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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Robert Hernandez: For journalism’s future, the killer app is credibility

If I can trust you to tell me what’s going on, then I don’t care if you work out of a newsroom or out of your garage.
Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is multimedia journalist Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, currently an assistant professor at USC Annenberg.

Granted, this will make for a weak lede, but allow me to start this piece with a disclosure: I, like many of you, am not a fan of prediction posts.

Typically, they aren’t based on anything real and are often used to make grand statements we all roll our eyes at… and don’t get me started on how often they’re wrong.

That aside, here’s another piece to roll your eyes at.

But here’s a tweak, this is not really a prediction… this is, to be honest, more of a hopeful wish.

Okay, ready? Here goes.

We know that Content is King. There is no doubting this concept. If you don’t have ‘it,’ no one is going to engage with you.

We know that Distribution is Queen. In this modern age, what’s the point of having ‘it’ if no one will find it?

My prediction is that this ruling monarchy will be augmented by… a prince. Perhaps a duke? Whatever. And it’s called Credibility.

In the age that we live in, content is relatively cheap. Anyone can create it. If not through their computer, everyone’s phone can basically do live shots, record newsworthy sound clips and file stories. Some can do interactive 360 videos or augmented reality presentations. Really cool stuff.

And everyone can distribute their content in 140 characters, their own livestream network or their blog (how traditional).

With technology empowering everyone with the ability to create and to distribute, I predict — and wish — that in 2012 the new dominating factor will be Credibility. Actually, earned Credibility.

What will stand out from the sea of content will be the voices we turn to time and time again. Trusted sources of news and information will transcend their mastheads and company brands…and become their own brand. Brands that are solely based on being known for the quality and reliability of their work.

Just to make Gene Weingarten angry, brands brands brands brands brands. Look, that’s all marketing speak for the most important quality journalists have to offer: Credibility.

And, sure, some of us get a head start by being associated with the Washington Post, NPR, CNN, etc. But I predict — hope — that in the coming year, individual journalists will be valued more than their distribution companies. More than the media format of their story.

Judged by the content of their character. (Wait, that’s a different dream.)

Many news consumers are tired of the political left and the political right fighting, and making journalism — or I should actually say “journalism” — the fight’s platform. Hell, I’m tired of it, too.

We want people who will cut through the spin and tell us what’s going on, how it will affect us and what can we do about it. We want transparent news. We want news that, while it may not always achieve that goal, honestly strives to be objective.

We want to trust journalism. And to do so, we need to trust journalists.

And bypassing the blogger-vs-tweeter-vs-media company-vs-journalist debate, it is going to come down to one thing: Credibility.

Can I reliably trust you to tell me what is going on? If the answer is yes, then I don’t care if you work out of a newsroom or out of your garage.

Let’s see what the new year brings, but that is my predication…that is my wish.

Okay, roll your eyes. Or post a comment. Share your thoughts.

Correction: We initially listed Richard, rather than Robert, Hernandez as the author of this post. We deeply regret the error, and want to stress that it’s the R. Hernandez of USC, rather than the R. Hernandez of Berkeley, who wrote this prediction. Apologies to both.

Image by vagawi used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://twitter.com/mlhumph3 Michael Humphrey

    Judged by the character of their content. I agree completely.

  • Omar Soliman

    True — in an ideal world, though, we all have political or other biases…and wish to see these biases confirmed or reflected in the news we read (or watch). Liberals look at the Fox News Channel, for example, and often wonder who in the world actually watches that stuff. What liberals fail to realize is that a significant chunk of viewers watch something like Fox because they truly believe it to be “credible”! How do you define credibility, then? Is it even possible to objectively arrange news according to “credibility”? Or will the result simply reflect your worldview? Tough q’s.

    - OS

  • http://www.chicagotribune.com/assignmentchicago Agarcia

    “Lol” about brands and Gene Weingarten. So true. Trusted, earned, and consistent credibility. I teach at Medill and speaking about brands still can feel awkward to me. But when you consider the divide  occurring between content creation and the means of distribution, trust and credibility is more important than ever. 

  • http://twitter.com/jonathanstray jonathanstray

    Honestly, this sounds like “age of reason” wishful thinking to me. You are postulating certain deep things here about the psychology of media consumption: that there is a thing called “credibility,” that we can all more or less recognize it when we see it, and that this thing is what makes us choose one media source over another. 

    But I don’t think any of these things are quite true. “Bias” and “objectivity” have never been satisfactorily defined and cannot really be measured (see 1,2) and while I do believe that the simpler concept of “accuracy” holds water, I don’t think information quality per se has all that much to do how media consumption choices are actually made. I would look to the marketing profession for more grounded insights into the psychology of media brands.

  • http://twitter.com/webjournalist Robert Hernandez

    Love this!

  • http://twitter.com/webjournalist Robert Hernandez

    We can easily replace the word “brands” with “credibility” … but it is an awkward word.

  • http://twitter.com/webjournalist Robert Hernandez

    I actually think we agree on many points.

    This post is clearly “wishful thinking” … who the hell can predict anything?! Also, I think I say “hope” and “wish” about half a dozen times.

    I agree, it’s a bit more complex. But, while hopeful, I do think credibility is a real thing… it’s trust… and it’s earned over time. And I do think it is valued by “informed news consumers,” but not everyone in our community is an “informed news consumer.”

    That’s not an insult, but a reality. We’re busy and there is a ton of news and information out there… hell, even the most “informed news consumer” will be misinformed or under informed on a topic or six.

    But, for me, that is another reason why credibility will become more and more important… who can I trust to help be navigate the sea of content? Who can I turn to when I need help getting informed on a new topic? Journalists… I hope. But maybe Google… which can leads to journalists!

  • Sophistballyhoo

    Hmmmmm, I’m sympathetic with Mr. Weingarten. I’m not so sure people will get popular based on their credibility, so much as their ability to pander to niche biases. I think those biases are more inclined to build “brands” than credibility. I think one of the redeeming virtues of old media is how much things got bundled into a nice big package, and you’re more likely to get exposed to something a little outside your comfort zone. With, say, RRS feeds, we can personally customize everything and forcefully drown out all the voices you don’t want to hear with relative ease. I hope I’m wrong and you’re right, though.

  • http://twitter.com/jonathanstray jonathanstray

    Where I’m confused here is, is “credibility” an attribute of the content or the brand? Is it the what the journalist makes that we trust, or is it the journalist themselves? 

    If credibility comes from the content, how? How can we make more credible products? What do they look like? How are they different from what we do now?

    If credibility attaches to the journalist, then how do we get folks to trust us? Is it by having a stream of credible content? Or is it more about things like shared values, responsiveness, engagement, etc.?

    I agree that trust is important, I just don’t know how one gets it.

  • jeffarizona

    Isn’t credibility a lot like the raindrop that turned into a river?

    A ‘journalist’ can be credible  – or not – on their own. Tweet or blog something while calling yourself a journalist and someone is iikely to believe it … if they want to badly enough. But full trust of that individual is harder to build than full trust of a group of individuals who work together to build credibility through checks and balances.

    So take that journalist out of the garage and hook her or him up with an orginization that people trust because of an implication that the writer’s skills and likelihood of credibility have been vetted by a trusted brand and then you have a product that can make a difference.

    The writer’s raindrop eventually flows with others out of an orginization you trust for credibility beause it’s built that trust over time and delivered a credibile product day in and day out and is compiled by people trained to do a consistently credibile job each time something is presented to the public.

    What we really should be hoping for in 2012 and beyod is that organizations don’t strip their staffs so much that errors and omissions don’t become some so frequent that the one thing – credibility – that makes then trustworthy no longer separates real journalism from just pain crap.

  • http://twitter.com/webjournalist Robert Hernandez

    I view credibility as an attribute of the person. Credibility = Reputation = Brand.

    And as a credible person that creates content, it transfer some credibility to the content.

    Quality, “trustworthy,” reliable content feeds into the person’s credibility… it’s a long cycle of re-occurring work… it takes time to build up credibility.

    The AP, even thought it makes mistakes like other news orgs, is a credible source. Other news orgs follow the AP’s lead during election results. They trust the AP… it has a long history of credible work, which it has earned over decades and thousands of stories.

    What I hope in the new year is that people… names… break out from their organizations and are given their individual credibility.

    It’s the people that make the organization credible. But, of course, it’s a constant cycle. Quality content comes from quality people that makes for a quality news organization… which gives credibility to its people that gives them access to create credible content.

    // My nose just started bleeding.

  • http://twitter.com/webjournalist Robert Hernandez

    I see what you are saying, but I’m going to disagree. With the tech that we have now, a journalist — the individual — does not need to be tied to a masthed for this credibility and respect.

    And, in fact, this individual could eventually turn their respected “brand” into it’s own masthed. We’re seeing more and more of these.As an example, let’s look at Leo Laporte… a trusted tech guy that has created a new network in TWiT.tv. Leo, alone, created a brand and it has turned into a masthed. Other tech journos have joined that network and are amplifying the brand.But while it is now a respected org, it started with Leo.

    I will say, though, being associated to an established brand helps the individual with distribution and amplification of both content and “brand.” But this is no longer the only way.

  • Hummus

    I don’t get the point of this.

  • Upton

    Sorry, but I find this incredibly shallow and cliche-ridden. Apart from
    the rather obvious fact that credibility is strictly in the eye of the
    beholder (fortunately) has Professor Hernandez never read a great
    non-fiction book? He has never heard of widely credible journalists who
    are not particularly affiliated with a news organization but who have
    nevertheless built substantial careers and created their own brands? Seymour Hersh, perhaps?
    Christopher Hitchens? Michael Lewis? Walter Isaacson? Erik Larson? The ability of
    journalists to brand themselves as individual and highly respected, credible voices has been around
    forever and fortunately the digital age is an aid.  But it is hardly
    anything new that we need to wish for 2012. It’s been around a long, long time…long before the advent of the typewriter, let alone an iPad.  Need I go on?

    Also, aren’t we just a tad beyond the pontifications about Content is
    King?  Value-added is King and it comes in many forms nowadays.
    Sometimes it can come from an agile, faceless and nameless producer who
    is an underpaid whiz at master curation. In the end this piece is but a
    digitized version of the Old School’s nostalgic longing for a hidebound
    press obsessed with sterile “neutrality,”  false “objectivity” and
    artificial “balance” — supposed virtues that have turned the MSM into a
    lazy, feckless and increasingly obsolete institution.  

    I am also amused by the now threadbare cliche of “whom shall we trust? to whom shall we turn?”  Might I suggest you rely on your own critical faculties to make such decisions? Heaven help us if one day we all agree that there is some omnipotent and pure news source that shall do our thinking for us.

    This piece lacks all credibility as a serious reflection on where journalism should be headed.

  • http://twitter.com/smheadhunter Jim Durbin

    I trust blogs more than I trust newspapers or radio or television.  It’s not that I believe that bloggers are better or more honest, it’s that blogs link to the original sources and to the underlying documentation.  For those curious, that kind of linking shows where the writing came from. Without that, I’m left to trust the individual writer (no matter what they brand they have behind them).  This is true in politics, technology, marketing, or even BLS reports.  

    A second approach is in corrections.  Corrections, like what you have in post, belong on the same page as the original article.  They should not erase mistakes, but rather actually correct them.  Again, blogs do this (the ones that you read a second time).  

    A third aspect is linking others with the same and opposite opinions.  When page views were king, pushing readers off your site was considered suicide.  In today’s world, loyalty to a site is important than the initial impressions.  Understanding a story as an ecosystem show confidence in your reporting.  Trying to hog eyeballs shows a distrust that you have the content to keep those eyeballs. 
    There is room for experts, and for expert journalism, but a major step towards credibility is learning to back up what you’re writing.  News organizations have been very slow to adopt these standards because of slashed budget and staff, but also out of ego.  Why should I trust a reporter when I’ve seen so many make mistakes?  Why trust an organization when we’ve seen clear bias (not just political) in straight news reporting? 

    I agree with you.  Credibility is the killer app.  Use cheap pixels to build that trust.  

  • Louiciano

    I like this article… surely the one thing for us as a content creator is to constantly builds credibility. Any suggestion how to build credibility from the simplest way?

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t agree more. I am at the community activation stage of a new community news website and I have learnt that gaining credebility is the single most important factor. I have learnt that Internet can also be spelt ‘people’.

  • http://twitter.com/PeterBlueSilver PeterBlueSilver

    Great articale…
    Yes we need to trust our journalists , in Sweden we have Flashback     http://www.flashback.se/
    to visit and if you want also discuss when the media don’t tell or don’t know the truth.The media go there very VERY often to see what is hot.And our biggest papers Expressen and Aftonbladet very often pixlar ( change the pic. ) sometimes if a person is dark will become caucasian.Tip of the iceberg!

  • Debora Wenger

    I love the irony of a post on credibility requiring a correction at the end of it!  

    But, more to the point– I think a  news and information source becomes credible through consistency.  How often does the information I get prove to be true?  Or in other words — how consistent is the quality of the brand?

  • David

    Robert,
    Check out beta.nwzpaper.com; launching Sep 1. We will revolutionize the way news is distributed and consumed via the web. Time to give individuals a platform for establishing their brand on a global scale.
    David
    Founder and President of nwzpaper.com