Going viral has new meaning for media in age of COVID-19
“Our whole financial model is under duress.” – Michael Roberts, publisher, Nunatsiaq News
“It’s a dark tunnel with no light right now.” – Bruce Valpy, publisher, Northern News Services Limited
There has been a staggering number of lives lost in the global COVID-19 pandemic. There have also been millions of people who were very sick with the novel coronavirus.
There are also even more people who may have had the oddly acting virus out of China and never even known it. But another victim of the pandemic is the economy.
Businesses of all sizes and types are struggling, as government-imposed shutdowns and social distancing requirements mean many are struggling to survive. Others simply are facing reduced demand for their products, as people aren’t leaving their homes.
One industry that has more consumers than ever is the media. However, with many of the legacy mainstream outlets — especially newspapers of all sizes — still stuck on advertiser-driven business models, many of them will die a painful death due to economic side-effects of the virus.
Newer newsrooms correctly utilizing online media platforms will have a better chance of making it through these strange days. They aren’t as constricted by outmoded copy flow, inneficient editing processes and ancient ideas about what people want and need from local media.
In addition to ads from local and regional businesses, newer media also funds its staff and technology through eagle-eyed attention to all available government and foundation funding sources and also encourages patrons to donate directly to help fund the news they are reading. Some outlets in North America are even set up as non-profits, to easily attract donations that can be tax-deductible.
But for those media businesses who have been slow to adapt — dragging their heels over the 20 years since the internet has become a thing — are wilting under the strain of lost display advertising and little or no classified ads. This as payroll costs for reporters remain a constant. A very expensive constant, even with any government subsidies or journalism-related tax breaks
This pandemic has laid bare the osteoporosis-riddled skeletal foundations of many legacy media. Only the strong will survive and only the best will thrive.
Now of course, nothing I write here today applies to Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC., and its 867 platforms and languages it works in. Nope, our tax dollars will continue to support the painfully biased Mother Corp. (I admit painting here with a wide brush, as there are some very good and truly objective reporters with the CBC, but they keep their heads down.)
Like a cockroach, CBC will emerge unscathed from the ashes of this viral firestorm.
But I digress. I’m writing today about private media outlets.
The demand for accurate and trustworthy information is at an all-time high. But the precipitous advertising drop has come at a time when readership is peaking as people clamour for COVID-related news.
With so much misinformation out there, virus-related or not, reliable local media outlets are so very important. It’s the only way to learn what’s happening in your community — city hall, school boards and local events such as sports and entertainment. Clear, fact-based reporting that can be trusted is so necessary in our society to hold officials and government institutions and private companies to account.
For many legacy media, it’s too late to re-tool and those owners will be kicking themselves for not properly moving to more flexible and adaptive business models when they had the chance. It’s also no joke that big digital media companies such as Google and Facebook have proven to be an attractive option for advertisers large and small.
In the North, we have seen newspapers decide to stop their print products.
Nunatsiaq News in Nunavut announced last month it was suspending its print edition because of COVID-19. Publisher Michael Roberts is quoted as saying fewer flights and closure of its print plant in the South forced his hand. But so did a drop in ad revenue. He said the print edition will return. Nunatsiaq News will continue to publish for free on its website, along with a PDF version of the print edition.
Another media outlet that serves Nunavut — and all of the NWT — is the venerable Northern News Services Limited (NNSL), which publishes six titles across the two territories. NNSL suspended its print editions for a few weeks, but now appears to have the presses rolling again.
As CBC North reported in late March, NNSL, announced the company was suspending print copies and “focusing its online output until the COVID-19 crisis is under control.”
Publisher Bruce Valpy told CBC he made the decision to stop printing papers to keep his staff safe and physically distant. As with Nunatsiaq News, Valpy also said a drop in advertising and reduced flights to communities would have made it difficult to get the product into the hands of readers.
Valpy told CBC that seven people were laid off in March, admitting there may be more layoffs this month. (Full disclosure: I was one of those laid off last month. I had been a freelance editor with NNSL, pretty much since I left full-time employment as an editor there in 2018. Since January 2019, I have been a volunteer contributor to Cabin Radio, regularly covering law courts for that online community media outlet.)
NNSL was founded in 1972 and is best-known in the NWT for its twice weekly Yellowknifer and weekly News/North. It also publishes four other papers in NWT and Nunavut.
None of the factors cited by Valpy as reasons for suspending print versions last month have changed, but as of the Friday, April 24 Yellowknifer, there are hard-copy print versions again. No explanation in the Yellowknifer. Just a tweet from reporter Simon Whitehouse. No word yet on whether the paywall — or partial paywall just for PDF ‘papers’ — will be brought back.
But NNSL has made a peculiar move to merge News/North with its Nunavut sister publication., Nunavut News. (Internally, they were often referred to as News/North east and west.)
Apparently to maintain federal funding under the Canada Periodical Fund, there will be different front and back pages — along with unique editorial and op-ed pages — for each, but the inside content will be the same. That includes Inuktitut translations for some stories.
Apart from the savings in printing and costs, I don’t see how it increases the value of the final product for readers. Sure, they will have 32 pages of content, but much of that will be of little or no relevance to them. And that includes ads bought by the territorial governments detailing information specific to residents of NWT or Nunavut.
But who am I to question Valpy? I will be interested to see if readers in Yellowknife are interested about events in Chesterfield Inlet and Coral Harbour. And if readers in Iqaluit care much about what’s going on in Fort Simpson or Norman Wells. Giving the products a read this weekend, I just found them to be confusing. I also noticed a big chunk of the News/North newspapers are in black and white, as NNSL’s press configuration can’t be full colour with a single 32-page product.
Sure, Nunavut and the NWT used to be one large territory, but that changed when they were split into two distinct regions in April 1999, with the creation of Nunavut, a homeland for Canada’s Inuit.
We do still have some health-care ties to part of Nunavut — we service the western Kitikmeot region — and a large percentage of Yellowknife’s homeless population is from Nunavut.
Here’s part of Valpy’s explanation, from a box on the bottom of the front page of the latest editions: “In this time of Covid-19, the news of the two territories comes together again. Nunavut News will carry news from Northwest Territories, NWT News/North will carry news of Nunavut. We share the land, we share the air, we share the animals, we share the water.”
I wouldn’t want to see NNSL fail and close. Heck, I worked my butt off for to years to try and make it a more attractive modern source of news and information.
But the bottom line is people looking for NWT news will turn to the most reliable and immediate providers of interesting and accurate content.
The more media the better as competition breeds better journalism. But in these tough times, only the strong will survive.
So I wish NNSL well. But the future for it — or other news outlets that rely a lot on advertising for revenue — will depend on how quickly the extreme shutdown of the economy can be eased and some form of business activity can return.
The federal government has been tinkering with some new programs to help local journalism. While that isn’t the best scenario — independence from government, that kind of ethical quandary — it was happening in any event with ad buys and is the main funding model for CBC.
Independent journalism has always been a tricky thing to truly achieve. I can easily recall the many times in my career that the needs/concerns of advertisers have come into play when stories or editorials that could hurt their bottom line were being considered.
This is especially true the smaller a media outlet is and how beholding every advertiser is. Now, if government is to subsidize media, does that generate the appearance of an ethical conflict of interest? Not necessarily.
One federal program appears to be working quite nicely.
The Local Journalism Initiative “supports the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada,” states Canadian Heritage.
A Financial Post story stated: “Local Journalism Initiative is a five-year program that supports the creation of original civic journalism relevant to the diverse needs of people living in news deserts and areas of news poverty across Canada.”
Funding is available to eligible Canadian media organizations to hire journalists or pay freelance journalists to produce civic journalism for underserved communities. The content produced will be made available to media organizations through an online portal managed by The Canadian Press on behalf of News Media Canada, which is administering the program.
- My alma mater, the Brandon Sun, now has an Indigenous affairs reporter. Ironically, it is Michele LeTourneau, who was an award-winning NNSL reporter at Nunuvat News in Iqaluit.
- Nunuvat News — now NWT/Nunavut News/North? — has a person covering Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut, although I haven’t seen much content coming from that Yellowknife-based position.
- The aforementioned Nunatsiaq News, gets funding for a Nunavut/Nunavik reporter, allowing it to expand its reach into Northern Quebec.
- Cabin Radio now has a Dehcho region reporter. And in more of that irony, it is a former NNSL editor, Michele Taylor.
Regarding that last position, the Dehcho has been underserved by the media ever since NNSL closed down the Deh Cho Drum a few years ago. There is plenty going on in Dehcho communities such as Fort Simpson — and the concerns of that region are shared in other areas of the NWT — and the number of Cabin Radio stories being picked up by The Canadian Press is impressive.
So the Local Journalism Initiative is certainly working in this case, as the stories of the Dehcho and NWT in general are receiving national exposure. (Full disclosure, Michele Taylor and I are dating.)
As layoff notices continue to be sprinkled through newsrooms across Canada as so many COVID-19 atomized droplets, the big question is: what the media world will look like after the viral apocalypse?
And if newsprint doesn’t return, will readers be content with PDF ‘papers’? Personally, I don’t mind reading PDF newspapers, as I am a real fan of graphic design and I enjoy good page layout. The future of print and local journalism in smaller cities and sparsely populated regions really is online only. And that means the most flexible and fast newsrooms — those who also use social media to their advantage — will get the most eyeballs. And a media outlet that has a readable website along and another platform — such as TV or radio — will have the best model going forward. Good, clear photos and sharp graphics will be key.
Mainstream legacy newspapers anywhere in North America just simply can’t compete by posting some crappy video clips with their usual content. Paywalls are also problematic, as there is so much free info out there. And paywalls also thwart content sharing.
The legacy MSM that hasn’t figured out how to compete by now will have a tough slog through the COVID clampdown.
Now, more than ever before, as our rights are being infringed by unelected health officers — backed by sheepish elected leaders — officials and institutions need to be held accountable. So I hope all of our local media survive the COVID-19 era, but some are already on life support.
PORCHRAITS A PROBLEM?
Being creative is always a mix of old and new — often variations of a theme — with people who discover truly novel ideas being the most successful.
Some photographers decided to keep on creating images, while dealing with the new social distancing restrictions.
One of those folks was Pat Kane, a well-known documentary photographer from Yellowknife.
In a story in The Atlantic, we learned his wife suggested he make up for lost work by offering to take family portraits of his quarantined friends through their windows.
He posted the idea to Facebook, reads the story, and responses poured in.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, a short documentary from The Atlantic follows Kane as he spends a day taking “isolation portraits” of his community in lockdown.
“The photographs illuminate the high stakes of coronavirus prevention in the Arctic and the community’s solidarity,” reads the piece.
A story out of the Toronto Star’s Edmonton bureau noted more and more Canadians are participating in “porchraits” — standing on their doorstep, porch or driveway to have a family photo taken by a professional photographer.
Some photographers have even used the opportunity to ask the families to donate to a charitable organization.
Sounds great, no? Well, no. At least for some.
Incredibly, the Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC) has told photographers to cease the “porchraits.”
Why? The risk of spreading COVID-19 by ringing a doorbell, or passing someone on the street, outweighs the benefit, said association chairperson Louise Vessey.
“I understand that photographers are suddenly cut off from most ‘in real life’ social contact and thus their clients; but this type of photography is not a necessary interaction, nor is it an essential service,” stated Vessey on April 10. “Although most do it with the very best of intentions, it still leaves room open for mistakes that could potentially cost lives.”
“The risk of spreading COVID-19 by ringing a doorbell, or passing someone on the street, outweighs the benefit.”
Good bloody grief.
As a former member of the PPOC I am embarrassed for the association. Clearly stricken with a case of covidcrazy, the PPOC is making it sound as if professional photographers can’t understand the concept of social distancing. I mean that is the motivation for the entire “porchraits” movement.
Here’s one comment on the Star’s website:
- Alison Pidskalny @apids — How petty that the Professional Photographers of Canada told its members to end the #Porchraits project. It provided socially distant income for photogs, gave much-needed joy to families, and did what photography, should do: document extraordinary times. Shame! @PPOC_National
- Buzz Bishop @buzzbishop — You’re wrong. This brighten my family’s mental health, allowed us to support a local photog whose income evaporated during the lockdown, and brought our community closer. Done professionally and properly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with #porchraits.
The PPOC should have, as a professional support group, offered best practices for health and safety, instead of just telling their members to cease and desist.
MORE VAIL FAILS
“Yellowknifer apologies for the errors and any confusion they may have caused.”
Speaking of NNSL, radical left-wing columnist Nancy Vail is on a roll with her last two columns requiring corrections. I’ve written about Vail’s lack of accuracy before — this apart from my disagreement with her political views — and I’m simply amazed NNSL management continues to publish her columns. I note the corrections don’t name the column, Notes From the Trail.
I know publisher Valpy and managing editor Mike Bryant are loathe to let any columnists go, as they have trouble finding people to write for them. And they are also deathly afraid of poking a stick into the hornet’s nest of the current cancel culture so quickly applied to folks who anger/insult/snub the politically correct/social justice warrior collective.
But for the sake of the craft of journalism as whole — and for everything I mentioned above about being a trusted media source — Vail at very least needs a time out. If not an outright firing.
She just doesn’t take the time to fact-check herself. That’s what can happen when you are hounded by dogma.
UPDATE: The day after I posted this, I learned of a number of community papers closing in my former home province of Manitoba. Longstanding and award-winning publications that employed many people I knew or once worked with are now gone. So very sad. And so very bad for residents of those towns who will no longer have a truly local news source.