Forget About Extinction: The Pandemic Has Been A Media Empowerment Event

Moaning can be a strategy, and the media has been using quite a bit of it in recent years. When the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, it even felt like there was a competition for the bleakest headline. Who in the industry doesn’t remember Buzzfeed’s reporter Craig Silverman concluding that the coronavirus was a “media extinction event“. Last year though things went surprisingly quiet in the horror scenario department. And now the latest trend report by Oxford-based Reuters Institute is predicting something like a bull market for the industry: The subscription business is flourishing and even the digital advertising market, which had long been declared dead, has made a strong comeback. 59 percent of the surveyed 246 media executives from 52 countries reported rising revenues, and three out of four respondents expected an even better business in 2022. Hooray, we are playing again!

It should be noted that the annual survey is not representative. Mostly those respond who are already committed and possibly proud of their successes. Nevertheless, the situation is apparently better than the mood. Instead of a “media extinction event”, the pandemic has become a “media empowerment event.”

Fuelled by increased user interest and trust levels, editorial and management teams at many publishers have finally taken their fate into their own hands. They are developing new formats and workflows geared to user needs, fine-tuning subscription models, and even taking care of their customers. The crisis has accelerated innovation, dozens of media executives had already gone on record for the EBU News Report, published in late November 2021 (transparency note: I am lead author of the report).

This is about time. For decades, journalists have left the money-making part of the business to the publishers. These, in turn, had often just administrated advertisers and subscribers rather than selling advertising formats and journalism. But suddenly, advertising revenues dwindled, whereas on the content side, the quality supply multiplied. Journalism had become a consumer good, to be developed and sold accordingly. Only the producers had noticed it rather late. These days things are different. In many media outlets, teams of journalists, marketing, and tech have started to work together on products for different audiences. And what’s at least as important is that publishers look at how their neighbours are doing it, support each other, and – the master discipline – even develop solutions jointly. For 2022 and beyond, the smart ones are collaborating, cooperating and/or training together. This is happening on an international and national level. There are several examples:

► In the project “A European Perspective“, led by the European Broadcasting Union, public broadcasters share important content and make it accessible in different languages with the help of automated translation.

► In the Table Stakes Europe program, managed by the World Media Association Wan-Ifra, European publishers train their editorial teams in the “audiences first” principle and support each other; they recently started their third year (transparency note: I work as a coach in the program).

► In the award-winning Drive project, led by Deutsche Presse-Agentur, more than a dozen German regional publishers pool their user data and jointly analyse the findings.

And the number of international training programs, in which seasoned journalists and media managers look into each other’s decks and learn new skills, continues to grow. When it comes to innovation, scarce resources render it not only impossible but also stupid to be a lone warrior. This is especially true for public service media, where waste is hard to justify in front of the license fee or taxpayers.

Of course, there are also those who want to – and possibly can –  go it alone. In the first week of January, The New York Times announced its acquisition of sports journalism platform The Athletic. It did so for $550 million, giving it access to subscribers across America and beyond. The industry has been debating ever since whether this is a new killer virus for local journalism or not all that bad, as Joshua Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Lab reflected.

And then there’s Axios, another U.S. digital journalism provider, which plans to redefine local journalism in a land of news deserts. It launched Axios Local and is expanding into audience-centric business journalism with Axios Pro. In addition, there are plenty of creators on both sides of the Atlantic who are making their debut as founders, either alone or in teams. Young journalists seem to have overcome their shyness when it comes to business models. Just a year ago, Project Oasis, a major study on media start-ups in the U.S. and Canada, analysed that many founders’ lack of business knowledge was the biggest hurdle to becoming successful media entrepreneurs.

So, are the many appeals to support journalism superfluous because the industry can manage without help? It’s not quite that simple. Pressure on press freedom is growing in many countries, and journalists are increasingly exposed to aggressive attacks. In addition, many customers could develop a kind of subscription fatigue and thus bring the positive development to a standstill. In the “Trends and Predictions” report of the Reuters Institute, significantly more respondents were convinced of their own company success than predicting a great future for journalism. This demonstrates a new sense of agency but also a certain humility. The diligent workers outnumber the visionaries. Most respondents said their focus this year would be making what they had already built better, more efficient and more user-friendly. Making growth sustainable, this should be a central goal – in 2022 and beyond.

The Moral Dilemma of Paywalls: Why Journalism will Increasingly Move into Two Different Worlds

Selling journalism is no crime. In fact, only a few reporters and editors are ashamed of the fact that much of what they go great lengths to research, edit, and produce can only be consumed for money. After all, even bread is not for free. However, potential users who are stranded at paywalls at times make journalists feel like sleazy used car dealers. “It’s outrageous to make important information available to paying customers only,” complain those who are turned away at the login. Some even go further and argue, this promotes the division of society. Nikki Usher made this point in her book “News for the Rich, White, and Blue” that was published by Columbia University Press in 2021.

So, feeling attacked like this, who can blame journalists for getting a bit pathetic at times when talking about their craft? They prefer to elaborate about enlightenment and democracy, about holding power to account and citizen service, rather than about user loyalty and business models. The truth is, however, that without rapid progress in the commercialization of their offerings, many publishers will not survive.

This is why the journalism of the future will most likely move into either one of two worlds: On the one hand, there will be the increasingly sophisticated world of commercial journalism, in which highly professional providers offer their distinct audiences custom-fit, high-quality content, and user-friendly products that inspire them. On the other, there will be the world of public service or non-profit journalism, which steps in where the market fails. In this second world, journalism of the watchdog type will be created that only a few people are willing to pay for, or it will be about journalism that serves audiences which cannot or refuse to pay for news. Democracy needs both worlds. So, instead of fuelling today’s fights between public service and commercial media in tightening markets, it is about time for an honest discussion about this division of labour. Journalism would benefit from it – and so would citizens.

The highly professional world is currently emerging at a rapid pace. Most publishers have understood that only the sale of digital subscriptions, or at least memberships and other products, will secure their future. They are increasingly using experiments and meaningful data to figure out which customers or customer groups are most lucrative and how best to serve them. The audiences-first focus is at the core of media innovation programs like Table Stakes, in which close to 150 publishers in the US and Europe have already taken part (disclosure: the author of this is a coach in the Table Stakes Europe program run by WAN-IFRA). A lot of great journalism is created this way. But decisive for gaining and retaining subscribers is individual customers’ time spent on certain media. An extensive German data-gathering project called Drive has revealed that this was the key metric for selling digital subscriptions, not the clout of individual stories or subject areas that “convert well”. This summer, the industry organisation INMA named Drive, that bundles data from more than a dozen regional publishers and is led by German Press Agency dpa, the word’s “best news media innovation project”.

Focusing on “media time” though means that many publishers won’t be able to afford much journalism that doesn’t zero in on lucrative audiences. As resources become scarcer, newsrooms must inevitably ignore target groups that promise little commercial success. They are better off making those even happier who they already serve. This may be an audience with a certain level of education, political lineage or background. News organizations like the New York Times and the Financial Times have long understood this. Despite proclamations to the contrary, it is hardly worth many newsrooms’ while to reflect the diversity of society in its entirety. To the contrary, this can even alienate their core clientele. This is a sad truth and sounds reprehensible for journalism on a mission to safeguard democracy. But media companies with too little focus will sooner or later risk their existence.

This makes the role of public service media or non-profit offerings all the more important. With public service media at least in the traditional European concept, every citizen has to pay the license fee. That’s why the broadcasters have a mandate to reflect society in all its diversity and – this is important – meet all groups at eye-level. Unlike commercial publishers, they must remain impartial and use all formats necessary to reach users. Public service media has an obligation to go where the market of journalism fails. However, this also means that they have to make offerings for the mass market in order to not disappear into insignificance. When some commercial publishers argue public service broadcasters should retreat into niches, they don’t understand market dynamics. Such fear of competition always demonstrates a lack of confidence in their own offerings. To defy international platform or streaming monopolies, public service providers must cover the breadth. The commercial ones, on the other hand, should provide their audiences with so much added value that these are happy to pay for it. Ideally, both sides should cooperate on new technologies, innovative services, or education, rather than antagonize each other.

Complementary to public service news, there will also be a niche for non-profit news organisations, particularly in markets without strong public service media like the U.S.. They will establish themselves in areas where the market fails. The Texas Tribune, one of the most prominent non-profit U.S. media companies, for example, has focused on local political coverage. Readers typically don’t like to pay for that, their founder Evan Smith has argued. But when no one holds local politicians and administrators to account, it has been proven to hurt communities and their citizens. This is where funders who want to do good for society will be needed.

An open debate about the different journalism worlds would also enliven the discussion about trust in media. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford recently published a study based on discussion forums with media executives from the U.S., the U.K., Brazil and India. What emerged was that newsrooms target their trust-building efforts at very different audiences. For some, it’s about breadth. The aim is to win back those who have turned their backs on the public debate – an endeavour that is honourable, arduous and important, yet rarely successful commercially. For the rest, it’s about stable customer relationships and thus depth. Nevertheless, building trust as a means to an end is not reprehensible, on the contrary. It safeguards the plurality of the media landscape and consequently democracy.

This text was first published in a slightly different version in German by Medieninsider on 8th December 2021.

 

Desperately Seeking Youngsters – Seven Insights About a Demanding Audience

This phrase keeps popping up regularly in editorial meetings: Everyone is presenting their topics, and then one of the bosses throws it in: “We have to do something for young people.” Perplexity escapes the eyes of older participants. Maybe something about Tik Tok? About hip music or the approaching high school graduation? Everyone younger than 30 goes into hiding, just in case. They know that their most important job is to impress their over-40 superiors with clever suggestions that will go down well with the over-60 clientele. After all, they want to be taken seriously.

Established media companies and young audiences have a hard time with each other. While the former cannot do without the latter, because this would result in their economic starvation, the latter can very well do without many things that ensure the livelihood of publishers and broadcasters: Subscriptions, apps, and live TV, for example. Even with digital there is no guarantee. According to the Digital News Report 2020, 84 percent of under-25s don’t go directly to a media brand’s website, but get information from what social media, search engines or news aggregators flush into their timelines or onto their screens via push messages. This is why established media put it on the agenda again and again: Young users desperately wanted.

But what about young people’s media consumption, what do they like, what do they ignore, when do they tune in and when do they tune out? Judging by how much and how long the topic has preoccupied newsrooms, research on this is fairly slant. For the German market, two studies revealed important findings this spring.  One is “#usethenews”, published in April 2021 by the Leibniz Institute for Media Research Hans-Bredow Institute. The second one puts an emphasis on media literacy and was published in March by the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung. From this, my own research and from countless conversations with students from various disciplines, a few things have emerged that editorial strategists should know.

First: The house is indeed on fire on this topic, not only as far as the future of publishers is concerned, but also with regard to civic engagement in democracy. According to the research team at the Hans Bredow Institute, around one in two young people do not consider it important to be informed about current events. They provide the explanation right away: “Journalism often lacks a connection to young people’s everyday lives.” So it’s not enough to shrug and point to the generally rising proportion of news avoiders, which the Digital News Report puts at around one-third internationally. Among the younger generation, news abstinence is much more pronounced. Anyone who is serious about journalism as a pillar of democracy should therefore take urgent action.

Second, the gap between those who are well informed and competent and those who can barely find their way in the new information landscape is widening. Whereas formerly, even those with a low level of education used to be reasonably well informed, perhaps because there was a newspaper lying around here and there, because they watched TV news out of boredom, or were force-fed hourly radio news while driving, all of this can be completely avoided in the age of maximum distraction possibilities. The information gap that the Internet was supposed to close is opening up more and more as a digital divide between the social classes – if nothing is done. Public broadcasters with their mandate to offer journalism for everyone have a special obligation here.

Third: Fortunately, many young people are interested in the world around them after all – just not always in what seasoned politics and feature editors find exciting. Those who enjoy journalism like to check out the local news. Anything to do with environmental protection and science is thought after, at least by the better educated. Incidentally, in a recent American study on news avoidance (“The head and heart of news avoidance”), it were also stories touching health, science, the environment and local affairs that news avoiders of all generations were most likely to be interested in. Newsrooms whose informal pecking order starts with the politics desk followed by a large gap will have to adjust.

Fourth, what unites all users of the younger generations is a preference for light subject matter. According to the Leibniz study, “funny and strange” is consistently well received. In any case, humor is a pretty sure way to get a hearing among generations Y and Z, as evidenced not only by Böhmermann and Co. But beware, it’s not necessarily the kind of humor that those same mature executives like. Joking at the expense of weaker people is not acceptable. Those who dish it out have to at least take a joke themselves once in a while. In the humor department of journalism, the same applies as with uncertain sources: If in doubt, leave it alone.

Fifth: There’s no way around influencers, but they don’t have to be Instagram marketing heroes. When the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter had Greta Thunberg head the newsdesk for one day last year, digital subscriptions came rushing in, several thousand in one day. Celebrities increase reach and help get messages across. Rule of thumb: Celebrities should come across as people, not officials. Having the movie star talk about politics and the politician talk about movies can make both more credible, if they mean it honestly. Young people are trained to distinguish between genuine authenticity and staged approachability.

Sixth, diversity counts – and not just as a box-ticking exercise. Young people expect a program or brand to portray the world as they experience it. They may be able to identify with protagonists and perhaps even contribute something themselves. This includes language that is both casual and respectful and content that – see above – has something to do with their everyday lives. News should be useful and fun, was the conclusion of a study on young journalism users published by market researcher Flamingo together with the Reuters Institute in 2019. Constructive journalism that opens the world wide with perspectives is therefore particularly well received by the young generation. Rule of thumb: You can trust the audience with something. The success of science-driven formats such as Brainstorm by Irish public broadcaster RTE or the German magazine Katapult are proof of this. It’s a pity for cost killers that in-depth research is usually more time-consuming than dishing out news copy-and-paste style. But quick news is everywhere these days. You could say that young people are journalism gourmets.

Seventh: Journalism must be easily accessible and well prepared. Digitization trains all generations for convenience; Amazon, PayPal, Spotify and Co. have set the gold standard for user-friendliness. The old world, in which people still read instruction manuals, wrote down phone numbers and went to the kiosk on the corner, is disappearing. For journalism, this means it has to go where the users are and make it easy for them. The American study mentioned above says that barriers to understanding and a lack of self-confidence in dealing with the media are the main reasons why people give news a wide berth. When in doubt, the interactive infographic with three bullet points beats the 200-line editorial. This is bitter for some authors. While complexity used to be a sign of quality, today it has to be well justified. This is good. Because in the past it has all too often merely concealed incompetence or laziness.

This column was published in German on May 17, 2021 by Medieninsider. It was translated by DeepL and then edited.

In the fun business – Journalism that wants to reach young audiences needs to work on humour

Journalism is serious business. Just recently, a Greek investigative reporter was shot dead outside his home in a suburb of Athens. Even in Germany journalists are increasingly being physically attacked, which is why Reporters Beyond Borders downgraded the country’s state of press freedom from “good” to “satisfactory” in its latest report. Especially in Central and Eastern Europe, politicians and oligarchs are cornering independent media. And then German comedian Jan Böhmermann came along and landed a newsstand, TV and social media hit with a satirical magazine, “Freizeit Magazin Royale”, poking fun of German publishers. What got young people most worked up? Guess: that Böhmermann’s magazine was out of print after a few days.

One should still not deny young audiences a sense of seriousness too easily. Humor is a serious matter, and it doesn’t take attacks on caricaturists to get this. The trend of young people increasingly approaching the news through comedy has been showing for a while. A study in the journal Journalism highlighted this in the U.S. as early as 2007, a decade after the launch of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Since then, corresponding formats have been developed in many places. Modern newsrooms better get down to this soon: Mastering lighter formats is the key to getting the next generation excited about news. This is easier written than done though.

Satire is one of the journalistic genres that fails most often. What is satire, what is just bad taste and what is even inhumane? This was the subject of a heated debate in Germany just under a year ago, when a not-so-funny column by Hengameh Yaghoobifarah in the taz newspaper equated the police with garbage and therefore caused a lot of concern – right up to the Federal Minister of the Interior and the German Press Council. Even more than other forms of journalism, which can be mastered acceptably with craft, persistence and a lot of practice, satire requires a certain talent – in other words, humor. To make matters worse, this is even culturally coded.

Not everyone can and should laugh at everything. Humor exerts power, and therefore tends to work better from bottom up. There is a huge difference between rebelling against established power structures and cementing them by joking from above. For this reason, a show in which privileged presenters amuse themselves about political correctness is very prone to go wrong. This happened famously with the failed #allesdichtmachen campaign, in which well-known actors supposedly wanted to argue ironically for freedom of expression in the Covid 19 crisis. Too bad that parts of the public perceived this, at best, as whining from the designer kitchen.  

American communications scholar Danna Young describes in her 2019 book “Irony and Outrage” that satire involves a certain basic liberal attitude that values freedom of thought and takes a playful approach to serious things in life. The counterpart to this in the right-wing political spectrum is the rise of rage talk shows, she argues.

The traditional media move between these poles. Their journalists work in the facts business and rarely in the humor field. Facts are unambiguous and clear by definition. Humor is ambiguous and lives through interpretation. Mixing things up is dangerous. Especially in social media, humor is often difficult to identify. Moreover, many reporters and commentators rarely feel like laughing (see above), cynicism excluded.

Still, humor works just fine with young audiences. Rule number one: It must not underestimate its addressees. The German (print) magazine Katapult is such a hit with the young generation, because it casually mixes factual depth and lightness. Subtitle: “Magazine for icecream, cartography and social science”, need we explain more? Young users prefer journalism that explains, is useful in their daily lives, and is fun, according to a study published by the Reuters Institute in Oxford.

The fun factor is still limited when consuming most established media. In the past, it was considered proof of belonging to the educated class, if one had to struggle properly while reading the newspaper. Today, status postures only trigger boredom. After all, the more easily digestible alternative is already waiting – on YouTube or Tik Tok. Now, it’s not about replacing news and analysis with satire. If you can’t bring it up to premium quality when it comes to humor, you better leave it. What everyone can work on, however, is tone. Many podcasts work so well because they come across as light and chatty.

Newspapers can still work on it. Some essays exude more enthusiasm of the writers about themselves and their clever sentences rather than mastery of language. To the audience, they only seem embarrassing. Young people in particular have good antennae for jokes being made at the expense of the weak. They don’t perceive it as funny, but as offensive and discriminatory. Lecturing is out, taking seriously is in. When in doubt, it’s okay to make fun of yourself. You don’t even have to be a comedian to do that.

This column appeared in German in the newsletter of the Digital Journalism Fellowship at Hamburg Media School on April 23, 2021. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and then edited.

 

Don’t mind the gap: Automated translation could revolutionize journalism – but how?

Newsrooms can fight “fake news” by identifying it, warning about it and correcting it. But they can also fight it with so much trustworthy, factual and well researched journalism that it drowns out the lies. For most of them it’s not an either/or decision, of course; they try to do both. The European Broadcasting Union has recently unveiled a project that caters to the latter: It wants to deliver class en masse and will do so by scaling content across countries and languages using automated translation.

The project promises quite a bit: starting in July, ten public broadcasters from Europe will feed in particularly good pieces on globally important topics such as Covid-19, climate change and migration, which will then be translated by artificial intelligence and made available across Europe. In an eight-month pilot phase, 14 institutions had shared more than 120,000 articles this way. This worked so well that the EU is now helping with a grant. So in the future, citizens could benefit not only from more reliable information, but also from more diversity, if things go well.

In fact, automated translations could revolutionize journalism. If you haven’t struggled with texts translated by software into other languages for a while because you found the results rather unsatisfactory, you might want to try it again. Artificial intelligence, which works on the principle of deep learning, now translates texts like this one into English within seconds. With a little editing, they read – this needs to be said – much better than what one used to get back from translators who knew a foreign language but not necessarily the journalistic form. The AI products are, in the truest sense of the word, frighteningly good.

Admittedly, robots work reliably in a few languages only, but they are learning as we read. And the result will shape journalism – but in different directions. On the one hand, the tools open up new possibilities for publishers. Whereas until now only newsrooms from English-speaking countries were able to offer their journalism worldwide, in the future everyone will be able to do so for whom it makes sense commercially or qua mission. Not every media company will be able to turn itself into a New York Times or a Guardian, but the options for Europe-wide news portals are growing rapidly. At the start-up Forum.eu, for example, AI now handles 60 percent of the total translation work, according to co-founder Paul Ostwald’s estimate. The platfom makes quality journalism from different countries accessible all over Europe. 

Editors could also reach people with other native languages more easily in their own countries via automated translation, for example hard to connect with migrant communities. And international research should become much easier if reporters have better access to original documents this way. The whole thing does not only work for written but also for spoken material (which stillmakes for funny subtitles on TV).

However, newsrooms have already realized that there is not only a huge potential for expansion, but also for savings. Reuters news agency has long been redeploying resources, for example from its German-language service to parts of the world where citizens are in greater need for journalistic scrutiny. And of course this makes sense: Instead of sending a German- and an English-speaking colleague to the same press conference in Berlin, an additional colleague in, for example, the Philippines can create real added value.

However, it is precisely at this point that things become critical. After all, language is only ever a packaging for content that arises in the context of a culture. The exact same fact can read completely differently depending on who is describing it. When, for example, star conductor Simon Rattle recently announced that he would be joining the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as chief conductor in 2023, German culture reporters were thrilled. Reading the British Guardian on the same day, one learned that Rattle had extended his contract with the London Symphony Orchestra until 2022, oh, and at some point he would go to Munich. One event, two reporters, two worlds, a translation would not have helped in this case.

A translation tool will not replace a foreign correspondent – but it will make his or her work easier. This is bad news for all those fixers and local journalists around the globe who make sure that journalists get the right information, contacts and access without which they would often be lost on foreign territory. If they are not needed as translators any longer, they might soon be out of their jobs. Already, only a few newsrooms can afford a network of reporters far from home. Easier access to all the world’s languages is likely to accelerate this development – but it has not caused it. 

As with many things that new technology offers, there is one temptation, and it has to be resisted: That you have to do what you can do. Translating content via AI just because it works is not a strategy. What audience do you want to reach with what content, and what do you want it to achieve? Do you have a mission, a business model, or just fun with it? There they are again, these questions that no AI can answer. Meanwhile, beware: AI is increasingly used to translate “fake news” as well. 

This column was published on 4th February 2021 with Hamburg Media School in German, then translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and edited.

Beyond the headline race: How the media must lead in a polarized world

When US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to cancer recently, the headline race was on once again. Instead of pausing for a moment to honor a great personality for her leadership and stamina in the quest for justice, most of the news media didn’t miss a beat. Who would President Donald Trump nominate as her successor, and how would that reshape American society? Reporting instantly took second place to speculation and opinion, drowning out the announcement of the 87-year-old’s death in a sea of noise.

The predominant frame for interpreting today’s world is winning and losing, and the media has bought right into it. Being faster, smarter, delivering yet another interpretation, speculation and judgement – a certain breathlessness has always been inherent in journalism. But in pre-digital times, news media only competed against each other. The difference now is that they are up against everything an average smartphone holds. The battle for attention shapes their very existence. And readers are responding by leaving in droves. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, one in three people now regularly avoids the news. A rising share of audiences find journalism too overwhelming, too negative, too opinionated with too little relevance for their daily lives. And they believe it can’t always be trusted.

This is bad news – for democracy. In a world of noise, propaganda and misinformation, leadership by independent media that provide the facts is needed more than ever. Studies show that voting turnout is higher, more people run for office and public money is spent more responsibly where local news media keep citizens informed and hold institutions to account. But business models are broken. Platform monopolies have gobbled up advertising money and optimize for attention; too often the media has followed suit.

Now there is no way that media companies can outsmart Google, Facebook and the like. News media have to go where their audiences are. But when opinion is everywhere, quality information becomes a critically important currency. Covid-19 has demonstrated that people crave trustworthy journalism. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in the first weeks of the pandemic more people relied on major news organizations than on government agencies or even their own friends and family for information. This is a huge responsibility, but what to do with it?

First of all, listening to audiences is vital. Many journalists still spend more energy on beating the competition than attempting to find out what their audiences need. Among these are more explanation, more solutions, a clear distinction between facts and opinion, less noise, clickbait and talking down to people. Instead of indulging in thumbs-up, thumbs-down journalism, more constructive reporting is needed.

The news media cannot go it alone, though. The political sphere needs to secure press freedom; supporting the economic viability of the industry is part of it. And the platform companies that shape today’s communication infrastructure have to take responsibility too. Their algorithms have to optimize for quality content.

Yet blaming Silicon Valley for everything that is going wrong has been the easy way out for too long. A recent study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society confirmed what other research has already pointed out: the mass media are much more responsible for spreading misinformation – for the most part thought up by political leaders – than social media is. This is bad news and good news at the same time. Bad news, because journalism has not lived up to its potential. Good news, because the media still has plenty of agenda-setting power. Instead of blaming platform companies or foreign meddling for spreading “fake news”, the news media and its leaders should confidently reassert their historic mission to lead through a world of information confusion: that is, to deliver the facts, be transparent about their quest and stimulate serious public conversation. The health of our societies depends on it.

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