November 14, 2016

I’ve read dozens of journalism postmortems and tweets lamenting how and why journalists got it wrong last week. Here’s a short, probably-not-comprehensive summary:

  • Journalists relied too heavily on polls.
  • They didn’t talk to enough voters in red states.
  • They used the term “red state” when states are more complicated than that, with blue and red areas.
  • People can’t be defined by where they live, where they went to school or how much schooling they have.
  • Journalists only talked to people at rallies.
  • They flew in somewhere, did a story, and flew out.
  • They ignored or didn’t know or didn’t report on the fact that the Trump campaign “was testing between 40,000 to 60,000 different Facebook ad variations every day for fundraising.”
  • They focused on the wrong things or too much on one thing or not enough on another thing. They put an interactive lever on their homepage that showed an overwhelming likelihood of a Clinton win, and people stayed home or came out because of it.
  • They covered the right things, but people don’t read anymore.
  • Or people don’t want to pay for high-quality journalism.
  • It was the paywall.
  • It was the delivery system.
  • It was echo chambers.
  • It was not anticipating the full range of views.
  • It was false equivocating.
  • It was Facebook.
  • It was groupthink.
  • We’re fractured.
  • We’re broken.
  • We’re addicted to conflict.
  • We’re not trusted. We don’t listen.
  • We’re not balanced in a world where people cherry-pick news coverage and sources and what to click on, on wherever they are online.
  • We trade objectivity for ratings.
  • We gave too much airtime. The pundits all look the same.
  • We’re too White.
  • We’re too coastal.
  • It’s hard to be adversarial when you went to school and travel in the same social circles as the people you cover.

And all of this, after an election in which good investigative, boots-on-the-ground reporting routinely uncovered major groundbreaking stories.

The disregard for journalism naturally frightens a lot of people. A recent Pew study found that only two in 10 Americans trust the information they get from local news organizations a lot — and that percentage drops if someone identifies as a Republican or an Independent.

We can blame our audience, we can blame ourselves. And yes, postmortems are good. But there are 721 days until the midterm elections. We must use this time to see opportunities, try out new ideas and figure out steps to take and iterations on our approach.

It’s overwhelming — where do we begin? I keep coming back to a survey that New York magazine conducted in July about what’s right (and wrong) with the media. Among the 30 survey questions sent to journalists: What’s your biggest blind spot?

The first answer was: “Groupthink. We draw from a limited pool of people who generally have a similar background and class. They simply are unable to see the perspective of people who are not like them, and tend to drive out those who don’t ‘fit in.'”

Some ideas:

Spread your masthead across the country

Yes, national newsrooms have bureaus across the country, and yes, journalism organizations hire freelancers to take on pieces in different geographic locations. But that’s different than having a truly distributed newsroom, with a distributed masthead.

We have tools now for remote meetings and remote document collaboration and remote project management. Why does your entire masthead live in New York or D.C.? There’s simply no need for this in 2016, and having different perspectives on an ongoing basis will diversify coverage and the way we write about our sources.

There are people already covering stuff outside of your bubbles. Partner with them. Elevate them. Support them. Listen to them. Make sure they’re not just in your newsroom but in the room where decisions are made

Heather Bryant said this best. “You don’t get to pretend reporters who understand rural, middle class America don’t exist; we do, we just didn’t matter to you before Wednesday morning.” Read her work on collaboration. Look at the newsrooms that participated in ProPublica’s ElectionLand and NPR’s Nation Engaged. What can you do with other newsrooms that you don’t have the capacity to do yourself, and how will that collaboration introduce you to new ideas and new people?

We need to do some user research, as an industry

Here is a map that the New York Times published last Monday, showing the largest voting group by county in the 2012 election, broken down by race and education level. Here are the questions that we should be asking ourselves about maps like these:

Questions about our industry

  • How many newspapers have shut down in the blue area? In the light tan areas?
  • How many journalists have lost their jobs in the blue areas? In the light tan areas?
  • What kinds of news organizations operate in each area? Are they newspapers?
  • Online?
  • On TV?
  • Who owns the newspapers in each area?
  • Outside of the blue areas?
  • Does the ownership look different in the blue areas and outside of the blue areas?
  • How many journalists from inside the dark tan areas visit the other areas to write stories?
  • What are the stories about?
  • Are the stories written in the dark tan areas different than the stories written outside of the dark tan areas? How?
  • What kinds of topics are covered in the blue areas? In the tan areas? In the light blue areas?
  • Do they differ from the topics from each other?
  • How do you come up with ideas for stories in each area? How might that make people feel? Think? What might it make them do?
  • How often do publications outside of each area cover the other areas?

Questions about news consumption

  • How do people in the each colored area get their news?
  • What sources do they consume?
  • What kinds of stories do they like to consume?
  • What kinds of factors determine what sources they consume?
  • What are their most trusted sources of news? Why?
  • What are their least trusted sources of news? Why?

Questions about journalists

  • How many journalists in your newsroom grew up in each area? How many live there now?

Hire outside of your comfort zone: I have never had all of the skills listed on my job description. I was trained. Find smart people. They might not work in news yet. Pull them in. Teach them. We’re not rocket scientists — everything we do can be learned on the job. That makes it easier to find smart, interesting people and put them in positions of authority.

Remember what you do. You serve the ideal of self-governing democracy

This isn’t the time to “wait and see” and ease our language in exchange for access. As Mike Ananny put it when we talked in August: “News media are unlike other providers of products and services because they — ideally — are in the business of helping people figure out how to govern themselves; they’re not only the business of earning revenue and delivering returns to shareholders.

“Since part of that governing happens during election cycles, providing information about issues and candidates is in a news organization’s business interest. As media economist Ed Baker put it, newspapers aren’t just ‘selling toasters.'”

“News media are sometimes said to be double-sided markets (they’re serving advertisers and subscribers) but really they’re triple-sided markets because they’re also serving an ideal of self-governing democracy.”

Serve the ideal of self-governing democracy. Good luck. We’re all counting on you.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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