News organizations are reeling. The 2016 election upended a lot of our ideas about our work — most disturbingly that reported, factual journalism is valued and trusted less than a cheap, clumsy imitation of itself. But the problem isn’t Macedonian teens or the fake news that made them rich. The problem is that we’ve forgotten what media businesses actually are. And 2017 brings a challenge and an opportunity to correct that mistake.
To borrow a popular framework from the tech industry, media companies are and always have been community-as-a-service businesses. It’s time we start acting like it again.
At the peak of mass media consolidation, media had the luxury of operating as a widget business. In oligopolies, media could easily sell an exclusive inventory of ad units and fill the spaces around them with journalism (or crosswords, horoscopes, comics, newscasts, sitcoms, etc.). In a market of limited competition and inaccurate measures, we were allowed to forget that our primary value is actually contingent on a community trusting and acting on what we publish.
It’s not hard to trace how we got here. Media businesses have lost their distribution advantage to giant aggregators. They’ve met that upheaval with a frantic push for increased inventory, churning out content packed with more and more ads that annoy the hell out of users. Media companies have simultaneously slashed the journalism workforce to sweeten their balance sheets. The simplest economic forces at play in these two decisions predict a rapid decline in overall quality as quantity increases.
Journalists have also rediscovered that attention and engagement for identity-driven coverage far outpaces “objective” models of news that we built up during consolidation. Personality and identity have been huge brand differentiators in news businesses since they were invented in the 17th century. Within the infinite content supply of the news feed, people reliably gravitate toward the ease and emotional magnetism of identity politics rather than fact-based formats of modern journalism. And so news editors quite logically make more of the former and figure out ways to “spice up” the latter so that it might compete for attention.
These decisions have resulted in a proliferation of content from journalism brands that many people could easily confuse with or purposefully substitute with “fake news.” Sure, Facebook’s standardized display and positioning of content doesn’t help users make informed choices, but journalism can’t shirk responsibility for cheapening the product offering.
Journalism businesses must shift away from thinking that our solution is to build more, cheaper content to create more, cheaper ad inventory. Media’s own measures of business value reflect how wrong this idea is. One-off anonymous views are far cheaper than the sustained attention of those whom we understand and who trust us. And as CPMs shrink in the age of “peak content,” media businesses are cultivating revenue streams beyond display ads — including premium subscriptions, membership models, newsletters, and events — all of which rely on the value proposition of access to and meaningful information for specific, engaged communities.
Media have advantages in this effort. Journalists are pretty damn good at making authentic, impactful, and important stories. They’ve always built products that help people create, share, and unite around ideas. Some companies even have significant scale. It’s time to leverage these tools and recenter around the highest value proposition we have: engaged communities.
Great communities run on trust, and journalism’s top priority now must be building trust. Trust is a competitive advantage media has taken for granted and allowed to wither through a false assumption that market dominance indicated trust. Media literacy has eroded. Circulation and appointment viewing have declined. Scholars have long argued that “the view from nowhere” is hurting media. Here’s the proof: Users aren’t buying claims of objectivity. And a push toward niche content and niche products and an increasing reliance on social media as a vehicle for targeted distribution demonstrate that journalism isn’t really buying objectivity either. So, how do we set the next standard for trust?
We can start with radical transparency. Our communities don’t actually understand our businesses (neither do most of us, to be fair), and the lack of clarity leads to mistrust. At WhereBy.Us, our journalists in Miami and Seattle have been working on clarifying our business practices for users, laying out specifics about how we make money, who makes what, and how we present what we make. We’re seeking feedback from our community about these distinctions and how we might improve upon our practices. This isn’t a one-off project, but the start of an ongoing conversation, one that we consider deeply important as we experiment with new revenue models. We’ve all avoided the uncomfortable conversation too long, and now we have to talk about the business to build community trust.
Journalists can actively include users in our work, seeking input often, responding to that input promptly, and bringing them along to experience journalism first-hand. The belief that our own news judgment is more valuable than the questions of our communities is both paternalistic and out of sync with the many-to-many ethos of modern communication. Products like Hearken and The Coral Project are built to facilitate and organize this work and demonstrate that this effort pays off in increased engagement and strengthened brand relationships. And if media literacy is a problem in our communities, we have to find a solution.
The days of “don’t read the comments” are absolutely dead. If community is our core value, we don’t get the luxury of checking out and being dismissive when our community is unhealthy. Rather, journalists must be responsible hosts, actively engaging, listening and questioning the community to nurture its value. Journalists must seek to elevate the community, serving as a true platform of ideas rather than a command-and-control distribution force for facts we deem interesting.
Building community and learning to serve it allows media businesses to deliver more business value. Editorial employees are always growing their content and community expertise. The rise of product teams designed to scale the “Chinese wall” of our business models can and should leverage that expertise to help fuel the creation of new revenue opportunities.
For years, we’ve thought of reinventing journalism as a question of technology. We’ve considered this reinvention as a problem of scale, which we’ve often built at the expense of a deeply invested community. But we failed to see the human side of our problem. Every failure is also a challenge. Our communities are our true value, and now is the time to invest in them.