Will the news media survive in the post-Covid-19 era?

As elsewhere in the world, the news media is also struggling to survive in Bangladesh. But the scenario is somewhat different from that of the developed democracies. In the developed democracies the news media enjoys absolute freedom and almost no interference from the government. It also enjoys constitutional and legal protection (First Amendment in the US or Freedom of the Press Act of Sweden) that allows the press to act independently and with full freedom.

From the very first days of the pandemic, subscribers turned their backs to print versions of the newspaper, Source: Reuters

There are also ample examples where the press draws enormous financial support from philanthrojournalism (Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations in the US), state charter (BBC in the UK), and endowment fund (the guardian in the UK). Such support has both, directly and indirectly, contributed to the existence and growth of an independent and free press.

None of these elements exist in Bangladesh. Besides different state-level formal and non-formal censorship, the news media has its governance problem, including but not limited to partisanship, biased reporting, the self-interest of the owners, and self-censorship.

On top of everything, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned everything upside down for the news media in Bangladesh. Even before the pandemic, the sector was struggling to survive – both the print and electronic media were witnessing a declining trend in revenue earning from advertising.

The reason can solely be attributed to the growing influence of the online ad networks and advertising publishers across the world and consumer’s shift of reading habit from a hardcopy of the newspaper or watching TV from computer to mobile.

Advertisers also found it more convenient in terms of both less spending on advertising online that perhaps reaches a much greater number of consumers (readers) at a much lower cost compared to the conventional way of advertising.

The online versions of newspapers and TV channels having a strong brand presence witnessed a rise in online readership as well as revenue earning. But the share of revenue compared to the older versions (print advertisements and TVCs) was less than 5%. Therefore, with a much lower revenue earning and a very high operating cost, the daunting task for the older forms of the news media turned into a fight for survival.

From the very first days of the pandemic, the subscribers turned their back from the print version of the newspaper for completely two different reasons. First, they had developed inertia toward the hard copy of the newspaper – fear of getting Covid-19. Second, they decided it would rather be good not to spend money on news to cope up with the financial crisis.

So, the billion-taka question is whether the fourth pillar of democracy will survive the shock or not. For the sake of transparency and accountability of the government, the state institutions, people’s access to information, and last but not least to contribute to the check and balance system in a democracy, the press must survive and thrive.

Is the press strong enough to survive in the digital era? Yes, it is. For instance, the top 10 out of 20 most visited websites in Bangladesh are news media. The second most visited category is the internet giants with five websites/search engines followed by three e-commerce sites, one communications application, and one knowledge management website. News media sites are the most visited in terms of web traffic after Google, Youtube, and Facebook. This shows the power of the news media in the digital era.

One interesting fact is that social media platforms and search engines almost have no content of their own. They will be non-existent if users stop sharing contents and news and information off-limit them to engines? But the power of social media platforms and internet giants is a reality now and there is no other alternative form of sharing content to remain relevant in the digital world.

Unfortunately, this competitive advantage of the social media and internet giants is taking a heavy toll on the news media industry and has thwarted the scope of independent, impartial, and investigative journalism across the globe. Furthermore, social media platforms like Facebook have made a heavy investment in news sources and purchasing time on local media enterprises and platforms.

There are allegations that the social media giant even has quite a few news publishers as ghost writers. This means that the social media giant will make money out of these investments without having any responsibility for ensuring the authenticity of the news.

The developed democracies have taken different steps in taming the social media and internet giants for two reasons – they consider the growing influence of these platforms as a threat to democratic governance as well as a threat to the existence of the fourth pillar of democracy.

In doing so, South and South-East Asian countries India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and European countries like France, Spain, and the UK have either imposed a tax or seriously considered a taxing mechanism. Besides, they are also working on different governance issues and bringing policy and legal reforms so that the internet giants and social media platforms conform with the country’s regulations.

In the past print, newspapers have survived predictions of dooms. But the ongoing pandemic is likely to make this prediction a reality by finishing off many newspapers. So, there is no ‘going back to normal in the post-pandemic world.

Bangladesh is no exception. So the most notable challenge for the news media is to earn revenue from the digital platforms to meet the high operating cost of journalism and remain relevant in the post-Covid-19 world. For this to happen internet giants and social media platforms must pay for the news media for their contents. But this is not possible without policy-level interventions.

For the first time in the history of the world, Australia passed a fresh law that makes it mandatory for Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets to pay for their content or face arbitration. This is expected to create a level playing field for the Australian news media outlets and get paid for the original content they create. No doubt that it will also address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media and social media and internet giants.

The publishers in Bangladesh are struggling to fund journalism and they will probably be left with the only choice of going into full digital transformation. With fading hope for a revival of the print and electronic media, the publishers and the government must work together in bringing the necessary policy reforms, eliminate the draconian Digital Security Act, and create a conducive atmosphere for the growth of strong digital news media.

Policy interventions must also address the existing challenges and make the internet and social media giants pay for the original content the news media is creating every second. The news media on the other hand has a much bigger responsibility of improving its governance and practice fair, independent, and impartial journalism.

This was first published in the Business Standard on 20 May 2021. Click here to read on the site.

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