Alison O'Connor: Why the virus is good news and bad news for the media industry

Trusted newspaper websites have had record traffic... but advertising has fallen off a cliff, writes Alison O'Connor
Alison O'Connor: Why the virus is good news and bad news for the media industry
RTÉ director general, Dee Forbes: The national broadcaster will avail of the government pay-subsidy scheme.Picture: Maxwellphotography.ie

Trusted newspaper websites have had record traffic... but advertising has fallen off a cliff, writes Alison O’Connor

Any news?’ It’s that classic Irish question, asked any number of times during the day: when someone has come back in, having been out, or is just off the phone, or when you bump into someone on the street, or you’re sending an email to a friend.

But even our favourite national query has been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, as I regularly discover when the children have finished a lengthy phone call or video chat with friends: ‘Any news on the call?’ I ask reflexively, when they’re done. ‘How could there be news?’ I’m asked scornfully. ‘No one has been anywhere, or done anything.’

News, because of the spread of the coronavirus across the world, has never been so much in demand, or as valued, as it has over the last few months, whether it be from newspapers, broadcast media, or news websites.

RTÉ, our financially ailing national broadcaster, has been playing a blinder and has seen a massive surge in audience figures, since this virus got its horrible grip on us all.

I don’t how anyone will possibly complain about paying their TV licence when the reminder lands on the doormat next time around.

Newspaper websites, trusted media sources, have had record traffic, not just for the latest statistics on the virus, but, also, for analysis of how it stands in Ireland and how we compare to other countries.

However, advertising has fallen off a cliff. One senior newspaper source said it was the worst he has ever seen, with all activities stopped at the same time and businesses closed.

You only have to take a quick flick through any newspaper to see the scarcity of ads.

NewsBrands Ireland, the representative body for all national newspapers, has said that news websites have reported record online traffic, with some publishers recording a 38% increase in the past few weeks, and others up 75% on their weekly average.

Print sales for some national newspapers have also experienced uplifts. But advertising is the lifeblood of this industry, which was already in trouble following the financial crash of 2008.

RTÉ director general, Dee Forbes, informed staff in recent days that the broadcaster is to avail of the Government’s temporary wage-subsidy scheme, forecasting that both commercial and TV licence revenue could collapse by up to 35% this year.

Yet each day, on RTÉ, from Six One News time to around 11.30pm, the station has been hitting record viewing numbers.

In our hundreds of thousands, we are tuning in to a trusted source, but, also, I’d guess, looking for the comfort of the familiar at a time of great stress.

Ordinarily, the Six One News might expect an audience of 450,000 viewers, but some evenings in the past few weeks it has hit 700,000.

The Nine O’Clock News also has increased viewing figures. There are now around 250,000 more people watching RTÉ television throughout the nights.

When there has been a big announcement from the Government about lockdown extensions, the viewing figures have gone as high as 900,000.

For the zenith in comfort-blanket viewing, we’ve been turning to the Late Late Show, on a Friday night. It has an audience of around 700,000.

Current affairs programme Prime Time has also experienced a very significant bounce. Interestingly, though, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was interviewed on Tuesday night, Prime Time’s audience was 580,000.

That would be a very respectable figure at any time, but you might have expected higher in the context of the virus outbreak.

As an aside, the Taoiseach would have much preferred to have been on the Late Late Show tonight, but RTÉ management correctly held their ground and insisted it had to be a Prime Time grilling from Miriam O’Callaghan.

Having performed so well during this pandemic, RTÉ will surely, even in the awful recession we are going to face at the end of all of this, get a far different future response from government and from the public, in terms of financing and recognising the importance of public service broadcasting.

Local media have experienced a massive advertising drop, too, but, according to friends who are employed in the sector, the workload for journalists has increased hugely, as they try to keep up with how the virus is affecting their local communities.

It’s not just news we are getting from our media outlets, but also the public health messages that are literally life-saving.

The media are telling us the human-interest stories, showing us the incredible work being done all over the country by health workers and other frontline staff, interviewing people whose loved-ones have had to die alone because of quarantining, and relating the awfulness of a rushed, tiny funeral.

The media are setting people straight about misinformation on WhatsApp, messages that have gone viral by incorrectly claiming to know when exactly we were going to go into lockdown and when the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, intends to give the OK to pubs opening up.

Crucially, I think, in a small island nation such as ours, the fact that so many of us are watching, listening, and reading so much of the same accurate, responsible content has contributed to the sense of social cohesion and the ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude.

There is a massive irony here: An industry that has proven absolutely vital during this unprecedented time is also being brought to its knees financially for the same reason that it is so sought-after.

The losses keep mounting and are simply unsustainable. Many businesses and services need government funding right now, but there is an exceptionally strong argument for assisting some of our trusted news brands.

Otherwise, they simply may not survive this.

Already, some free newspapers have ceased printing and journalists have been laid off or have taken pay cuts.

Something will have to be done soon to ensure that vital media outlets don’t fail. If you want reliable, well-informed news online, then the chances are that you will have to pay for it.

It is extraordinary to hear some people still complain about pay-walls, as if quality content appeared somehow by magic.

The industry agreement with An Post for newspapers to be delivered to homes is great.

In Australia, in a move that was decided upon before the virus hit, Google and Facebook will have to pay local media a cut of the advertising revenue they accrue using the content of others.

It puts it all in context to realise that for every dollar spent on online advertising in Australia, the two tech giants benefit from nearly a third of it.

Closer to home, supports have been announced for the media industries in Sweden, the UK, and Denmark. Our government has an awful lot on its plate, but this is something that needs immediate attention.

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