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Stop the presses (like, for good, this time)

Hobbled but not dead, print journalism is set to become the latest victim of the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is already wreaking havoc on a brittle media industry. Event revenues are gone, ad rates are plummeting. One of the weakest links — the hobbled but still proud print publishing — may not make it out alive. 

Across Europe print papers are closing down. This week alone the UK is set to lose at least 8 print publications. Others are axing circulation volume — no surprise given sales of papers in the UK are down 30%. Experts warn the worst days of the health crisis are still ahead of us, with each new day bringing ever more dire numbers about the economic fallout.

In decline for years, print remains a major news source — from the free dailies serving commuters in urban centers, through paid broadsheets to a whole range of glossy weeklies covering niche topics. 

A third of Germans cited print as a major source of news in 2019, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. Across the continent this number varies from around 10% to as high as 45-50%. 

Similarly, print remains a major source of revenue and hence media jobs. No two models are alike, but an anecdotal survey of legacy publications (older than 10 years) suggest between 15 and 50% of revenues still come from print.

That doesn’t quite answer the question of why COVID-19 is such an existential threat to print. Basically, it boils down to 3 things: fears of spreading the disease, a breakdown of distribution, and cutting costs.

Let’s start from spread — while there is some debate about how long coronavirus stays virulent enough to infect people, some of the studies show surprisingly persistent staying power. 

If you don’t want to lay off (too many) employees, print is an obvious candidate.

It’s worth noting the World Health Organization has indicated it does not think print is a carrier. But print tends to be preferred by older, potentially at-risk populations, and the fact that a copy can easily go from infected hands to soon-to-be-infected hands, many prefer not to take the risk. 

Some governments have even appealed to publishers to move online – in Morocco the Minister for Youth, Culture and Media asked outright to go digital from March 22.

Distribution is an even more powerful force. Whether you’re a business daily delivered to offices around the capital, or the free commuter paper, chances are COVID-19 has massively impacted your distribution. 

City A.M., a London-based business-focused freesheet, announced on March 19 it was suspending its print operation “until our readers start returning to the capital.” The entire staff was asked to take a 50% pay cut from April in a move aimed to stave off firings. 

Meanwhile, across the continent, Ukraine’s English-language weekly The Kyiv Post [my former media home – J.P.], announced it would be skipping a print issue for the first time in a quarter-century. 

A point of pride for the Executive Editor Brian Bonner, The Kyiv Post has literally gone through a general strike, recessions, a war and revolutions (plural!) without missing an issue. 

“We stopped this week’s print edition — the 13th of our 25th year, dated March 27, 2020,” Bonner wrote in an op-ed. “The main reason is that there’s nowhere to distribute the newspaper.”

Kyiv Post newspaper archives
Photo: Oleg Petrasiuk

The real problem, however, is the widening gap between revenues and costs. 

This is by no means a media problem — the first thing any company does when revenues dry up is to get control of the costs. Many of the online travel-related tech firms, for instance, are now actively trimming cloud storage costs.

The difference is that most media don’t have that much to trim. Basically, years of cost-cutting have left two big items — jobs and distribution. If you don’t want to lay off (too many) employees, print is an obvious candidate.

In some cases it’s an opportunity to axe some flawed projects and blame it on the COVID. In Poland two right-wing weekly magazines, Do Rzeczy and Wprost, shut their print issues in the past couple of weeks. 

Propped up by purchases from state-owned and government-friendly companies, neither magazine really inspired their audiences (with both seeing double-digit drops in circulation), making the corona-pandemic a perfect excuse. 

But coming back to print — once you’ve lost the habit of buying your local paper — is easier said than done. By the time we’re out of lockdown many readers will have already adapted to PDF or digital versions, or simply stopped reading news altogether in favour of some hobby like painting or baking bread. 

It takes only a couple of weeks for people to get used to a new normal. Consider working from home — many employers are now finding that productivity is surprisingly resilient without face to face meetings. It is likely that working from home to a greater degree is here to stay (to the detriment of commuter papers).

This does not mean that no print products will exist coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. But while hummingbirds may trace their lineage back to the mighty T-Rex, they’re not really the same thing. Similarly, future print media will likely in no way resemble the mighty creatures of the past.

The future will likely hold fewer media, that’s already clear. Strong brands will be able to rally communities behind them, the rest will be lost in the great dying out.

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