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

Leadership matters, men matter, but culture matters even more

Why the BBC’s 50:50 initiative has been a success.

It could have been a reporter’s feast, that BBC Director General Tony Hall turned up with a black eye when he opened the BBC’s 50:50 project celebration. This is an initiative that has been successful in bringing up “female” content in many of the participating programs above the magical 50-percent-line, and it has been joined by prestigious national and international media organizations.

But exploiting Hall’s injury from a minor weekend accident as a telling image for scars acquired in the battle of the sexes would have completely missed the point. Because the strength of the 50:50 project, as participants tell you, has been the spirit of friendly competition. Everything was voluntary, no quotas, no obligations, no shaming. And the initiator was a man. 

The impressive statistics are all written down in the project report. More than 500 teams signed up. Out of the teams that were running for twelve months or more, three out of four (74 percent) had reached 50 percent of female representation. And the endeavor supplied insights that are not incredibly surprising for those who know a thing or two about leadership and gender equality. But they are so much more convincing when proven and felt in real life. 

First, it’s actually not that hard to get female experts and contributors. It just needs to be given the proper priority. Even in sports progress is possible. And the project challenged other assumptions, for example, that there were no women heavyweights to go on air in the Arab world. Surprise, surprise, there are plenty. This should have been expected, given that girls excel in schools and universities all over the globe once they are given the opportunity. But to see it and hear it is a different matter altogether.

Second, leadership matters. It did matter a lot that Director General Tony Hall got fired up about the project. Because who wants to disappoint their top leadership instead of impressing them? What he loved about it, he said, was that there was a big idea and someone would simply go for it. Not regard representation of society as an aspiration, but as something that can be done and achieved step-by-step in the daily works.

Third, experiments matter. It’s convenient to declare something impossible and get on with life or wait for some regulation to happen. But how does one know it wouldn’t work if one hasn’t even tried? Experiments can be fun, too, particularly if they are small scale and there is little to lose but everything to gain from the momentum they create. The fact that this project was voluntary, created all the conditions for a great experiment. Just the goal was carved in stone, achieve this by April 30, 2019. And once experiments work, they can be shared as best-practice examples across the whole industry. The BBC can be proud of being a pace-setter.  

Fourth, men matter. Nobody would have said this aloud, and in fact, women took the lead in many teams all over the place. But that popular anchor Ros Atkins was the front man of the 50:50 effort killed all the suspicions that this was just another feminist thing by women who are in it for their own careers (yes, many women have encountered hidden accusations of this sort). Finding male allies is a powerful strategy to getting things done.

Fifth, representation matters, and it’s all about cultural change. Many media organizations are aware of the fact these days that they can’t pursue business as usual if they want to (re)gain the trust of their audiences. The media has been representing the few and catered to for few way too long. The current crisis of journalism is not only one of business models, it is also a crisis of representation. Many top leaders in the industry are aware of this. Now it is time to get into the doing.

This text was published by NewsMavens on May 16, 2019

           

Do you really have to be a brand? Don’t worry, some of the best leaders aren’t

Social media news feeds constantly tout the necessity of turning ourselves into a brand but if we don’t want to can there still be an upside? 

Women in particular are often asked to position themselves as brands. We are told that this will enable us to circumvent the hierarchies and glass ceilings that have prevented women from rising to power for so long. But is self-branding really an essential need in our digital work-life? And more importantly, what does it do to leadership?

Not much good, actually, if you consult the evidence. Presumably being a brand helps to inspire people. And it definitely helps find  a new job. But it doesn’t make you an outstanding boss. All kinds of studies show that a certain modesty and humility are the most important traits in successful leaders. Putting one’s ego behind a greater cause is much more significant for getting things done than charisma. Excellent leadership is about helping others grow, not about growing one’s self.

The irony is that many women are pretty good at helping others grow, because a whole lot of caring expectation is written into the scripts of their lives. And now we tell them to turn themselves into brands instead. Brands that convey caring qualities if necessary, but brands nonetheless.

When you think about this, turning people into brands means they become yet another commodity that is tradeable on the competitive market. It fully subordinates humans to capitalism. This comes at a loss for society. Because while there is no shortage of brands in capitalism, there is a definite shortage of care. In her book “Unfinished Business” (Random House 2016) Anne-Marie Slaughter described the tension between competition and care as one of the most challenging issues capitalist societies must solve.

This is no call to make women invisible again. We definitely have the right to develop ourselves into brands, and those who thrive on such tasks shpuld by all means pursue them. But a society where everyone is a commodity is a frightening concept. Humanity has prospered exactly because throughout history qualities like communication, collaboration and care have again and again triumphed over cutthroat competition. Progress has so often succeeded only because pride and egos were put aside. 

One step towards a more positive change is to help men develop their caring qualities, so that  respective responsibilities could be distributed more evenly between the sexes. Having plenty of caring men and women in charge would make for better workplaces, too. One reason leadership has fallen short of conforming to the ideal for decades is that there is too much branding and too little care in the C suite and below.

Also, brand-building consumes a lot of energy. If some of this energy was invested into people management instead, many organizations would be better places to work. So, if self-promotion is not your thing, just remember — many fabulous leaders have never been brands. 

This text was published by NewsMavens on May 16, 2019.

Power and pin money: Time for a new deal between big tech and the media

There’s a clear irony in engaging in a lively debate about the impact of big tech companies on journalism as part of a festival largely financed by Google and Facebook. The recent International Journalism Festival in Perugia offered more than one example of this. Welcome to the new media universe, in which powerful platform companies call the shots and news organisations struggle to keep up.

Big tech and the mainstream media currently appear to be locked in a love-hate relationship – one in which hypocrisy plays a large part. The same people who often criticise the Silicon Valley giants in public are more than happy to take their money when it is offered. The time has come for a more pragmatic approach.

Tech companies influence the media in several ways. Most importantly, their algorithms dictate the kind of content that readers see. If Facebooks decides to go slower on news – as it did in 2018 – users see less of it in their feeds. The way in which Google ranks search results has a direct impact on the exposure that media brands get.

Secondly, platform companies influence the kind of innovation projects and storytelling formats that newsrooms feel able to take on board. New tech projects almost invariably receive the label “innovation”, whether or not they are genuinely innovative. “The expensive job of innovation in newsrooms increasingly means asking ‘What would Google want?’ – influencing what newsrooms choose to develop, from virtual reality, to voice skills, to photo libraries”, the Tow Center’s Emily Bell writes. The consequence is that other areas in which innovation is desperately needed – management styles, processes, talent acquisition and retention – tend to be neglected.

Thirdly, big tech companies engage in direct funding. They support projects, research, training and the like. The collaborative research project “The Publishers’ Patron”, carried out by NetzpolitikRepublik and Falter and led by Alexander Fanta, shows the contribution made by Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI) to journalism innovation.

No more “church and state” separation

What should we make of all this? Of course, newsrooms have never been totally independent of the media ecosystem in which they operate. Media outlets have always had to contend with powerful owners, advertising clients and political interests lurking in the background. And let there be no mistake: even crowdfunding is not without its pitfalls if the funders feel let down, as the heated debate around The Correspondent’s unexpected withdrawal from the US has demonstrated.

The situation has evolved in recent years. There used to be a clear division between the editorial and the business sides – similar to the concept of the separation of church and state – which wasn’t perfect but was at least an attempt to shield newsrooms from external pressures. This has now gone for good, as it no longer makes sense in a digital environment in which product development, marketing and editorial have to work hand in hand. And on top of that, platforms have a much greater influence on the daily business of producing news than anything ever seen before.

It’s an inescapable fact that journalism needs all the help it can get, and most media outlets are in no position to reject (well-intended) support. The Washington Post under its owner, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, is a good example of how a news organisation can flourish given certain conditions – the main ones being stable, transparent investment and editorial independence.

Here are some thoughts on what the two sides of the equation need to bear in mind before deciding to accept or offer funding, whether this is for a newsroom, a research institution, training and knowledge exchange or for tools to facilitate editorial work:

Tips for recipients

  • Make sure your funding comes from a range of reliable sources. Diversity of income sources used to be the rule in the days of advertising, and it should still apply. Your business should not be entirely dependent on one source of income.
  • Consider what the money will be used for. Is it a small-scale experiment or a narrowly defined project, or does it have an impact on your core business? This makes a difference to the precautions you need to take. Don’t use the money for research that is directly related to the donor. For example, it’s not a good idea to use Google money to research the influence of Google. (It must be tricky for Washington Post reporters to carry out investigations into Amazon, even if they claim there is nothing to stop them doing this.)
  • Only take money for projects that make sense in the context of your strategy. Every news organisation is different: audiences, business environments, missions and needs vary. Instead of jumping onto a bandwagon and allowing yourself to be seduced by “bright shiny things”, think carefully about the funding offer. Does it fit your particular needs? Does it allow you to make further progress along your chosen path? Or is it just something fun to do? There’s nothing wrong with fun, but if the funding runs out you might find yourself saddled with a set of experts you no longer need, and that you neglected other more relevant areas in the meantime.
  • Make sure donors don’t interfere with your research and content. Think about the terms of engagement beforehand. Read the small print. Establish independent oversight bodies where necessary. This is particularly important for academic institutions.
  • Think about the impact on your reputation. It’s better to have a communication strategy already in place before making any grand announcements. TU Munich, one of Germany’s most prestigious universities, recently had a hard time fending off criticism after it accepted a sizeable Facebook grant for research into the ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
  • If you can, do without it. Independence is wonderful and essential to enable journalism to fulfil its role in a democratic society. Though there’s no such thing as complete independence, it’s best to avoid entering into a role that entails additional dependency.

Tips for donors

  • Ideally, don’t tie your funding to content. Respect the need for independent journalism and research as a public good and don’t do anything that risks compromising this.
  • Don’t make funding contingent on political goals – and if you do, be transparent about it. People will always suspect a hidden political agenda and you will soon come unstuck if you pay lip-service to neutrality and non-interference but fail to respect these principles in practice.
  • Don’t ever threaten to withdraw funding. Be aware that you are engaging in a highly asymmetrical relationship, so treat your partners with respect. Take care not to increase their level of dependency.
  • Listen to recipients. Find out what they really need. Don’t tell them what they should need or talk them into projects they don’t have the capacity to run.
  • Subject potential recipients to proper scrutiny. It’s embarrassing if you have to withdraw funding because you haven’t done your homework, for example by failing to check out a recipient’s political allegiances – as happened when Google announced it had decided to award a grant to a Hungarian news website, then pulled the grant after critics pointed out that the outlet had been guilty of spreading right-wing propaganda.
  • Predictability and transparency are key. Organisations need long-term commitments to be able to plan ahead and help their employees feel secure. They need to know where they are at.
  • Don’t let your support look like pin money if you really want to make a difference. (Unless all you want is to offer a bit of pin money…)
  • Pay your taxes. The American approach to giving puts the emphasis on the discretion of the individual donor. They decide what their money is used for. The European approach works through the tax system and involves redistribution via democratic processes, with representatives of society deciding on priorities. If you try to circumvent the democratic process, you will be seen as considering yourself to be above the law.

The platform companies often try to depict their engagement in the media industry as a way of “giving back”. This is a very transactional way of framing it. Journalism has a critical role to play in democracies. Ideally it makes sure that all interests are heard, holds power to account and gives citizens all the information they need. This is vital for stability in free societies. A better way of viewing big tech’s engagement in the media is as a “shared responsibility”, in which those who have more are happy to do more of the sharing.

Disclosure: The author used to be the Managing Editor of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which doesn’t accept Google funding. She now runs the Leadership Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. While the Institute benefits from sizeable grants made by platform companies (including Google), the Leadership Programmes are customer-funded and so compete with “free”, Google-funded educational programmes. She has also written a media column for NewsMavens, which is funded by the Google News Initiative.

This text was published by European Journalism Observatory on April 29, 2019


Journalism’s Risky Tech Attraction

There is nothing wrong with using technology to solve problems, including those created by technology, or to give a company a competitive edge. But not even the most advanced tech will save the media industry if there is no regard for the people – journalists and audiences – who are asked to use it.

OXFORD – Technology was supposed to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Connect everyone to the Internet, it was once assumed, and democracy would follow. Collect enough data, and all of our questions would be answered. Put everything online, and algorithms would do the rest. The world would practically run itself.

Instead, we now know that digital technology can be used to undermine democracy; that it raises more questions than it answers; and that a world that runs itself seems more like an Orwellian nightmare scenario than a noble goal. But while technology isn’t the solution, it isn’t really the problem either; our single-minded focus on it is.

Consider the experience of the media industry, where the digital revolution has wreaked havoc on prevailing business models over the last decade. Publishers and editors responded by putting all their faith in technology: tracking all manner of metrics, embracing data journalism, hiring video teams, and opening podcast studios.

More recently, media organizations have shifted their attention toward artificial-intelligence solutions that track audience preferences, automatically produce desired content and translations, alert journalists to breaking news, and much more. In the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s latest annual report on media trends, 78% of respondents in a non-representative survey of international media leaders said that they planned to invest more in AI this year.

But the final frontier in the quest to save journalism, many believe, is the blockchain – the distributed ledger technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. That remains to be seen: the first attempt to leverage the blockchain to free journalists from ad-driven business models, by Civil Media Company, had a bumpy start.

There is nothing wrong with using technology to solve problems, including those created by technology, or to give a company a competitive edge. That is what The Washington Post, for example, has been doing in the six years since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased it (at a time when it was hemorrhaging money and shedding jobs).

But not even the most advanced tech will save the media industry, or anybody else, if there is no regard for the people using it. And that does not mean just audiences. After years of chasing the latest tech trends, the media industry is increasingly confronting burnout among existing management and staff, and a shrinking pool of new talent.

According to the Reuters Institute report, some 60% of media leaders are concerned about burnout on their teams, and 75% now worry about retaining and attracting staff. Another report, Lucy Kueng’s Going Digital. A Roadmap for Organizational Transformation, shows that middle managers, in particular, have been exiting the industry.

This should not be surprising. Journalists have always faced pressure in managing the churn of time-sensitive, demanding, and constantly changing news situations. But, in the past, they could at least count on the news organizations that employed them to offer stability and consistency. Now, they must also navigate relentless, tech-driven organizational change – often poorly explained and hastily introduced. The level of uncertainty can drive away even the most loyal staff.

To be sure, change is unavoidable; the digital age demands constant adaptation. But making needed adjustments without destroying morale requires implementing a people-oriented approach. This is not a straightforward process. For tech solutions, managers can attend shiny digital conferences, take some sales team’s advice, sign a contract, and dump the new tools on their newsrooms. With people, they have to listen carefully, acquire an in-depth understanding of the problem, and then devise their own strategy.

A good place to start is leadership. In any industry, the key responsibilities of an organization’s leaders include making their employees feel secure and appreciated. That means paying attention to employees’ needs and fostering an organizational culture that provides them with a sense of belonging and purpose.

A similar approach must be applied to audiences. Not even the most accurate metrics can provide the needed guidance, if nobody understands what they actually mean, why they were chosen, or what their psychological impact would be (on audiences or staff). While data can deliver useful insights about audience preferences, listening to people can lead to very different impressions and conclusions.

For example, the data might show that more content means more page views; but if audiences long for fewer distractions and higher-quality reporting, flooding the market with robot-produced content will not satisfy them. Likewise, users might click on a larger share of articles if algorithms are used to personalize their experience; but if users become bored by the same topics and perspectives, personalization will not help.

Tech-based solutions are a means, not an end. That is why The New York Times, for example, is leveraging its digital success to invest more in journalism. Last year, the company added 120 newsroom employees, bringing the total number of journalists there to an historic high of 1,600.

For organizations without the clout – and digital revenue – of the Times, a people-oriented approach may also be needed to secure investment. With the limits of the ad-driven business model becoming increasingly apparent, many media leaders – close to one-third, according to the Reuters Institute survey – believe that in the future foundations and non-profits will play a central role in supporting the media.

But persuading foundations and philanthropists to open their hearts and wallets will require human connection and engagement, not algorithms or AI-enabled software. Potential funders need to be convinced that journalism is as noble a cause as, say, cancer research.

Technology alone cannot encourage democracy, help answer important questions, and facilitate effective leadership by boosting accountability. But, to some extent, high-quality, responsible journalism can. If it is to fulfill that purpose, however, news organizations must not allow themselves to be swept up by every new tech trend. If they treat technology as more than a tool for implementing people-centered strategies, the people they need – both staff and audiences – will continue to vote with their feet.

This column was published by Project Syndicate on March 14, 2019