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Just how broken is our political information ecosystem, anyway?
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Nov. 10, 2020, 1:08 p.m.
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The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a report looking at the financial impact of Covid-19 on 165 independent newsrooms from around the globe. The responses revealed “dramatic but unequal” consequences but — as you might expect from a report entitled “few winners, many losers” — the majority reflected a pretty bleak situation:

Our sample of respondents is not representative, and should thus be treated with care, but if the organizations covered here are indicative of the wider situation in the global news industry, newspapers alone are looking at a loss that could amount to a decline of thirty billion dollars in expected revenues in 2020. Such a drop would have dramatic consequences for the number of journalists employed, especially at the local level and in poorer communities and countries.

But! There’s “a significant minority” of independent news organizations surviving — and even thriving — through the crisis. About 14 percent of newsrooms surveyed are seeing “stable or even growing revenue.” The report found these “winners” tend to be small- or medium-sized online outlets, appear online-only, and invest more of their operating costs in their newsroom.

There’s quite a few caveats. The report underrepresents legacy broadcasters and newspapers, which the authors note make up the majority of independent news organizations globally, and samples a disproportionately high number of nonprofit newsrooms. The case studies — amaBhungane in South Africa, Animal Político in Mexico, Chequeado in Argentina, the Daily Maverick in South Africa, Daraj in Lebanon, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, and Malaysiakini in Malaysia — are drawn from “middle-income countries” and exclude both the poorest and most privileged parts of the world. (Government-controlled and state-owned outlets were also left out.)

The report’s authors — Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Federica Cherubini, and Simge Andı — explained:

We have deliberately focused on interviewing key people at digitally-oriented independent news media from outside high income countries with a good media freedom situation, because organizations like these are likely to be more indicative of how the crisis is impacting organizations that will define the future of independent news media in most of the world in the years ahead.

Still, there’s some interesting takeaways — especially in the case studies.

Being “honest and upfront” helped one news site with membership — and retention. The editor of Animal Político, a digital-native news site in Mexico, says they’ve retained about 20% of the new audience they gained following a peak of 30–40% surge in traffic earlier in the pandemic. The site saw a surge in members from 700 at the beginning of the year to more than 1,600. Editorial director Tania Montalvo credits the increase to being “honest and upfront about the impact that Covid was having on the site” — including that staff opted for a voluntary 30% pay cut.

You can leave public health reporting to others. South Africa’s amaBhungane reported “very little” impact on their finances. The nonprofit investigative outlet has “deliberately not tried to be at the forefront of COVID reporting,” according to co-founder Stefaans Brümmer.

When independent journalism “loses,” so do citizens. “The losers will include citizens across the world, especially in poor countries, at the local level, and in underprivileged communities, who risk losing independent news media who serve them,” the report authors write. “The losers will also include some independent news media struggling to deal with the impact of the pandemic on top of the already considerable pressures produced by the rapid move to a more digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment with intense competition for attention, advertising, and consumer spending.”

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