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Staying positive in tough times

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong • 4 min read
Staying positive in tough times
The Covid-19 outbreak has forced media to make tough decisions between free new as public duty, or keep paywalls up to keep the lights on.
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SINGAPORE (Apr 3): On the morning of April 2, inspectors from the Ministry of Manpower conducted a rare spot check of the premises of The Edge Singapore. They took some pictures — not of our messy piles of newspapers and documents, but of a sign stuck on our meeting room door that says “no more than four persons in this room at all times”.

This unusual visit is triggered by the unusual times we live in now.

With more than 900,000 (and rising) people across the globe now infected by the Covid-19 virus, news organisations like ours have — more than ever — a huge responsibility to provide accurate, objective and reliable information. We also have a duty to counter fake news, which is often available free, and with far more titillating headlines than ours. Having felt the brunt of declining advertising revenue for years, the media industry has turned to paywalls and paid subscriptions to make ends meet. But the results have been mixed.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, many news outlets have made Covid-19 related content freely accessible (even if the rest of the website remains behind a paywall). They understand readers’ desire to stay informed, and that’s a primary duty of the media.

However, in a recent think-piece on Poynter — a non-profit research institute — news organisations are being urged to put their paywalls back up on Covid-19 news. “Over the past few weeks, many newspapers and other news websites have taken down paywalls for stories related to the coronavirus. It’s time to scrap that idea,” the US-based institute argues. “Yes, the public is craving information. And, yes, the information provided by journalists is important. But this is suddenly a dicey time for many in the media.” This is sparking a difficult conversation for many newspapers.

Over the past decade, more than 2,000 publications have disappeared across the world while newsroom jobs have halved. For instance, in the UK newspaper sales have fallen by 30% in the past few months while thousands of newsagents have closed down. It has come to the point where many news organisations are, as the saying goes, living hand-to-mouth. And when yet another news organisation calls it a day, so does yet another credible source of news — free or otherwise.

Now, media organisations have a choice to make: Make in-depth and accurate coverage of Covid-19 freely available, or restore paywalls to keep the lights on. It is a tough choice between idealism and realism.

Still, there is some good news. In February, the McClatchy Company — an American publishing company which operates 29 daily newspapers in 14 states in the US — filed for bankruptcy. But the following month, as the outbreak worsened, it gained 10,200 new subscriptions. Subscriber page views have also increased by 50%, the company said. McClatchy’s vice president of news, Kristin Roberts, told Poynter that 13% of views were by those who would have been stopped by the paywall, if it had been up. Converting even a fraction of those would generate much-needed revenue.

And, some newspapers are appealing to their readers to donate to keep the presses going. UK’s daily broadsheet The Guardian is notable for breaking even on donations and sponsored content, while keeping all their stories available for free. Some have found a happy balance, offering breaking Covid-19 news for free but keeping everything else — expert analysis, for example — behind a paywall. Then there is The Boston Globe, which is offering expert stories on its related science news site for free, but with a small banner on top asking for a contribution.

Faced with this dilemma, newsrooms are somewhat grim places to be in during these times where manpower is stretched thin and where journalists are battling between public duty and the need to put food on the table. Of course, the media industry isn’t the only one hurt by the pandemic. Some market experts believe the worst is not over, and many investors have been hurt by the recent sell-down.

But the recovery will come. Investors, for now, have to stay prudent and perhaps, turn to credible sources for insights and analysis so that they can make better decisions. We must stay positive, not Covid-positive.

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