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In the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, at least in France and in Italy newsagents are in the list of first-necessity stores that remain open. "To go buy a newspaper" is a legitimate reason to leave one's house.

I wonder about the motivations of this decision: buying a newspaper is not essential by any definition of the term. Television, radio and internet are largely sufficient to cover the need for information of the general population.

Is there a reasonable political explanation for this? At first sight, it seems that the only one is the ties and the balance of power between politicians and news outlets / medias.

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    Because some old people don't have Internet and that's the only way they can keep themselves informed of what's happening. – dan-klasson Mar 20 at 18:08
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    There are also people who choose not to have TV - I'm one, though I obviously do have internet :-) – jamesqf Mar 20 at 18:34
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    @FedericoPoloni Denying an old person access to a newspaper is like taking away social media from a teenager. But yeah, I get your point. Kinda silly rule. – dan-klasson Mar 20 at 18:45
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    Well, there are toilet paper shortages. – Acccumulation Mar 21 at 2:41
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    @Federico Poloni: Your personal difficulty of belief is not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality, you know. – jamesqf Mar 21 at 3:16
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At least in Italy, this appears to be in part a response to pressure from newspapers and their readers. On March 11th, the director of la Repubblica newspaper Carlo Verdelli published (in Italian) an article asking for newsagents to be included in the list of essential services, saying that "The list is missing a service that is more fundamental now than ever before, that of information". He went on to state that "If [newsagents] were not included in the list, it would cause irreparable damage, not only for newspapers, but most importantly for the citizenry." (my translation)

This is an important point, as a study undertaken by the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that while TV and online media dominate, 31% of Italians and 23% of French adults get their news from print media at least daily. This group is likely to be composed of older citizens who will be most affected if they contract the virus, and although this puts them at more risk if they leave their houses to buy a newspaper, it is of higher importance to keep at-risk groups informed.

In addition, another Pew Research Center study found that newspapers were especially important for coverage of local news that would not otherwise be reported in alternative media - although the study was limited to the US, this is another potential factor that could have influenced the decision.

It seems that France and Italy have decided that informing the populace is especially important in this time of crisis, and that this outweighs the threat public health and the potential spread of disease that the inclusion of newsagents as an essential service poses.

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    @FedericoPoloni: "the relevant number here should be the percentage of people that would be left without daily information without newspapers". Not that relevant. During a crisis, you want people to get informed in every possible way. Not really a good idea to block a medium of communication. – Taladris Mar 21 at 16:57
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    @FedericoPoloni: because each media has its advantages and its shortcomings. Also, the French, Italian and Korean situations show that taking measures and having the population following them as soon as possible is critical, so yes, you don't want to miss any opportunity to get people informed. And your claim that "having several means of information is not necessary" is also opinion-based. – Taladris Mar 22 at 1:16
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    @FedericoPoloni: Re: "That sounds like a disputable personal view that you are presenting as an axiom": You stated your opinion without qualifying it as such, and Taladris responded with his/her contrary opinion. Your objection to that seems hypocritical to me. – ruakh Mar 22 at 5:08
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    @FedericoPoloni whoa, that is one serious strawman argument here. you should go into the cow feeding business before you go into bull output mode. none of your 3 activities serve a compelling purpose w covid, unlike the news rationale we've given you on newspaper. 2 of them require substantial touching of items likely to be touched by others. and all 3 require you to spend considerable amounts of time in the shop while a paper can be bought in less than 20 seconds with the only substantial risk the cash likely to used. I can't really say you are arguing in good faith by this point. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Mar 22 at 14:47
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    @FedericoPoloni The impression that you might not be arguing in good faith might come from the fact that you are equating the non-essentiality of buying flowers or visiting a car dealer with the non-essentiality of buying newspapers. Also you have attributed an "it is important because I say it is important" argument to someone but I couldn't see anyone making such an argument. These feel like debating techniques and that often produces the impression of not good faith. Just to be clear, I think your statements are in good faith, but I can see why they might not be coming across as such. – SantiBailors Mar 22 at 15:44
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Newspapers are the way a lot of people get their information, especially older people. During a crisis it's especially important that people can access news and government guidance. And if they're already going out for groceries, the extra risk in picking up a newspaper from a kiosk is fairly limited. People are also allowed to get cigarettes after all (French version of the quarantines, at least).

Personally? While I don't mind radio news, I can't stand TV news. Regardless of the quality or not of the news outlet, I learn a lot less from watching a necessarily superficial 60 second video clip than I do from reading for 60 seconds.

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  • Italy and France are far from being "less wired-up countries", though. I would imagine that almost everyone there has access to another news outlet such as TV, radio or internet. Among all lifestyle changes imposed by the lockdown, changing news outlet seems like a minor one. (And, for the record, Italians can get cigarettes, too.) – Federico Poloni Mar 20 at 17:13
  • fair enough. removed the less-wired. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Mar 20 at 17:38
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In many places all over the world, rulers tend to abuse quarantine in order to restrict one freedom or another and/or give their "friends" some business advantage. At least here, in Bulgaria, this is exactly the case.

OTOH, freedom of the press is considered a fundamental and essential tool for protecting other freedoms and rights. That's why administration in more or less democratic societies is reluctant to openly restrict printing and distribution even if common sense dictates otherwise.

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    Excellent point. In many industries, bankrupt companies can simply be replaced by newcomers. It might take decades to build a reputable and trustworthy newspaper, though. – Eric Duminil Mar 21 at 14:50
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On top of all the valid reasons that have already been mentioned, it's important to understand that this level of micromanagement is not the way the French government (at least) is approaching things so far. The government has defined things like information or food as basic needs and allows all businesses in this category to keep operating. For example, there has been no decision to open supermarkets while closing bakeries, cheese shops or fish mongers. And there are anecdotal reports of people making a trip to the pharmacy and buying some cosmetics products just to keep busy.

Furthermore, note that many commentators are criticizing these measures for being too lax, giving too much weight to economic consequences over health concerns and relying too much on calls to the public to limit movements rather than harsh coercive measures. In France, the list of businesses that are currently allowed to stay open include auto parts shops, computer and phone shops, temp agencies, banks and insurance agents, laundry services and of course everything that is not open to the public including construction, manufacturing and deliveries of all kind. There are calls to pause all that but at this point, economic activity is not restricted to absolute necessities.

Conversely, as late as Thursday or Friday, bookstore owners were complaining about lasting damage because online retailers could still operate and were asking for an exception to the restrictions (as is the case in Belgium). I would be surprised if this happens but the minister of the Economy and Finance would not immediately rule it out.

Incidentally, online or even TV news is in a large part based on newspapers stories that are copied and commented all over the place. It might eventually come to that but it's difficult to tell newspapers “you're going to continue to offer contents for free but we will just deprive you on one of your revenue streams and favor your competitors in other media”. Here again, it's legally and politically easier to make the decision at a more general level and at this point, information is deemed important enough. Along the same line, many tobacconists also sell newspapers. It's extremely difficult to imagine closing these shops.

Finally, while the national rules are couched in very general terms, local authorities are allowed to take additional measures. For example, municipalities have closed parks or specific landmarks and at least one mayor specifically banned going out to buy just one baguette or newspaper (you are supposed to make more substantial purchases and stay at home in between).

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