No one was ready for 2020. None of us was really prepared for the bushfires, or coronavirus, or the fear and uncertainty about what these crises mean for our families and our lives.
At Guardian Australia, we weren’t either. Along with the ongoing climate emergency, these have been the biggest stories and the greatest reporting responsibilities of our generation. They hit as we were already under pressure, from the digital platforms eating away at our advertising revenue, and from the populist forces – all the way up to the president of the United States – who want to undermine facts and truthfulness as the parameters of a civic conversation, eroding the very foundations of what we do.
Like everyone – from frontline health workers to the cafe owners with no customers – we adapted. I scrambled to figure out how to lead a news organisation via Zoom from a desk in the corner of my bedroom. Reporters conducted interviews online or shouted questions from across the street to the newly unemployed on the Centrelink queues that were suddenly snaking along city blocks.
We thought hard about how best to serve our readers who we knew were scared and potentially overwhelmed by information. From kitchen tables and home offices and makeshift bedroom desks across the country we ran a seven-days-a-week live blog to keep pace with the rapidly changing story, and used summaries, explainers and a data tracker to give readers quick access to the information they needed. We tried to avoid the sensational, to stay focused on facts. We questioned what we were told. We found new ways to talk to readers, Zoom-facilitated book clubs, and roundups of all the joy available online when our worlds contracted to our homes.
Meanwhile, the economic impact of the virus so exacerbated the financial squeeze on media businesses that some were forced to close and most of us had to cut costs.
It was a pandemic paradox – readership of most news sites soared, ours grew by 104% to reach 11.6 million Australians in March – but newsrooms kept closing, especially in the regions. At least 500 Australian journalists are likely to lose their jobs this year, according to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, on top of the 3,000 or more jobs lost over the past decade.
But the crises also demonstrated why factual news is indispensable and how information can save lives and soothe uncertainties. Readers showed that they value what we do with their attention and also with their wallets. Most mastheads reported increases in subscriptions. At Guardian Australia, where readers are asked for voluntary contributions so our reporting remains open rather than paywalled, reader contributions went a long way to addressing the ad revenue decline.
Now we emerge from lockdown with even more questions to ask than before, and more urgent solutions to discuss. Surely Australia cannot continue without a credible national policy to address global heating? Having accepted that unemployment benefits were insufficient for those made unemployed during the Covid-19 crisis, how can they possibly revert to levels below the poverty line? Since scientific advice served us so well during the pandemic, surely policymakers should continue to heed it? And no, we haven’t forgotten sports rorts or the need to hold governments accountable for their decisions and their spending.
With fewer journalists to ask those questions, the ABC facing funding cuts, a commercial media industry ownership more concentrated than ever, and vast tracts of Australia with no reporters at all, we need to step up. Studies in the US have shown that when factual local news disappears readers can turn to more partisan and polarising alternatives. We can’t let the news vacuum in Australia be filled by shrill voices trying to find an audience with climate denialism and confected culture wars. Scrutiny and accountability cannot be abandoned.
We set up Guardian Australia seven years ago to create a new independent, influential source of reliable Australian news because we believed a diversity of news voices was something a healthy democracy needed. That need is now bigger than before and, with the support of our readers, we intend to find a way to meet it. The vicissitudes of 2020 prove, once again, that the alternative is unthinkable.
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