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Image Credit: AFP

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our lives, every human activity, and almost all professions. Media and journalism is affected both ways: negatively and positively. Hence the pandemic impact on media is going to be far bigger than on many other professions. With most of the population staying home to prevent the virus spreading, the consumption of news increased. So demand on the commodity produced by journalists is up and mainstream media has regained some of the ground it lost to so-called social media and ‘influencers’.

Yet, the consumption vehicle changed as people became more and more stuck with their smart phones and computers. Newspapers are under immense pressure to sustain the business, not only due sharp drop in circulation but due to rapidly declining advertising revenue. Lockdown measures recommended by authorities to protect public health left many businesses temporarily closed and of course these won’t advertise.

At a time of high news consumption, actual producers of news are not making any gains; ironically they’re losing. These losses can have detrimental effects on the future of media and journalism.

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Moreover, those advertising are asking media outlets to avoid putting their advertisements on stories related to coronavirus in their websites — at least that’s an issue in UK for example. That again means far less ads with almost all media coverage now related to coronavirus.

At a time of high news consumption, actual producers of news are not making any gains; ironically they’re losing. These losses can have detrimental effects on the future of media and journalism. Supposedly, authorities and public alike now acknowledge the essential need of media and journalism — not only to deliver the right message but also to fight against harmful fabrications of other sources like the so-called social media. That acknowledgement need to be translated into actions, first and foremost of these actions is to consider media and journalism a ‘public asset’.

Not necessarily providing grants and financial aid to it, like other businesses deemed essential for the ‘public good’ but at least to fend it against harsh regulations that pushes it to extinction. And as a ‘public asset’, media and journalism requires protection and a guarantee against monopoly and hegemony of the vehicles disseminating the content it produces.

How Australia fought tech giants

Australia became the first country to force big tech like Google and Facebook to share advertising revenue with local media. Australia’s finance minister said the move comes after talks with Facebook and Alphabet (parent company of Google) “failed to yield a voluntary code to address complaints by domestic media players that the tech giants have too tight a grip on advertising, their main source of income”.

In fact, media is not begging for help or ‘charitable donations’ from big tech and needs governments to make that happen. Those big techs benefiting extensively from the lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic are actually making their excessive gains by carrying the product of media and journalists — in one way or another.

Also in UK, there’re rising calls to increase windfall tax on big tech and use the money to ‘invest’ in media and journalism. The largest body representing media professionals, National Union of Journalists (NUJ), asked the government to raise the current 2 per cent windfall tax on major tech companies (with more than half a billion pound revenue) to 6 per cent. NUJ stresses that the need is not to ‘grant’ the money from that tax on their profits to journalists or media, but rather use it as investment.

Why journalism should be supported

Journalists are also asking to be considered among those eligible for some government measure to help those hurt by the impact of the pandemic, like soft loans or temporary waiver of some taxes for example.

That suggestion, sharing some of the excess profit big tech is making from the current circumstances, is a viable one to support media and journalism in these difficult times. It also establishes the foundation for future fair and just relationship between producers and distributors of content.

Some of the habits developed during the pandemic will stay with us, and one of these could be the change in the way we consume news: less print and more digital. Current regulations favour the distribution vehicle over the actual worker, and here government intervention is logical if media and journalism is to be preserved. No argument here against ‘free market’ or ‘fair play’, but just a regulation for a just relationship if mutual benefit.

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Also talking about media and journalism as a ‘public asset’ doesn’t mean ‘nationalisation’ of media, but rather a favourable regulation that takes into account keeping the ‘professional’ ring of the full chain.

Of course, there’re other suggestions to preserve media and journalism and help it through current crisis, but the one that might be more durable is that complementary relationship between media and big tech. or at least, that’s what I think.

— Dr Ahmed Mustafa is a UAE-based journalist.