Knocked out for four days last week with a particularly vicious type of flu/virus/bug unknown and seriously concerned that it could be the coronavirus affliction, I emerged on the other side much shaken physically and mentally, thinner, but so very grateful that the worst nightmare had not come to pass – well, not so far, anyway.
On my 73rd birthday, on 15 March – the Ides of March – I had consciously decided to go into self-isolation as I am a prime candidate for a deadly attack from COVID-19: more than 70 years old, living alone, with three serious underlying medical conditions, including prostate cancer and COPD. There were no birthday shenanigans as I was quickly and stealthily parked by the Gods very far away from the candles and the good life. It was a remarkable co-incidence, as if the timing and the action were immaculately planned to frighten the hell out of me.
So there was no Scottish Review column last week: my apologies, but I am, however tentatively, back in business, and hope to get by with a little help from my friends. However, to help spread this week's load, I am really grateful to be able to quote extensively from an excellent article in The Guardian
by Professor Jane Martinson, which deserves wide exposure, in which she ponders fearfully on a potentially doomsday scenario for our print media – especially local newspapers.
Jane, a former head of media at The Guardian
, joined the staff of the journalism faculty at City University, London, in 2018, as the Marjorie Deane Professor of Financial Journalism. And she is a lady who really knows her stuff when it comes to newspapers.
Jane correctly explains that there would seem to be little in common between Playboy
– 'the glossy magazine relic of the pre-#MeToo era' and City AM
, the business-led free-sheet for London commuters. 'Yet,' she points out, 'just as the whole world is now tackling coronavirus, both titles have suddenly found themselves at the forefront of print media's own battle against the pandemic. A print industry facing structural challenges for decades as its audience and advertising revenues moved online, now faces the consequences of a brutal pandemic raging through populations and economies. For many of the least secure newspaper titles, especially local papers in the US and UK, the virus could sound the death knell after years of struggle. The question is whether the pandemic will lead to the death of print itself?'
Jane has here manhandled a mightily large and somewhat threatening, indeed menacing, elephant into the room. She elaborates: 'That this is even being contemplated at a time when the need and demand for news and information is at an all-time high is the great, somewhat heartbreaking, paradox of an industry that should provide a public as well as private good. Traffic to online news sites is up across the board: the Mail Online
editor claimed a 50% increase to its home page while viewing figures for TV public service broadcasters are at levels not seen since the financial crisis of 2008.
'The 66-year-old Playboy
magazine, hurt over many years by the shift online for porn more than anything, is as far removed from local news providers as it is possible to imagine. Yet in the announcement, made via an open letter on Medium
, the chief executive, Ben Kohn, blamed the pandemic for simply speeding up a decision based on underlying industry concerns. As the US started to close down last week, he wrote: "We were forced to accelerate a conversation we've been having internally: the question of how to transform our US print product to better suit what consumers want today".'
City AM's editor, Christian May, points out that COVID-19 has presented his business with the 'two horns of a buffalo', whatever that means. The announcement by the Government advising people to work from home more or less wiped out City AM's commuter customer base – while the companies which spend money on print advertising have effectively disappeared too.
Jane reveals that one look at the largest advertisers in print media points to how potentially catastrophic coronavirus is for the industry in general:
'The travel and transport sector spent the most on advertising in print media (magazines as well as newspapers) in 2018, according to research by AA/WARC and Enders Analysis: a category which has so far spent 2020 fighting for its life rather than advertising. While other categories from motors to cosmetics and food have shifted to different media such as TV since 2009, entertainment and leisure had kept relatively loyal to its print titles in 2018.
'With all non-essential socialising cancelled, few entertainment and leisure companies are likely to advertise again in the first-half of this year. Joshua Benton, who runs Harvard University's Nieman Lab, made a "confident prediction" that 2020 would be the worst year-ever for US local media, partly because of cumulative years of under-investment and owners focused on cash flows before COVID-19.'
Jane gets down to the detail on a subject close to my heart as one whose newspaper career was born and weaned at the Caithness weekly newspaper, the John 0'Groat Journal
, and continued very happily and successfully for 25 years at the Press and Journal
) regional daily in Aberdeen. Referring to Benton's grim prediction, she warns: 'It is hard not to make similar dire warnings for a local newspaper industry in the UK that has struggled with the same industry dynamics – notably profit-hungry owners and revenues squeezed by Facebook and other social media. More than 50% of Facebook's total revenues comes from small and medium-sized enterprises. That's essentially the same local hairdressing salon or builders' merchants who would once have advertised in the local paper.
'The overall trend on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to closures and jobs has been similar too. Jobs in US newspapers fell 55% in the first 16 years of this millennium, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the UK, a net 245 local news titles closed from 2005 to the end of 2018, according to Press Gazette
research. The newspaper industry shares some of the blame for its decline, which long predates COVID-19, and goes back to the point when the industry started giving away its content for free while hoping that circulation revenues could be replaced by advertising. This led to "commercial content" no longer referring to great stories that would attract loyal readers but to words paid for by businesses...
'...The decision to give content away for free, taken in the teeth of an industrial upheaval, can be seen as a precursor to the growth in distrust of news, which was increasingly considered a commodity when Facebook et al suggested anyone with a smartphone could commit a valid act of journalism. There are signs of hope amid the dire warnings for local newspapers, however. It seems almost trite to say that the world needs good journalism more than ever now but people also urgently need verified information in the face of not only an unprecedented health emergency, but technology's ability to spread fake news. What's more, the social distancing measure being brought in to fight coronavirus makes localism and local news even more important, whether that's which neighbour needs help today or how to save local institutions. There should be a way of making this support for local communities rather than greedy owners which have bled their local newspapers dry and are only now squealing.'
According to media website HoldThe FrontPage
), newspaper industry executives have demanded Scottish journalists are given the same 'key worker' status as their English counterparts. The Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS) has called on the Scottish Government to categorise journalists in such a way, following culture secretary Oliver Dowden's announcement in relation to those working in England.
reports: 'Mr Dowden has confirmed that print journalists and necessary ancillary staff are included as "key workers" in the Government's list of people who are critical to the coronavirus response. But in Scotland, decisions on who is classed as a key worker are set to be taken at local council level, with potential for different local authorities to come up with varying definitions. A guide produced for Scottish local authorities by the Scottish Government in Holyrood makes no specific reference to journalists'.
SNS director, John McLellan, is calling for clarification. He said: 'There is the potential for 32 different definitions of key worker across Scotland, which will be complex for Police Scotland to enforce. We hope the Scottish Government will recognise the importance of our communities being able to access vital, trusted information, particularly the elderly and isolated who might not have internet access. The UK Government has rightly recognised the importance people being able to receive reliable information, both locally and nationally, and that independent news publishers have a key role to play. We have been in discussion with senior civil servants and politicians and we hope the Scottish Government will follow suit.
'The vast majority of editorial personnel are now working entirely from home, but without official direction there is a possibility we won't be able to get our papers into supermarkets and corner shops so people can get a paper with valuable local news along with their groceries. We are also speaking to Cosla [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] to see if they will follow UK guidelines and allow councils to add as local circumstances dictate.'
The SNS has also called for Holyrood to divert cash spent on Facebook and Google advertising to be invested in local media, and facilitate access to immediate interest-free loans for working capital. McLellan added: 'The First Minister has promised more clarity for all businesses later this week and we very much hope this includes recognition of news publishing's role in the crisis and the contribution it will make in the recovery'.
Media website Press Gazette
) reports that Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online
, has told his staff that how they cover the coronavirus pandemic will define their careers. The website tells us that: 'in a rare all-hands email from the veteran newsman, Clarke assured colleagues the company will do all it can to keep them and their jobs safe during the pandemic. Clarke, who founded Mail Online
in 2007 and built it up to be the largest newspaper website in the world, has an industry reputation as a tough operator. But in the email he shows his softer side: "I guess I have been in the news business longer than almost all of you. But the current pandemic crisis is easily the biggest story of my life. And I sincerely hope it will be the biggest any of you ever have to cover, however young you are. But the next few months are likely to define the world we live in for years to come. They will define your individual lives".'
Clarke, a former editor of the Scottish Daily Mail
, The Scotsman
and the Daily Record
, continued: 'And how we rise to the challenge of covering them will define our careers. This is once-in-a-century history happening around you and, as journalists, it is our job to record it in real-time to the very best of our ability. I know all of you, while horrified at what is unfolding, will not shirk the duty of reporting it'.
Clarke praised staff for a 'superb' performance which has seen the entire 800-plus global workforce of Mail Online
move to home-working in a matter of days.Traffic to the website's home pages is said to be up almost 50% in every country. Clarke added: 'It may be many months before some of us see each other again face to face, even if we live in the same country. But somehow we have to carry on. For those of you working from home that means maintaining your professional discipline – and morale – in isolation for many weeks, if not months. That is going to be harder than you think'.
David Hardie, the longest-serving member of staff at the Evening News
in Edinburgh, has retired after 44 years with the newspaper. He joined in 1976 in the newsroom, transferring to the sportsdesk in the 1980s. HTFP
reports that the first Hibernian FC match David covered for the Evening News
was a defeat away to Aberdeen in August 1989 and, by strange coincidence, his final game produced the same result in the same fixture. He has covered the fortunes of Hibs for 30 years.
David's sports editor, Mark Atkinson, said: 'David has been a bastion of the Evening News
football coverage for decades and there will not be a Hibs supporter who has not read a story of his. He is hugely respected within the industry and I know numerous managers and players that he has worked with hold him in the highest regard. And he is held in the highest regard by his peers'.
David, 64, has worked with an incredible 17 managers – not including caretakers – during his time reporting on Hibs over three decades. Scotsman Publications editor-in-chief, Frank O'Donnell, said: 'David is a legend in terms of the Evening News
. He has witnessed so much change in the industry, yet has continued to cover Hibs impressively for so many years'.
Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster added: 'On behalf of everyone at Hibernian Football Club, I'd like to wish David all the best for the future and congratulate him on his incredible service to the Evening News
over the years. David has been a popular and respected journalist who has witnessed first-hand some incredible highs and lows during his 31 years covering Hibernian. He will always be welcome at Easter Road'.