Media companies will be among those that fall victim to coronavirus

By Martin Ahlquist

Svenska Dagbladet

Stockholm, Sweden

One day, the pandemic will be over, and our lives will have changed,” notes my colleague, Daniel Kederstedt, in connection with our new series, “After the Corona crisis.” Once the infection has passed by, or a vaccine has been developed, many things will return to the way they were previously. Major industries will bring back personnel from furlough, and the wheels will start rolling again.

This does not apply to all areas of society, however, and far from all companies. During March, the number of bankruptcies rose by 23%, and the curve is pointing sharply upward. The list is topped by companies in the hospitality, taxi, transport, and restaurant sectors.

Though site visits have increased during the coronavirus crisis, the future of Swedish media is uncertain.
Though site visits have increased during the coronavirus crisis, the future of Swedish media is uncertain.

Another sector risking carnage is the media. In Australia, where I am temporarily residing, the major media group, News Corp, has decided to discontinue the paper editions of 100 plus print newspapers. Not temporarily but forever. The reason is declining advertising revenue, which is, in turn, a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. Translated to Swedish dimensions, that corresponds to 25-30 fewer local newspapers.

In Sweden, although we have not (yet) seen similar drastic measures, the industry organisation The Swedish Media Publishers’ Association foresees advertising losses of up to 50%, personnel cuts, and newspapers simply disappearing. At the same time, journalists are working harder than ever to respond to the massive demand for journalism generated by the coronavirus pandemic. Svenska Dagbladet and other newspapers within the Schibsted Group are in no way immune. The sharp decline in advertising is relentless and has an impact on a broad front.

No, this is not a cry for financial assistance from government authorities (others have already argued convincingly for that). This editorial seeks to explore what may await our industry when the pandemic is over — just as our writers do in the “After the Corona crisis” series.

Declining advertising sales are certainly nothing new for newspapers. Emboldened by success stories from across the Atlantic, Swedish newspapers have instead built up digital payment solutions. In several cases, things have gone better than expected. Today, both Svenska Dagbladet and Dagens Nyheter have substantial and growing revenues from digital subscriptions.

But, what does that say about the future of journalism for Sweden as a whole?

Looking again at the figures from the United States, the New York Times and The Washington Post, of course, sell millions of copies, but so what? For local journalism, there is no success story to bring home over the Atlantic. Swedish local newspapers are struggling frantically to get enough paying readers and to secure their survival as revenues from their printed editions decline. While this race was already fierce, for many it now risks becoming hopeless.

Here, someone might object that we have public service that can fill in if commercial media companies disappear. In Sweden, we have both publicly and commercially funded media able to operate based on the principles of journalism. This serves as insurance preventing totalitarian forces — political or commercial — from being able to take control of journalism.

Meddlesome politicians will, however, always be able to weaken the conditions under which public service companies are able to act as independent media. In the same way, editorial teams can be forced to pursue the interests of media moguls.

But not all hope is lost. Alongside other newspapers, we are seeing a sharp increase in interest in journalism. Site visitor statistics are skyrocketing, and new subscribers are pouring in. However, neither this nor the support measures announced by the government change the overall picture more than marginally.

Although I sincerely hope I’m wrong, everything suggests there being fewer newspapers in Sweden when the year is over. The coronavirus crisis risks carving deep wounds in the Swedish media landscape — wounds that will not heal when the contagion disappears.

Banner image courtesy of Gino Crescoli from Pixabay.

About Martin Ahlquist

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