset, she said. “Our mandate is to cover the world. We have to cover that, too,” Drake said.
Still, The New York Times strives to provide a comprehensive perspective and to get to the heart of issues, beyond simply offering quotes that can amplify misleading reports, Drake said — “to be deliberate and not over-cover things because they seem tempting.”
Disappearing news paywalls — and profits
During the pandemic, many newspapers have dropped their paywalls to provide free access to vital information about the novel coronavirus and official decisions.
Asked to explain why The New York Times removed its paywall when it relies heavily on subscribers for revenue, Drake said COVID-19-related news is “public information that is essential.”
Smaller publications — many of which do not charge readers for online news — face a different challenge. The economic downturn has squeezed advertising, which is a critical stream of revenue for many of these outfits.
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the non-profit Poynter Institute, said the pandemic will hit smaller news publications that rely on print editions and advertising. “A small newsroom, a struggling newsroom,” Edmonds said, “yeah, those are really imperiled, and I think we’ll lose a number of them.”
In that case, COVID-19 could accelerate the spread of “news deserts” — communities with limited access to credible and comprehensive news. In the United States, 225 counties are without a local newspaper, and half of all counties — 1,528 — have only one, according to the US News Deserts Project at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
If local newspapers close, it makes covering COVID-19 that much more difficult. “Our media culture is ill-equipped to handle the incredible scope of the story,” Sandler said, noting that the pandemic is covered differently between classes and regions. “The inability to have [local] platforms to allow for a diversity of voices is incredibly sad.”
News reporters face feast or famine.
As newspapers fold or tighten their purse strings, journalists may find it increasingly difficult to find work.
“It’s a very intense time at the moment to be making a living as a journalist and frankly to be moved to report as a journalist,” said Sandler, a freelancer. “There’s no money to pay you, and there’s very little bandwidth for acceptances.”
Conversely, journalists who are public health experts are in demand at some of the financially stronger publications. The New York Times recently hired Apoorva Mandivilli, winner of the 2019 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. And The Washington Post recently posted job listings for editors with a background in health and science.
In April, News Decoder correspondent and health journalist Maggie Fox joined CNN as their public health editor.
A brave news world
The publications that do survive the pandemic are almost certain to face a changed reality.
The virus could accelerate the collapse of print newspapers. Because the novel coronavirus can survive on newsprint, some papers like the Tampa Bay Times have suspended daily print editions. Edmonds said the suspension of the print run could become permanent at that paper, which is owned by Poynter.
The pandemic could convert more young people into regular news readers. In April, The Economist magazine published data suggesting that young people were reading more news — a trend that, if continued, could buttress newspaper revenue and lead to a better informed generation.
Finally, the pandemic has legitimized a decision by some well-resourced newspapers to invest in foreign coverage and could press competing papers to increase their overseas coverage. “This proves the case for the investment we made in international coverage,” Drake said, noting that The New York Times covered the coronavirus story when it erupted in China early this year.
“I do think that newspapers and organizations that are doing the job well and exercising their muscles will be able to come back when things open up,” Edmonds said.
Charles Gorrivanis a student at the Friends Seminary school in New York City. He is the editor of the school newspaper and a captain of the debate team. Outside of school, Gorrivan plays guitar and enjoys reading publications like The Economist and The New Yorker.