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The Evolution of ‘Quality’ Journalism

In the old days, elite and serious news was the goal. Times have changed.

Charlie Beckett
Jun 5, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo: Mihajlo Maricic/EyeEm/Getty Images

“Quality” is a buzzword in journalism right now, but what does it mean?

At a recent Google Newsgeist conference in Lisbon of more than 150 journalism and tech workers, the concept of “quality” threaded its way through every conversation. Attendees asked one another how “good” journalism can survive and thrive in an age of misinformation, competition, and distraction. What is the best way for us to share the truth, and how can readers recognize it as such?

The conversation made me reflect on the meaning of “quality” in media and journalism, especially today.

What exactly is ‘quality’?

Most of us like to assume our journalism is “quality,” and we’re looking for ways to get more attention (and reward) for it. Increasingly, that means thinking about whether networks and platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter should help in the sifting process. But it also means designing engagement mechanisms that connect users to quality content.

But what does “quality” mean to a news consumer?

One way is to design engagement mechanisms that connect users to quality content. Tech companies like Apple have realized this — as evidenced by recent innovations to improve its news aggregator and help shape traffic patterns on its various devices. The Trust Project, a global collaboration of news organizations, is developing “trust indicators” — essentially, a set of disclosures displayed on a story to help readers quickly assess credibility. News organizations themselves are also getting much better at helping their customers find quality content through tailored engagement such as email newsletters or personalized apps.

What is quality in an age when the personal and emotional are significant drivers of public interest?

Put simply, quality is “the nature of things.” That’s a bit broad. How about, “it’s not quantity?” But the trouble with “quality over quantity” is that news organizations have to consider quantity (or reach) when determining what they can afford to produce. Or how much time each user has to consume. Or how they are going to pay for it. Even niche publishers need enough quantity to generate revenue.

“Quality news” used to mean broadsheet (in the days when we had big newspapers) and implied elite, serious, important journalism. It was defined (usually by journalists themselves) as the opposite of populist, entertaining, or trivial information. But what is quality in an age when the personal and emotional, the subjective and the immediate, are significant drivers of public interest, debate, and understanding of events? And how do we find it in an age of disintermediated, distributed, on-demand journalism that is blended into our individual, A.I.-driven news feeds and recommendation engines?

For the moment, let’s put aside the value judgment that somehow implies that quality journalism is “better” and focus on its nature in a practical, editorial sense. How can we give the consumer a higher-quality experience?

Steering readers toward quality

The first step to a quality user experience is that eternal journalistic imperative: Make it readable. That means eradicating friction and confusion from the split-second choice between access and clicking away. It’s about content, yes, but it’s also about design. A few hundred words from Axios may be better quality for a hard-pressed user than a lovingly crafted long-form scrolling interactive (with five unedited introductory paragraphs).

The second step: help readers find the quality. Whether they consume quality stories largely depends on whether they pop up in search engines and on social networks. Efforts by platforms to “uprank” quality content can help users find the good stuff faster. However, while platforms may be getting better at sorting out misinformation and offensive content, they are not so well-equipped to assess the value of what is left.

This is where curation and personalization come into play. Too much choice can be counterproductive, and less is often more. Hence the limited headline stories and stand-alone summaries offered by an app like Compass News. Though the service throws in some A.I.-driven personalization of articles on curated topics, allowing users to sort by interest, the starting point is always human-centered editorial judgment.

Maintaining quality in curation and personalization must be an ongoing process that allows for feedback, interaction, and engagement. For example, the London Times maintains Facebook groups around topics, some now run by readers themselves.

The evolving meaning of ‘news’

“News,” as the reporting of something happening, is now instantly distributed. Some news organizations focus exclusively on reporting, and they do it well. In today’s immediately connected world, the real opportunity for added value is context, analysis, and commentary. It’s also expertise, research, and experience. Investigate and reveal. Stop duplicating. Audience data may help you raise up the articles that are less-attended or find better ways of justifying them. Leave the routine to automation.

Every user is different. (They even differ at various times of day.) Filter bubbles are an opportunity. Research shows that social media users actually use more sources, not fewer. Yes, you should want to challenge their biases, but first understand where they’re starting from. The best popular mass-circulation tabloids are ‘quality’ news. They’re often brilliant at making political news relevant to an audience demographic that may not be interested in mainstream politics. You may not always like how they do it, but their ability to engage a large (and often diverse) audience is instructive.

Traditional journalists dismiss emotional stories as sensationalism, but emotions, feelings, identity, and values are vital parts of people’s lives.

Today, we misunderstand why people consume news. Some people enjoy staying informed, which is good news for journalists who produce evidence-based reporting. But news consumption today is also about ritual, fun, spectacle, and enjoyment. Stop treating those reasons as inferior. We want to go to the gym, but we also enjoy sunbathing. People don’t always know what they want. Surprise them. Surely, a key value of “quality” news is to be told what you didn’t know or didn’t even know you wanted to know.

Shake up your own assumptions and systems. A Norwegian newsroom, for example, swapped everyone’s beats for a day. Sports reporters did politics, and so on. Apparently, traffic went up.

Refresh. Get off Twitter. Hire differently. The strongest echo chamber is often the newsroom itself.

Lastly, consider your impact. We think of “quality” as content and consumption, but what about the effects of your journalism? Universities are now obliged to measure the “impact” of research, and there are formal measures such as citations or references in policy papers and legislation. If newsrooms could better understand the effect they have on people’s lives, they may better understand their value to people and communities. Journalists have belatedly begun talking to the public about the importance of their work to democracy and the health of society. But what evidence of your impact do you have beyond self-preservation? Have you asked your users?

Make readers feel things

Traditional journalists dismiss emotional stories as sensationalism, but emotions, feelings, identity, and values are vital parts of people’s lives. Take that seriously. I have long argued for “emotionally networked” journalism. The evidence shows that it works, even in a serious subject setting.

One highly successful news app now has an algorithm that uses sentiment analysis of articles to construct a personalized news stream. It’s designed to give users an emotionally balanced “symphony” of content.

Another example is Neva Labs, which is working hard on the wider well-being aspect of news. They’re trying to create a machine learning algorithm that understands how information overload and a diet of disaster and gloom can turn off users — and how a “healthier” diet can improve the quality of the experience.

The future of news

News is changing fundamentally. Perhaps journalism, as it’s been traditionally defined, is no longer enough?

We’ve always understood our world through other media apart from journalism. Perhaps we ought to look at cultural expression that informs and influences, such as drama or even music. Perhaps it’s time for us to seek collaboration with other communicators and creatives outside the industry.

Journalist, LSE media professor, Polis think-tank director. Writes about journalism, UK & global politics

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