Weekly Digest

The Fix Weekly Digest: The Power of Large Numbers

Welcome to The Fix’s weekly news digest! Every week, we bring you five important news stories from the world of media — and try to put them in a wider context.

On Sunday, The New York Times published an important piece detailing the major racial disparities in the spread of COVID-19 and its fatality in the US, based on analysis of some 1.5 million cases. The impact of racial inequality on the pandemic’s spread had been known before, but not how significant this impact was. According to the newspaper, Latino and African-American residents have been three times as likely to catch COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from the disease than White Americans.

What’s important from the journalistic point of view, The New York Times received access to this treasury of data only after suing a government agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, even this pool is incomplete and not as detailed as it could be.

This situation highlights the problems with access to COVID-19 data gathered by governments — as well as the legal and other difficulties faced by the media to do their job while reporting on the virus. As Columbia Journalism Review puts it, “the best information we currently have about a problem of urgent national concern is incomplete, and wouldn’t be public at all were it not for a major newspaper’s legal and reportorial muscle”.

And, while the US is not the world’s success story on curbing the pandemic, there are dozens of countries where legal and media institutions are not developed as well as in the US, and thus where quality reporting on COVID-19 is extremely difficult.

Recent weeks saw the Facebook advertiser boycott gaining steam. As of late this week, around 1,000 brands have joined, including numerous large companies. On Tuesday, the boycott’s organizers met with Facebook leadership and claimed they were disappointed with the meeting’s results.

Will this boycott affect the company’s bottom line? Probably not, at least not directly. As The Economist points out, “Facebook is well placed to weather an advertising boycott” because it relies on the large network of small advertisers, some 8 million of them, while top-100 advertisers bring less than 20% of the revenue. While big companies can typically turn to alternative advertising platforms or temporarily slash ad budgets, small businesses often cannot afford it.

For the media, especially subscription services, it’s particularly hard to quit advertising on Facebook. According to Digiday’s analysis, “Facebook is a top driver of subscriptions because of its unrivaled scale, ease of use and precision targeting making it ideal for direct response-driven advertising, and even more so during the crisis. 

Still, as another well-publicized strike against Facebook which brings bad PR, the boycott might eventually prompt the company to reconsider some of its controversial policies and put more resources into countering hate speech.

This week marked three months since the launch of Quibi. The mobile streaming video platform was launched in April with much fanfare and high expectations but failed to meet them. As free trials for some 900,000 users registered in early April ended, the app saw only 8% of them staying on as paid subscribers. Moreover, the platform witnessed an unexpectedly low number of subscribers in the first place.

Quibi’s relative failure is a story about how the pandemic has changed media consumption, with people watching videos from their couches rather than on the go. Still, according to the picture painted by Vulture’s feature, Quibi’s poor results can also be attributed to company-specific issues, such as its founders’ inability to understand the service’s core audience.

The pandemic-induced job cuts are far from over. The UK’s largest newspaper publisher, Reach, will cut 550 jobs, which is 12% of its workforce. Reach owns Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Daily Star, and numerous regional newspapers.

The story behind these shifts is a common one for the coronacrisis. While the company has seen a spike in the number of online readers during the lockdown, it has not been enough to offset the blow of declines in advertising.

The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford released a report on toxicity in the social media discourse around the pandemic and the World Health Organization, specifically on Twitter. One of the most important findings: 21% messages — 21 out of 100 tweets — is considered toxic.

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