Welcome to this special edition of The Wrap in which Mindy from our Client Service Team takes a look at the short and long term impact that COVID-19 has had on Local Press. During these unprecedented times, we aim to share both the positive and negative developments with you and what the impact will be on our industry
Head of Strategy & Planning
For some media channels, the pain is temporary but local press may struggle to survive.
Arguably these effects are temporary as a direct result of mass audience movements given our change in working environments.
For local press however, there is a significant pre-existing condition – an accelerated audience decline largely due to the proliferation of news sources and classified services as a result of the digital age.
Add to this the legacy costs of journalists, printing, distribution and other overheads and it is clear to see why the slump in ad revenue is likely to prevent any resurgence once this crisis is over.
As bad as this may be from a social and economic perspective, there is a greater loss at stake – one of trust.
A trusted medium under threat
It is ironic that the COVID-19 crisis needs a trusted voice right now and yet this very same crisis has brought on a mass silence in the communities.
For a long time Australians have firmly held the strengths of press as a trusted source and this was even more so in Regional and Rural communities who rely on quality, local news.
Source: By Ipsos Connect for News Media Works Report, April 2019 “The more you trust an ad the more likely you are to make a purchase”
Heavier reliance in Regional to be informed locally
Source: News Media Works Think Local Study 2016; supported by ACMA Local Content in regional Australia 2017
How the closures unravelled
A raft of Victorian Regional titles were amongst the first casualties of closure including the Swan Hill Guardian, a 100 year old newspaper. As 70% of the group’s revenue was advertising based, it was always going to be a struggle to stay afloat as advertisers rapidly cut back on spend.
This has been followed by a growing list of print casualties:
- News Corp Community press: printing suspended for 60 titles as Chairman Michael Miller announced digital only editions due to rapid decline in ad revenue
- News Corp: Coronavirus job cuts
- Bauer New Zealand: closed in a blow from parent company Bauer German
- Bauer Australia: Acquisition of Pacific Magazine under threat as redundancies hit
Rescue attempts to keep print from flat-lining
Despite this gloom, there is still an effort in sustaining a local voice for communities with News Corp offering a 28 day free digital subscription to access community titles online. It remains to be seen however what impact this will have on sustaining local journalism in both the short and long term. Furthermore a lot of publishers have dropped their paywalls to allow more coverage of the COVID-19 crisis so this free access looks even less attractive.
Before COVID-19, another threat to trusted, quality journalism was the looming closure of Australian Associated Press (AAP). This closure was based on primary shareholders, Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia announcing unsustainability of the news service in an age of digital search and platforms coupled with the merger of Fairfax and Nine. However there was a positive turn on March 19 as acquisition talks are held with a number of potential suitors.
In addition, the local press closures have prompted the release of $5 million in federal government funding to help sustain a local voice during the coronavirus crisis. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher says the fund has been adjusted “so money is available as quickly as possible to help publishers keep journalists in jobs and local communities informed”.
As an industry, we hope the smaller regional players will survive COVID-19 with the lifeline but it remains to be seen how far $5m will go.
Beyond government investment, there may be other opportunities for local publishers to survive. From cooperative marketing efforts from publishers to raise awareness of the local opportunity for advertisers to industry legislation changing to ensure Facebook and Google pay for the news that they source.
What is going to save local print?
However good old fashioned community spirit may ultimately be the secret weapon all along.
Despite the closure of the Sunraysia Daily just weeks ago, the staff, local advertisers and printers managed to bring it back from the brink through dedication and a belief that defied the odds.
Perhaps in a post COVID-19 world, as we continue to spend more time within our communities, there will be a greater appreciation of our local networks which could be just the thing that keeps local press going a little longer.
The industry needs to harness this period of upheaval and use this as a rally cry to build on the creative responses today for a sustainable, more future proof model.