The closure of BuzzFeed News in Australia may have grabbed the headlines last week but the digital startup is just one victim on a growing list of media casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Five editorial staff at BuzzFeed have lost their jobs, but across the country hundreds more have been stood down in an already fractured media landscape. It’s unclear how many will ever return to their posts.
In the far north of the country the family-owned Cape and Torres News stopped the presses after 60 years in March when distribution became impossible and advertising dried up. In regional Victoria, locally owned mastheads entering their second century were forced to close as the coronavirus started to devour advertising revenue.
Sunraysia Daily was supposed to be celebrating its centenary, but owners Elliott Newspaper Group made the “gut-wrenching” decision to suspend all newspaper publishing operations in Mildura, Swan Hill and Kerang, albeit promising they would come back when the economy recovered.
The Public Interest Journalism Initiative is documenting the changes to newsrooms across Australia using a a visualization tool.
The Australian Newsroom Mapping Project aims to track the health of Australia’s news industry and has already counted 157 newsrooms that have closed temporarily or for good since January last year.
“The crisis is unprecedented and for Australia it’s a triple whammy of ongoing long-term affects of digital platforms, the coronavirus effect, which unfortunately may generate some irreversible changes and the bushfires had some effect,” Public Interest Journalism Initiative chairman Allan Fels told Guardian Australia.
“Public interest journalism is an important part of our community and our political system. It keeps the public informed; it helps the community keep an eye on what governments, courts and others are doing; it’s an antidote to corruption, malpractice and incompetence in management of the public sector and whistleblowing in the private sector.”
Some of the carnage predates the coronavirus, namely the bombshell announcement in early March that news agency Australian Associated Press and its 200 journalists and 100 photojournalists, who provide a daily staple of news, was to be shut down by major shareholders Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia.
The staff have been suffering months of uncertainty after the company embarked on 11th hour talks with unexpected offers, and the fate of the 85-year-old agency due to shut next month is still unknown.
The effects of an advertising industry badly hit by the coronavirus have not spared the biggest media companies.
The country’s two regional and community newspaper giants, Australian Community Media and News Corp Australia, have suspended printing dozens of non-daily publications and laid off or stood down hundreds of staff.
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire chose to suspend printing 60 of its local newspapers including the Wentworth Courier and the Mosman and the Manly dailies in New South Wales and the Preston Leader and the Stonnington Leader in Melbourne. News Corp did not rule out redundancies at the suspended titles across NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.
A report in The Australian yesterday said “many suspended community titles are likely to continue as digital-only” and revealed that the company is realigning itself as a “digital publisher of high-quality journalism,” suggesting the printed product at News Corp is winding down.
At Murdoch’s metropolitan mastheads — which include the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun — there has been forced leave, part-time work and nine-day fortnights.
Michael Miller, the company’s executive chairman, told staff “falling business confidence is impacting the advertising revenues of all media businesses.”
LAYOFFS COME AS AUDIENCES SURGE
In magazines the picture is similarly bleak. Bauer Media has thrown 200 staff into unemployment and shut down seven fashion, lifestyle and celebrity magazines, a move which has been described as having ripped the heart out of the industry.
Some of the losses are not public yet. Nine is said to be undergoing a fresh round of redundancies at the Sydney Morning Herald, mainly on sections which stopped printing due to the coronavirus. The company declined to comment but sources say there are eight jobs losses, four directly attributable to the coronavirus.
The ABC, bracing for budget cuts to be announced after June, has quietly laid off a huge chunk of its casual workforce with one week’s notice. The casuals work across news and current affairs in TV news and radio programs and some have been working five days a week on six-month contracts.
The regional papers that have survived the recent massacre and are still printing have nonetheless suffered serious declines in readership in the past year. Readership of News Corp’s NT News is down 38.5 percent in the past 12 months to March. Readership of Australian Community Media’s Newcastle Herald and Launceston Examiner are both down more than 14 percent.
The only stable publication in the category over the past year has been the Canberra Times, according to Roy Morgan readership data released this week.
All of this media pain has come at a time when readers and viewers have flocked to news , with the top 10 news Web sites up by 54 percent on the previous four weeks at the end of March due to coronavirus news.
A University of Canberra study found that news consumption had increased during the pandemic, with 70 percent of respondents saying they were accessing news at least once a day, compared to 56 percent last year.
The news industry was under enormous strain coming into this year but the coronavirus has accelerated its decline.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance president Paul Murphy says the coronavirus “brought to a head the underlying crisis in the industry” driven by the decline in the share of advertising for news companies in Australia.
“The government has finally put in place that US$50 million regional fund recommended by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission last year,” Murphy said.
“I think most major media organizations are reporting bigger audiences and people are relying on trusted news sources — but the revenue just doesn’t follow.
“The two biggest holes are if nothing replaces AAP and finding a way to address the growing local and regional news deserts.”
HOPE FOR ‘TANGIBLE RESULTS’
The industry is putting a lot of faith in the work on a mandatory code that will force the digital platforms such as Google and Facebook to compensate news media companies for using their content.
The ACCC made the recommendation in the digital platforms report last year.
A few weeks after its chairman Rod Sims warned that reform was “urgent” because media companies were in great difficulty, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, instructed him to develop a mandatory code of conduct for the digital giants.
Murphy says the state of journalism after the coronavirus is “in the hands of the government and the ACCC to a great extent.”
“There has to be a way found to make these digital platforms pay for the content they’re carrying,” Murphy says. “Otherwise you’re just going to continue seeing decline. I mean obviously there are other policy tools the government can use like tax concessions.”
Fels, a former regulator himself, is optimistic.
“I believe the mandatory code will lead to tangible results and if it doesn’t the government will apply other pressure to Google and Facebook such as a tax on their revenue,” he said. “Broadly I am impressed with the measures the government has put in place already and the focus has mainly been on regional and suburban media. Of course we think it should be more but it is substantial.”
Murphy says no one can be sure in what form the suspended mastheads at ACM and News Corp will return.
“Years of redundancies and cost-cutting hollowed out those newspapers. It depends on how the advertising market rebounds,” Murphy says.
“Print comes with considerable cost and if the advertising revenue is not there it may well accelerate the move to only publishing online.”
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