“The media business was already on fire; COVID-19 threw gasoline on it”, Jeff Jarvis on journalism amid the pandemic

Laboratorios de periodismo innovador

24 de Mayo de 2020

“The media business was already on fire; COVID-19 threw gasoline on it”, Jeff Jarvis on journalism amid the pandemic

Jeff Jarvis, a seasoned journalist, and media industry researcher shares his vision of how the coronavirus crisis is affecting journalism.

Innovative Journalism Laboratories

The coronavirus pandemic has proven to be an unprecedented opportunity to highlight the importance of high-quality journalism.

Audiences have rekindled their interest in the media and both newsrooms and independent reporters are finding ways to reinvent themselves and tell stories amid the limitations the crisis has imposed.

The situation, however, looks worrying for the journalism and media industry, which may be hit hard by the economic crisis that comes with the pandemic.

We discussed these issues with Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

Jarvis is an analyst of digital journalism, investigating new business models for the media and the ways in which journalism can maintain and increase its relevance among communities.

The pandemic is creating an ironic situation for media outlets- they are having a record number of visitors but they are facing a huge drop in advertising triggered by the economic shutdown. What this situation tell us about the journalism business model?

The media business was already on fire; COVID-19 threw gasoline on it.  Advertising has imploded, of course. 

The print is severely endangered with some newspapers publishing entire editions without ads. 

Subscriptions are up in many cases, yes, but that COVID bump is unlikely to last.  Other revenue streams -- events, commerce -- are derailed.  There isn't enough charity to support the level of journalism we need. 

Even in the best of times, I worry about government support -- but now governments are strapped and supporting journalism will not be a high priority for them. 

Too many news companies I know waited too long to diversify their revenue sources and to become sustainable, digital enterprises. I know of major publications around the world that still had digital revenue under 10% of their total. That is frightening. 

Now it will be too late for some of them.

Do you think the situation described above would lead to a change in the media business model to make them less dependent on advertising?

Publishers won't have much choice about reducing dependence on advertising; much is gone and much of that will not come back as retail businesses suffer and advertisers continue to learn new ways to build direct relationships with customers. 

Some publishers still hope they will replace lost ad revenue with subscription revenue, but I am doubtful. Large, leading national publications -- such as the Washington Post and New York Times in the United States -- can succeed at subscriptions in ways that other publications cannot. 

BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman has called the pandemic a “media extinction event.” Do you agree with him?

The death of newspapers has been often predicted and has not yet happened en masse, so I am reluctant to predict. But, yes, I agree with Craig Silverman that whether today or very soon, many media outlets will be subject to extinction. 

The pandemic has changed the way newsrooms work. Now a lot of journalists are working from home, using online meeting apps but also having limited access to sources and mobility. What are the biggest changes you see in the way media outlets are working right now? Do you think these changes will remain in the long term as a new normal for journalism?

Newsrooms -- as well as our classrooms -- are virtual now. Journalists are learning new skills to do their work, using social media to connect directly with the public, collaborating with the public on gathering images, and interacting directly with experts through social media. I celebrate that innovation. 

At the same time, I am disappointed that the media have not used this opportunity to break some habits. For example, TV news still depends on B-roll (even after repeating it countless times now) and insists on making their on-air personalities plastic (getting of their homes in the background with large screens meant to look like TV studios). 

 What is the silver lining journalism and media outlets can take from the pandemic?

I'm reluctant to find any silver lining in a pandemic. If journalism and media outlets are smart, they will use this opportunity to listen to the rapidly changing needs of the communities they serve and create new services. 

People are looking for answers but journalists are dealing with high uncertainty. What is the best way to inform in a situation where information is always changing?

I am not a science reporter. But if this crisis has taught me anything about journalism it is that we must do a better job of reporting on science. We need to make clear to the public that science is a process, that there is always more data needed, and that advice can change as more is learned. We in news tend to treat the latest word as the last word (we treat every study as if it is the only study); instead, we must put the latest research in the context of earlier research and of questions still unanswered. As I wrote in this thread, even The New York Times has important lessons to learn about how to report on preliminary research. 

There is a risk people start to feel coronavirus news fatigue. How to avoid this fatigue? 

We need to recast this news from the perspective of people's lives. They may be experiencing fatigue hearing from certain politicians or hearing journalists repeat themselves over and over. But they are surely not experiencing fatigue when it comes to what matters in their lives -- their unemployment, their safety, their children's education, their communities. 

What examples of innovative, engaging stories have you seen related to coronavirus?

I don't so much care about whether it is engaging; how can this story not be engaging? I do care about good reporting. StatNews, a health publication from the same company as the Boston Globe, has been doing superb work covering the science and medicine of the crisis. John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times has been doing an excellent job presenting graphics with the data of the pandemic. The Atlantic has been doing good reporting.

If you are interested in learning more about how to report on the coronavirus, check out these resources recommended and produced by Jeff Jarvis:

A COVID Twitter list with more than 500 scientists

For interviews with scientists about how they think journalism should be covering the crisis

A post about what we in journalism and media have to learn from medicine's adaptation to a new, open information ecosystem

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