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Media & Entertainment

Coronavirus hammers Asian newspapers

Media companies in Australia, Philippines and Vietnam stop the presses

A lot of Asian news organizations still rely on print editions to bring in the revenue they need to pay reporters, but the coronavirus has made it all but impossible to put newspapers into readers' hands.   © EPA/ Jiji

MANILA -- On March 31, News Corp Australia announced that 60 community newspapers would suspend their print editions on April 9. The reason? The world's biggest news item itself.

"The suspension ... has been forced on us by the rapid decline in advertising revenues following the restrictions placed on real estate auctions and home inspections, the forced closure of event venues and dine-in restaurants in the wake of the coronavirus emergency," News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said in a statement.

Elsewhere in the region, printing presses have also been forced to stop amid government-imposed lockdowns and travel restrictions to contain the spread of the virus, dealing a blow to already struggling traditional media outlets in the region.

The same day News Corp made its announcement, Vietnam News, a leading state-owned English-language daily, suspended its print edition until April 15, doing so after a reporter tested positive for the virus following an interview with someone who later tested positive for the virus, according to local media.

"We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience and request your understanding in these challenging times," the company said.

Four other news publications in Vietnam have also suspended print editions, saying their operations have been hampered by strict physical distancing measures.

In India many big-city housing complexes stopped receiving newspapers after a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 25. Newspaper carriers who go door to door every morning lost the mobility they need when public transit was suspended. On the demand side, some readers feared they could catch the virus by touching newspapers.

In the Philippines, where over half of the nation's 105 million people have been placed on lockdown, two national broadsheets -- Malaya Business Insight and Manila Standard Today -- have decided to temporarily ditch print. A tabloid that is popular with the masses did the same.

These papers now deliver the news on their websites and on social media platforms, depriving them of their lifeblood: advertising revenue.

Bruce Lui, a senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the wider media industry is set to take a hit as the global economy faces a sharp slowdown amid the pandemic.

"People will try to avoid unnecessary spending," Lui said. "They might not buy newspapers or renew online subscriptions."

With tepid consumer spending, advertisers might not place ads at all. "That's a double attack on traditional media," Lui said, "because [news outlets] heavily rely on advertisements."

In Australia, print newspaper advertising is expected to shrink to 798 million Australian dollars by 2022 from A$1.63 billion in 2017. In contrast, digital newspaper advertising is expected to grow to A$574 million from A$463 million during the same period, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Some news organizations are making the most of Asia's suddenly captive audiences to promote new digital services. News Corp is offering a free 28-day digital subscription that gives readers online access to community titles. And the Philippine Daily Inquirer is offering 30 days of free access to its digital editions.

Print outlets that have yet to establish robust online operations are in trouble, said Rachel Khan, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines. Khan said media companies in the Philippines still rely on advertising revenue.

"They should have done that [digital shift] two or three years ago, otherwise they will be really caught unprepared," Khan said. "[The pandemic] is a wake-up call for print publications that have not set up online operations."

Yet, the digital model is not insulated from the industry's woes. In China, Xinchao Media on Feb. 10 axed 500 of 4,500 staffers. The company is known for the digital advertisements it places in elevators.

"I had led the team to overcome SARS in 2003 and the earthquake [that leveled parts of Sichuan] in 2008," founder and CEO Zhang Jixue said in February as China was grappling with outbreak. "But I am afraid we might lose to the coronavirus in 2020 because there is no one on the streets, which means no customers."

For media companies to survive the pandemic, Lui said they must find a way to increase digital revenues while also cutting costs. That means attracting more subscribers, perhaps with lower subscription fees, while also halting pay hikes and bonuses, or asking employees to take unpaid leaves.

"Layoffs should be the last option," Lui said, "because you need experienced manpower to deliver accurate and quality information during this critical time."

Additional reporting by CK Tan in Shanghai, Kiran Sharma in New Delhi and Tomoya Onishi in Hanoi.

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