Will COVID-19 lead to a bonanza for media outlets? Not likely.

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By Greg Markley

This pandemic is full of tragedy and bravery. People of all types feel lonely and/or triumphant. From Lee County to County Cork, Ireland, and most other places, many media companies are hemorrhaging. They can’t balance their books even now. Layoffs continue not despite the pandemic, but because of it.

When the British Conservative Party was defeated in the 1945 general election, Clementine Churchill told her husband Winston that it could be “a blessing in disguise.” If so, the war-time prime minister replied sullenly, it was “very well disguised.” Today, the Coronavirus seems to have helped newspapers, TV and radio and bloggers financially. But staff members are being cut and many will not return to their media jobs when all is done.

“The economic downturn that put 30 million Americans out of work has led to pay cuts, layoffs and shutdowns at many news outlets, including weeklies like The Stranger in Seattle, digital empires like Vox and Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain,” wrote Marc Tracy in the New York Times, last month.

Jobs listed for the media and communications area fell 35% as COVID-19 stays in the U.S. At least 36,000 workers at news companies have been laid off, furloughed or suffered a pay reduction. Advance Local, a national chain that features The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and the Press-Register, is implementing one-to- two week furloughs between May and December and cutting pay up to 20% for employees making more than $35,000.

In-flight magazines are threatened as there are not enough people flying the airlines and that makes advertisement contracts rare. Even Sky Magazine, a staple on Delta Airlines flights for 10 years, is just a memory. Its six staff members were laid off. Alaska Airlines has canceled the next two issues of Alaska Beyond Magazine. And at Sports Illustrated, 31 people including journalists were let go March 30.

Here in Lee County, where I was an editor and reporter at the daily in the 1990s, we had enough staff but our front page was almost all local news. That changed as part of a tragedy – the death of Princess Diana of Great Britain. When she was killed in a car accident, we teased the death on Page 1 but the details were buried on page 6 or 7. Since most readers were crushed, we had an 8-page special edition a few days later.

From then until I left in 1999, the county’s daily paper ran a state or national story each day. This freed reporters to write more in-depth stories, on Opelika, Auburn, the external county or Auburn University. All newspapers that are cutting or furloughing staff are hurting their readers. With fewer writers, some events and news does not get covered, copy editors cannot be as thorough because of time constraints and “enterprise” stories (beyond simply covering a meeting or plane crash) are seldom seen.

“The newsroom staff of the New York Daily News is being cut in half, serving a big blow to local watchdog journalism in New York,” said David Folkenflikt, NPR’s media analyst, in 2018. “It is also reflective of local journalism being cut across America. It was down to something – call it 85 or so. It’s been cut back to roughly 40 or perhaps a few more than that. Readers can expect far fewer people if any on the street. I think you’re going to see a lot less of coverage exposing wrongs by officials, by major developers, by police officers.”

  “Fake News” is a term applied to print and electronic media with devastating effect by people on the extremes of today’s political discourse. Alexandra Alter, in the 2019 NYT article “It’s a fact: Mistakes are embarrassing the publishing industry,” emphasizes that mistakes and “out-of-thin-air” conjectures are not commonly seen in book publishing.”

In recent years, errors in non-fiction books by luminaries to include former NYT executive editor Jill Abramson and acclaimed historian Jared Diamond, posed the question: “Should publishers take more responsibility for the accuracy of their books?” Factual and thematic errors hang around for a while. They spread like a virus to other books and articles derived from incorrect sources.

Publishers now specify that manuscripts be reviewed by their legal departments to prevent libel and copyright infringement. The wrinkle is that a “review” does not consider an author’s research and thesis, nor does it always stop fraud, as in the “fake books” by James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat (Angel at the Fence).

Two of the most dreadful aspects of American life today have joined forces. We not only have COVID-19 now, but “fake news” and hoaxes about the virus.  But take heed: All these Coronavirus “fake news” items may disappear. Reason: there are not enough members of the press left working for fact-checking.

Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 19 of the last 24 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Alabama and Georgia.

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