Now more than ever do rural communities need local media to fight the good fight. But news from across the globe and established markets like the UK suggest small local media entities are suffering more than others amid the coronavirus lockdown. This sad news comes as Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) announced its “news recovery plan,” which sets out several both short- and medium-term measures it says should be implemented to support small news teams.

The NUJ suggests that investment from central government advertising, including the “hyperlocal news sector”, in the form of health awareness commercials be used to keep businesses afloat in the short term. Also, the NUJ suggests that newspapers become assets of the community, especially in remote areas which rely on them for news — similar to local post offices and pubs. However, this proposal does not deal with the pressing issue of the struggling rural media organisations right now. In effect, it could take several months for the projects to come to light, by which time it may be too late for many small media companies.

One example which sets a worrying trend is that of the West Highland Free Press (WHFP), one employee-owned newspaper among several titles to have temporarily ceased publishing due to the COVID-19 epidemic.  The WHFP announced the measures to reduce costs and help their staff reduce the risk of infection while on the job. It added it would hope to reopen its printing on June 5 and would keep a limited online presence in the meantime.

“When the Free Press returns, we will need your support more than ever to ensure our own modest contribution. We are not part of a large media group. We are a small team with limited financial means; the only employee-owned newspaper in the UK,” it said in its closure editorial.

But restarting after a pause for that brand and several others who have since ceased paper publication without government aid or other support is a herculean task. The media industry by Autumn 2020 could be in worse shape than it has in several decades, even taking into account digital readership to drive the business. There should be a concerted effort for funds to be made immediately available to media organisations who report in remote communities, and not large media groups who would not likely pass on the financial aid to their workers.

Why rural reporting matters?

Despite the news of people stuck inside their urban dwellings, as we have seen in several high-profile cases of late, urban citizens have used the lockdown as an excuse to escape to second homes — often in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The case of Scotland’s now-former chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, is one example of a city dweller using her second to escape urban lockdown. If it were not for eagle-eyed neighbours and reporters in the vicinity, her and many like her who use the “coronavirus holidays” are part of a broader trend of people possibly spreading the virus to the rural community.

From the Lake District to Rural Wales, the COVID-19 epidemic has tempted many second-home owners and those who live in urban settings to “escape to the country.” Initial data from one semi-rural NHS trust areas shows the death toll was much high compared with more nearby urban areas.

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, which covers North Lancashire and South Cumbria, including the South Lakes listed 116 deaths from COVID-19. While in the next area, Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust saw 72 deaths from the disease on April 17.

It is too early to tell whether the spike in admissions in hospitals in Barrow and Lancaster are from local infections or coronavirus holidaymakers.   However, considering the lower population density in the broader Morecambe Bay and South Lakes region, it is something that requires further investigation at a later date.

Long-term decline from coronavirus

Research from the University of Newcastle titled “COVID-19 and rural economies” said that COVID-19 due to the ageing cohort in the community would significantly affect the countryside. It added that rural communities are disproportionately hit from the spread of the virus because of the significantly older population.

“With access to essential services already more challenging in rural areas, and with less service capacity and critical mass of key workers (doctors, care workers, emergency services, pharmacists, etc.), rural areas’ vital services are especially vulnerable and at risk of becoming overstretched should these people fall ill, are required to self-isolate or if there is a rapid increase in cases within local communities linked to their ageing demography,” the reported said.

Coronavirus and its subsequent social restrictions have created a quandary for many, but as more people remain remote and disconnected from each other because of the social distancing, rural local media is a trusted channel among a sea of social media rants which must be supported amid these trying times. It is local on the ground reporting, which leads when the national media and untrained social media pundits cannot compete. Coronavirus will not be the end of the local press, but we need to plan and support now before it is too late.