Journalism in jeopardy: Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on newspapers

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Ntibinyane Ntibinyane

The impact of this global pandemic on the media industry is being felt acutely. Hamstrung by loss of advertising revenue and low sales, newsrooms across the world have announced staff layoffs, suspended or cancelled their print operations and downsized significantly. The industry is under immense strain and Africa has not been spared.

The traditional business model for newspapers, underpinned by advertising and circulation, has imploded. This is not a new occurrence or due to COVID-19: revenue from these two sources has been steadily declining in recent years due to the uptake of digital news and the challenging economic environment in many African countries.

The pandemic has added fuel to the fire: unless we take swift and decisive measures, the newspaper industry will be decimated. What should be done and how? This article proposes radical and urgent measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on print journalism in Africa.

For at least two centuries, newspapers have been the lifeblood of democracy. Local, independent publishers have pushed for strong and credible journalism, developing a public good that is now under threat. Newspapers are still an invaluable medium in many African countries, reaching rural communities and those without internet access.

But that is changing. While data is not readily available to assess the overall performance of newspapers on the continent, there is growing evidence in countries like Kenya and South Africa that newspapers are losing readership. In South Africa, data for the past ten years show a 49% drop in circulation for newspapers. In Kenya, data shows that in 2018, the number of English daily newspapers declined to 87.1 million from 102 million in 2014. The number of Kiswahili daily newspapers, on the other hand, declined to 37 million copies in 2018 from 58 million copies in 2014.

For the newspaper industry to have a chance of survival post-COVID-19, radical measures must be pursued.

First, the industry should consider migrating online. Second, newspaper owners must engage with government about economic relief measures, without compromising on sacred principles like editorial independence. Third, the industry should embrace support from ‘Big Tech’ but should also call for profit-sharing and taxation to support independent journalism.

Online is the only solution

There is general agreement in scholarship and practice that newspapers will, sooner or later, cease to exist as we know them. In anticipation of this eventuality, efforts should be made to save journalism. Democracy cannot function without watchdog journalism.

To sustain post-COVID-19 journalism, African media houses should make the transition from print to online publishing. This will entail hard decisions, but media owners must be practical: invest digital resources into saving their product, capacitate staff with digital skills and embrace innovation and creativity to build a strong online presence.

Indeed, online publishing is not a panacea to journalism’s challenges. Newspapers that have adopted a digital-first strategy or moved operations entirely online still struggle to generate revenue. But there is no other option for survival.

The issue of the digital divide in Africa is inescapable when considering that 60% of Africans do not have access to the internet, and thus are excluded from consuming news online. Rural Africa is still struggling with broadband penetration and expensive data and electricity costs. Internet access on the continent has been increasing rapidly because of much improved Information Communications Technology infrastructure and a drop in mobile data costs. But data prices in Africa remain more expensive than most parts of the world. In fact, while elsewhere around the world 1GB of mobile broadband data costs no more than 2% of average income, in Africa it costs around 7.12%.

Be that as it may, the glaring digital divide on the continent is not static. For example, in 2010about 10% of the population in Africa had access to the internet. A decade later that number has quadrupled. With UN-backed initiatives such as ‘Connecting Africa through broadband’, more Africans are expected to have access to affordable internet in 2030 than those who don’t.

Prolonging the inevitable: Government relief

The current situation facing the newspaper industry requires governments to intervene and bail out struggling newspapers post-COVID-19. Journalism experts around the world argue that journalism is a public good and, as such, news organisations should be supported to continue informing and educating the public as well as holding power to account. They argue that, just as policymakers recognise the need to fund public education or healthcare using taxpayers’ monies, journalism should receive similar support.

In 2019, the Canadian government launched a controversial bailout for the country’s beleaguered news industry. The $595 million bailout entailed tax relief for news organisations producing original news as well as support for nonprofits. Sweden’s long-term public investment, in news media, including newspapers, has also been suggested by experts as an option for Africa to consider.

I am skeptical about government bailouts for African media outlets. Perceptions of bias become stronger when governments start using subsidies to rescue media houses. Those considered friendly are likely to enjoy greater benefit at the expense of critical publications. Furthermore, a bailout from the government, particularly the executive, has a direct bearing on the independence of the media and threatens press freedom and free speech. Experts also caution that funding journalists with “public funds and turning every journalist into a quasi-public servant undermines innovation and creativity”.

The newspaper industry should only pursue government support measures when there are clear statutory safeguards against interference, and when their editorial independence remains guaranteed. But again, why should the government direct tax money into a failing business model?

Here is my suggestion for an alternative measure. Post-COVID-19, media outlets, particularly newspapers, should engage policymakers and look for more sustainable, indirect public funding options. Support from the government should be in the form of tax breaks, such as exemption from Value Added Tax. In most European Union member states, newspapers and periodicals benefit from reduced VAT. In fact, in Denmark, Belgium and the United Kingdom, newspapers are completely exempted from paying VAT.

Newspapers should also push for reduced tariffs for the internet, telecommunications, electricity, water and paper. Another indirect public funding option is for governments to shut down commercial aspects of state-owned media and allow independent newspapers to compete amongst themselves and not with state-controlled papers. Why should the Times of Zambia, a well-funded state propaganda tool, compete for advertising with Diggers, an independent newspaper? It doesn’t make sense. Governments should also provide subsidies for online news startups that commit to public interest journalism.

Will these measures be enough to save the newspaper industry? The simple answer is no. However, they can do the following:

Buy time and allow newspapers to prepare for and migrate to online platforms.

Save jobs, at least in the meantime. If nothing is done in the next coming months, thousands of media workers on the continent are going to lose jobs. Hundreds are already losing jobs every year.

Sustain accountability journalism and ensure that while the newspaper industry navigates through this dire time, governments, politicians and those in power are not left unscrutinised.

Financial support from Big Tech: a stopgap measure

Tech giants like Google and Facebook have been siphoning of billions in advertising revenue from the news media, contributing to the dire state the industry finds itself in. Their recent programs like the Google News Initiative and Facebook Journalism Project that support online media and quality journalism, train newsrooms and combat disinformation, are a step towards ‘reparations’, if you will. In response to COVID-19 in particular, Google launched the ‘Journalism Emergency Relief Fund’ while Facebook established the ‘COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund’ to help newsrooms maintain operations during the pandemic. These initiatives are welcome and should be pursued energetically by African news media, but they are insufficient in the long term.

Two more sustainable measures should be considered:

African governments, perhaps through the African Union, should compel tech giants to pay media companies for profiting from their originally produced content. In Australia, the Competition and Consumer Commission is working on a mandatory code of conduct that will force Facebook and Google to share advertising profits with news companies. This much-needed revenue could be used to shore up newspapers’ online footprint, or support their print operations.

African governments should impose taxes on ‘Big Tech’. This won’t be easy. To achieve this, countries should modernise tax laws to allow tax authorities to collect tax from tech companies even if they are not physically domiciled on the continent. The tax should then be used to support and strengthen independent newspapers on the continent.

Newspapers have been on financial ventilators for many years. They continue to bleed money, readers and influence. Their traditional business model is collapsing. COVID-19 is simply hastening the inevitable. Media owners are forced to consider options that may have been off the table before, bearing in mind that the ultimate goal is to save and strengthen journalism in Africa.

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