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More transparency around newsroom decisions

“Readers are paying attention — that’s what you want, isn’t it? — and they now have the tools to push back and to challenge our decisions.”

We’re constantly reminded that audiences are increasingly distrustful of news — who’s producing it, how it could have been influenced, whether it’s “fair and balanced” — and they’re asking questions of us that they haven’t always in the past. The latest Pew survey says this, the president says that. And just forget about the comment sections.

Folks in many of the newsrooms I’m aware of are thinking through ways to combat this distrust and position their outlets as consistently reliable. The results of those brainstorming sessions are starting to make their way to the public, but I anticipate we’ll see a lot more experimentation around opening up the editorial process to regular, and even occasional, readers in 2019.

In an age where most publications are reduced to their smallest individual unit — the single article — we’ve seen the spread of story-level mastheads. Consider HuffPost’s Highline, which consistently closes a feature with a list of credits, covering everything from design to development. This is a signal to readers that a lot of effort, from a lot of people, went into getting this particular story just right — and it’s a signal that travels with the piece, whether you come to it through Highline’s homepage as a regular visitor who already knows to trust the brand or you come to it through a Facebook post from the aunt you only see on holidays (and let’s keep it that way).

We’re also seeing more pieces that break down exactly how a reporter came to a particular story and what sources they turned to in seeing it through. The San Francisco Chronicle’s effortto break down its four-part series about the devastating Tubbs Fire immediately comes to mind. But that paper isn’t alone. The Cincinnati Enquirer is doing it. As are The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, the Star Tribune, and a bunch of others.

At Pacific Standard, the newsroom I run based out of California, we’ve started a seriesthat looks specifically at how our research and fact-checking process works and what decisions we’ve made when faced with challenging circumstances. What secondary sourcesshould you trust? What do you do when your facts have expiration dates? And what about when facts impose their own bias? As editors, we all think through these questions every day. Now we’re doing it out in the open.

None of this is all that new. You learn in middle school algebra the importance of showing your work so that someone else can replicate it and understand how you landed where you did. But I do think we’re seeing more consistent and widespread use of these easy ways to give readers a look behind the curtain, to see how the sausage is made.

When the New York Times eliminated its public editor position in 2017, then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote in a staff-wide memo that “today, our followers on social media and our readers across the Internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.” This decision was widely criticized at the time — and occasionally still is — and there are plenty of things a public editor working inside the newsroom can do that the public can’t. But Sulzberger was only saying what many of us already knew: Readers are paying attention — that’s what you want, isn’t it? — and they now have the tools to push back and to challenge our decisions.

What the Times hasn’t done particularly well over the last couple of years is deliver on Sulzberger’s second point: “Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.” But that’s okay. They’re learning; we’re all learning. And now they can look to what other newsrooms have started to do to let readers in, because many have started to do just that — and we’ll only see more of it going forward.

Nicholas Jackson is the editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard.

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