Despite a bleak outlook for the press, news executives from Asian publications say the COVID-19 crisis has prompted journalists to try new ways of practicing their craft in ways that may yet bring them closer to audiences and to economic survival.
All over Asia, journalists are losing their jobs as newsrooms struggle to stay afloat in the face of dwindling revenues, a trend going on for many years but hastened by lockdowns and health restrictions. This in turn has spurred digital creativity and innovation, in the form of, among others, recently retrenched journalists putting up their own online news portals or print reporters and editors experimenting with online news programs.
“Those in the community press are surviving by adapting to changes,” said Lourdes “Nini” Cabaero, columnist and consultant of SunStar Publishing who, along with counterparts from Malaysia and Nepal, spoke at the recent Asian Journalism Conference organized by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Asian Center for Journalism.
“(They’re) creating fresh revenue sources, experimenting with new content, products, and services,” said Cabaero, who was a long-time editor-in-chief of SunStar Cebu before becoming head of SunStar Network, the online site of the family of community papers that constitute SunStar. “They’re creating memberships, subscription, or premium content. They are surviving because they’d like to stay optimistic.”
Cabaero says being positive has become a content strategy aimed at attracting a younger audience. She calls it a survival tactic. SunStar uses the language of the young to bring them in and offers them information on matters that interest them that will eventually get them interested in more important news and information.
The economic viability of newsrooms has become a global concern, as journalism is seen as vital in preserving democracy. It is one of the issues of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is spearheading the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day 2021on May 3.
UNESCO believes that all sectors of society must join hands to save news organizations from extinction by recognizing “Information as a public good,” which is this year’s theme.
“The aim is to draw attention to the special role of journalism in producing news as verified information in the public interest, and to how this depends on a wider ecosystem which enables information as a public good,” UNESCO said in its concept paper for the 2021 theme.
In an online UNESCO forum of UN rapporteurs on April 30, Bangladeshi lawyer Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said citizens should value a good, healthy news environment in the same way they value clean air, clean water, and a good physical environment.
Khan and other UN officials lamented the current polluted information environment. They blame Big Tech—Google, Facebook, Twitter—for algorithms that promote hate and disinformation, and called on them to self-regulate.
But do citizens share journalists’ advocacies for freedom of expression and the press? “Freedom of expression has a lack of ownership among citizens,” said Pedro Vaca Villarreal, special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He and Khan said citizens must own the fight to protect their freedoms.
“Media freedom is not an isolated element,” Khan said. “Freedom of expression has to be seen in the context of freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Civil society and media freedom are absolutely integrated.”
In the meantime, journalists are finding ways to survive as the situation turns dire for those working in traditional or legacy media. “Major media outlets slashed salaries, perks and privileges of journalists and media houses lost advertisements. Their circulation was reduced,” said Guna Raj Luitel, editor-in-chief of the Nepali newspaper Nagarik News. Many others were retrenched.
“It has taken away jobs and freedom from us,” he said, speaking of the year 2020.
Newly unemployed journalists found themselves going online to start their own news sites. More than 2,000 online sites have been registered in Nepal as of February 2021, a development that may also affect the quality of journalism. It will take time for these portals to build a steady following and attract advertisers, and this may cause journalists to compromise on the quality of news and information they offer, he said.
In terms of business models for sustainability, the online publication New Naratif is experimenting with revenue streams that Asian newsrooms can emulate. Its member engagement coordinator, Deborah Agustin, said New Naratif is funded by membership fees, grants, and donations. “The long-term goal for our organization is to be completely funded by membership fees,” she said.
The Philippines is not quite there yet, with readers and viewers accustomed to free news and information. “When you look at our audience, the local audience, they’re not so much into purchasing or paying for news online,” Cabaero said. But that may yet change, given that many willingly shell out pesos for services like Netflix.
It will take an appetite for, and supply of, quality journalism for Filipinos to finally pay for and own their news and information.
(Deborah Agustin, Nini Cabaero, and Guna Raj Luitel were panelists at the session titled “Speaking the language of our public and communities.” It was one of 10 sessions of the Asian Journalism Conference held last March in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. ACFJ is holding a forum titled “Is Journalism a Public Good” on Monday, May 3, from 10 am to 12 noon. Check out facebook.com/ateneo.acfj)