Closing the gap with readers: an end to business as usual in journalism
News organizations need to be more accessible and transparent to bridge the growing divide between them and audiences
When I arrived at Stanford last September as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, I was concerned about the increasing polarization and fragmentation of the media landscape. My assumption was that the new paradigm of the subscription model, gradually adopted by publishers, tended to transform the media landscape by reserving quality journalism for people who can afford to pay for it. I feared that if we do not pay attention, we could end up with a growing gap between the people who get quality news by paying (in a way, elite or upper-class readers), and those who can’t pay or don’t want to pay, and stick to easily accessible news (in the best cases), or disinformation (in the worst).
To help solve that issue, I have researched how we could expand paid and quality journalism to a broader audience. In that journey, I have found allies such as libraries (they could help journalism gain access to broader communities), but I have also hit obstacles. Gradually, I began to understand that by focusing just on the reach quality journalism could have I was missing the big picture. What about the readers who won’t pay for news but also don’t want to read it at all? How could we answer the unprecedented level of distrust in media today? How can we make sure that quality journalism does not only overcome economic barriers between it and readers but also cultural and social obstacles? In other words, how can we make our journalism more accessible, understandable and trustworthy?
Of course, the main asset of journalism is news and the power of the stories we are crafting. But we cannot just do business as usual, making good journalism and hoping that people will notice. We, as journalists, have to be proactive to close the rising gap between us and readers. We have to find new paths to be more accessible and understandable for the public. Here are three takeaways I found out in my journey about how journalism could better reconnect with broader communities.
Expand media access via trusted institutions like libraries
In a time of distrust, the public has not lost faith in libraries. According to a 2017 Pew Research report, libraries rank among the most trusted sources of information in the U.S. Because they remain one of the most lively places for communities, attracting a large public, they can be the best allies for media to reach broader audiences, beyond their core readers.
The New York Times understands this well: A few months ago it launched a new partnership with California public libraries. It grants access to all Times content for free to 23 million California public library cardholders. The program is designed to reach people the Times couldn’t reach without the scale of the 1,200 California public libraries. The New York Times is betting that giving that kind of access to library readers won’t cannibalize its effort to gain subscribers. The hope is the opposite, that offering regular access to its content to this new audience could ultimately lead to more subscribers.
Help readers better understand journalism to earn their trust
We know for decades that media are among the institutions the public trusts the least (even though the trust rate has rebounded slightly in the past two years in the U.S.). But are we journalists too fatalistic regarding that issue? Are we really committed to fighting back and to trying to regain the public’s trust? In France, my country, the distrust in media has risen at an unprecedented level, making it one of the least trusting Western countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2017. This winter, the Yellow Vests movement (Les gilets jaunes in French) has been a new demonstration that the hate against mainstream media is now widespread.
As the American nonprofit organization Trusting News says, earning the readers’ trust is now part of our job as journalists. We cannot just do great journalism and think that people will notice. We have to explain what journalism is and explain its purpose, why our work is not driven by our self-interest but by the public one. We have to explain who we are, what our values and ethics are, also who our funders or shareholders are, and what our business models are. We have to reach audiences and ask them if we are doing our jobs well or not, what are we missing in our coverage, what are our biases and blind spots. By framing a new conversation with audiences we lost, we can hope to reconnect. Far from the traditional way of delivering news, we need to find a new place for journalism to stand beside readers.
Make media literacy a top priority of journalists
In my research, I have focused a lot on access to media, how we can expand the audiences we reach. But I quickly discovered that one of the main issues is the accessibility of media, the knowledge people need to have to find their way in the media landscape. Nowadays, the “grammar of news” — that important ability to discriminate quality from crappy journalism, disinformation from real news — is no longer widely shared. What we took for granted in the past is no longer valid and has to be explained to become understandable.
As a journalist, I’m deeply convinced we have to be engaged in media literacy. We have to reach young generations, as well as adults or seniors and explain how we work, what information is valuable and what is not. We have to build programs, beyond our newsroom walls, to reach the communities around us. Again, libraries could be of great support as the public perceives them as neutral in the news battle. Journalists and librarians, goodwill on both sides, have to build alliances to empower the capacity of the people to browse the news.
Today, the current media trust crisis poses one of the biggest challenges for our democracies. But what I have found incredibly invigorating in my journey as a JSK Fellow is the rising awareness, among many journalists, that we have to answer to this crisis. American journalism, in particular, is bursting with inspiring initiatives, ideas, and experiences on how we can reconnect with local communities, be more transparent and rebuild trust. All that creativity gives me hope for the future of journalism. I deeply believe if journalism is not afraid to face its responsibilities and to take its part in our current social and civic crisis, it will continue to play a fundamental role for the sake of the public debate.
For any reactions or comments, feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org