Coronavirus crisis could force closure of 'most' hyperlocal news publishers within weeks

Three-quarters of independent news providers in the UK fear they are at risk of temporary or permanent closure because of the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, a survey has shown.

Fifty-three publishers responded this week to the survey co-ordinated by the Public Interest News Foundation with the Independent Community News Network, Bureau Local and regulator Impress.

Ninety-four per cent said they believed the pandemic would have a negative impact on their organisation, 80 per cent do not have insurance that covers their current challenges, and 65 per cent do not think the Government is doing enough to help.

ICNN, which represents 108 UK hyperlocal publishers, warned in an open letter that “most” of its members “will be out of business in the coming weeks” if Government help is not forthcoming.

ICNN director Emma Meese said the number of its members at risk of closure was even starker than the 75 per cent in the wider survey of independent publishers.

She told Press Gazette: “Last week [advertising] was disappearing within the first few days. A lot of the bigger ones were going overnight. By now it’s nearly all gone.

“It’s changed within a week again. It was dire last week, I don’t know even know what the word for more than dire is but that’s where we are.”

There is a risk of “irreparable damage to our news ecosystem that’s unlikely to ever heal”, Meese said, with “over 100 more news blackholes than we’ve already got”.

ICNN member the Lewisham Ledger, a free bi-monthly community paper, announced last week it was postponing its next edition because the majority of its advertisers and stockists had temporarily closed. It said its return “hopefully… won’t be too far away”.

But no ICNN members have yet laid off staff or closed permanently, according to Meese.

The ICNN is calling for access to any Government, public health or NHS advertising campaigns alongside the News Media Association’s national and regional members.

It also wants to procure any funding or support possible for its members “to ensure they can continue running their publications during this critical time”, and is urging the Government to give an indication of its plans as soon as possible even if the details are not yet confirmed.

Meese explained that advertising is the main source of income for the majority of ICNN members, adding: “Some operate on membership models so possibly wouldn’t see a pinch overnight as urgently.

“However a lot of those subscribers will have lost their jobs so people will be looking at their direct debits very closely and thinking what can they forfeit.”

Meese pointed out the “juxtaposition” between this and the fact “these are businesses that have never been more important or valuable to their communities than now” with “massive spikes in traffic”.

“Everybody wants them more and they might not be there when people need them most. It’s about how can we get them to continue operating for the next few months?”

ICNN’s members are a mixture of sole traders, small businesses and co-operatives.

Graham Breeze is a partner at My Town Media Ltd which publishes My Welshpool and My Newtown websites.

He told Press Gazette the business needs to make a decision this weekend about wages for its four part-time members of staff.

“Ours is a very successful model that’s been running for ten years and really dependent on a local spend… That’s dried up instantly – it’s very worrying times for us,” he said.

Breeze added: “We are busier than ever really, we are inundated with updates on the situation on an hourly basis really so we are ploughing ahead as if the money is coming in.

“We are a real necessity because we can get the message out instantly, that’s been our strength always but never more so than today.”

Breeze did not think My Town Media would be able to take advantage of any of the Government’s small business support because none of its staff are entirely dependent on it for their livelihoods.

He backed ICNN’s call for hyperlocals to receive public notice advertising spend, saying it was something he has wanted for ten years.

“Clearly Welsh Government will be putting out public notices and we think we should be getting a share of that,” he said. “It would keep us alive.”

Your Harlow publisher Michael Casey told Press Gazette he was continuing to plough on “cutting the cloth accordingly” and looking ahead on a “week by week” basis.

March will be his record month for page views since his website launched seven years ago, he said.

Casey, who runs the website alone, said he hopes to be able to get something from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement for the self-employed yesterday of a taxable cash grant of up to 80 per cent of earnings.

But he said: “Not all hyperlocals are the same. There are people with staff and offices so it’s a very stressful time.”

The first payments for self-employed people who need help are not expected until the start of June, which Meese would be too late to stop titles closing.

Casey appeared on The One Show last year after Reach closed its free Harlow Star newspaper in the face of the continued local print advertising decline.

He said today: “If this was 2004 there would be three newspapers in Harlow covering this – the Harlow Gazette, Harlow Herald and Harlow Star and now there’s just little old us.

“When The One Show came to cover us last year it was called ‘the last journalist in town’ – I would appeal to the Government to make sure that wasn’t a prophecy and I’m not the dodo.”

Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville 

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