Craving for news has seldom been so strong as during this lockdown and at a time when the choice of news platforms has never been so extensive.
People are flocking to social media, broadcast and websites for the latest information, opinion and speculation.
Traditionally they would also be turning to newspapers whose circulations tend to rise at times of national crisis or celebration – whether the death of Princess Diana or England’s recent near World Cup glory.
But the COVID-19 crisis is different. Lockdown means no daily commute for millions of people, the closure of many small newsagents and normally regular readers self-isolating.
The result is an unprecedented hit to print newspaper sales. The latest official figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations which cover the three weeks to March 22 – the day before the UK officially went into lockdown – show national newspaper circulation numbers little changed against February. However, the next ABC figures, which will cover April and be released in mid-May, will make tougher reading for the industry.
Despite wide ranging free delivery marketing drives by many papers, initial estimates are that print circulations could have plummeted by a third. The loss of the cover price is one thing, but it is the slump in advertising revenue that is causing a seismic economic shock to the industry. Local and regional papers are particularly vulnerable, but so are the nationals.
The immediate impact is some newspapers halting – at least temporarily - some print editions, some journalists being furloughed or being asked to take unpaid leave and a greater push to online by those papers which already operate this model.
Tension amongst journalists is running high. Witness the social media spat of the last few days about the open sharing of a Sunday Times story that was behind a paywall. Journalists pointed out that news costs money to produce and in terms of value for money – the classic line that a paper is less than the price of a cup of coffee – it is incredible. I totally agree. While the breaking the paywall issue has been raised before, this time, at a time of immense economic pressure for the industry, emotions were heightened.
Print journalist may well be right to be worried. For the first time whole print newspapers are being produced by journalists and production staff working from home. Publishers will look at the expensive real estate of empty newspaper offices and wondering just how big they need to be. They will also be looking closely at the migration of readers to online and how many may be convinced to stick with reading their paper that way in future.
It is not as if print circulations have been buoyant. While March on February this year may have been stable, year-on-year there were falls across the board, many with double-digit percentage declines.
Perhaps the lockdown will hasten a fundamental change in the print newspaper industry not seen since the introduction of new technology in the 1980s which marked the end of 150 years of ‘hot metal’ production.
Even though print may fade, newspaper journalists will persist, continuing to challenge and champion. But an evolution in the medium for their message – perhaps a greatly increased online presence of instantly updateable rolling news – will present new communication threats and opportunities which businesses will need greater help to navigate.