There are a lot of difficult and complicated problems in journalism these days, including how to sustain it. But there is one easy problem that every news organization could solve with a moderate amount of effort.
Yet, this problem goes untended due to ignorance or arrogance.
All news sites need an About page. Most news sites do not have a place online where they tell the public who they are, what they do and what they promise. For most newsrooms this is an oversight that has been neglected for too long.
As a profession, we agonize over the lack of perceived value for what we do. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard a journalist suggest that journalism needs a PR campaign. Journalists feel like they devote an enormous amount of energy explaining to the public why their work is important. And certainly if you listen to public radio or saw The Washington Post Super Bowl ad or notice a local campaign to garner newspaper subscriptions, there’s a lot of talk about why journalism matters.
It could be that our own perceptions exaggerate our effort, or perhaps that energy is spent in the wrong place. Because when an audience member approaches a media web site, in most cases he or she cannot find even the most basic information about who is behind the site and why it exists.
“Journalists are working hard to explain what they offer and why they are valuable and why you should believe them,” said Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, a project devoted to researching audience trust and training news organizations in best practices. “The About page is a basic way to say, ‘Here’s why we are valuable, why we are important.’”
There are some notable exceptions, mostly start-ups and nonprofits. Start-ups usually have an About page, because when you create something new, you have to tell people what it is. And non-profits usually have an About page because they ask people for money.
NPR has a whole about section, including dozens of links to information about the company’s finances, how to connect, and how to request a correction. (The only flaw I see is that readers must navigate to the bottom of the home page to find it.)
The Texas Tribune has a pretty robust About page as well (also tucked away at the bottom of the home page).
My favorite About page is ProPublica’s, primarily because you find it in the main navigation bar, where most readers have been trained to look for it.
We journalists bemoan the lack of news literacy among the public. When the experts, like my colleagues over at MediaWise, teach teenagers to evaluate information, one of the first things we tell them is to know where the information is coming from.
“People are talking about transparency and media literacy. The first thing my teenagers learned is to know where are you getting your news,” Mayer said. “If there’s no About page, that’s a sign that they are not willing to be transparent about who they are.”
With some local news websites, it’s not even clear what geographic area they aspire to cover, Mayer noted.
Creating an About page would help with internal processes as well, including onboarding new employees and making ethical decisions.
As I work with journalists to both solve specific ethics problems and to develop codes of ethics that work in today’s publishing environment, I return to the same question: How does the audience know what you are and what you do?
It’s all about transparency
While I try to avoid applying marketing terms to journalism, the concept of brand promise is appropriate here. Everything you do as a journalist — from your ethics to your story choices — grows from your promise to the audience.
What do you aspire to do? Why does your newsroom exist? Who do you serve?
These questions are not difficult to answer. I can walk into almost any newsroom, pose these questions and get a relatively similar answer from everyone from the executive in charge to the intern filling in on vacation slots. But if the answers to those questions were part of the fabric of your product, embedded in the bones of your navigation so that your audience could readily find it whenever they need it, your newsroom would be stronger.
It begs the question: If everyone internally knows the answers to these questions, why not make them obvious and accessible to the audience? To create an About page requires three elements that are sometimes in short supply.
- Executive consensus. The leadership team must come together to spend some time creating an About page.
- Good design. It’s not helpful if it’s just a big block of text.
- The development team. Any time you alter your navigation, you need some of those precious hours from the programmers.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for making this happen.
- Make a list of everyone on the executive team who would need to approve the About page.
- Get one person on that list excited about this project who will carry it through. He or she is your champion.
- Get a small (no more than four people, including your champion) committee together to write a draft.
- Decide what questions your About page should address. I suggest you answer these questions:
○ Why does our news organization exist?
○ What stories do we cover?
○ From what point of view do we approach our work?
○ How do we correct our mistakes?
○ Who owns us?
○ How are we funded?
○ What are the best ways for the audience to interact with us?
○ What do we currently need from our audience?
- Write a draft.
- Have your champion move it through your executive group, where it will be modified.
- Design it.
- Have the programmers put it in an obvious spot in your central navigation, so your readers can always see it.
- Publish it.
- Draw attention to it. Do an AMA. Hold an open house. Have this be the next installment of your ongoing conversation with your audience.
- Designate a journalist to review the material every quarter. When it needs be updated, go back to step one.
When I ask leaders of news organizations why they don’t have an About page, their answers fall into two categories: It’s either an oversight or arrogance.
An oversight is easy to understand with legacy news organizations that existed before the internet. Devoting space on a news broadcast or a printed paper would have been superfluous. As we transitioned to a digital space, it wasn’t clear at first how the audience would change. But that was a long time ago and it is clear now that About pages are critical pieces of information for the audience.
Arrogance is a tougher problem. Some news executives believe that everyone knows exactly who they are and what they do. I can emphatically guarantee that this belief is misplaced, for even the most famous news organizations. If you run into this sort of arrogance, or if you yourself are guilty of it, ask this question: Are we happy with our the current size of our audience, or would we like to grow it? If you are looking for growth, you most likely want to tell people why they should trust you.
We at Poynter believe so deeply in the need for an About page that as part of our work at the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, we will guide three deserving newsrooms in the process of creating one. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us why we should select your newsroom. We’re looking for a variety of newsroom types that are serious about strengthening their relationship with their audience, and a signal from your CEO that he or she is open to the idea.