View all newsletters
Sign up for our free email newsletters

Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. News
August 12, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:30am

‘Annus horribilis’: What UK news publishers learned from mistakes in year of pandemic and Brexit

By Charlotte Tobitt

Publishers have shared their annual, at times candid, look at operations over the past year – dubbed by one B2B company in its report to IPSO as a financial “annus horribilis” because of Covid-19 and Brexit.

PA Media described it as “one of the most demanding” years in its history while others, such as the independent regional Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, said the pandemic “weirdly” may have helped them.

The insights came in the annual statements member publishers must submit to press regulator IPSO addressing their editorial compliance processes. IPSO encouraged publishers to this year share any insights from their work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recycler, a small B2B magazine and website for the global toner and inkjet remanufacturing industry, said 2020 was financially an “annus horribilis” with advertising, event and subscription revenues down 40%.

“While still profitable, prudent fiscal planning and management meant that new technology and marketing plans and a new conference event have had to be postponed to late 2021 and 2022,” it said.

“2020 also saw a shift in advertising revenue towards creative content and digital delivery, a trend that is continuing into 2021.”

Recycler also felt the impact of Brexit and feared some of the problems will be more permanent than politicians have tried to suggest.

Content from our partners
Publishing on the open web is broken, how generative AI could help fix it
Impress: Regulation, arbitration and complaints resolution
Papermule: Workflow automation for publishers

It said it reduced staff in the UK and increased numbers in the EU, where the print edition is produced and mailed from – with associated cost increases and delays.

“We have seen an improvement on delivery times and reduced our costs with the exception of the UK,” the publisher said. “Shipping from the EU to the UK has both increased in cost by 38% and typically takes four days longer.

“UK politicians put this down to teething problems, our perception is that it is a permanent situation.”

[Read more: Brexit and the UK news industry]

Recycler is also still feeling the impact of data protection regulations introduced in 2018 which meant it was forced to stop using a “significant portion” of its email database. Although it partially recovered in 2019 and continued to grow in 2020 to 32,500 it estimated its email audience will not return to pre-GDPR levels for a further three years. Its number of website registered users has simultaneously grown to 19,000.

Highland News and Media, formerly Scottish Provincial Press, produces 18 weekly newspapers and employs 80 people.

As well as the newspaper titles staff produce special publications and armed forces publications. HNM said the pandemic had hit demand, especially for the special publications, but added “we hope to regain some of this work in the future”.  It has also changed its editorial structure during the pandemic, meaning it no longer has a managing editor or editorial director.

The Barnsley Chronicle was one of many publishers that chose to stop producing a free newspaper during the pandemic – in this case, the free weekly sister title Barnsley Independent – due to financial pressures. It said in its IPSO statement it “may decide to re-launch it at some point in the future”.

‘Weirdly… Covid-19 has helped’

John Holliday, managing director of The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, which was bought in early 2020 after it went into administration and returned to profit six months later, said: “Our mission is to create a sense of connection and belonging in the North Lake District community that is hard to come by in some other way.

“As local news publishers shrink – or go away altogether – here we are trying to find a sustainable model for local news, which we think has tremendous value for local democracy.

“Weirdly, I believe Covid-19 has helped. Helped bring communities closer together. Helped focus on families and the important things in life.

“We have a vision to be the best small-cap media business in Britain. To win newspaper of the year awards. To serve our community and be the voice of the community.”

[Read more: Giving away news online didn’t pay and led to print slump, says ex-local journalist behind new memoir]

The paper said it sells about 9,200 copies per week and that it generates 84% of total revenue at owner Barrnon Media, which also owns the Keswick Reminder newspaper and Cumbria Crack website.

Holliday said that although the newspaper’s sales are continuing to decline, the goal for this year is to “grow audience on all platforms with a content-first strategy (as opposed to a platform-first strategy).

“We remain confident our ‘local names, local places and local faces’ tagline will resonate with local readers – and we envisage huge growth online.”

Baylis Media, which publishes the Maidenhead Advertiser and the Slough and Windsor Express series, said the pandemic had “stretched resources” with staff on furlough and reduced hours but it had “placed a great emphasis on accurate, comprehensive and informative coverage of the coronavirus pandemic during this time”.

External copy checks

Away from Covid-19, issues around the use of third-party copy bought from agencies or individual sources were raised multiple times.

Mail, Metro and i publisher Associated Newspapers said three of the four upheld IPSO complaints against its titles in 2020 were sourced from an agency or another newspaper.

One related to a Mail Online story about the number of British coronavirus cases imported from Pakistan that first appeared in The Telegraph. Associated said staff had been reminded “headlines must be supported by the facts, and care must be taken to check stories followed up from other publications in order not to repeat any errors which may have been made in the original story.”

A Metro online story was about a Labour inheritance tax proposal and was based on PA copy. Associated said: “Staff were reminded that even normally reliable agencies sometimes make errors, and any discrepancies in figures must be checked to ensure there is no inaccuracy.”

Associated also pointed to PA’s involvement after IPSO upheld a complaint from inventor Sir James Dyson over a Mail Online story that wrongly claimed Dyson would no longer be a British-registered firm.

Dyson complained about the story even though the claim had been made unchallenged in several articles published elsewhere and had originated from, as IPSO put it, “a respected international press agency”.

“This article included information about the complainant, originally published by PA without complaint, which the complainant then decided to correct after publication of the Mail Online story,” Associated said.

“Staff were told that in these circumstances a correction must be made, even if the story on which it was based had not been corrected.”

No complaints were upheld against PA itself in 2020, despite “enormous pressure” from the Covid-19 story.

The agency said: “Overall it was one of the most demanding years in PA’s history. We embraced a completely different working model and expected our reporters, photographers and VJs to deliver more content than ever, and sometimes at personal risk to themselves when the virus was at its most prevalent.

“But it was also a year when PA’s commitment to fast, accurate and impartial reporting was more important than ever, and clearly valued and respected by our many customers.”

Magazine publisher Bauer also gave staff a warning about third-party copy after Take A Break failed to include a previous denial of a woman accused of faking a relationship as part of a campaign of harassment against her friend.

Bauer briefed its editorial teams to increase due diligence when buying stories to make sure agencies and freelances comply with the Editors’ Code of Practice, similarly increase due diligence when paying for stories directly from individuals, and better use technology such as identity checks to confirm on a video call someone is who they say they are.

‘Difficult and complicated’ trans complaint

Reach shared its frustrations after using police releases that contained inaccuracies, saying journalists should be able to rely on information from public bodies. Nevertheless, it accepted it could have taken “further care” to ensure the information was accurate.

Reach revealed it had appealed an IPSO ruling against the Daily Record website that, it said, hinged around one omission of the word “alleged” when describing claims explicit banners showing child abuse had been displayed at football matches. IPSO dismissed the appeal.

The publisher said: “Reach remains concerned with the decision
in terms of proportionality and context, given the enormous overall public
interest of the story, which correctly reported an emotive and sensitive

A Mirror Online complaint about a transgender musician being banned from the women’s toilet at a venue was described as “difficult and complicated” but Reach accepted it had misinterpreted the Equality Act.

The Telegraph revealed 68% of all complaints it received in 2020 related to Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. It rejected more than 70% of all the complaints it received about editorial content.

‘Fair share of vexatious complaints’

At the Jewish Chronicle, currently the subject of calls for an IPSO standards investigation following nine upheld complaints in the past three years, readers’ editor Richard Burton noted the newspaper frequently attracts “both praise and condemnation” because of its role as a campaigning newspaper.

He said: “It protects its editorial independence rigorously but understands its credibility can be damaged when it gets something wrong. It therefore encourages readers to point out errors and acts on them swiftly.

“It is also aware that it will occasionally be attacked for political purposes and has had its fair share of vexatious complaints. It is not unusual to receive campaign-style complaints involving multiple approaches masquerading as individual complaints.

“IPSO, for its part, has been quick to recognise these and act accordingly.”

[Read more: IPSO faces calls to launch first standards investigation into Jewish Chronicle]

‘Editor, can you fact check that’

Iliffe Media Group, which publishes around 30 local titles, said it had seen an increase in the number of complaints received from the public, most notably around inquests and court coverage. However, it had only one upheld complaint in 2020.

Similarly, Highland News & Media said: “A large number of complaints are down to a lack of understanding on the public’s part – eg they don’t realise that we have a legal right to publish details of a court case – or because they don’t like a story. Not liking a story doesn’t render it incorrect, unethical or unlawful, but we need to hear the complainant out.”

Meanwhile at the Congleton Chronicle newspaper in the Cheshire town most of its notable complaints related to business stories.

For example, editor and chairman Jeremy Condliffe had a “very angry man” threatening to “parade” outside his house with his wife and children following a report on his businesses collapsing.

Another man accused the paper of fraud and making up a report about his company going bust from a Companies House filing. He then said he would set up his own newspaper “to tell the truth”.

The paper also received a solicitor’s letter alleging defamation and demanding damages over a separate report on a company administration. Condliffe said: “We explained media law to the solicitor.”

Overall the Chronicle noticed it put out fewer errors as reporters had been furloughed and the experienced editor and deputy editor wrote most of the copy themselves.

Of the Chronicle’s system to fact-check letters it receives before publication instead of withholding the questionable ones, Condliffe said: “This has proved quite popular and entertaining (and it entertains me) although some
people now bandy fake news in letters and add in brackets ‘(editor, can you fact check that)’.”

Facebook comments

Andrew Mosley, editorial director at Rotherham Advertiser owner Regional Media, called for new laws surrounding liability for Facebook comments.

Earlier this year the trial of Lord Ahmed of Rotherham on child sex abuse charges was briefly halted because of reader comments made on the Advertiser’s Facebook page.

The Advertiser was forced to agree not to link to any of its stories about the trial on Facebook but was unhappy national newspapers could continue to share their reports on the platform.

“This is an increasing problem and one I/we believe needs to be tackled by the legal system or through media law,” Mosley said. In March Facebook added controls for users, including publishers, to restrict who could comment on each of their posts for the first time.

‘Scrutiny matters more than ever’

Several publishers took the opportunity to reflect on the importance of the media during the pandemic.

The Spectator wrote: “During an event like the coronavirus pandemic there is a great deal that is not known. In such times, it is more important than ever that publications give voice to a wide range of expert opinion – including, perhaps especially, those whose opinions go against the grain.

“No newspaper or magazine should act as a megaphone for government announcements: when the stakes are high, scrutiny matters more than ever.”

And regional publisher Archant said: “The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges for our titles and journalists.

“But our teams have risen to those challenges to produce a huge range of high-quality, trustworthy and code-compliant content that has reinforced why and how a vibrant and healthy local media is so vitally important.”

Future said: “While Covid-19 remains far from defeated, it is also no longer a new thing and Future’s content will continue to evolve where appropriate to meet user needs as daily life continues to change.

“The interests of our readers and the requirement to report in a factual and non-sensationalist way will continue to drive the nature of our editorial decision making and content creation.”

Topics in this article : ,

Email to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network