The Election Amplified Americans’ Distrust of The Media. Will Publishers Do Anything to Fix What’s Broken?

November 11, 2016

A plea to publishers to be “Publishers” and serve their audiences. Or don’t, and add fuel to the burning of the empire.

An intensely divisive election cycle like the one we just experienced seems to have more losers than winners. And there's no doubt that among those losers is "the media." A September Gallup poll shows that Americans' trust of the media was at an all-time low. Only 32% say they have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in “the media.” Perhaps unsurprisingly only 14% of Republicans express trust, down from 32% last year. But even more troubling to the future relationship between the press and the public is that the decline in trust is more pronounced among 18-49-year-olds than their older counterparts, down to 26% from 53% in 2005.

Gallup Poll Media Trust

So why the bad rap?

There is no meaningful definition of "The Media"—but “Publishers” can stand for something.

As a journalist, when I see a social media post start with the words “the media” I bristle because I know what comes next will be everyone in the media industry being painted with the same brown brush because of something some yahoo with a microphone did. (Thanks, Brian Williams.)

It denigrates everything many underpaid, kindhearted, and hardworking journalists do on a daily basis. But the negative reputation is not entirely unfounded. In fact, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s a reputation the many actors in the media industry have earned. A combination of external economic factors and poor business decision-making has led to this state.

Before we explore how publishers have helped feed the public’s distrust of “the media” and the economics behind it, as an exercise let’s review at some of the components that actually make up “the media.”

Local Newspapers - Underpaid newspaper reporters providing coverage of snotty nosed high school kids playing sports, acting as watchdogs for local government, and writing the obituaries for you friends and families. It’s often a thankless job but tremendously important and in dire jeopardy.

B2B media – Done right it helps accelerate innovation, information sharing, and technological understanding and adoption, and grow the economy by helping small and large businesses run their companies more profitably and effectively.

Niche Publications – Special interest magazines, city and regional publications, etc. that provide practical information for people to pursue their interests and passions and live healthy, more productive and happy lives.

Capital “J” journalismWarzone-embedded journalism, lengthy investigative reports exposing injustices and humanizing tragedy. These folks often exhibit great intellect, bravery, and sacrifice in getting to the truth.

TV News – Varying degrees of thoughtful (60 minutes) and septic (cable news pundit argue-fests, fear-mongering evening news).

The “Blogosphere” – Worst of all, the ugly, innuendo-festering, fact-distorting websites that cause a din that often rises above thoughtful conversation. (See my comments on “opinion vs. reporting” and “media literacy” below.)

TV & Movies – People get that The Big Bang Theory is just entertainment.

So What's a Publisher?

At the most basic level, a Publisher with a capital “P” is a conduit and custodian of information that people can use. Publishers also help people understand the world by compiling relevant facts on a given topic, analyzing, and presenting an explanation and/or a solution. That role holds true whether you're teaching someone how to catch a trout or attempting to explain the root causes for community-police mistrust.

Publishers care about the truth and they care about their audiences. And their audiences care about them—returning to their sites, forming relationships (subscriptions), and attending events. In a perfect world, publishers operate “in service” of their audiences.

Unfortunately many Publishers, from Time Inc. to The Tribune (or is it Tronc?) to Penton have tried to run away from the term “Publisher.” They fear “Publisher” connotes "print" and print is dead haven't you heard! The internet! Digital strategy! Big Data! etc. etc...

But what’s the endgame? To lose the distinction between the Buzzfeeds of the world and the Esquires of the world? “Publisher” remains the only meaningful term I’ve found to articulate the difference between journalism, entertainment, and drivel. Wear the badge with pride. It stands as a distinguishing characteristic for a company that takes seriously the role of producing accurate, meaningful information and insight for a dedicated audience.

And the metrics bear this distinction out. A recent comScore study shows that advertising on premium publishers’ sites drove more brand lift and had greater viewability than when those same ads were featured on non-publisher sites. People engage on a deeper level with content on publishers’ sites, as well as the ads. Luckily publishers are finally starting to be able to measure this engagement. (More on this below).

“Eventually the blood hits your balance sheet. A public that doesn’t respect publishers certainly doesn’t give them money.”

Reconsider the Cost of Chasing Eyeballs

The post-election think-pieces on the-state-of-the-political-media have already started rolling out. MediaShift produced a piece that relayed New York Times staffers discussing their election coverage—an exchange which actually took place during the NYT’s Election Night Live event just as election results came in. The discussion focused around story weighting and access—the typical editorial considerations.

But there are bigger factors at play than editorial judgment. The emergence of the internet as the hub of information distribution and discourse has fundamentally altered the economics of the publishing business, the content we produce, and how we present content to audiences—for better and worse.
Let’s talk about the worse.

In an effort to chase the new economics of the web—which has historically been dictated by pageviews and clicks—nearly every single publisher has reoriented their content with fast-moving, click-oriented content. Why? Because the blogs and digital natives were eating publishers’ lunch on the web.

Problem is: the digital natives had nothing to loose. For publishers, reputation and public trust is at stake.

Let’s take The Washington Post for example. Last year Columbia Journalism Review reported on this shift and its potential effects:

The Post’s present incarnation of content is a mashup—Woodward and Bernstein meets BuzzFeed. Deep investigations and scoops sit alongside an expansive network of blogs geared for social media speed, like the Morning Mix, PostEverything, and WonkBlog, which are increasingly important traffic drivers. This storm of pithy content is altering The Post’s DNA from that of a legacy newspaper to something more like that of a digital native, but it’s unclear how the convergence of serious news and lighthearted, Web-friendly stories are affecting the brand.

Or as Ben Cohen, the editor of The Daily Banter put it in an open letter to The Washington Post:

I say all of this to publicly ask you to stop posting clickbait crap, the likes of which many of us have spent years fighting in order to preserve some dignity in our industry.

In the long run, how can a Publisher expect readers to trust their critical political reporting when they also publish articles like, “Donald Trump has discovered one weird trick for getting people to agree with him.

You should be asking yourself the same things readers are, “Who are you trying to be?”

Of course, short-attention, clicky content makes sense. It makes audience development sense—a huge concern for publisher trying to make their way in the digital world. It’s important to have content that will have social wings in order to grow brand awareness and increase inbound traffic. In the short term it makes business sense. But there are tradeoffs.

The tradeoff is the long-term diminishment of the reputations and brands of Publishers. Those in charge of revenue projections typically fail to see this risk because it's not a loss that falls on the monthly balance sheet. But I assure you it's a death by a thousand cuts.

No budget for fact checkers and copy editors. Cut.

Letting go a seasoned reporter in lieu of a “social media editor.” Cut.

Every time a writer is careless with the facts. Cut.

Every time the TV news reports rumor as fact. Cut.

Eventually the blood hits your balance sheet. A public that doesn’t respect publishers certainly doesn’t give them money.

The tradeoffs are also public knowledge and public understanding. Depending on your opinion of the recent election, perhaps at an all-time low, that might mean something to you.

And I get it. The short-attention span of the web has historically been a brutal environment for the thoughtful, deep attention that had traditionally been at the heart of publishing. We’re all treading water on the web trying to find the right business model to long-term sustainability without selling our souls.

But it’s times like this that we might stop to ask—am I fueling the distortion chamber or am I a responsible custodian of information and understanding. And do I care either way?

Be More Transparent About Opinion, Independent Reporting & Commerce

It’s not just the clicky content that’s cutting up the publishing industry. It’s the blurring of lines between opinion and reportage. In the newspaper, that was clear. The independent reporting was the stuff not on the op-ed page. On the web, publishers have confused readers.

I’ll use WashPo as another example, not to pick on them, but because I think their editorial mix bears the point best.

Here’s a reported piece from The Post: Pence to lead Trump transition effort.

WSJ Reported Piece Screenshot

Here’s an opinion piece: If you voted for Trump because he’s ‘anti-establishment,’ guess what: You got conned.

WSJ Opinion Piece Screenshot

The difference? In the top left near the headline, in small text, it says “Opinion.” That’s not enough.

Of course, all those types of articles have their place. But with social media increasingly the doorway into publishers’ websites, the dividing lines are even more obfuscated and readers perceive political slant running amuck on publishers’ sites. Publishers need to make more of an effort to make delineations between independent news, thoughtful analysis, and outright opinion meant to rile and incite social clicks.

Unclearly marked native advertising is another threat that many publishers are miscalculating at their own and our collective risks. While it’s true that quality native advertising is valued by readers, it’s also true that poorly labeled and poor quality native advertising causes reader mistrust. The FCC has some clear recommendations we’d all be wise to heed lest we further erode consumer trust and destroy a rich opportunity for growth.

As in all relationships, transparency is valuable social currency. Let’s take care to make use of it with the public on the web.

The Economics Are Moving in the Right Direction

Here’s the good news. I’m optimistic that the economics of the web are moving in the right direction. As noted above, publishers are finding better ways to measure the value of engagement and sell on that value instead of the vapid clicks and pageviews that marketers have held publishers hostage with.

Meanwhile, the growing ability for machines (computers) to learn and understand human sentiment means web kings like Google will increasingly reward meaningful, useful, and substantiated information.

Engagement metrics are critical to the vibrance and abundance of useful information required for a functional democracy. Their advancement in the advertising value exchange should be a top priority for the industry. And technology companies should help.

The Public is to Blame Too – And Can Help Solve the Problem

The last thing the public wants to hear from the media is a sob story about how tough the media business is these days. But if we're being honest, publishing has faced endless job cuts, reorganizations, and thin budgets in part because in The Era of Free that the web has ushered in, there is no clear compulsion to pay for journalism. Hit a paywall and I'll find it somewhere else. I'm guilty of it too.

Unfortunately we have to make what people are willing to pay for. That said, we can make more clear what the tradeoffs are of free content—and that this is a burden we share.

Besides being responsible custodians of information, being transparent, and aligning our business objectives with service to our audiences, here are some ideas for ways publishers can work with the public to fix our broken reputation and repair the consumer equation.

Singular Content & Utility – Above all the only way publishers can hope to survive the web is to produce singular and useful content that people can’t get anywhere else. Be unique and be useful.

Micropayments – Publishers need to work with technology providers to reduce the friction involved in paying for individual works of journalism. Internet-wide, one-click purchasing (enabled by players like Google, Facebook, and Apple) is the only way this will make sense for consumers.

Millennials – Younger generations have proven that they care about the common good and are willing to pay more for quality products. How are we communicating the importance of quality journalism to them?

Media Literacy – Many people can’t distinguish between sites that produce blatant lies and reputable sources of information. Can publishing and media trade groups advocate for this? Perhaps social media platforms could partner with Snopes and publishers to help people distinguish good and bad information.

Publishers Advocating for Quality Journalism – I love the messages that sites like The Atlantic use when you have an ad blocker engaged. The public should feel guilty for not paying for journalism. Can we illustrate the equation more frequently?

Certainly there are lot of other factors at play that publishers can’t control. But I think it’s hard to argue that we couldn’t benefit from greater deep learning and understanding.

And if you're not down for this fight, why are you in publishing? It's not a rich man's game.