Need financial support? Talk to your community about the cost of your journalism.
This is part of a series about earning trust during unusual times. It covers journalistic purpose, credibility, funding and engagement.
Let’s talk about what you know about how journalism is funded versus what the general public knows.
You’ve probably spent considerable time thinking about the tension between journalism’s public service mission and its need to bring in revenue (as a business protected by the Constitution). But a significant portion of your audience probably doesn’t understand — and has never even really dwelled on — how you make money.
Without the transactional nature of other industries (we give you a product, you give us money), it makes sense that people don’t really consider the need to pay for news. But that situation has led to a perception that journalism is — and should be — free.
You also probably absorbed the idea early in your career that the money and journalism sides of news operate independently, and most people reading this probably work in shops that don’t decide what to cover based on advertiser dollars or preferences. (We also have to recognize that some newsrooms do.) And the rest of us don’t do a good job being transparent about how content is funded in general. It’s clear that we need to tell a better story about how we make money, why we need support and how money does or doesn’t influence what we cover. The question is what’s the best way to tell the story.
At Trusting News, here are four things we know about people’s perceptions of money in journalism and some recommendations on how to address them.
In a hurry? Jump straight to a tip sheet with suggested language you can use to talk to your audience about money and journalism.
1. People think journalism is in good shape financially — even local journalism
Let’s start with some research.
In one national study, 18% of respondents reported not knowing most media organizations are for-profit businesses. Gallup/Knight Foundation research found the majority of Americans think local news organizations are doing “very well” or “somewhat well” financially.
If you want your community or audience to fund your work, you need to communicate clearly about why that support is needed and what will happen if it’s not there. For inspiration, take a look at this roundup of research from Josh Stearns at Democracy Fund. He shares data about the effects an erosion of local news can have on the following:
- Civic engagement (people’s political knowledge, voting rates and the number of people running for office)
- Public benefit (from saving lives to exposing corruption)
- National news (which relies on local reporters to raise alarms, identify issues that become trends and document history unfolding)
- Social cohesion (“reflecting the voices, concerns and stories of local people back to each other in ways that build connection and empathy”)
You need to tell a compelling story about what’s needed for you to survive and thrive — and what will be collectively lost if you don’t.
You might start by taking a typical day or week and explaining what your staff is doing. Then add up the hours or the cost of employing people to do those things. Say to your audience: If you want us to be keeping an eye on this meeting and analyzing this budget and explaining this school district decision and covering this game and highlighting this new family business and telling you where to get free tax help, here’s what it costs.
2. People don’t know how journalism is funded and might financially contribute more if they knew
The Gallup/Knight Foundation research mentioned above found that information on the industry can change minds.
When given information on local news finances and the impact news organizations have on a healthy democracy, respondents were more likely to donate to a nonprofit organization that supports local journalism.
In public and nonprofit media, directly asking for support is more common. Whether seeking donations or memberships, those news outlets have habits and routines around explaining why they need financial support and taking time to ask for it. VTDigger’s donations page, for example, says:
“Your gift helps to pay for VTDigger’s nonpartisan, investigative reporting. Join the more than 3,500 members who believe in our fearless and fair-minded pursuit of truth.”
Commercial media has a lot of catching up to do — especially now that a tanking economy means the primary source of revenue is taking a steep dive.
Consider the bluntness of this message from Tampa Bay Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash, when announcing a reduction to two-day-a-week print newspapers in late March:
“Newspaper publishing was already a challenging business, even before the pandemic. More than half our revenue comes from advertisers. The screeching halt to the economy has sent sales plummeting for many businesses, and everybody is anxious about the future.
“In the last two weeks, retailers have cancelled more than $1 million in advertising they had already scheduled. Until ad revenues recover, we must sharply reduce the costs of producing and delivering an edition in print.”
When laying out the financial landscape, it helps to be specific about your budget. You can also be specific about your value. This Twitter thread from McClatchy’s Robyn Tomlin points to an increased reliance on and interest in journalism, even when the economy is collapsing.
“We’ve had historic readership in March — up 300%. But declining ad revenues make it impossible to keep all of this free. Across the US, local news sites are shutting down. Journalists are being furloughed/laid off — at a time when communities have never needed them more.”
Our partners at The Coloradoan have addressed this topic with their users. In this post, Jennifer Hefty, regional content strategist at Gannett, shares how her colleagues in the newsroom have asked their community for support and been transparent about what they need to do to survive. That includes running house ads explaining what percentage of revenue comes from advertising and subscriptions.
3. People think money drives coverage decisions (it does sometimes)
Accusations of money influencing news decisions aren’t uncommon in general, and they often ramp up during times of big news. Consider these types of comments seen all too often these days:
- You’re exaggerating the nature of the coronavirus because scaring people is good for ratings.
- Unless you remove all ads from coronavirus stories, you won’t convince me you aren’t cashing in on the panic.
- How can you charge me to read information that is important to public safety right now? Do you only care about getting rich?
The problem, of course, is that to remain afloat, journalists DO need to provide content that people want and are willing to consume and/or pay for. Audience attention is seen as a sign of success and does contribute to financial health. News outlets regularly and appropriately see a financial benefit from producing content that drives views, subscriptions or ratings. They also routinely make coverage decisions based on what they think will BOTH be a valuable public service AND actually get consumed.
Journalists don’t typically do that to “get rich,” like they might be accused of doing, of course. But how would our communities know that? How do we fill in the gaps?
First, let’s acknowledge some realities. Sometimes individual journalists DO see a financial gain from meeting traffic goals. And of course some news outlets DO use clickbait headlines and fear-mongering to drive page views and ratings. Once we admit that and are willing to talk openly about it with our users, we will have a better opportunity to share how we make these decisions with our users.
The key is not to defend the entire industry but to explain how YOU make decisions. Here’s what WCPO’s Mike Canan wrote to his viewers in March:
Yet despite the response from local governments, businesses and the country’s health professionals, a small but vocal group of people in our community are saying the media is unnecessarily creating a panic. I’ve even encountered a few friends who have made comments about “the whole coronavirus thing” being overblown by the media. I’ve seen and heard people say journalists are salivating over the virus because it will drive pageviews and TV ratings.
The reality could not be further from the truth for our newsroom.
First, I don’t know whether coronavirus coverage would increase TV ratings. Frankly, until I heard a comment from someone to that effect it wasn’t even a thought that had crossed my mind. Our journalists cover the news we think is important for our community. Despite the stereotype of journalists, we would never overhype something just to drive ratings.
You won’t win everyone over. But you’ll show that you’re willing to be transparent, you’ll demonstrate your credibility on the record, and you’ll give your fans the words they need to defend you in their own social circles.
4. Journalists should ask for financial support directly and persuasively
So, you need financial support. Are you asking for it?
Check out this example from Nick Ehli, editor of Montana’s Bozeman Chronicle. In it, he expresses sympathy for the local business community and explains that the company-wide furlough they’re under will result in fewer stories produced and some features discontinued. He also says he hopes the changes will be temporary.
“I’d like to tell you that you won’t notice any changes, that we will be able to cover our community with the same vigor you’ve hopefully come to expect, but that simply wouldn’t be true. Reporters and photographers working 30 hours a week instead of 40 will produce less content. There is no way around that fact.”
See how Toronto Star Editor Irene Gentle connected the larger industry crisis to her newsroom:
The media financial crisis “is most acutely felt in local news, which has been hit the hardest. This is why all news is not free. Without the support of subscribers, we would not be able to do the journalism you expect from us, from city hall and Queen’s Park to inequity, social justice and investigations. A huge thank you to our subscribers, and supporters of local, Canadian news.”
A heartfelt request from us at Trusting News: When you ask for financial support, focus more on what’s in it for your community than what’s in it for you. Go ahead and talk about the commitment of your staff and how you’re doing more with less. But the nut graf of your appeal should be how the community loses out if you have to cut back. (See point №1 above.)
Take some inspiration from user research we did with our partners at PolitiFact. Editors experimented with the language used to introduce the donation button in its weekly newsletter. Our question was whether using values-based language, designed to demonstrate the importance of what PolitiFact offers, would implore more people to click on the link to contribute money. The answer was a clear yes.
Now’s the time to explain clearly what you offer and how you depend on your community’s support.
“Americans see local news as the consummate public good — but they are deeply divided on how to address the financial challenges local news organizations face,” said Sam Gill of the Knight Foundation in this research report. “It’s time to ask searching questions of ourselves as a society about how much we value local news, and what we’re prepared to do to ensure its future.”
- Want to copy and paste? Here’s our complete set of downloadable tip sheets with suggested language to use as you describe your work to your audience.
- What’s most getting in the way of trust in your work during these strange times? Please tell us in this quick form, so our work can be grounded in what you need.
- We send one quick strategy in our weekly Trust Tips newsletter. Subscribe here.
- We have a collection of 11 (and counting) curated Trust Tips for coronavirus coverage. Find those here.
- Our trust coaches are available to talk through your challenges or help brainstorm ideas one on one. Request a session here.
- Want data? We collect research (our own and others’) around trust in journalism. See the slick deck here.
- Want more newsroom examples? Our website has a database of newsroom examples, and we’re drilling down on examples from COVID-19 coverage.
Trusting News, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the American Press Institute, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation.