What comes next? News organisations need to adapt to the new normal

After receiving 1857 applications to our European Journalism COVID-19 Support Fund, I believe the EJC has a good understanding of the challenges journalists face during this crisis. The outlook is not good, but there are clear ways forward.

Our $3m fund was aimed at local and community news organisations. These findings affect journalists in all areas and are echoed in reports by Splice, WAN-IFRA, the Reuters Institute, International Fund for Public Interest Media and others.

  • The majority of news organisations are reliant on advertising. COVID-19 has decreased this income. Many of them have not diversified their revenue and will not survive. They have few alternatives.
  • There is a marked difference between organisations who practice engaged journalism, and those that don’t. Organisations who have invested in building relationships with their audiences have more options.
  • The key challenges involve fixed costs, especially paying staff and freelancers. As a result, organisations are downsizing and ceasing production of newspapers and digital content, both temporarily and permanently. Freelancers are particularly affected as commissions dry up.
  • News organisations recognise the need to create new products, but many do not feel they have the runway to do this.
  • In some instances, news organisations are unable to work remotely. They lack the computers, equipment and basic infrastructure.

This economic fragility threatens the jobs of journalists and the existence of news organisations. It also threatens the openness of our societies. Press freedom has deteriorated by 12% since 2013 (RSF World Press Freedom Index).

The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate and amplify the economic, technological and political threats I have written about every year as the director of the EJC. It is an existential threat to journalism. With journalism goes democracy and open societies.

An exaggeration? Take a look at Hungary’s emergency measures that could imprison journalists covering the coronavirus response. Dive into the Poynter database of COVID-19 misinformation gathered by 100 fact-checkers in 45 countries across 15 languages. Familiarise yourself with the perilous position that media organisations of all sizes find themselves in. The virus is attacking traditional print outlets, newswires, established digital players, long-term reader-driven organisations, and the new wave of engaged journalism newsrooms.

COVID-19 is establishing a new normal. Even if news organisations survive this, they will enter into a completely different landscape. People will expect different things from organisations, information and experiences.

A recent Accenture report offers an excellent overview of what that might look like. What are the major changes in human behaviour we can expect to see? Will this change how news organisations keep communities and citizens informed? Here are five areas in which news organisations need to adapt to the new normal.

1. A decline in trust, a rise in anxiety

As illustrated in Mattia Ferraresi’s Nieman Report, COVID-19 has confronted European news organisations with a trust test. Confidence in the media in the European Union has been declining over the past five years. Despite a few exceptions, that trend doesn’t look set to be reversed.

COVID-19 has eroded the confidence of the public. On a human level, our day-to-day lives are more anxious than they were before. People have grown weary of the news, and become more careful with their money.

News organisations will have to respond by doubling down on the trust and transparency measures they seem so unwilling to deploy. Adoption of the Journalism Trust Initiative standard across the industry is necessary. News organisations urgently need to run trust audits to find ways they can optimise for reader confidence through every channel. Legacy brands will find trust-building easier, but should embrace transparency around sources and process.

2. More comfort with distributed experiences

A newspaper has always been a distributed medium. The trouble is that many news organisations, in the face of online competition, have pivoted into events businesses. News organisations need to find ways to extend this pivot into online community experiences. Community calls, virtual town-halls, chat-groups, marketplaces and initiatives that connect communities will become essential. News organisations need to get better at creating enjoyable digital environments.

Media companies won’t be the only ones thinking this. More businesses will move into online interaction. As broadband and 5G continue to penetrate more societies, competition will increase. News organisations should not neglect the final mile either. Print and radio are still desperately important to rural, vulnerable and disconnected communities.

News organisations should think about how they create products around the increased virtual engagement between friends, families and communities. People will turn to trusted brands to satisfy basic human needs of communication and information. It is up to news organisations to decide whether they want to be one of these brands, or whether they want to surrender the space to social networks and digital connection apps.

It is worth remembering that lockdown will end. People will be looking to meet in real life. Could the newspaper office be a site for a new form of social interaction? Is the editorial conference the new town-hall meeting? News organisations should prepare a post-COVID-19 strategy that thinks about the blend of virtual and physical initiatives they want to offer.

3. A focus on health

Accenture’s report emphasises that “every business is now a health business. Health experiences will be in demand, and vice versa health should be considered in every experience.” What does this mean for news organisations?

Firstly, it means a shift in the way news organisations function. The design of offices may have to change. Remote working — now stress-tested in a pandemic — can be embraced, but will need investment. Journalists will look more keenly at health benefits when joining a company. Illness will disrupt businesses and require back-up plans and flexibility.

Secondly, news organisations have to consider the importance and prominence of their health and science reporting. Audiences will want more specialised, localised information. Journalists will need a deeper understanding of the health beat, and likely better data journalism and visualisation skills to go with it.

News organisations should run an organisation health check in order to see what employee changes might need to be put in place when lockdown restrictions are eased. Audiences should be surveyed for their informational needs. Editorial teams should be recalibrated and retrained to meet the demand for health information.

4. The need for safe spaces

For the majority of European populations, home has become the centre of our lives over the past six weeks. This has changed people’s consumption habits and mindsets.

Without a daily commute, are podcasts or YouTube channels less commercially viable than before? Will disrupted behaviours return to normal in a post-lockdown world? News organisations need to build products that understand new behaviours. They should deliver information into the inboxes, apps and routines of their audiences. No two news organisations will be the same in this regard. News organisations must increase their listening and audience research capacity.

How can news organisations themselves become a safe space for their communities? How can they be lighthouses and ports in a storm, and a reliable source of information? Journalists should look beyond just politics and data, towards solutions-focused journalism and human stories.

5. Changing relationships with authority

Collectively, European governments have exercised greater control during COVID-19. As new tracking apps are tested and mandated, the heightened erosion of personal and political freedoms becomes real. Authoritarianism may slip in under the radar.

News organisations (and those that support them) have to counter this. Resilience requires independence from media capture and a strong, articulated mission of holding power to account. Audiences may be resistant to this mission as they become supportive of governmental authority. Or, alternatively, people could become antagonistic towards authority.

To navigate these uncertain waters, news organisations and journalists must build a watertight case for their own integrity. Media need to point towards a mission that goes beyond the production of content towards something more purposeful. News organisations will need to practice social responsibility. Engaged journalism practices will become expected, not a nice-to-have.

What news organisations should do next

  • Weather the storm. This MDIF blogpost doesn’t make easy reading, but it is on the money. News organisations need to take action to survive: “focus on cash collections to build a buffer as best you can and to start working on plans for contraction as revenue streams such as advertising dip and others, such as events, come to a complete standstill.”
  • Start listening. Engaged journalism practices will build a deeper bond with a community, increase the potential of new revenue streams, and help news organisations understand more about what their readers need.
  • Prepare the pivot. Pivot is a trigger word for many in our field. It reminds them of dramatic, poorly thought-out switches in revenue strategy. However, adaptation is key to resilience. News organisations need to get into the regular habit of scenario planning and experimentation.

What the EJC is doing next

In 2020, the European Journalism Centre will help journalists prepare for what’s next. Despite the difficult outlook above, we see a huge amount of inspiration and innovation across our communities.

We will be supporting communities of journalists to build resilience into journalism in five areas: freedom, funding, leadership, storytelling and digital.

Our programmes in 2020 will support:

The European Journalism Centre uses many tools to support these communities: training, grants, events, workshops, seminars, newsletters, podcasts, forums, events, mentors, ambassadors, databases, case-studies, handbooks, videos and more.

COVID-19 has hit our organisation too. 70% of our programmes have been directly affected, leading to the cancellation of events, the rescheduling of programmes, and the loss of revenue. Our team has shown real courage by continuing their work in challenging circumstances.

The crisis has not diminished our determination to support European journalists and the vital work they do. We’re doing everything we can to provide flexibility to grantees and distributed support to journalists. Our goal is that every journalist benefits from a European Journalism Centre programme. Our communities and societies need it more than ever.

Sign up to hear more about our work at ejc.net/newsletters.

This year, our work is realised through the kind support of Adessium Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the European Commission, ECORYS, Evens Foundation, Facebook Journalism Project, Fondation Puech, Google News Initiative, International Committee of the Red Cross, Ministrie van Buitenlandse Zaken (Netherlands), News Integrity Initiative, Open Society Foundations, Schoepflin Stiftung, Stichting Democratie en Media, and the sponsors of DataJournalism.com. Thank you.

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Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

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Adam Thomas

Adam Thomas

Technology & journalism. Director @ejcnet. Formerly @Storyful @Sourcefabric @transmediale. Don’t panic.

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