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Power to the user

“The results of the 2018 midterms showed people that their votes count and that they can insulate themselves from disinformation campaigns by going to trusted sites instead of Facebook feeds.”

In a nutshell, the history of digital journalism has gone like this: In phase one, legacy organizations started websites, and aggregators like The Huffington Post and The Drudge Report helped people navigate all that new stuff to read online. As audiences lost trust in the brand-as-curator, in phase two they turned to social media to get friends and family to help sift through the noise.

In the third phase, which has taken shape in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, users are losing trust in the opaque algorithms that curate what they see on social platforms and are wising up, becoming their own curators.

At the same time, the results of the 2018 midterms showed people that their votes count and that they can insulate themselves from disinformation campaigns by going to trusted sites instead of Facebook feeds.

It’s a lesson they won’t forget, and it will hit the news business in a big way in 2019.

Digital news consumers vote with their time, their data, and, in some cases, with their wallets. But they are more aware of how valuable the first two are than ever before. Visiting a website is no longer a passive transaction when your data follows you all around the web.

In this context, audiences will only choose to give this currency to brands they believe worthy of their support. The ones that win will be the ones that communicate their values loudly and clearly, and are able to rise to the challenge of being held to those values.

Users will look at, and expose, who a brand takes money from, who it gives money to, and how its executives treat people. If that passes the scrutiny of the masses, brands will face the far greater challenge of expressing who they are.

And “who they are” means more than just a slogan on your masthead. It means expressing a sense of right and wrong, because it’s impossible to be “neutral” when the powers that be manipulate facts to justify dubious positions. It means speaking directly to your audiences, and marketing your message as much as you would a new product launch.

This all matters to users because the news you read and the opinions you share are part of your identity. News organizations will need to define their own identities, and sell them to readers, to succeed in 2019.

Greg Emerson is a senior product manager at HuffPost.

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