Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

“I’m not surprised that audiences think journalism’s highest aim is to hijack their attention and trick their eyeballs into spending a split second on banner ads.”

During the Q&A session of a recent conference, an especially frank attendee asked me: “Why do we need journalists anyway?”

ernst-jan-pfauthIt’s a hard question for a career journalist to hear, but these days, it’s not a surprising one. Americans’ trust in journalism is at a historic low. In a recent Gallup poll, just 32 percent say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. Even real estate agents enjoy a better reputation.

With distrust in the industry so widespread, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that people like my conference questioner doubt journalism’s relevance. But if he were to wake up one day with an illegal toxic waste dump in his backyard, he’d no doubt be wishing someone had been monitoring backroom dealings at city hall.

2017 is the year journalist should really tackle the root problem: restoring the trust of the public. The first step is that we convey why our trade matters. We must be explicit about the reasons why journalism is about more than racking up likes and shares on Facebook with clickbait-y headlines, or giving an inordinate amount of attention to an unusual presidential candidate.

Because we see the above happening every day, I’m not surprised that audiences think journalism’s highest aim is to hijack their attention and trick their eyeballs into spending a split second on banner ads.

But getting someone’s attention should be a means in journalism, not the end goal. What matters is that we use this attention to inform citizens about the world around them. In 2017, we have to gain the trust of our audiences first by articulating this mission and then living up to it.

Here are three suggestions for how we can do that on a day-to-day basis:

  • Be explicit about the goal of your journalism. No one outside the business knows what qualifies as “good journalism” to industry insiders, so let’s consistently explain why we think our work matters and what it could mean to our audiences. “I’m trying to make sure you don’t end up with an illegal waste dump” or “I am trying to give a non-expert a better grasp on what climate change is and why we must take immediate political action.”
  • Work together with your audience. The best way to rebuild trust is to work together, so let’s involve our audience in our reporting. Every reader is an expert at something, either through their job, education, or life experience. Together they form the greatest untapped source of knowledge in the history of journalism. And thanks to communications technology, we now have the opportunity to tap into this. Let’s start with sharing our story ideas, asking for their input and acting like conversation leaders.
  • Don’t just talk about problems — search for solutions. A major reason why people give up on news is the so-called negativity bias. So let’s not just describe what is wrong with the world — let’s actively search for answers. This “constructive journalism” shows readers that journalists are looking out for them, and it motivates them to join the research process and share its findings with friends and family. “Let’s figure out together how we can get rid of that toxic waste!”

I believe that these steps will put us on the path to working for and with our audiences. This will not only lead to more loyal readers (great retention!), but also to a new relationship between readers and their journalists.

Some people are already convinced. Just look at the hundreds of thousands of people who recently subscribed to The New York Times and other outlets because they believe that a Trump presidency will require a strong watchdog.

But for a far, far larger group, we’ll still have to fight to earn trust and demonstrate that journalism can improve the world we all share.

Let’s go.

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Maria Bustillos   “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Richard J. Tofel   The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Mario García   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Lam Thuy Vo   The primary source in the age of mechanical multiplication

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Nushin Rashidian   A rise in high-price, high-value subscriptions

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

An Xiao Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

Tressie McMillan Cottom   A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Errin Haines Whack   Chaos or community?

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   News after advertising may look like news before advertising

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Anita Zielina   The sales funnel reaches (and changes) the newsroom

Trushar Barot   API or die

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design