A serious problem the news industry does not talk about

Ask anyone working in a newsroom what they think of their audience, and you’ll hear a variety of answers. Over the past couple of years, Andrew Haeg and I have been asking that very question of hundreds of reporters, editors and producers in newsrooms around the world. I’m not one to manufacture an emergency, but the answers we’re hearing are pretty troubling. What they’re saying points to a very serious problem:

The culture of journalism breeds disdain for the people we’re meant to be serving, i.e., the audience.

Before we dive into specifics, first a little context about us and why we find this so troubling. Andrew Haeg is a former journalist who runs a company called GroundSource, and I’m a former journalist who runs a company called Hearken. We both left great jobs in great newsrooms to pioneer new forms and tools for audience engagement. Why? Because of what we think about audiences: they’re amazing, they’re underappreciated, and they can be of incredible benefit to newsrooms if they’re given the right conditions to shine. We’ve witnessed audience members go beyond the decency of polite and productive comments to send helpful news tips, share personal stories that humanize difficult subjects, contribute original story ideas that go on to win awards, to name a few. (See the bottom of this post for plenty more examples.)

We recognize that the world is no longer top-down. We want to help newsrooms recognize that, too. We’re focused on evolving new models and tools for newsrooms to partner with the incredible people in their communities, rather than toss content down at them from the mountaintop, hoping they’ll like it, share it, come back for more and maybe one day pay for it if we need them to (by asking nicely or threatening to shut it off). Thing is, there is no mountaintop anymore. Newsrooms no longer have a lock on the information people need and want to live their lives.

We believe the survival and relevance of the news industry depends on newsrooms’ ability to build meaningful relationships with the people they serve. That’s why it’s so troubling to hear reporters, editors, and managers alike have such disdain for their audiences. In conversations with newsrooms, we’ve witnessed this disdain range from subtle annoyance to straight-up hatred. The following is adapted from a recent conversation between Andrew and I exploring this culture of disdain, how it got to be this way, and what can be done to shift it.

How we’ve witnessed it

Brandel: In about two-thirds of the meetings I’ve had with newsrooms, someone in the room, often a manager, editor or some other higher-up says something along the lines of, “If we gave the audience what they wanted, they’d ask for crap!” Or “Our audience isn’t very smart, they probably wouldn’t have any good ideas.” Or, the big doozy, and the inspiration for this post, said by a manager during a meeting at a highly respected, hugely award-winning news outlet: “Our audience is a bunch of idiots and assholes. Why exactly would we want to hear more from them than we already do?”

Haeg: I had a colleague who referred to the audience as the “great, unwashed masses.” It was always said for laughs, and it was funny in a hard-bitten, grizzled news veteran kind of way. But that always stuck in my craw, and I realized that he was actually expressing what many, maybe most journalists felt. Spend any time in a newsroom, and listen to the tone with which people refer to the public — whether they’re commenters, or tweeters, or callers to talk shows. It’s as if we’re the sentries at the gate, keeping the zombies from overtaking the little civilization we’ve built (clearly I’ve been watching too much of The Walking Dead).

And the more I thought about this attitude journalists hold, the more I was like: Well of course they feel that way! Journalists mainly hear from “the public” when they’ve gotten something wrong, or when someone with time on their hands and an axe to grind finds the reporter’s phone or email. And when reporters go out “into the field” (which in and of itself evokes a kind of anthropological distance), they often encounter humanity at its worst. Now do that day in, day out, return to the office, commiserate with colleagues, develop some inside jokes, and voila! You have a culture. Now when the freshies come through the door on their first day at work, they absorb almost instantly the internal values of the place.

Brandel: Exactly. When the bulk of feedback journalists get is from people complaining or telling them that they suck, how can it not take a toll? What worries me is what happens over time. It can lead journalists to believe those vocal few with hot words are the audience. Not a small handful, but representative of everyone.

Ways of dismantling disdain for audience

Brandel: A helpful view I keep returning to is from this epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who works to prevent gun violence through treating it like a disease. He says when people feel anger, it’s actually a secondary form of sadness. The primary emotion is sadness, but it presents as anger. I can’t help but think that if you unpack the anger news folks can have toward their audience, you’d uncover sadness. It’s sadness that the public doesn’t understand or respect how much work and consideration goes into good reporting, sadness that they can’t always do their best work with ferocious daily demands, sadness that someone who they’re ultimately trying to help and serve thinks they are terrible at their jobs, or a terrible person. Regardless if you’re a journalist in the state of sadness or anger, changing the relationship with a person or a group you see as adversarial takes a great deal of perspective.

Haeg: Changing from within is really, really hard. It takes strong leaders, it takes people willing to try new ways of working, it takes the space and the resources to reframe and rethink the work we do. There’s actually a formula for change that speaks to what’s needed. I won’t go too much into it, except to say that you need a shared sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, a vision for the future and concrete next steps for what you’ll do starting now. If you lack any one of those, resistance will always be stronger than the forces for change. ALWAYS. As one of my professors during my Knight fellowship at Stanford told me, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

But I do think the current state of relations between newsrooms and communities can’t persist, and to a large extent, economic and technological forces are making sure of that. In some ways, I see a parallel to the calls for police reform: moving from a culture of cops as warriors to cops as members of the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve.

One model has you out dressed for battle, treating the community as a threat; the other sees the public as just like us. Which is the more effective approach in the long run?

Now of course, we can’t have journalists on every corner. But technology does allow us to extend our reach. And that’s why I’m building GroundSource — to enable community-minded news organizations to engage in a way that’s positive; manageable and efficient; shapes good, grounded journalism; and builds relationships of trust and loyalty with the community.

But for GroundSource or Hearken to be of any use, we first have to ask ourselves this question: To what extent do we as journalists and news organizations feel a responsibility to our community? It seems we’ve gotten out of the business of taking pride in our communities and instead have doubled-down on clicks and shares as measures of our efficacy. Of course we need to pay the bills, but our long-term viability is tied more to the quality of the community we can build around us, not whether we can trick someone who clicked on a story about crime to read one about Britney Spears’ fabulous new abs. I exaggerate. Or DO I?

If our goal becomes building relationships and communities, then we’ll forego the digital sleight of hand and instead provide experiences that make people want to come back, and participate, and do it again because it felt good and it meant something. Because it helped — even if in a tiny way — make the place we live in better.

Brandel: Could not agree more. But how to help nudge newsrooms toward this vision? In the short term, I’ve been pondering ways to help dismantle that notion that “audiences are a bunch of idiots and assholes.” So here’s a handy flowchart that journalists can flash whenever colleagues start to be haters:

Brandel: I mean, we know rationally that treating any group as monolithic is at the very least, inaccurate, and at the very worst, dangerous. (“Fill in the blank are terrorists!” “Fill in the blank are evil!” “Fill in the blank are stupid!”) Journalists of course hate being painted with any broad brush like this, too, and we hear it all the time. “The media is … lazy, biased, corrupt, etc.”

A great quote that sums this up was brought to my attention by Adrienne Debigare, who commented on another post with this line from Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

So how does the news industry begin to treat audiences as individuals instead of a mass? Will it be by using more tools and scraping data that shows what’s trending, what everyone is talking about, viral reach scores, etc? Nope. If anything, that puts us at an even further distance from the very human task of getting to understand people. I love this line from Jeff Jarvis in his book Geeks Bearing Gifts: “Knowing people as individuals and community — no longer as a mass — will allow us to build better services and new forms of news.”

I think dismantling the disdain for audience will require hard work of news outlets actually getting to know their communities as made up of real, individual, wonderful and wonderfully complex people. Newsrooms need to assume that their audience is capable of more, and then create the conditions for that assumption to be proven right. There’s this great old video of author Viktor Frankl talking about how as human beings, we only become our best when we set our expectations high. It reminds me that whatever we think news audiences are capable of, we’re right. So why not set our expectations higher, start devising ways audiences can be helpful, smart and kind, and calibrate opportunities for engagement to prove it?

Haeg: I have a quote that I come back to from time to time when I lose faith in the democratic aims of journalism, when I feel beset by the negativity in the news and start to listen to the cynic on my shoulder. It’s from Studs Terkel. “There’s a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence,” he writes, “providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.” What I like about it is that it’s a realistic and measured, but it’s also wildly hopeful.

Shining examples of audience greatness

In case it’s still unbelievable to think of audience members are truly helpful, productive and game-changing to a newsroom, we pulled together some examples from our own experiences and partners that convince us.

Hearken partners

When a Mom’s education question is about more than just her kids

We partner with the education news site Chalkbeat New York. The team at Chalkbeat starts every Hearken-powered investigation with a full profile of the person who asked the question. For example, Mishi Faruqee is a parent who asked which (if any) NYC schools reflect the city’s diversity. Reporter Stephanie Snyder wrote a great profile about Mishi’s interest in the question as a parent with school-aged kids. And then Mishi followed up with a powerful letter to the editor explaining why her question is about more than her own children’s education. Mishi’s story is great proof that communities don’t just engage with the newsrooms out of personal interest.

A troll-free story about guns in Chicago

Recently, our Community Manager Ellen Mayer reported a story for WBEZ’s Curious City (Hearken’s flagship series) answering the question: “What happened to all the rifle ranges in Chicago.” This story deals with Big Scary Conversations around gun control, gun culture, and the NRA, topics that usually seem to invite intense vitriol from all sides of the gun debate. But this story was anchored by the perspective and nostalgia of the man who asked the question, Bob Collar. He’s a proud lifetime member of the NRA, but he’s not interested in the politics; he just really likes the rifle sport and misses the old rifle ranges he went to as a kid. Bob put a human face on a contentious issue, and the story didn’t get a single negative response. He even jumped into the comments section to facilitate conversation. How’s that for audience participation! (WBEZ’s new site redesign has removed comments (😞), but trust us, it was great!)

Curious citizen turned energy activist

Way back in 2013, Janice Thompson asked WBEZ’s Curious City about Chicago’s new energy supplier. Janice wanted to know how much of the city’s energy would now come from natural gas, via fracking. Before that point, Janice had never felt like she could understand or have any effect on energy policy. But once Curious City investigated her question, Janice was galvanized to pursue the issue further. She did some of her own investigating which ultimately became a part of Curious City’s story. And she became a community educator around energy issues in Chicago. In 2014 she wrote an incredible blog post crediting Curious City with her transformation: “Many times I’ve asked myself ‘Why am I doing this? Isn’t electricity a tedious subject best left to experts?’ Knowing that the staff at WBEZ’s Curious City cared what I did, that they valued citizen input as much as that of experts, kept me going.”

Audience participation upping quality of life for reporters

One lighter story that our partners out of St. Louis Public Radio assigned for their series, Curious Louis, answered what is the best doughnut in St. Louis? Reporter Willis Ryder Arnold said this was the most fun he’s had as a reporter, and got the opportunity to be far more creative than usual with this assignment. Plus, he got to hang out with an incredibly excitable fan of his outlet (the question asker Andwele Jolly) and eat a ton of doughnuts.

Dollar bills and hot sauce

Partners at WFDD reported on a much-loved hot sauce that went missing from local stores. It was brought to their attention by a Curious Carolina listener, Wendell Burton, who asked about it. Burton not only turned into a lovable, relatable protagonist for the story, but after the story aired he increased his membership donation amount to WFDD and sent the newsroom a collection of his own homemade hot sauces.

GroundSource partners

Using GroundSource, Listening Post Macon reached out to area residents to gather perspectives on gun control. We heard back from dozens of people who shared their experiences with guns, and how those experiences informed their opinions of gun control. We didn’t hear back the typical circle-the-wagons bloviating you get in comments. Instead we heard stories of people who grew up in hunting families but supported stricter background checks, and from one mother whose son was killed walking to the gas station — and was teaching her kids to use guns to protect themselves. GPB reporter Grant Blankenship picked up the thread and produced this story for statewide radio.

Listening Post New Orleans is a community-driven news service built using GroundSource, and for the past two years, week in week out, they’ve managed to draw out an astounding diversity of voices speaking to their specific reality living life in a community with great charm and great challenges.

The Alabama Media Group has used GroundSource to gather community input on stories ranging from guns to health care to overcrowded prisons — and mother’s day. They asked Alabamans what their favorite “mom-isms” were and heard from more than 100 people by text and voicemails, which they used to create a 3-plus-minute audio piece which is worth a listen. Not hard-hitting journalism, but I can think of few other projects I’ve worked on that so effectively revealed the voice of the community.

I worked on this project while at APM with the Public Insight Network. We reached out to Lutherans to talk about their experience as the ELCA decided to allow gay clergy to serve as pastors. More than 2,500 people responding, providing us with a deep and nuanced view of a community facing a schism. It showed me what was possible when you open up to hearing voices who don’t feel like they have any other place to express themselves.

Your stories?!

Do you have examples for when members of a news audience were fundamentally decent and even amazing? Comment here. We’d love to know and have others see them, too!

And any further tips for helping to shift the conversation from “don’t read the comments” / “people are terrible” to something more productive and promising are also extremely welcomed. Thank you for reading!

Additional resources

The Engagement Manifesto Part I: The Audience’s Perspective

The Engagement Manifesto Part II: The Management’s Perspective

The Engagement Manifesto Part III: The Newsroom’s Perspective

Study Finds Legacy Newsrooms Embrace Innovation, But Not Cultural Change

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