Building reader relationships

“Currently, most — if not all — news organizations struggle to figure out who their existing users are, and they aren’t even close to knowing who their potential users are.”

In 2015, I predicted that this would be the year news organizations needed to get their ethical houses in order to build trust with audiences. “It doesn’t matter how much content they post on Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter — if users don’t trust journalists, they won’t buy what news outlets are selling.”

tracie-powellIt remains true today. But until and unless news organizations figure out how to build trusting relationships with users, nothing will change.

Currently, most — if not all — news organizations struggle to figure out who their existing users are, and they aren’t even close to knowing who their potential users are. What’s worse is that users don’t know us either, and many don’t seem to care. News organizations have been indifferent toward communities and audiences for so long that now communities and audiences are indifferent toward us.

So how do we fix this?

It’s all about relationships. Building them takes time, is expensive and is made even more difficult by the lack of trust between the American public and news organizations. Still, if anything is to change for the better in 2017, this is where we’ll have to start.

  • One-on-one. Trust will increasingly stem from one-on-one relationships between individual journalists and users. We already know that audiences are loyal to brands they find trustworthy. It’s no different with journalism. More journalists can leverage this by sharing credible, useful content, engaging regularly with users, and by being empathetic. This trend will continue through 2017 and beyond.
  • Get to know each other. For introverts, who are common in the field of journalism, opening oneself up and allowing others to get to know you — and vice versa — isn’t easy. But this simply must happen in order to develop trust and relationships with our audiences. We can do this by talking and listening to them (actually walking a beat and immersing ourselves in the communities we cover). Interacting with existing audiences through comments, believe it or not, is also a great way to get to know our readers. There are digital tools we can use to accomplish some of this — Jennifer Brandel’s Hearken and the Coral Project among them. The Washington Post developed pricey proprietary software to shorten the length of time it actually takes to get to know audiences better. I wrote about it (here) for the John S. Knight Fellowship Program at Stanford. There are also other techniques news organizations can try to better understand their existing audience, or to develop new audiences.
  • Tell more complete, and inclusive, stories. There’s been a lot said, and written, about fake news, including developing tech tools to identify fake news for our users. The thing is, even if we take the time to do this, who’s to say that these tools will deepen trust with journalism? They won’t. There’s the question about “who decides,” and then there’s the fact that these tools won’t fix the larger issue: News organizations often produce stories that ignore, or leave out, diversity of perspectives. And even though the story may be factually correct, it still isn’t accurate because it doesn’t include other viewpoints that might render the information presented closer to the truth. Case in point, journalists’ continued use of “working class” to describe white voters in Middle America who supported Trump. This group may be a subset of the working class, but it leaves out millions of Americans who aren’t white, but who are every bit as much part of America’s working class. Every report we produce on working-class Americans that fails to include these people, is in fact, inaccurate and likely dismissed as “fake news” by those who’ve been left out of our reporting. Another example that I recently saw involves Lebron James, who with a few of his teammates decided not to stay at a Trump hotel. News reports implied it was because James supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But nowhere was James asked his reasons. Had a reporter asked, one would have easily learned that the players’ decision had nothing to do with Clinton, and everything to do with strains of racism and intolerance currently associated with the Trump brand. Though factually correct, the story comes off as fake to some because journalists failed to tell a full and complete story.
  • Avoid making false equivalences. In pursuing some kind of “objective balance,” journalists often inadvertently introduce bias into their reporting. Take, for example, a report last week by The New York Times headlined: “On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need ‘Safe Spaces.'” In the report, writer Anemona Hartocollis attributes bias to both Clinton and Trump supporters on college campuses. In describing how Trump supporters feel their views are disrespected, Hartocollis writes that Clinton supporters often call Trump supporters racist. She then writes that Trump supporters on one campus flicked matches and threatened to set a woman on fire because she wore a hijab. One is a crime, the other is an exercise in free speech. Common sense would dictate that the latter action is not equal to the former, but that didn’t stop the Times from presenting it that way. Presenting this kind of false equivalence hurts journalists’ credibility, and further erodes trust with readers. Not to mention in plays directly into the hands of those perpetuating the kind of bias and division that is in direct opposition to our code of ethics.
  • Shoot straight, stop perpetuating division. Race is one of those subjects that many Americans choose not to talk about in mixed company. The problem is journalists often hurt ourselves when we refuse to speak truth to power. One example is our continued attempt to normalize what isn’t normal, including the way race and racism was exploited during this election. To paint Richard Spencer’s alt-right as a kinder, gentler, prettier brand of racism is wrong, not normal. Yet that’s exactly what some publications, including Mother Jones, has done even if the intent was not there. Further, our refusal to report about the many ways president-elect Donald Trump continuously set up “us versus them” scenarios only served to produce coverage that was sensational and lacking in depth. The reports certainly did not capture the complexity nor impact that Trump’s actions had on underrepresented groups in this country. The news media, despite the calling in our codes of ethics, did not give voice to the voiceless. Instead, we continued to serve as a megaphone for the powerful. Had we focused more on substantial issues, rather than Trump’s latest tweets, perhaps voters would have seen that they had more in common with one another than differences. Perhaps our reporting would have served to connect people and to bring communities together, instead of further dividing them.
  • I am not going to go into hiring people so that newsrooms can better reflect the communities we serve. It’s well established that users seeing themselves in our coverage — and on mastheads — goes a long way in establishing trust. We’re at the point now that either news organizations will do it, or they won’t. Those that don’t won’t be successful, because you can’t grow audience in 2017 without being inclusive. I will say this, however: If you can’t hire more diverse staff, then find ways to partner with trustworthy ethnic media publications. Their audiences are fiercely loyal, and users trust them.

Happy New Year! Here’s to healthy relationship building in 2017.

Tracie Powell is founder of AllDigitocracy and a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund.

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

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

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

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

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present

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

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

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

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Errin Haines   Chaos or community?

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

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

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

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

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

Trushar Barot   API or die

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

An Xiao Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

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

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

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

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

Mario García   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism