A close friend, or a critical one?

Wondering whether online engagement is a prerequisite of trust in the media

Adam Smith
Oct 25, 2017 · 5 min read

If a stranger approached you in the street and told you something you didn’t know, would you trust them?

via Wikimedia

This is the key question facing publishers wishing to build new online audiences. The job of an editor today falls between responding to what audiences are saying and using their own judgement to publish what is of interest. The Economist tends to favour the latter approach. Call it editorial sovereignty. We look at stories our audience spent a lot of time on, or otherwise engaged with, but we don’t allow these data to drive decisions about what stories to publish next.

When I hinted at our practice in a panel session at the annual conference of the Online News Association in Washington DC on October 5th, Jay Rosen stood up to offer a comment. He’s a professor of journalism at New York University, so his provocation was thoughtful. His contribution goes like this: “If you fail to engage directly with your audience much, is there a risk that when you tell them something they don’t want to hear they will ignore you, or, even worse, you may alienate them forever?” (Jay has also written a Twitter thread on this topic.)

I replied that it is a risk. I’ve now had time to put more thought into Jay’s comment, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with the readers of Severe Contest.

I think the way you manage and mitigate for that risk depends on where your audience is and what they want from you. I have two reasons why the risk is low for The Economist. Plus a comment that undermines Jay’s question entirely.

First, we are given a mandate based on what we do already from the 1.5m people who pay to subscribe to our material, in print or online or both. Their top-two reasons for subscribing are because they desire “an informed understanding of what is going on in the world” and “it challenges and helps me to understand where I stand on things”. When we asked specifically North American subscribers why they like us, they said it’s because we’re “trustworthy” and “expert”. (The quotes are from our internal research.)

These attributes are all powerful in combination. For example, if you find that a publication is expert enough to inform you, you can trust it even when it challenges you. Together, these attributes keep ‘Rosen’s risk’ low. A new online follower may not have heard of us before, so we can’t expect them to say we’re “trustworthy” and “expert”. But that gives us all the more reason to stick to the principles in our contract with subscribers. Gradually over time our new online followers will understand our approach and their trust in us will grow. That’s why we’ve put a lot of thought into transposing the style and voice of The Economist from print into Facebook posts and tweets. A digital-native publication starting from scratch, especially one not built on subscriptions, would have to calculate the same risk in a very different way.

The second thing that keeps Rosen’s risk low is the differential between where our editors sit and where our audiences sit. Let me illustrate this with an example. Most people who read our coverage of the Venezuela crisis are not in Venezuela or close to it. They are reading The Economist because they sit in New York or London or Delhi and want to understand what’s going on in Venezuela, and be challenged about what to think about it. In order to do that, our correspondent has to be there. I mean this physically — on the ground in Venezuela, or as close as President Maduro allows — and by staying in touch with people who are familiar with the situation.

I’ve just described the tradition of journalism. Nothing new there. Of course, the internet raises different possibilities. That’s why new publications such as De Correspondent and News Deeply have smartly come up with a different experience to ours. These outlets build audiences within deep expert communities — the experience of the reader is more engaging and potentially neverending. I respect what they do and how they do it. It excites me to see such thoughtful approaches to digital media. They reduce Rosen’s risk by endlessly talking openly to their communities and carrying voices from community members.

But The Economist reduces Rosen’s risk by relying on the trust built through our subscribers (see reason 1) and never erring from the mission they hand us: to go off, find information and report back. This empowers us to maintain a network of correspondents from the Americas to Asia. Our readers want to know what’s going on where they are not. For example, more than 85% of the readers who consumed a blog by our Berlin bureau chief during the German election in September were not from Germany. Readers outside Germany came to The Economist for our analysis on what was going on there. So Rosen’s risk is kept low because our readers know that we go to places they do not. Even new online readers may see us as a stranger, but at least they know we’re a stranger who has more of a chance of knowing what’s going on than they do.

There is one final thing to say, something that flips Jay’s question. We want to challenge our readers, and we want them to trust us to do that — but we can only do it if we stay one step away from what they are saying. This approach is not self-important; it is a relentless attempt at delivering on what our subscribers ask of us. They want us to challenge and inform them; we cannot do that if we are forever reacting to what they are saying, publishing stories based on what they are consuming, and listening in to the ensuing discussion. This is what some publishers do online. Some digital dogs chase their own tail. To Jay I would say: for us, the real risk would be to engage too much.

I thank Jay for the provocation. It’s really made me think through how we do what we do, and how our traditional ways apply online. I’d love to hear from other social media folks on how they manage Rosen’s risk, and the reasons why it might be low or high for them.

Thanks to Gady Epstein for helping with this post.

Severe Contest

Insights from The Economist’s digital playbook

Adam Smith

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Writer, talker, thinker and maker. Podcasting @ Karl’s Kaschemme.

Severe Contest

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