Supporting an industry on the brink of collapse could help maintain journalistic integrity.
Rabat – Starting Tuesday, May 26, newspapers in Morocco were allowed to resume printing. After more than two months of suspension under government orders, there is no hope for an industry return to “business-as-usual.” Print journalism was already in a deep structural crisis, and without proper digital transformation and financial support, this epidemic may bring traditional newspapers, as we know them, to a collapse.
Newspapers in Morocco are already struggling to keep up with decreasing circulation numbers, the rise of online journals, and the tendency of advertisers to opt for more efficient online ads. This does not even account for restrictions on freedom of speech. Self-censored content by its nature discourages readers from paying for news.
Even after receiving permission to resume printing, there is much uncertainty about this sector. Many clients will avoid buying newspapers for fear of infection, and after more than two and a half months of lockdown, a considerable portion of readers will be quite accustomed to online news.
Coffee shops and restaurants, one of the main buyers of printed news, are affected by the crisis. It is a common tradition in Moroccan cities that restaurants and coffee shops share publications with their clients for free as part of their service. Ironically, this practice is illegal, and it will be considered unhygienic in a post-COVID-19 society.
One of the legacies of this crisis is that we have started using terms like “key workers” and “essential businesses,” which is a call to question the relevance of many institutions.
A need to rethink metrics for assessing news outlets
There is an urgent need to review how media companies are assessed. Lest anyone forget, most comparisons between print and online newspapers start with circulation numbers. To illustrate, Hespress, an online Moroccan publication, received more than 10 million visits a day in 2019. Meanwhile, the country’s most-read print newspaper, Al Massae, could only sell 27,432 copies in 2017 after a fairly consistent fall from 2008, when it circulated more than 114,000 copies.
The circulation numbers, which are often the metric to compare dying print newspapers with their flourishing online counterparts, require careful review. In a 2018 study, a researcher used the time spent on a news medium as a metric, instead of daily visits, to gauge the use of print newspapers versus online outlets. He found that 88.5% of attention from British readers went to traditional newspapers and just 11.5% to online versions. He also revealed a considerably weak engagement of British readers with online national newspapers, with an average of 30 seconds per day, compared to 40 minutes per day for print readers.
Losing the newsprint means losing the attention and the trust of the audience, which will have dramatic consequences on society and the political system as a whole.
The values and challenges of print news media in a digital age
Several researchers have pointed out the difference in the perceived trust of readers regarding printed newspapers and their digital counterparts. Research involving 34 young students and their media use concluded that most students consider print news as necessary. Many of them read it only when it is readily available, or when one of their parents brings it home. Participants could recall more information from printed newspapers and absorbed more information by “information encountering.”
Though print newspapers are struggling to gain economic capital, this trust of the printed medium can provide some leverage in the digital environment. Many print newspapers got a boost in readership after moving online, compared with online-only competitors. If you take the case of the BBC, its online platform is the most-visited news website in the UK.
Similarly, after the rise of online news media, many Moroccan print newspapers launched a website while also maintaining a printed version. The current crisis has forced the remaining print-only papers, on short notice, to move, unprepared, to the digital world. During two and a half months of lockdown, many traditional newspapers have been sharing their content for free in the form of PDF files, which is technically deficient and financially unsustainable.
The rush to go online may seem like an excellent tactic to keep up with the latest trend, but it is a tricky move to offer hard-earned content for free, or at best, to earn few dollars from online advertisers such as Google Adsense, which will not pay the bills.
Financial support for print outlets and threats to journalistic integrity
To avoid the freefall of the press, many governments in Europe and North America have launched programs to support journalism. The policy is highly controversial. Many journalists and scholars consider it a threat to independent journalism. In contrast, others perceive it as a recognition of how informing the citizen is an essential public service worth tax-payer money. However, it is hard to be conclusive about the impact of state support for the media. It depends on many considerations related to each individual country.
The Moroccan government has an obsolescent policy to support newspapers. In practice, the program supports media corporations based mainly on their circulation numbers. As a result, leading journals receive the most funding. It is a policy intended not only to support journalism, but also to keep influencing the most-read or visited outlets.
Traditional newspapers are private companies facing hardship due to the coronavirus, and state support now is much appreciated. However, the current pressure to help journalism in Morocco should be an opportunity for reform. Newspapers require support to properly move online. This is important not only in facilitating website creation, but also to explore possibilities of viable business models, and to emerge from this critical moment as multi-platform media corporations.
The paywall is a new business model to try. Readers can directly fund their favorite news provider without relying on highly political advertisers. Telquel and Ledesk are experimenting with online subscription, hoping to make a breakthrough. They offer free content for all while keeping exclusive content behind a paywall. There is no data yet available about the experience, but at least, so far, they are not out of business.
Prioritizing the public interest
To support print journalism only because it is printed on paper is not sustainable. It is crucial to support independent journalism for the public good. Fact-based journalism in Morocco can go unnoticed and unrewarded. In 2017, most print and online newspapers shared the story of a group of minors from Sidi Kacem accused of zoophilia, which sparked a tense debate on social networks. Ledesk, an online publication, investigated the claims and found them baseless. As a result, it was clear that fake stories sell, while investigative journalism is struggling to survive.
With the coronavirus crisis is threatening many media businesses, professional journalism has to redefine its purposes and publics. Reuters’ 2019 annual report asserted that the media is good at breaking the news and bad at explaining it. The same remark applies to Morocco; there is an oversupply of reporting news, sharing official announcements, and diffusing misinformation instead of rigorous fact-checking and analysis.
Supporting media organizations that value accuracy, responsibility, and independence is at the heart of the public interest. The pandemic proves that the state needs reliable and trusted media organizations, which cannot be left to die in a struggling market. Supporting newspapers in their digital transformation is the best way to keep their business running and help maintain journalistic integrity in a multi-platform media landscape.