The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the news media hard. In both Canada and the United States, layoffs, furloughs, and cuts among newspapers, radio stations, and broadcasters, became a frequent occurrence. But how did the news organizations lose revenue in the year when up date reporting and accurate journalism was vitally important?
What Happened Pre-Pandemic
The decline in media revenue started before the pandemic, mainly the loss in advertisement dollars. According to a 2019 research paper by Sabrina Wilkinson from the Canadian Journal of Communication, journalism jobs have been declining for years. It states that there are currently fewer jobs in this field relative to the population. There are less permanent positions at news organizations and that many journalism jobs are increasingly considered temporary or freelance. In November 2019, the Toronto Star laid off over 100 workers across different regions and shut down Star Metro, which discontinued five free commuter newspapers. Daniel Burnhardt at the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a media advocacy organization, told me that he blames social media groups who aggregate news content. “I think most of the revenue is going to places like Facebook and Google. Because they’re taking the news from the news sources.” But not paying for it.
A statement echoed by Patrick White, a journalism professor at Université du Québec à Montréal in an essay “The causes of the enduring media crisis worldwide are known: a dramatic drop in advertising revenue for media to the benefit of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft”. And he concurs that it is just one more step in a decline that has been happening for decades. “The media in crisis is a constant; it was simply amplified by COVID-19. But it’s still taken a toll.”
How Covid-19 Made it Worse
But the Covid-19 Pandemic has only made these issues worse. In February of 2021, Bell Media laid off 210 workers across the country and eliminated three radio stations entirely. Actions that were condemned by Canada’s Association of Journalists.
“Some of the journalists who’ve lost their jobs have spent 20 years (or longer) with their organizations. Bell’s decision to gut some of these newsrooms with a simple stroke of a pen is unforgivable.”“ said CAJ President Brent Jolly in an article.
In July of 2020, Corus Entertainment laid off an unspecified number of workers in the digital and social media fields, claiming that they were streamlining content. A claim that was repeated by many organizations that also laid off or eliminated longtime positions. And on March 9, HuffPost Canada and HuffPost Quebec were abruptly shuttered by new owner Buzzfeed. A list at the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting tracked twenty four layoffs at various organizations. Similarly in the U.S.A, the Poynter institute created a long list of layoffs, furloughs, or outright eliminations. It found that sixty local newsrooms were closed throughout the year all over the country with an unknown number of jobs lost. In both countries, local and smaller organizations were most likely to close down, with larger companies downsizing or furloughing.
According to the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, the layoffs are happening because of an increase in the loss in ad revenue from companies that have been hit by pandemic losses. And companies want to put less money into what they see as a dwindling market. This only exacerbates losses caused by social media and secondary news sites. Bunrhardt says “All these people were closing down and pulled back heavily on their advertising budget, which affected TV, and radio, and print as well. So when you know when you’re closed and you’re laying people off. You’re also going to retract your ad dollars.”
What the Future Holds
White also lists possible solutions, such as compensation for news organizations from social media. Legislation could resemble the ones just passed in Australia which force Facebook and Google to share ad revenue with media firms, according to Reuters. In February, the federal government announced that it had plans for similar legislation in future. White also said that the federal government should follow through with a promised 900 million dollar media assistance fund that was announced in 2018 but hasn’t materialized. Other suggestions are for the Canadian and American media outlets to modernize quicker to take advantage of new media and technology, something White says they’ve been slow to do.
According to Poynter, these losses in journalism are a detriment to society. And that transparency and civic engagement declines wherever and whenever responsible journalism disappears.