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Quality and reliability are the new currencies for publishers

“In many ways, these are basic things — standards of journalism that have been around for centuries — but in today’s media environment, they are beginning to matter to readers and publishers more than ever.”

For the past decade or so, the currency for publishers on the internet has been, first and foremost, volume. Pageviews. Clicks. The problem, of course, is that high-quality investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account — the kind of journalism people need most in a democracy — rarely attracts enough volume to support the high cost of producing it, at least not from advertising revenue alone.

Meanwhile, the web has been flooded with websites that churn out recycled, unverified, sensationalized, and sometimes entirely fabricated stories at almost no cost. Their content costs little to produce and to an average reader can look close enough to real news content to warrant a click. In the past, search and social media algorithms have aided the growth of this kind of junk news. Even more concerning, news publishers have seen the success of such content and in some cases adapted their own content to mimic it; for example, it’s no longer uncommon to see a misleading “clickbait” style headline on the digital version of an article from a major newspaper — a headline that was no doubt the result of A/B testing to see which of several choices would generate the most volume. This makes it even harder for readers to distinguish quality news from misinformation, disinformation, and viral junk.

In 2019, I have hope that this trend will begin to reverse, for three reasons.

First, more news publishers are realizing that their future lies in consumer revenue — not just advertising revenue — and in pivoting their focus to digital subscriptions or memberships. In 2018, I had the pleasure of participating in efforts like the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes initiative, the Facebook Local News Subscriptions Accelerator, and the Facebook Memberships Accelerator, in which publishers from companies across the country made big efforts to shift toward reader-revenue business models. With reader revenue, of course, what matters is not the volume of clicks but the number of readers who find great value in a publication’s content. This requires publishers to focus on content that is local, relevant, useful and, importantly, credible and reliable. In shifting to this model, publishers shift from selling their audience to advertisers to selling content to their audience — something journalists have been doing for centuries.

Second, the major platforms, under pressure from users and regulators, have begun to take some steps to make it harder for low-quality news content to spread on their platforms. Facebook’s algorithm changes and new verification requirements for ads, for example, have pulled the rug out from under a wide range of publishers. While traditional news organizations found the changes to be surprising and inconvenient, for content farms, hoax websites, and other forms of junk news, the changes led to a deep (if temporary) disruption in their business model. As news publishers are forced to wean themselves off of high-volume referral traffic from major search and social media platforms, they may find it easier to focus their efforts instead on quality, credibility, and reliability. The platforms seem to have realized that too — and are looking for ways to reward quality content and limit the spread of unreliable sources.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, news consumers themselves are clamoring for news they can trust. According to recent Gallup surveys, only 32 percent of Americans say they believe the media adequately separates fact from opinion. According to an Axios Survey Monkey poll, 72 percent of Americans believe news sources knowingly report false information. In this environment — in which consumers have trouble distinguishing the content of one brand from another, especially in social media feeds, where every headline and link looks the same — there is great value in having a brand that consumers can trust. That, in part, is why companies like NewsGuard, which I helped launch this year, are finding a market for products that help news consumers distinguish reliable news websites from unreliable ones. NewsGuard uses nine journalistic criteria for credibility and transparency to assess thousands of websites — things like whether the site regularly reports false information, discloses its ownership and conflicts of interests, gathers information from reliable sources, separates news from opinion, or uses deceptive headlines. In many ways, these are basic things — standards of journalism that have been around for centuries — but in today’s media environment, they are beginning to matter to readers and publishers more than ever.

Matt Skibinski is a reader revenue advisor for the Lenfest Institute.

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