Going digital means going diverse – not only but especially for newsrooms

Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades, and the lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. The most likely reason is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.

MUNICH – When a local radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina started a podcasting competition in its community, it was prepared for many contingencies, except one: that the response would overwhelm the station’s server. The initiative was aimed at increasing on-air diversity, and tens of thousands of people wanted in. Groups and individuals from all walks of life submitted more than 370 ideas for podcasts, and 33,000 listeners logged on to vote for them. What started as a one-time experiment will now be a regular feature.

Journalism has always suffered from a lack of diversity. Demographically uniform newsrooms have been producing uniformly homogeneous content for decades. And while editors around the world have increasingly recognized that this is a problem, too little has been done to address it. 

One reason, ironically, is a preoccupation with digital change. “There has been so much focus on digital transformation in recent years, the question of diversity has had to stand aside,” explains Olle Zachrison of the Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio, in a study comparing diversity efforts in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany. And yet, as the newsroom in Charlotte discovered, diversity is not just an added bonus; it is at the very core of audience engagement today.

In explaining the business ethos of the digital age, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has argued that it is all about “customer obsession as opposed to competitor obsession.” For the media, then, the guiding principle should be “audience first.” And that means using data to understand and cater better to it.

Not long ago, editorial choices were guided mostly by gut feelings and assumptions, whereas now they are often informed by analytical metrics and revealed truths about audience behavior. Some of these revelations are uncomfortable. Editors can no longer fool themselves about their journalism’s real-world impact. They now know that even the best stories tend to reach just a fraction of their hoped-for audience.

Complicating matters further, newsrooms have discovered that demand can peak at times when they have no new offerings, or when what they’re serving is not what consumers are seeking. In surveys like the Digital News Report, respondents often complain that the media offer too much negativity and volume, and too little explanation and relevant coverage.

Before digitalization, journalists didn’t have to think about their audiences as much as they do now. Newspapers were money-printing machines – the advertising dollars poured in regardless of what would now be called “content.” Likewise, public-service media faced almost no competition. But now that digital information is a commodity, with a few major platforms controlling its distribution, audience loyalty has become a matter of survival.

Many newsrooms were entirely unprepared for this new reality. They don’t even know who their potential new customers are, let alone how to reach them and win their trust. The problem is not just that newsroom homogeneity results in an incomplete view of the world and of the reading/listening public. It is that even when “outsiders” do land a job in this kind of environment, they tend to adapt to the dominant culture rather than challenge it. As a result, newsrooms remain ill equipped to reach out to new audiences.

The lack of diversity in the media has actually worsened in recent decades. Back in the heyday of local news, newsrooms were no less white or male, but being a journalist at least didn’t require a university degree – only a willingness to dive in and chase leads. Yet as the industry became concentrated more in big cities and employment prospects elsewhere diminished, education became yet another entry barrier. While the better-educated candidates moved up to higher-profile jobs, many others left the profession altogether.

In keeping with the industrial society of the time, the occupational model that followed from these changes was hierarchical. As with teachers and their pupils, preachers and their congregations, and experts and the lay public, education conferred status and authority upon journalists. The public was a passive recipient of information, not an engaged participant in a broader conversation.

Clinging to this hierarchical structure is now a recipe for failure. The digital world of information is one of choice and abundance, but also of considerable confusion about what is true and false. Trust is a news organization’s most valuable asset, and the task for journalists is both to challenge and inspire their audience, and to invite conversations among them.

That can’t happen unless journalism represents the society in which it is operating. Unfortunately, a recent global survey of media leaders finds that while editors see progress toward gender diversity, much more must be done to achieve racial and political diversity, as well as a balance between “urban” and “rural” backgrounds. The most likely reason for this failure is that industry leaders continue to regard the digital transformation as a matter of technology and process, rather than of talent and human capital.

Fortunately, the digital transformation represents an opportunity. As Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York explains, industry leaders should “Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media.” All news organizations should take Jarvis’s advice – and not just because it is the right thing to do. Their own survival depends on it.

This commentary was published in ten languages by Project Syndicate on June 25, 2020

Job Title: Robot Reporter – How Automation Could Help Newsrooms Survive

This text was originally written in German for Hamburg Media School. United Robots translated and published it on Medium in April 2020.

Good-bye, Print – Time to Go All Out for Saving Journalism

The printed newspaper has been on life-support for a while, but chances are it might not survive the corona crisis. Now it is critical that the journalism doesn’t get dragged down with it – at a time when it is essential for survival.

Clayton Christensen did not live to see the corona crisis. The professor of Harvard Business School who developed the famous concept of disruptive innovation died of cancer this year in January. In his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” he dealt with the inherent reluctance of highly successful companies to reinvent their business models when confronted with ground-breaking new technologies. In an article called „Breaking News“ he addressed the media industry in particular. This was in 2012.

Eight years later the Covid-19 pandemic throws the world economy into a disruption of unheard proportions. It fosters technological adaptation and forces innovation at rapid speed. Only in retrospect will we learn which ones of these will prove to be truly innovative – as in good for society. But the world of business and work will never be the same again.

What we see in the media industry might not differ too much from others: Companies that have already embraced technological change and made it part of their culture are better off now. In these days of uncertainty when people are craving news and information like never before, they engage readers through their digital channels and products and gain subscribers in unprecedented proportions. Even the ones who have taken their paywalls down for coronavirus coverage attract loyal readers who are willing to pay for quality journalism.

The others, who have been rather cautious in marketing digital subscriptions while guarding their revenues from printed newspapers like a treasure are now at the tail end. They face the innovator’s dilemma as described by Christensen, their fight for survival will be particularly fierce. Because the breakdown of the advertising market combined with looming production challenges mean that the remaining days of print will be counted down much faster now than ever before.

In some places, the countdown is over already. British JPI media group recently announced to stop print production for twelve titles. A city like Milton Keynes with more than 200 000 inhabitants will then have no newspaper any longer. In case of the coronavirus, this situation is particularly tricky, because the most vulnerable part of the population is at the same time the digitally most underserved and therefore print dependent: the elderly.

In the US, bets are already on about who will be running out of the cash needed to fuel the printing presses. Many local newspapers are directly or indirectly owned by investment funds who tend to get rather impatient with financial underperformance. The number of news deserts that don’t have any local journalism to offer will grow once more.

The thought of reducing the number of weekdays when print newspapers are produced is not new. Many publishers have been thinking about this for quite some time. Some acted on it years ago, not always with fortune. When the New Orleans Times Picayune went from a seven-day-per-week printing schedule to a mere three days in 2012, it marked the beginning of the end for the once proud newspaper that in its golden days two thirds of all households had subscribed to. Portuguese Diario de Noticias from Lisbon went from seven daily editions to just one weekend edition in 2018. Before Corona hit, editor-in-chief Catarina Carvalho had her doubts whether this had been the right strategic move, now she is glad. It may be Diario’s ticket to survival. Only recently, the Tampa Bay Press announced it would cut down printing to the Wednesday and Sunday edition.

This might also be needed as an emergency response. Not only has the corona crisis slashed advertising volume in an already ailing market. But many publishers fear that production and distribution problems could materialise, once illness and restrictions hit personnel and supply chains. And then there is the shortage of cash. As Maria Ressa, the world-famous, award-winning journalist and founder of the digital news platform Rappler.com recently put it in a call: “We have to flatten the curve of expenses.” Apart from chasing facts and protecting staff, making sure the money lasts is a priority now. 

For some publishers, it’s not exaggerated to compare the situation with the ones of doctors in emergency rooms or intensive care units: They would love to keep all the patients alive but have to focus on those with the best chances for survival. The crisis confronts newspapers with life-or-death decisions, media analyst Ken Doctor wrote in a rather gloomy piece for Nieman Lab. First question on the list publishers currently considered in his words: “Will we keep seven days of print publishing?” Buzzfeed reporter Craig Silverman was even more outspoken days before: „The Corona Virus is a Media Extinction Event“, he wrote.

In some markets like Germany the situation looks less strained – at least to the outside world. To the contrary: readers resort to traditional news media in droves when craving the latest information. Those who have to stay home rediscover the ritual of reading print. Some newsrooms even report rising numbers of print subscriptions. But quietly publishers have already reduced page volume and variations in local editions. This is not only because of advertising Armageddon. Apart from corona content that everyone is devouring, there is much less material to fill the pages. Sports competitions and all kinds of culture and business events have been canceled, editors are busy with crisis management, and research is getting difficult, since reporters are advised to keep their risk of exposure to a minimum to not endanger themselves and their families.

In some European media companies, staff is on reduced work schedules – a common government policy to help companies with cost reduction in crisis situations. Even Germany’s most famous political magazine Der Spiegel, known for its generous salaries and working conditions, is apparently considering such a move.  

And once cuts made, reductions are there to stay. It is a hardly guarded secret that readers who cancel print subscriptions do so more often because they feel overwhelmed by too much stuff rather than for receiving too little in volume. In an age of information over-abundance, less is often more. Additionally, publishers will go through great length in the weeks to come to digitally activate their print subscribers, just in case. And once readers are online, they will get used to it. Building habit is the recipe for success in any subscription venture, online or offline. “People are going to spend a lot of time online for the foreseeable future. And so far, we have few examples of people returning to offline media once they have embraced online ones”, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford wrote analysing the situation for the industry.

In many countries, print newspapers won’t disappear from breakfast tables right away. But a sizeable number of publishers will soon count their losses and reduce publishing to just one edition on the weekend. This is when even younger audiences enjoy a slower pace of life, those who haven’t been able to understand the concept of space consuming print editions for some time.

The step from one down to zero will be a short one then. Some people might not even notice in the turbulence of an economic crisis that is likely to stay with us for some time. That is, as long as the journalism survives.

This is what everyone – publishers, governments, platform companies, foundations and funders – should now focus their efforts on. For newsrooms, it is essential to speed up digital transformation and focus on audiences’ needs, the coronavirus-crisis is an excellent opportunity for this. Now quality media are indispensable resources for citizens to inform their daily decisions in times of uncertainty. Platform companies need to keep on their industry support, they have to make sure that it is guided by industry and citizen needs. The fight against misinformation is particularly critical when lives are at stake.  

Emergency funding will be necessary, presumably everywhere.The Danish parliament for example in early April passed a 25 million Euro relief package for the media industry that will compensate for revenues lost through the advertising crisis. Other countries like Austria will follow suit. Journalists themselves will need to keep an eye on whether the distribution of such support will be fair and benefit independent quality journalism. It is well known that many governments use crisis situations as an opportunity to play favourites and get rid of critical voices. 

Being ahead in the digital game used to be a matter of competition. Now rapid and sustainable digital transformation has become a matter of survival. Democracy can live without print. It cannot persevere without strong and independent journalism.

Copyright: Alexandra Borchardt 2020

Getting Real About Talent and Diversity – Ten Recommendations

Europe’s newsrooms are still predominantly white and middle class, though societies are changing at rapid speed. How to better reflect all members of the increasingly diverse European societies within Europe’s Media and public sphere is crucial. Additionally, diversity is a business case. In digital transformation it is essential to gain access to new audiences. For public service media in particular this is not only a mission b’ut also a requirement. 

As part of the European Federation of Journalists’ project ‘Managing change in media’, supported by the European Commission, I have drafted ten recommendations for newsrooms on how to promote diversity and enable them to identify talent and reflect the society they are reporting about. You can read them here: Download the report

Get out of the office and talk to people!

Every year Nieman Lab at Harvard University asks journalists and journalism researchers around the globe about trends in the industry and what they predict for the year to come. This is what I envisioned for 2020:

News deserts were yesterday. In the year to come, journalism will rediscover the communities it’s meant to serve.

Several factors will contribute to this. One is the ever more urgent need for media organizations to engage with real people in the real world. Journalism has to regain the trust of the citizens it’s made for. And trust develops best through direct engagement. It works particularly well if you can see that the person on the other side is a human being like yourself, making an honest effort to do a difficult, sometimes risky job that’s not even tremendously lucrative.

The other factor is that international journalism has become a winner-take-all environment. For a while, everyone was enthralled with The New York Times and its progress in growing revenue through digital subscriptions, or The Washington Post with its reputation for being at the forefront of tech innovation. But the glamour has worn off. Now even comparatively big news organizations have realized that their successes are not replicable. They’re not the Times or the Post; they can’t build an international audience and invest in all the tech others are craving for. They have come to understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution — just bits and pieces one can adapt to one’s own needs.

The way forward is to make the best use of the unique position each organization finds itself in. And in many cases, this is the local environment. It’s the place where your audience lives that you’re best equipped to listen to, to engage with, and to serve — the citizens whose lives you can have a real impact on. It’s the place for community building, for creating shared debates and experiences.

While many traditional local news organizations are still struggling for a lack of revenues and resources, there’s also some hope that the act of serving one’s communities will become easier and cheaper if the right approaches are used. First, within the over-abundance of information, it becomes more and more acceptable to focus on what one can do best and leave out the rest. Modern news organizations don’t have to be “the paper of record” any longer, because people are recording everything all the time and search engines help them to find much of the information they need anyway. Consequently, local newsrooms can afford to develop strategies that center around the needs of their audiences.

Second, there are now more formats than ever available to help to build a relationship with these audiences, from newsletters or podcasts with a personal touch to reader events. Some of these formats also help new market entrants: news startups that don’t have to launch as a full-blown effort with a large newsroom, but maybe start instead with a newsletter that builds engagement and loyalty.

Thirdly, there will be AI-solutions and automated news production to cater to the appetite for data-based, locally relevant stories, like the development of real estate prices or updates of local weather forecasts. Fourthly, we will see a lot of investments along these lines, particularly since big players like Google and Facebook have also discovered local markets as grounds for support, so have foundations.

Hopefully, the focus on local journalism will also bring more talent back into the equation. The future of journalism will be in unique quality reporting and research. A generation of young journalists was raised in front of computer screens, copying and pasting stories for quick successes in clicks and reach. Now many are savvy in SEO and a variety of storytelling formats. But this prevented them from learning the ropes of doing in-depth investigations. Those require patience, persistence, and communication skills, because they’re about building trust with sources. Picking up the phone and meeting people away from the office might experience a revival. By the way, a video is best shot at the scene, not at the desk.

A new focus on local journalism will bring it back to its core. Let the international winners grab the high-hanging fruit. The low-hanging ones could be right there in front of your doorstep.

This text was published by Nieman Lab on January 3, 2020

Media Literacy is Critical, But We Need More Democracy Literacy

Free, credible, and independent news media are a pillar of any functioning democracy, essential to enable voters to make informed decisions and to hold elected leaders accountable. Given this, media literacy must be pursued within a broader campaign to improve democratic literacy.

OXFORD – Depending on where you get your news, your view of how the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump is unfolding may be very different from that of your friends, relatives, or neighbors. You may also think that any version of the story that conflicts with yours is simply untrue. This lack of consensus on basic facts – largely a byproduct of social media – carries serious risks, and not nearly enough is being done to address it.

In recent years, the need to improve “media literacy” has become a favorite exhortation of those seeking to combat misinformation in the digital age, especially those who would prefer to do so without tightening regulation of tech giants like Facebook and Google. If people had enough media savvy, the logic goes, they would be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and quality journalism would prevail.

There is some truth to this. Just as it is dangerous to drive in a place where you don’t know the traffic laws, navigating the new digital-media environment safely – avoiding not only “fake news,” but also threats like online harassment, nonconsensual (“revenge”) porn, and hate speech – requires knowledge and awareness. Robust efforts to improve media literacy globally are thus crucial. Free, credible, and independent news media are a pillar of any functioning democracy, essential to enable voters to make informed decisions and to hold elected leaders accountable. Given this, media literacy must be pursued within a broader campaign to improve democratic literacy.

Since its invention in ancient Greece more than 2,500 years ago, democracy has depended on rules and institutions that strike a balance between participation and power. If the point was simply to enable everyone to speak up, platforms like Facebook and Twitter would be the pinnacle of democracy, and popular movements like the 2011 Arab Spring would naturally produce functioning governments.

Instead, the objective is to create a system of governance in which elected leaders bring to bear their knowledge and experience, in order to advance the interests of the people. The rule of law and the separation of powers, guaranteed by a system of checks and balances, are vital to the functioning of such a system. In short, mobilization means little without institutionalization.

And yet, today, public institutions are suffering from the same lack of trust as news media. To some extent, this is warranted: many governments have failed to meet their citizens’ needs, and corruption is rampant. This has fueled rising skepticism toward democratic institutions, with people often preferring ostensibly more egalitarian online platforms, where everyone’s voice can be heard.

The problem is that such platforms lack the checks and balances that informed decision-making demands. And, contrary to the early expectations of some Internet pioneers, those checks and balances will not emerge organically. On the contrary, tech companies’ algorithm-driven business models all but preclude them, because they amplify voices according to clicks and likes, not value or veracity.

Populist politicians have taken advantage of the lack of checks and balances to obtain power, which they often use to please their supporters, ignoring the needs of opponents or minority groups. This type of majority rule looks a lot like mob rule, with populist leaders trying to overrule legislatures and courts to fulfill the desires – often shaped by lies and propaganda – of their constituents. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent to suspend Parliament, in order minimize its ability to prevent a no-deal Brexit, is a case in point.

In a democracy, all people must be able to trust their leaders to uphold their rights and protect their basic interests, regardless of whom they voted for. They should be able to go about their daily lives, confident that public officials will dedicate their time and energy to making informed decisions – and that those who don’t will be checked and balanced by the rest. Credible independent media support this process.

In Johnson’s case, the judiciary fulfilled its duty to check the executive. But with every assault on democratic institutions, accountability is weakened, people become more disillusioned, and the legitimacy of the system declines. Over time, this reduces the incentive for talented people to work in fields like journalism and politics, eroding their effectiveness and legitimacy further.

Breaking this vicious circle requires the rapid expansion of media and democratic literacy, including how the system works and who owns and shapes it. And yet, as a forthcoming study by the Council of Europe’s Expert Committee on Quality Journalism in the Digital Age (on which I served) shows, most existing media-literacy programs are limited to teaching schoolchildren how to use digital platforms and understand news content. Very few target older people (who are most in need), explain who controls media and digital infrastructure, or teach the mechanisms of algorithmic choice.

Democracies all over the world are enduring a stress test. If they are to pass, their institutional underpinnings must be reinforced. That requires, first and foremost, an understanding of what those underpinnings are, why they matter, and who is trying to dismantle them.

This commentary was published by Project Syndicate on November 28, 2019

What’s wrong with the News?

The rise of data analytics has made journalists and their editors confident that they know what the people want. Why, then, did almost one-third of respondents to the Reuters Institute’s latest Digital News Report say that they regularly avoid news altogether?

The British public can’t get enough news about Brexit – at least, that’s what news platforms’ data analytics say. But, according to the Reuters Institute’s latest Digital News Report, 71% of the British public tries to avoid media coverage of the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the European Union. This disparity, which can be seen in a wide range of areas, raises serious questions about news organizations’ increasingly data-driven approach to reporting.

The rise of data analytics has made journalists and their editors confident that they know what people want. And for good reason: with a large share of news consumed on the Internet, media platforms know exactly which stories readers open, how much they read before getting bored, what they share with their friends, and the type of content that entices them to sign up for a subscription.

Such data indicate, for example, that audiences are interested in extraordinary investigative journalism, diet and personal-finance advice, and essays about relationships and family. They prefer stories with a personal angle – say, detailing an affected individual’s fate – rather than reports on ongoing conflicts in the Middle East or city hall coverage. And they are drawn to sensational stories – such as about US President Donald Trump’s scandals and antics – under “clickbait” headlines.

But if newsrooms were really giving audiences what they wanted, it seems unlikely that almost one-third (32%) of respondents in the Digital News Report, the world’s largest ongoing survey of online news consumption, would report that they regularly avoid news altogether. But they did, and that figure is up three percentage points from two years ago.

The most common explanation for avoiding the news media, given by 58% of those who do, is that following it has a negative effect on their mood. Many respondents also cited a sense of powerlessness.

Moreover, only 16% of participants approve of the tone used in news coverage, while 39% disapprove. Young people, in particular, seem fed up with the negativity bias that has long been regarded as a sure-fire way to attract audiences. For many, that bias feels disempowering. Conversations indicate that the problem is compounded for young parents, who want to believe that the world will be good to their children. Younger generations also feel consuming news should be more entertaining and less of a chore.

One reason for the disconnect between the data and people’s self-reported relationship with the news media may be the “guilty pleasure” effect: people have an appetite for voyeurism, but would prefer not to admit it, sometimes even to themselves. So, even as they click on articles about grisly crimes or celebrity divorces, they may say that they want more “quality news.”


When newsrooms indulge readers’ worst impulses, the consequences are far-reaching. Media are integral to support accountability by anyone wielding power or influence, and to mobilize civic engagement. Democracies, in particular, depend on voters being well informed about pressing issues. News organizations thus have a responsibility to report on serious topics, from political corruption to climate change, even if they are unpleasant.

That does not mean that readers’ complaints about media’s negativity bias should be disregarded. On the contrary, if people are to be motivated to confront challenges that are shaping their lives, they should not be made to feel powerless.

This is where so-called solutions journalism comes in. By balancing information about what needs changing with true stories about positive change, news organizations can fulfill their responsibility both to inform and to spur progress. This means occasionally recognizing that over the long term, living standards have improved globally.

Reconnecting with audiences will also require media organizations to broaden their perspectives. In much of the West, it is largely white, male, middle-class journalists who decide what to cover and how. This limits news media’s ability to represent diverse societies fairly and accurately.

In fact, only 29% of Digital News Report respondents agreed that the topics the news media choose “feel relevant” to them. A joint study by the Reuters Institute and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, indicates that the key to increasing this share is to increase diversity in newsrooms.

At the same time, news media need to do a better job of contextualizing and otherwise explaining the news. While 62% of Digital News Report respondents feel that media keep them apprised of events, only half believe news outlets are doing enough to help them understand what is happening. At a time when nearly one-third of people think that there is simply too much news being reported, the solution seems clear: do less, better.

This means listening to readers, not just studying the data analytics. It means balancing good news with bad news, and offering clarifying information when needed. It also means representing diverse perspectives. Media organizations that do not make these changes will continue to lose trust and relevance. That is hardly a sound strategy for convincing consumers that their work is worth paying for.

This commentary was published by Project Syndicate on September 11, 2019

Are Journalists Today’s Coal Miners?

As the media is in distress, being a journalist is becoming less attractive for many. Will the industry loose out on the best and brightest? And how does this influence the declared desire to make newsrooms more diverse? Read our new report on talent and diversity in newsrooms in the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden, a joint project by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Mainz. The talent challenge could be the next huge challenge for the media industry and in the end for democracy. Because if there is no talent, there will be no trust, and if there is no trust, there will be no business model. 

Published on 15th July 2019


How – and How Not – to Restore Trust in Media

In an age of unprecedented access to information, true and otherwise, people of all ages must improve their media literacy. But that does not let media organizations off the hook. With the help of an aware and critical audience, they must monitor themselves and one another, as they have done in the past.

OXFORD – In most industries, a quality product is easy to identify, thanks to markers like price, brand, and reviews. But in journalism, discerning quality is becoming increasingly complicated, not least because, in the digital age, trusted brands like the BBC or The New York Times, which can be expected to adhere to long-established journalistic standards, are vastly outnumbered by upstart publications, blogs, and community reports.

Not surprisingly, therefore, as claims of “fake news” have proliferated in recent years, trust in news media – established and otherwise – has plummeted. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, those who regularly consume news do so with significant skepticism. Only about 50% of users trust the media brands they choose to consume; far fewer trust outlets that they do not use. With too many options and too little confidence in media, nearly one-third of people have given up following the news altogether.

But news journalism is not an expendable luxury. It is a critical public good, enabling citizens to make informed decisions, while helping to hold those in power accountable. It can serve that function only if it is a quality product – and people know that. Delivering such a product, however, is no straightforward task.

The first problem is that there is no clear definition of what constitutes quality journalism, which raises the risk that the standard of “quality” will become a tool of censorship. When Adolf Hitler wanted a book burned, he would assert that it did not meet the “standards” of Nazi ideology. Similarly, a government today could cite quality issues to attack critics’ credibility or to justify denying them journalistic credentials.

Some organizations concerned with the future of the media are trying to circumvent this danger by developing trust indicators. Most notably, the Journalism Trust Initiative, led by Reporters Without Borders, is creating voluntary guidelines and a best-practice framework that will evolve into an official certification process. Some organizations champion traffic-light indicators, like those used in food labeling, while others argue for an ISO 9000 system reminiscent of industrial quality management.

But what, exactly, would these systems be certifying? The most logical answer might seem to be media organizations. But even first-class newsrooms produce plenty of second-class content, owing to factors ranging from a lack of available sources to simple human error. This implies that not all content from a given organization can be trusted equally.

Of course, some organizations have a proven track record of following certain procedures to minimize mistakes and respond to errors that do slip through. But these are likely to be the same organizations that already enjoy significant public trust. Whatever trust they have lost in recent years will not be offset by a new label affirming their quality.

As for the publications that would benefit from such a label, they are more likely to be smaller, newer, and thus poorly equipped to deal with the extra layer of bureaucracy that a certification procedure would entail. Organization-level quality certifications could thus hurt new entrants, while helping incumbents.

The alternative to organization-level certification would be to focus on individual pieces of content. But this would be a herculean task in terms of volume; worse, it could create perverse incentives, as journalists chase certifications in much the same way they now may chase awards, sometimes to the detriment of the work. The German reporter Claas Relotius won multiple awards for his brilliant storytelling before it was revealed that the stories he was telling were not true.

In any case, the question remains what exactly constitutes a quality piece of content. Does it simply have to be fact-based? Does it apply only to serious political and business news, or does it include lifestyle, entertainment, or human-interest stories? These questions are complicated further in the digital ecosystem: some blog posts may count as journalism, but that certainly isn’t the case for all of them.

Journalism will never be like, say, the airline industry, where strict standards and procedures apply to every action and product. But, until recently, it didn’t need to be: journalists adhered to codes of professional and ethical conduct, and were overseen by bodies that took action in the event of a breach. Doing it right was the default – even though the concept of “right” has always been open to interpretation.

That is how societies work. An individual does not need a “trust certification” to participate in a family or community (though China’s government would like to change that). The social contract establishes certain behavioral norms with which people generally comply; labels are needed only when trust is broken.

This is the status quo to which journalism must return. That means, first and foremost, individual organizations taking responsibility for the quality of their content and adhering to a set of rules, including oversight and editing, to ensure it. When this cannot be done within the organization itself – say, when a citizen journalist is operating in an anti-democratic environment – external bodies could do the job.

In establishing such systems, lessons could be learned from collaborative reporting projects like the one that covered the Panama Papers, in which researchers enjoyed individual freedom – ensuring a plurality of voices and healthy competition – but had to meet certain standards. As technology advances, automated fact-checking could also be introduced, especially in less-resourced newsrooms.

In an age of unprecedented access to information, true and otherwise, people of all ages must improve their media literacy. But that does not let media organizations off the hook. With the help of an aware and critical audience, they must monitor themselves and one another, as they have done in the past.

Two years of bringing media leaders together – this is what I learned

For two years I’ve been in charge of the leadership programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, a home for those who care deeply about journalism and its role in democracy. Listening to and conversing with media leaders and committed journalists from all over the world has shed new light on many issues I had felt so certain about, after having been a journalist for more than 25 years, 15 of these in leadership roles. This is what I learned:

  • First, tech is seductive, but it will always be always about people. Senior editors and managers often came to us curious about the latest tools, and the developments in data and tech. But these challenges are manageable. What puzzled editors most were the seemingly mundane things: how to communicate with your newsroom, how to prevent your staff from burning out, how to retain talent, how to create a culture that embraces the adventurous journey of digital transformation while preserving the core of why everyone joined the profession — doing great journalism. There are no fool-proof recipes for this, no miracle tools. But a lot of listening and sharing best-practice helps.  
  • Second, trust is a difficult matter. Who doesn’t complain about diminishing trust in the digital age? All institutions suffer from it, the media included. In previous decades, people would just read the newspaper or listen to the evening news and trust them, journalists complain. But was this a good thing? Of course, earning trust today is much harder work. Audiences can resort to more sources, compare quality, call things into question, and they also have the means for immediate feedback. This can be a pain for resource-stretched newsrooms. But it is also a call to focus on the basics — focusing on quality, explaining how journalism works, and engaging with those whom the news is published for. Healthy scepticism within the citizenry is an indicator of media literacy and democratic freedom. By the way, some authoritarian regimes rank highly in trust– but it is often born out of fear.   
  • Third, journalism is a consumer good and a public good. This makes the business of selling journalism messy. In pretty much every industry the willingness to pay is 100 percent. Whether it is the bakery, the clothing store, or the hotel, there is one rule — no money, no product. Meanwhile, willingness to pay for digital news is on average only 14 percent according to the 2018 Digital News Report. There is an abundance of free news to choose from, so consumers need reasons to shell out funds for journalism. And in contrast to popular assumptions, micropayments for single pieces of content are not it. When audiences pay, they do it for experiences, for the expectation of quality, for purpose. Those who want to sell their journalism have to tick at least one of these boxes. Some journalism is also a public good in the service of democracy after all, public service media must provide it. 
  • Fourth, newsroom leaders better learn how to lead diversity, because running a successful newsroom is about the culture. The diversity of newsrooms is an increasingly major concern for today’s newsroom leaders, at least this is what they say. And they have a point: newsrooms are too male, too white (in the West), too homogenous politically, too urban, and too academic, thus too far removed from the reality of many of the people they serve (the Reuters Institute and the University of Mainz will publish a study on this on July 2, 2019). But hiring diverse talent, as challenging as it might be, is only the first step. For diverse talent to flourish and have an impact, it needs real and active support. Continue with the old routines, hierarchies and practices, and diverse candidates will either hyper-conform or opt out. The impact of this kind of “diversity” is zero. Women or minorities choose the news differently when given enough voice. You’d better listen. 
  • Fifth, journalism has become more of a craft than an art. But it can’t do without some great artists. Newsrooms used to center around a bunch of reporters and editors, the rest was supporting staff. They attracted big and vulnerable egos, many narcissists and some others who tagged along but could be easily replaced. This doesn’t work in an environment where journalists, product developers, data scientists, marketing experts and many more have to work in teams that produce great and commercially successful journalism. A great product is no longer the achievement of a lone star player but of many hands. Some egos have to restrain themselves, which makes digital transformation particularly hard in old-style TV environments. On the other hand, successful journalism can also be built around single expert journalists who become brands. They run events, publish newsletters, go on cruise ships. Every newsroom profits from a few stars, but none can run without plenty of craftspeople.
  • Sixth, too much of journalism is dominated by a Western worldview. As in every industry, there is a huge conference circuit around journalism where the same individuals meet over and over again in different settings. And it is heavily dominated by American and European participants. Certainly, some stars from the Global South are welcome guests and admired speakers, if only to remind the others that in many parts of the world journalism is a profession that requires more human sacrifices than making below-than-average money and being harassed on social media. But the debates are still very much framed through the Western lens. It doesn’t help that powerful American platform companies, mostly Facebook and Google, shape plenty of the issues at stake (and finance many conferences — as their Chinese counterparts do on the other side of the globe). Developing sustainable business models, research and fact-checking tools and support networks for journalist safety are even more important for newsrooms in the Global South. They face some of the same but also very different battles to save journalism in the digital age.   
  • Seventh, there will be plenty of AI in journalism, but there will be no journalism without journalists. Rejecting artificial intelligence for the sake of journalism jobs is wrong. There are already plenty of examples of ways that AI can improve products, help sell subscriptions and free newsroom talent from tedious tasks that consume energy which should go toward great journalism. AI can be used to analyze data and point to stories that we may not have noticed before, it monitors audience behaviour and identifies what people care about. Nevertheless, journalism will always thrive on dedicated, committed, sometimes inspiring journalists who are in it for a cause. This is what makes our industry so special.  

This column was published by NewsMavens on June 16, 2019