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The Media Today special section of the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), often called the most respected voice of press criticism, carries in its latest edition a fascinating piece by Jon Allsop on how the coronavirus could hurt the news business. Since the one-of-a kind journalism carried in CJR (and at this juncture allow me to boast that Columbia Journalism School is my alma mater) is not widely available to the general reader, I sometimes take the liberty of summarising and sharing its contents–of course with full credit to CJR–on the social media.

In this article, Allsop, formerly with BuzzFeed and also a grad of Columbia J-School, reports that that paywalls, which online media erect in order to earn their bread and butter (“you have now reached your limit of free reading please subscribe in order to read on…” etc, etc), have begun to crumble as more and more news outlets are freeing up content relating to news and special features related to the coronavirus, which Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times has described in a recent staff call as “the biggest story the world has seen since 9/11”.

The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Seattle Times and McClatchy are some of the major organisations now making available their virus coverage available free of charge to non-subscribers. In fact, reports Allsop, The Times has “collated its free coronavirus content on a special landing page; you’ll need to create an account to access it, if you don’t have one already”.

It’s a great social service not just for the US but, indeed, for the world, when rumours, misinformation, fake news, denial modes, are cutting a swath of confusion across the globe. Universally available responsible and dependable information is of the essence at times such as these. And in relaying it as a humanitarian gesture of grace and goodwill, the news business, already in the financial doldrums because of declining revenues – McClatchy, for example has filed for bankruptcy–risks taking a direct fiscal blow to the gut.

But there could also be an upside. It may even be good for business, some analysts believe. Allsop quotes Tom Meyvis, a professor at New York University, telling Adweek’s Sara Jerde that for some outlets, freeing up information on the coronavirus may reach new readers “who may stick with the publication afterward and perhaps be willing to pay later if they are impressed”.

Interest in news as against pure entertainment is at a peak right now and major national news organisations have moved quickly to capitalise, writes Allsop. “Collectively, they’ve flooded the market with coronavirus podcasts, newsletters, and other products, many of them free. BuzzFeed, for instance, launched a newsletter called ‘Outbreak Today.’ Its logo is an emoji wearing a face mask. The coronavirus has dominated regular programming on cable news, as both CNN and MSNBC have broadcast special programming in which medical experts have answered viewers’ questions. Last week, CNN hosted a coronavirus town hall with Dr Sanjay Gupta, its chief medical correspondent; (earlier) it held another one, with Facebook and Instagram users from around the world asking questions. There was no studio audience.”

Allsop makes several absorbing observations which I reproduce verbatim in the larger public interest of disseminating public awareness, with some paraphrasing, in bulleted points below:

  • The disorder caused by the coronavirus risks invading news organisations’ ability to function.  Routine reporting will become harder the more society is walled off. And as Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab has noted, the virus has the potential to pull the bottom out of an advertising market that has been tough on many media companies for years. Last week, The Times said it was already seeing an advertising slowdown, which executives attribute to uncertainty caused by the virus—and that was before the rapid escalation of recent days. If the economy tips into recession, the effect on advertising could be dire.
  • As Benton has observed, the coronavirus could prove to be a disaster for local outlets, in particular. Despite industry-wide declines in print circulation, many newspapers still rely on dead-tree products for the bulk of their revenue; what happens when newspaper carriers become virus carriers and get taken off their routes? Swathes of the local news market are controlled by a handful of financial firms that have already made painful cuts to their media properties; if owning newspapers becomes an (even more) unattractive proposition, the moneymen could simply decide to bail, and what then? Even the non-profit news model—which has often been held up as a viable alternative to the caprices of private ownership—is not immune. As markets sag, major foundation funders might scale back their giving to protect their endowments.
  • Some local outlets are hurting already. Yesterday, Sarah Scire, Benton’s colleague at Nieman Lab, pointed to the example of The Stranger, an alt-weekly (which publishes biweekly) in Seattle, Washington, where the coronavirus first caused major problems on American soil. The Stranger derives 90 percent of its revenue from holding its own events and providing a marketplace for others—in short, its survival depends on “people getting together in groups”. On Wednesday, The Stranger’s Twitter account urged readers to donate to keep it afloat. “We pride ourselves on having navigated many storms in the world of independent local media,” the post read, “but this time is different.”

Allsop ends his CJR article on a really sobering note that will probably send chills down the spines of most journalists: “In recent years, we’ve gotten used to hearing dire prognostications about the complete erosion of the local news business in the United States. The coronavirus risks accelerating almost all of the malign trends. Its impact could end up looking loosely analogous to that of the virus itself. Big media companies with healthy finances and growing subscriber bases will likely survive, and could even profit. Outlets with serious underlying health conditions might die.”

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