Tuesday

2nd Jun 2020

Top editors alarmed by media cuts in EU and beyond

  • Journalists covering an EU summit in pre-pandemic times in Brussels (Photo: EUobserver)

The pandemic slowdown is strangling quality journalism, but that suits some governments, leading European and international editors have said.

"The situation is very difficult. We're in major cost-saving measures," Tammy Tam, editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, an independent Hong Kong-based newspaper, said on Tuesday (19 May).

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"Everyone is having pay cuts and non-paid leave of three weeks. Advertising income is zero," she said.

"Advertisers don't want their name to be connected with news on coronavirus," Martin Baron, the editor-in-chief of US newspaper The Washington Post, also said.

"Subscriptions are saving us," he said.

They spoke by videoconference at the Media Council of the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Swiss think-tank, amid almost daily announcements of editorial job losses around the globe.

Wounded firms include well-known online publications Buzzfeed, Quartz, and Vice, media group Condé Nast, and even The Economist, which recently cut 90 jobs, though not editorial ones.

But the list of victims is much longer, covering also local publications and business-focused ones.

Some 36,000 media workers in the US have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had pay cuts since the crisis began, US newspaper The New York Times has estimated.

More than 150 newsrooms in Australia have also closed temporarily or permanently since January, British daily The Guardian reported.

And "even after the pandemic recedes, the likely recession to follow could hurt ad revenue for years to come," Quartz CEO Zach Seward recently warned.

There have been no similar tallies for European newsrooms, but EU culture ministers pledged more financial aid for the sector in future when they spoke by videoconference also on Tuesday.

We must "ensure support for our media sector, which is crucial for our fight against disinformation", Obuljen Koržinek, Croatia's minister of culture, who chaired the talks, said.

"I don't know how anyone can imagine this lockdown without access to online content," EU commissioner Mariya Gabriel also said, referring to both news and entertainment.

EU budgetary lifelines should be "considerably increased", she said.

But for some at the WEF meeting, national governments were crying crocodile tears.

"In Paris, work is more difficult without working lunches. But officials are happy to be left alone, with fewer journalists around," Sylvie Kaufmann, the editorial director of French newspaper Le Monde, said.

French president Emmanuel Macron had taken to inviting just three or so French journalists to his briefings on EU summits, but none of them were reporters specialising in EU affairs, she said.

"In Brussels, it's also problematic: No more doorstep questions, no more journalistic pressure," Kaufmann added.

"Working for journalists has become more difficult in Asia, eastern Europe, and the US. Governments are making use of the situation to make journalism more difficult," John Micklethwait, the editor-in-chief of the US-based Bloomberg news agency, said.

"Access to information is also a victim of the coronavirus pandemic," Tom Gibson, the Brussels director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based NGO, also told EUobserver.

"The crisis has made it abundantly clear: EU citizens need reliable information as a matter of safety and public health. Yet the media is now facing a new wave of censorship," he added.

The financial situation was not ubiquitously grim, however.

The Washington Post said the pandemic had driven "a massive increase in digital subscriptions", for instance.

Tech threat

And coronavirus was just one reason for the editorial lay-offs.

Tech firms, such as Google and Facebook, gobbling up what little ad income there was left, while publishing other people's content for free was another reason, Vice magazine CEO Nancy Dubuc recently said.

Tech firms were "benefiting and making money from our hard work", she said.

"Now, after many years of this, the squeeze is becoming a chokehold. [Online] platforms are not just taking a larger slice of the pie, but almost the whole pie," she said.

"News should not be for free. Nothing is for free," The Washington Post's Baron also said at the WEF meeting on Tuesday.

"Paid online media will [have to] increase," Bloomberg's Micklethwait predicted.

"The response of EU institutions to the pandemic will also need to be framed in terms of protecting journalists around the bloc, and this needs to be urgently prioritised," the CPJ's Gibson said.

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