Fixing journalism’s credit score to earn back audience trust

“As in banking, there are only so many times a journalistic outlet can misprice a story and suffer a proverbial default on it before readers begin to lose trust.”

This will be the year the mainstream media complex — specifically managers and editors — finally begins to understand the ramifications of losing their audience’s trust.

It’s a loss that transcends the Trump and fake news phenomena. Rather, it’s about corrupting forces to which journalists themselves are largely oblivious. Most of the blame, I think, lies with structural, economic, and bureaucratic forces that have come to underestimate editorial risks and misallocate resources in a bid to maximize returns from reach, digitalization, and standardization.

Such forces unwittingly favor — even in the most upstanding organizations — predictable clicks drawn from knee-jerk, and often erroneous, takes that ride the consensus wave, while sensationalizing content and narrowing the public debate spectrum. The result is an eschewing of contrarian quality reads that might be slower to come to market but are much harder to discredit over time because they have been properly researched, considered, and tested. It is simply safer to ride the consensus wave, even in the supposedly high-quality and deeply researched section of the media.

As in banking, there are only so many times a journalistic outlet can misprice a story and suffer a proverbial default before readers begin to lose trust in the publisher in question (such as when the story you’ve been pushing turns out not to be true or badly misinformed). In terms of abuse of public trust, today is analogous to the post-2008 era in banking. Eventually, eyeballs and subscriptions will flow to more credible competition. Indeed, the biggest reason they haven’t yet abandoned the mainstream in sizable volume is that a credible competitor that addresses most of these issues on an economically scaled basis doesn’t yet exist.

To date, most challengers have focused on addressing the symptoms — and not underlying causes — of media discontent. And so, challengers orient themselves towards ever more partisan offerings or those focused on giving a platform to voices rejected by the incumbent system.

Substack is the most prominent of these challengers. It’s carved out a reputation for itself as a neutral platform that is largely indifferent to the politics of any particular writer. Instead, it is happy to give shelter to mainstream journalistic defectors of all shapes, flavors, sizes, and inclinations.

While this is a step forward, it is not a long-lasting solution. This is because Substack’s platform fails to address the credit risk at the heart of the modern-day journalistic quagmire in an economically viable way. The platform’s gated nature and dependence on super-star names, meanwhile, poses editorial scaling challenges.

If journalistic reputations are to be salvaged in the age of disinformation, I believe an entirely new and open model of journalism must be created. It’s a model that will have to address the mispricing of credit at the heart of the trust issue in journalism. In order to work effectively, it will have to reorganize how information is distributed and valued across the internet. Only then can trust be rebuilt in the media system, and can journalism once again be turned into a force for positive-sum growth rather than division, polarization, and distrust.

In 2022, I hope to play a small role in bringing such a system about.

Izabella Kaminska is the outgoing editor of the Financial Times’ Alphaville blog.

This will be the year the mainstream media complex — specifically managers and editors — finally begins to understand the ramifications of losing their audience’s trust.

It’s a loss that transcends the Trump and fake news phenomena. Rather, it’s about corrupting forces to which journalists themselves are largely oblivious. Most of the blame, I think, lies with structural, economic, and bureaucratic forces that have come to underestimate editorial risks and misallocate resources in a bid to maximize returns from reach, digitalization, and standardization.

Such forces unwittingly favor — even in the most upstanding organizations — predictable clicks drawn from knee-jerk, and often erroneous, takes that ride the consensus wave, while sensationalizing content and narrowing the public debate spectrum. The result is an eschewing of contrarian quality reads that might be slower to come to market but are much harder to discredit over time because they have been properly researched, considered, and tested. It is simply safer to ride the consensus wave, even in the supposedly high-quality and deeply researched section of the media.

As in banking, there are only so many times a journalistic outlet can misprice a story and suffer a proverbial default before readers begin to lose trust in the publisher in question (such as when the story you’ve been pushing turns out not to be true or badly misinformed). In terms of abuse of public trust, today is analogous to the post-2008 era in banking. Eventually, eyeballs and subscriptions will flow to more credible competition. Indeed, the biggest reason they haven’t yet abandoned the mainstream in sizable volume is that a credible competitor that addresses most of these issues on an economically scaled basis doesn’t yet exist.

To date, most challengers have focused on addressing the symptoms — and not underlying causes — of media discontent. And so, challengers orient themselves towards ever more partisan offerings or those focused on giving a platform to voices rejected by the incumbent system.

Substack is the most prominent of these challengers. It’s carved out a reputation for itself as a neutral platform that is largely indifferent to the politics of any particular writer. Instead, it is happy to give shelter to mainstream journalistic defectors of all shapes, flavors, sizes, and inclinations.

While this is a step forward, it is not a long-lasting solution. This is because Substack’s platform fails to address the credit risk at the heart of the modern-day journalistic quagmire in an economically viable way. The platform’s gated nature and dependence on super-star names, meanwhile, poses editorial scaling challenges.

If journalistic reputations are to be salvaged in the age of disinformation, I believe an entirely new and open model of journalism must be created. It’s a model that will have to address the mispricing of credit at the heart of the trust issue in journalism. In order to work effectively, it will have to reorganize how information is distributed and valued across the internet. Only then can trust be rebuilt in the media system, and can journalism once again be turned into a force for positive-sum growth rather than division, polarization, and distrust.

In 2022, I hope to play a small role in bringing such a system about.

Izabella Kaminska is the outgoing editor of the Financial Times’ Alphaville blog.

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