Low Trust Isn’t Journalism’s Only Problem

Here at Bridge the Media, we realize that in order to understand the challenges that journalism faces today, we must have historical context about the industry. Our organization’s mission to expose Americans to alternative viewpoints was born from the divisive 2016 presidential election. But Americans’ trust in mass media has been declining steadily since 2007. Today that trust is at its lowest point since Gallup began measuring it 20 years ago.

To gain more historical context into the industry’s ailments, I interviewed Stefanie Murray, Director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair University in New Jersey.

Murray is a reporter and editor who saw the transition of print to digital during her fifteen years in newsrooms throughout Michigan and Tennessee. Now, as an academic, she spends her time teaching local journalists and wrestling with the more “existential questions” of the industry.

During our interview, Murray posited that there are big challenges that publications need to overcome, such as determining sustainable revenue models and re-instating trust with readers. While Murray does not have all the answers, her Center is hacking away at some of the most fundamental aspects of the dissemination of information today.

The Funding of Journalism: News without Advertising

The way that journalism is funded has become a point of stress, and therefore experimentation, for the news industry. Traditionally the newspaper business has been funded through advertising, with some money also originating from newspaper circulation. As digital delivery of news became predominant, however, news organizations — especially print publications — have struggled with steep revenue declines. This is mainly because digital advertising has allowed companies to reach potential customers almost directly, especially using platforms such as Google and Facebook.

Advertisers have moved their spending into those platforms and away from print publications and other media channels, which has caused a massive shakeup in the business models of most major news organizations. The aftermath of this shift is the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the industry and the closure of a plethora of news outlets.

“Advertising alone is not going to support journalism in the years to come,” Murray said. At Montclair, Murray studies the feasibility of revenue models that don’t rely on solely advertising. She points to the increased popularity of the nonprofit model, which solicits donations and memberships from readers and organizations (The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, NJ Spotlight and Bridge Magazine are some examples).

News organizations today are also diversifying their business models, putting an emphasis on bringing in multiple streams of revenue; in addition to advertising and memberships, many companies now put on events, put out products across a range of different mediums, sell merchandise, sell sponsored (native) content, etc.

One burgeoning revenue model is based on events. Philadelphia’s Billy Pen, for example, accrues 80% of its revenue from events. Nashville’s 12th and Broad saw initial success with its hybrid revenue model based on events and subscriptions. Murray credits its creator, Knight Stivender, with developing a “very innovative model that was almost before its time [that] is being replicated around the country.” However, it is not clear whether 12th and Broad continues to experience success.

The Correspondent is an example of a publication whose revenue is based entirely on reader membership. Its writing is sustained by its 56,000 members and the site’s “fiercely ad-free” ethos. The publication’s vehement standpoint against advertising begs the question: was there something unethical about the advertising model in the first place?

Murray likens the separation of advertising and editorial to the separation of Church and State. This golden rule of journalism mandated that folks who dealt with a publication’s advertisements were not to talk to those in the newsroom and vice versa. Cross pollination was strictly forbidden so that journalists would not be influenced by anything that’s happening in business.

However, as advertising disappears and publications scramble to find alternative generators of revenue, there have been different ad techniques that blur the line between business and newsroom separation. Native Advertising is the prime example of this gray area because it involves a digital advertisement that resembles the publication’s editorial content. While such forms of advertising have worked in generating revenue for some publications, the practice has opened the door for conversation surrounding the relationship between advertising and journalistic reliability.

The Influence of the Internet on News

The digital delivery of news means that information dissemination is immediate. Before the Internet, broadcast journalists worked on their stories throughout the day in time for the 6pm or 11pm newscast. Newspaper journalists could work all day on a piece in time for a late night deadline and publication the following day.

Things are different in 2017. Today, as soon as breaking news is vetted and confirmed, journalists rush to publish it immediately and then continuously update the story and the audience throughout the day in real time through various media.

Outside the newsroom, the Internet has given people immediate access to information not only from their local community but from around the world. Murray uses the Detroit Free Press as an example to express the gravity of the digital shift: that newspaper not only used to cover its local community, but it also covered the nation and the world. In fact, the Free Press had reporters stationed in Europe and Asia who would relay information back to their readers in Southeast Michigan.

Today, however, readers don’t pick up their local newspaper expecting to see national and international news (if they pick it up at all). For non-local news, people rely on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, mobile news alerts, Google News, email newsletters, and publications like Associated Press or The New York Times, or networks such as CNN. The number of sources to which consumers have access has increased dramatically.

For the first time in history, the Internet has provided news readers options. Do you read the same publications as your neighbors? My answer is: I have no idea.

Murray recognizes that the amount of news sources that exist on the web has led to information overload. Folks are now faced with the decision of which sources they will trust and read on a regular basis. It is here that social media impacts consumer behavior. There is visibility into the publications that family and friends are reading and sharing, which influences what individuals choose to read.

A topic Murray and I didn’t broach is how the algorithms that power these social media networks create echo chambers and fragmentation. The back-end of Facebook, for example, is programmed in such a way that the “friends” with whom one engages with most frequently (presumably the people with whom one agrees) appear more frequently in the news feed. This often means that the stories on one’s Facebook news feed reinforce, not challenge, one’s beliefs.

Decline in Trust

During our interview, Murray talked about the difficulties facing the news industry: “If it wasn’t bad enough that there are far fewer reporters on the streets today because news organizations don’t have enough money to support them, we’re also at a time where people’s trust in journalism is at one of its lowest points in history.”

“It’s a tough time to be a journalist,” Murray said. Most journalists work to conduct honest, fair, and accurate reporting of the news and it’s hard to constantly battle misconceptions about how you do your job. Part of the decline in trust is due to changes in the industry — fewer reporters means fewer stories are covered, which has disenfranchised many consumers — and it’s also related to messages relayed by politicians and readers’ interpretations of bias. But these are just a few factors among many that have contributed to decreased trust in the media.

In Murray’s experience, there is a difference between people’s sentiments towards “the media” and those towards their local journalists in local communities. “Local journalism has fared slightly better,” says Murray.

If journalists are abiding by specific, ethical, longstanding standards for accuracy, how do they go about convincing people that what they’re doing is trustworthy? While Murray doesn’t have the answer to this, she points to a number of efforts being made across the country to address the issue.

Facebook, for instance, is a platform that has played a major role in disseminating information to a large audience. According to Murray, they’ve been working to ferret out fake news and support fact-checking.

But efforts to eradicate fake news don’t solve the fundamental problem that people don’t agree as a society on what is factual, which will continue to undermine trust in information providers.

For example, if a news organization holds climate change to be a basic truth, any readers who believe that climate change is contestable will automatically perceive that news to be biased. But if there are accredited scientists who have conducted extensive analyses proving the existence of climate change, should a news organization spend its time debating whether climate change exists?

Just as those who hold drastically different viewpoints about what is factual have difficulty conversing with one another, news organizations have trouble presenting information to individuals who disagree with basic assumptions. Murray explains, “We aren’t trying to please everyone, but we are trying to present facts.”

And if people can’t agree on the facts, then trust in journalism may not rebound to high levels.

While the argument over factual quality ensues, Murray encourages journalists to keep doing their jobs by talking to their community and being transparent about how they’re gathering information and sharing it.

The Role of Cooperative Media

At the Center for Cooperative Media, which is a grant-funded program, Murray runs a network of local New Jersey news organizations, conducts research, and coordinates collaborative reporting.

Murray explains, “The common understanding behind collaborative journalism is that media organizations have more to gain by working together across their organizations instead of against each other. Traditionally [journalists] are very loyal to [their own organization] and try to beat the other organizations by reporting stories faster and better.” While advertising is still the underpinning of many news organizations, it’s deteriorating at a rapid rate. Murray and her team are exploring collaborative revenue efforts, which include sharing reporting resources (such as a photographer or data sets) to save time and money.

Instead of having a handful of journalists produce essentially the same story, collaborative journalism encourages reports to allocate aspects of a story among a group. It also allows for citizens to enter the mix, contributing their own research alongside journalists, as proposed in Jimmy Wales’ recently announced Wikitribune. Ultimately, we arrive at journalism that provides more depth and breadth on a topic.

Living in a capitalist society, however, we know that competition is healthy and allows for survival of the fittest. While one might worry that collaborative journalism runs the risk of weakening that competition and potentially sacrificing the drive to produce the best story, Murray disagrees. This is because her work does not advocate for complete and total collaboration; rather, she believes collaborative journalism is best used in specific situations and on specific stories. She points to the Panama Papers as the greatest international example of how journalistic collaboration allows for better reporting.

The confluence of issues in the journalism industry, namely the abandonment of advertising, the popularity of the Internet, and the decline in trust, have come to a nexus. The innovative work that Murray is conducting relating to Cooperative Media speaks to the fact that the solution to these problems won’t exist within the bounds of traditional journalism.

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