WILL THE PANDEMIC PUT PAID TO PRINT? Why online-only might soon be the only option for some UK news titles.


WILL THE PANDEMIC PUT PAID TO PRINT? Why online-only might soon be the only option for some UK news titles. By Peter Meikle, Head of News

He’d normally be busy editing the diary section for one of the UK’s biggest papers – but the pandemic put paid to all that. Now my furloughed journalist friend is just thankful he’s got an allotment and there are reruns of The Sweeney on the telly every afternoon.

He’s just one person amid the news media’s army of the enforced idle left wondering, when the shutters come up, will they be beckoned back to the newsroom – or whether their newsrooms will even exist at all.

The newspaper shelves in the UK stores allowed to open are currently still full of all the national titles – nearly all of them produced by journalists exclusively working from home.

Proprietors will be impressed and perhaps even surprised how they’ve been able to get their publications out without a soul in their newsrooms – and by fewer journalists than normal, nearly all of whom have had their salaries slashed.

They are no doubt also thinking how they can incorporate the WFH model, which was forced upon them, into a permanent and cheaper way of doing things as the virus impact abates.

But while newspapers are still rolling off the presses every day, sales of those papers have plunged to levels where for many making a profit is now a pipe dream.

Those publications relying on subscriptions for a big slice of income and those that have spent the last few years building up their online offering – such as the FT and The Times – are better placed to survive the storm less scarred than others.

But those almost entirely reliant on advertising and selling hard copies are the ones checking how much longer they can survive in lockdown before permanently pulling the plug on people’s jobs – and the costly print versions of their papers.

The pandemic has focused the minds of newspaper bosses like never before and big decisions on how to survive are needed – and quickly.

At London’s Evening Standard, big decisions look like they’re coming very soon. The paper’s CEO Mike Souter stood down yesterday. He’d been the job just six months and told staff in his goodbye email that “a significant rebuilding job” was to come.

For a paper that had a print run of nearly a million, with nearly all copies picked up free by commuters at railway and Tube stations, the pandemic has been a particularly savage hammer blow. 

Moving entirely online might be the only option for some papers – following The Independent which became digital-only in 2016 after print sales had dropped to parlous levels.

The Independent’s doing ok now, with a reach of 23m people globally through its website and app. Healthy numbers and a future seemingly secure.

When The Independent made the switch four years ago, it was thought many other national newspaper titles might have quickly followed its model.

It didn’t happen. But now, with survival at stake, going on-line only might be the only way to secure a future for those furloughed like my friend.