October 22, 2018

Journalism is suffering from some pretty big trust issues right now. It’s a problem not unique to the United States, but increasingly a concern in places like the UK, Australia, France and Italy.

For many U.S. critics, journalism — and the journalistic trade — is all too often seen as elitist, left-leaning, out of touch with non-coastal audiences, and frequently the preserve of white, educated males.

There’s plenty of truth in many of these accusations, and there’s no doubt that if we wish to rebuild trust — and turn that trust into audiences willing to pay for acts of journalism — then we will need to do some things differently.

Based on my research over the past decade, much of it in the local news arena, as well as my on-going and previous journalistic work, here are seven recommendations which offer newsrooms — large and small — some potential ways forward.

One: Report stories not found elsewhere

At a time of declining advertising revenues, dwindling newsrooms and shuttered titles, there’s a business imperative to offer something different.

What needs to be avoided is allocating precious resources to rewriting wire copy, featuring stories simply because your competition is, and reporting stories and covering beats the way you always have.

As Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media, memorably told me in 2016: “You can do anything, but you cannot do everything.”  

Reporting stories not found elsewhere is an important differentiator in an increasingly noisy and cluttered media landscape.

For local newsrooms, this means focusing on telling stories that might be overlooked by other outlets, as well as offering new and fresh perspectives. Weeklies, which make up the majority of newspapers in the United State, are especially well placed to do this, as they’re working on different publishing cycles.

Two: Trumpet successes more

As journalists we’re always driven by the next story, meaning that we seldom do a good job looking back at what we have done. But we need to do a better job of showing and reminding audiences about the impact of our work.

Newsrooms tend to do this (although many of them appear uncomfortable doing so) if they’ve won an award. But why we don’t do this more often?

Offering value is essential for financial viability. As Sharon Chan at the Seattle Times has noted, demonstrating impact is part of “building that deeper relationship with people and showing that there’s value to having a newspaper, a legacy newspaper.”

Regularly stressing the benefits of what you do — as local PBS or NPR affiliates are forced to do through pledge drives — coupled with a distinctive editorial agenda, can reinforce that good journalism doesn’t happen by accident; and that we need people to pay for it.

Three: Tell stories differently

Newsrooms would further benefit from more effectively revisiting and updating previous stories. This requires a more incremental, and longitudinal, approach to reporting; one which may help offset the (often legitimate) criticism that we have a tendency to parachute in and out of communities.

The impactful, Pulitzer Prize-winning, work of E. Jason Wambsgans at the Chicago Tribune, is a testimony to this MO.

I also believe that more newsrooms, including local outlets, should actively embrace the explainer.

In the digital era, this is especially important given that many readers are casual consumers and fly-by’s. They’ve not been tracking developments on a story day-to-day as we have.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein has observed: “Journalists are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened.”

Four: Show your workings

There remains too much assumed knowledge in a lot of reporting, at all levels, and that applies not just to what we report, but also how we report it.

As an interviewee, it can be immensely frustrating when some of my carefully crafted contributions end up on the cutting room floor. I'm a journalist, so I understand why this happens. The same cannot necessarily be said of many of the sources that we deal with.

We need to do more to explain our processes to people outside of the newsroom, sharing how decisions are made, especially when it comes to editing and story selection.

Of course, in a time-pressed newsrooms, there are a million reasons not to do this. Yet, you can do this efficiently, engendering trust and boosting news literacy in the process.

The Des Moines Register, Great Falls Tribune, New Haven Register and others, have live streamed their editorial board meetings. Reddit style (or hosted) AMA’s (Ask Me Anything) and Facebook Live broadcasts are commonplace.

And more outlets could follow in the footsteps of the Cottage Grove (Oregon) Sentinel where, for an hour each month, Caitlyn May hosts an informal “Meet the Editor” discussion at a local coffee shop.

Five: Actively seek out opportunities for engagement

These types of activities do more than let audiences peak behind the journalistic curtain — they’re a great opportunity for us to listen, too.

As Molly de Aguiar, managing director of the News Integrity Initiative, has pointed out:  

“… newsrooms can see that better listening and engagement are no longer ‘nice to have,’ but are absolutely critical priorities for making good on their democratic obligations, as well as for their financial well-being.”

The working practices pioneered by Hearken, and partners, demonstrate this potential.

By encouraging audiences to submit questions they want answered or suggest topics they want covered, newsrooms like KUOW Public Radio in Puget Sound, Washington, can identify stories journalists might not have known their audience were interested in.

Moreover, as the Dallas Morning News has found through its Curious Texas project, these elements can coalesce to also drive subscriptions.

“We are seeing that Curious Texas articles convert well; they do better than the average stories produced by our newsroom. And they’re helping to surface the kind of stories we want to follow up on,” Nicole Stockdale, the News’ director of digital strategy, told Street Fight earlier this month.

Six: Mind your language

I’ve argued previously that the labels used by journalists don’t necessarily translate to a lay audience. As a result, newsrooms need to be more mindful of the terms they use across their content.

As Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News project, told me this summer, when we talk about “anonymous sources” many people assume the journalist doesn’t know who the source is. This challenge is reinforced when your commander-in-chief suggests these types of sources (although he used to be one) are “made up.”

Other potential areas of concern include whether audiences can explain the difference between news and opinion. Do they understand what wire services do, and that stories from AP, AFP, Reuters, etc. weren’t produced in-house?

Should they view material differently if it’s from one of these sources, your “contributor network” or if it’s “sponsored content”?  Does any of this matter to them?

We need to start demystifying these journalistic tropes and perhaps start using new labels.

Seven: Hire differently

Lastly, although there’s much we can do to help journalism better connect with audiences, fundamentally, we need to do more than just repackage our output.

We also need to shake some things up.

It’s essential that newsroom demographics more closely align to that of your (potential) audience. We need more women, people of color and a wider spectrum of political beliefs and educational backgrounds in newsrooms.

And we must address the class problem that continues to blight our trade.

Without this, there’s always a risk of detachment, and an inability to reflect the complexities  of the communities and stories we are telling.

These are not new issues, so we need to think creatively about finally tackling them.

The future of journalism cannot — and will not — look like the past. It will require a recalibration of approach if we are to rebuild trust and create the best possible foundation for a sustainable future.

This means being better listeners, being more selective in the stories we choose to tell (vital in an age of diminished resources), being more inclusive about who tells them and more diverse in the ways they are communicated.

News organizations, funders, J-schools, news and media literacy advocates, tech titans and journalists themselves all have a role to play here.

Let’s get to it!

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