Publishing news across platforms means earning trust across platforms

Here’s how Annenberg Media adapted “news fluency” to newsletters

Whether they like it or not, most journalists working today know two things: Trust in journalism is down, and people are getting news across many platforms. What may be less known but is still often a reality is that news consumers don’t make their way from the various platforms to an organization’s website.

Losing the public’s trust has led to what Tom Rosenstiel and Jane Elizabeth at the American Press Institute called the “show me” — instead of “trust me” — era of journalism. Increasingly, journalists, including those taking advice and tips from Trusting News, are being compelled to explain why the public should trust their work, rather than relying on the credibility of the institution or organization. If your audience only sees a tweet or just reads your newsletter, though, it can be harder to accomplish this.

Hard, but certainly not impossible. I’ve spent most of my career trying, to borrow the oft-used phrase, to “reach people where they are.” And if news is reaching them, we should try to ensure that reasons to trust the journalism are as well. Inspired by Rosenstiel and Elizabeth’s piece, my colleague Rebecca Haggerty and I wondered what news fluency might look like on stories told outside the confines of a traditional text story.

Rosenstiel and Elizabeth call their recommendation for “show me” journalism “organic news fluency.” They propose that journalists make the markers of quality journalism easier to distinguish, rather than baking them into a story’s narrative or, in some cases, leaving them out. Their piece helpfully lays out questions for journalists to address explicitly at the tops of stories on a website. How could we adapt this idea to deliver the same content to people who don’t make it there? We decided to start with newsletters.

Students in USC Annenberg’s newsroom send a weekly newsletter called The Rundown. It contains story summaries that don’t require a reader to click or tap to our website, though that is certainly an option. Perhaps because of its similarity to a traditional text story, it seemed like an easy place to start adapting news fluency to more formats — though at first, we didn’t know exactly what it would look like.

We started with the questions. Rebecca and I read through Rosenstiel and Elizabeth’s templates and chose questions that seemed appropriate for the product. They are:

  • Why did we choose this story?
  • Why do we find this source credible?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What might happen next and what could change?
  • How can you respond or get involved?

I then mocked up a version of our newsletter that explicitly addressed some of the questions within the text, either in the body of the story summary or in parentheses under the headline. The feedback on that admittedly crude mockup made us realize the solution to the news fluency problem needed to marry content and design. Annenberg student James Tyner is frankly one of my favorite people to tackle such problems, and luckily for me he was willing to help with the project. Here’s the first version of his design, which we tested on a small group of USC students.

While the point of the design is to make news fluency explicit, the feedback indicated that perhaps this was too explicit, to the point of distracting from the story. So here’s version two:

We tested this on a wider pool of people, including students, alumni and faculty. We determined it was still too distracting, so James toned it down even more, and this is what we send in our newsletter each week now:

All right, so we had a design. But back to those questions. Answering them has been an experiment too, one that has been both challenging and beneficial for a student product. Challenging because it’s somewhat of a departure from what the students producing the newsletter are still learning. And beneficial because addressing these questions for our audience often forces us all to examine our decisions and reporting more closely.

The team has been up for the challenge, though, and we’ve been sending weekly newsletters with news fluency since mid-February. Looking back through the editions, I think we’re most effectively addressing, or it’s just easiest to answer, these three questions:

  • What don’t we know?
  • What might happen next and what could change?
  • How can you respond or get involved?

Perhaps because they are less often addressed in stories, explicitly or not, the other two are more challenging: “Why did we choose this story?” and “Why do we find this source credible?” I very much like the idea of telling the audience why we choose stories, because it’s an important part of a product that’s a weekly news digest and one of the more opaque journalism processes. Here’s an example from when we had a genuine debate about whether to include this story in the newsletter:

Some of our attempts at news fluency have been more successful than others, and some feedback from Trusting News’ Joy Mayer has helped us focus on a solution: Anticipate what questions the audience might have and try to helpfully answer those. I think some of our answers have felt too insignificant or obvious. As James pointed out when I shared this feedback with him, the process of answering each question should start with empathizing.

So what’s next for us and can this help you? Well, I hope the answer to the latter is yes! I like to think of Annenberg’s student newsroom as doubling as a journalism lab, and my hope is that if you want to incorporate news fluency into your newsletter, we’ve done some of the legwork for you. There are so many great ideas and suggestions about how to improve journalism, but putting them into daily or weekly practice can be challenging. The goal was to make the concept of news fluency concrete.

What’s next for us is to hopefully create templates for more platforms. When Rebecca and I started, we also designed a news fluency concept for Instagram Stories. We’ve worked with our colleague Stacy Scholder to try it out, and we hope to make more progress. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you with feedback, questions or ideas: @lauraelizdavis or lauraeda@usc.edu.

Laura E. Davis is an assistant professor of professional practice and the digital news director of the USC Annenberg Media Center. She has worked as a reporter at The Associated Press, a homepage, social media and politics editor at Yahoo News, the deputy mobile editor at the Los Angeles Times and a mobile editor at BuzzFeed, where she helped develop and launch the award-winning BuzzFeed News app. She is also a trust coach for the Trusting News project.

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.