It’s been fascinating to watch, read and listen to from outside the massive impact the coronavirus has been having on the media since the outbreak rapidly took hold here and globally a few weeks back. In a business that has undergone dramatic changes in the last few decades, particularly since the onset of digitalisation, these have paled in comparisons to how production practices have altered in the last month across radio, television, print and online.
And while it’s been a real eye-opener to observe from a distance how consentingly quick these universal updates have been implemented to ensure programmes go to air, papers and magazines go to print and all kinds of websites get published, while simultaneously attempting to ensure the health of everyone involved, it’s also been an interesting exercise to ponder the impact of the media when it weighs in so loyally and completely behind our political masters.
On this occasion, conspiracy wingnuts aside, there are few that would argue that this hasn’t been by and large the proper approach for all of our major media outlets to have taken for the greater good of society, but it does – well, for me, anyway – also ring a few small alarm bells, as I think how easily it might someday be possible for this to happen for nefarious reasons.
But I’ll leave that for another day; for now let’s go back to the present. And probably well into the future too. Significant aspects of the way media is now produced are unrecognisable from just a few weeks ago. I haven’t been in working anywhere since March 6 when I did a few days as a producer on Liveline on RTÉ Radio 1, but even then small changes were beginning to kick in. Certainly there was a very real awareness that Covid19 was on the way and that it wasn’t a good thing. Looking back now the introduction then of daily phone, computer, and desk wipe-downs seem almost from a far-off, bygone, innocent era.
While I was there I also had a chat about work with one of the 2fm crew during which we also discussed the impending arrival of coronavirus and should it hit them hard, among other things, their plans for presenters to do their shows from home if necessary using new internet-based technology they were about to carry out some trials on that was supposed to be more reliable than traditional phone-based ISDN lines. Neither of us then had any idea how soon this would be forced on them and their colleagues throughout radio and television, not only in RTÉ but globally.
Morning Ireland home studio. On the left is the ViA unit, my link with the studio control. pic.twitter.com/aSb8jlVzNh
— Bryan Dobson (@BryanMIreland) April 1, 2020
That no one there or anywhere else has been onto me since to book me for work – not yet anyway – obviously means they’re all doing grand without me. Or at least they’re managing.
The funny thing is no sooner did I send out a reminder email last week to a bunch of my radio and TV contacts to remind that that I was available for work should they suddenly find themselves with a producer, director or presenter hole to fill, than a few hours later I began to feel a wee bit crap and on the orders of my doctor over the phone I’ve been self-isolating since.
So in #selfisolation. Mailed contacts yest to say I’m available for work then started feeling crap. Typical. No better today so rang my doc. Prob not #COVID19 (I don’t qualify for testing as I’m not next in line to the British throne) but just to be safe. #ThoughtsAndPrayers 🤔 pic.twitter.com/6e5HHfWMwU
— Pat O’#StayHome-y (@patomahony1) March 26, 2020
I should, however, if it works its way through my system in the normal two week period, be available again, with any immunity that that may entail, from around April 9th. Whether anyone wants me or not.
Since early March, like in most other businesses, change has become the norm for the majority working in the media. Production practices have adapted and schedules have been revised, all presenting numerous challenges to everyone involved, many of which appear to have been surmounted by a combination of technology, experimentation, ingenuity and willingness by everyone to adapt.
Ever wondered how the news is still made, despite coronavirus restrictions in place?
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) April 2, 2020
I’m intrigued by how many may become the norm – or at least more common – post-coronavirus as people realise some of these forced-on-us practices may actually be preferable.
How many journalists and broadcasters – especially, I imagine, radio DJs – currently working from home are already thinking that they don’t actually have to go into the office every day and could just as easily, efficiently and possibly more enjoyably do the job off-base some of, if not all, the time?
— John Kelly tweets (@johnkellytweets) March 30, 2020
How many publishers and channel controllers are concluding that if more of their staff don’t have to be based in large central hubs they can save small fortunes on rent and utilities without affecting productivity?
— anthony murnane (@anthonymurnane) March 30, 2020
How many news programme producers are wondering how often they’ll need to send their expensive fully equipped satellite vans out to stories again when they’ve seen perfectly good reports – many recorded on just phones – sent back to base on new, cheaper, lightweight, internet-friendly gear?
Behind the scenes video of how the news is made featuring @conorfhunt . We’re out doing a nice package on a 11 year old goal keepers video that’s gone viral, a welcome break from the #CronaVirus story. #rtenews pic.twitter.com/ikzGnAXJsC
— Colm Hand (@ColmHand) March 24, 2020
With the usual caveat that anyone that thinks they can predict the future – especially in the media – is either deluded or a liar, one thing is for certain: the we-can’t-do-it-any-way-but-the-way-we’re-currently-doing-it cat is well and truly out of the bag and things will never be the same again.
It’s not all just changes in work practices of course. The last few days have seen numerous announcements of local and national media closures, wage cuts, service reductions and redundancies. Particularly hard hit is sports journalism: if there’s no sport happening anywhere around the world there’s only so many profiles, speculations about the future, old features and documentaries and nostalgic look-backs at classic games, races and events that one can churn out.
— Simon Carswell (@SiCarswell) April 2, 2020
But it’s affecting everyone. If the triple-headed takedowns of the 2008 recession, more recently Brexit and the ongoing hoovering up of advertising revenue by online giants like Google and Facebook weren’t enough for them to be dealing with, this for many will be the final nail in the coffin. There will be far more media organisation casualties, shrinkages and layoffs in the coming days, weeks and months. Those it doesn’t kill completely will survive as very different entities.
In the meantime I’ve seen numerous social media please-support-journalism shout-outs on the back of these shutdowns and downsizings, nearly all from people who work in the industry. These are a relative constant in my feeds in normal times as people regularly argue the media’s vital role in democracies holding power to truth, but now it’s increased exponentially.
The newspaper industry is in massive trouble. Ad spend has plummeted and many journalists are being ‘furloughed’ or just fired. Reporting is vital in our society – arguably now more than ever. If you’re passing a shop on your walk today, please #buyapaper pic.twitter.com/81njqB4pPB
— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) April 2, 2020
And while I understand the impetus for these heartfelt requests, I’m also pretty sure why they’re so misguided. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about the media’s supposed role as society’s fourth estate, constantly policing government and business so they’re held to the highest standard, wiser heads than me (waves at Noam Chomsky just for starters) having many times before now convincingly argued in detail how this may not really be the case.
But just concentrating for the moment on the pleas that we should all buy a newspaper or take out an online news subscription to save journalism, I’ve always thought that trying to guilt people into supporting us is a misguided approach that rings hollow.
If our product really is that good and that essential and folk don’t realise it then what does this say about that actual proposition, our income model that relies on it or our efforts to get that message out to the public before now. Or indeed, all three.
Yes, I know how tough it is out there for all media organisations trying to survive in a market where, as I’ve mentioned already, the big online giant have usurped huge chunks of our advertising revenue that we took for granted for decades.
Yes, I know that there are numerous examples of fine (and not cheap) investigative work we’ve carried out that has exposed corruption and brought about major legal and legislative change.
Yes, I know that we have thousands of honest, hardworking staff on our payrolls – to say nothing of freelancers – who have mortgages, rents and numerous other household bills to pay.
But perhaps now might be as good a time as any to reassess so as to plan for the long term future.
Maybe relying so much on advertising and/or sponsorship so we’re even subconsciously beholden to business for our income was never the best idea in the first place?
Maybe blowing our own horns about our undoubted great investigative work when overall it’s surrounded and possibly drowned out with far more celebrity obsessed tittle-tattle, mind-numbingly dull entertainment and features commissions, antagonistic, opinionated, shit-stirring (not always but mostly right-wing, neo-liberal) columnists and, however blatant or subtle, PR-driven business or event plugs isn’t actually fantastic journalism at all?
Maybe we don’t really care that much about our employees and their bills, as evidenced by our previous lack of empathy and the ever decreasing working conditions, job security and wages we’ve offered them up until now?
Maybe, in fact, with unprecedented levels of fake news doing the rounds on social media and trust in our mainstream media in many sectors of the population at an all-time low it’s time to overhaul our entire media model? Maybe we should acknowledge that basing it almost entirely on giving people what they want rather than what they need where maybe our own long-running policy of mainly keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit may be largely responsible in the first place for the general population’s lack of media literacy and their constant hunger for instant-hit, high-calorie, low-quality content?
Maybe we’re not just innocent bystanders in all this mess?
Then again, perhaps now isn’t the right time to discuss any media content – and thereby ownership – refit in the same way as it’s usually argued that the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting (usually in the US) is not the time to talk about gun control. If not now, though, when?
It’s just that if we want people to support our journalism we should be 100% certain that it is actually worth supporting, not just that we find ourselves or our comrades out of work.
Minor rant over, back to the topic in hand.
The changes in work practices brought about by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic here and elsewhere are unprecedented. I hope to interview someone involved at the coalface in one of our major national media outlets in the coming days for an Off Message podcast to get an insider’s perspective. In the meantime, I’m genuinely full of admiration for and grateful to most of those who are still, despite everything, continuing to bring us our daily hits of media favourites, whatever their individual nutritional value.