2023 Prediction for Nieman Lab: The Year Of The Climate Journalism Strategy

For the longest time, most newsrooms felt they were doing an okay job covering climate change.

They would go all out when reporting on potentially climate-related disasters, cover conflicts about energy, highlight what happened at the big conferences like COP27. But then again, they might not have been so sure. In the 2022 Reuters Institute’s “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions” that is a non-representative international media leaders survey, 65% of respondents judged their own organization’s climate coverage as good, but only 34% felt that the industry as a whole was doing a good job with it. This gap in perception clearly revealed there were second thoughts, consequently room for improvement. As the warnings of scientists about a heating atmosphere intensify but audience engagement tends to lag behind expectations, many news organizations in 2023 will decide that their climate coverage needs a serious upgrade. And this requires a climate journalism and sustainability strategy.

It is badly needed. While the issue of global warming has been out in the open for decades, the media until recently hasn’t been too eager to jump on the topic — with the notable exception of The Guardian, which has been able to connect a climate strategy with the needs of its audiences and its membership-driven business model. The reasons for the industry-wide reluctance were manifold: climate change is a complex, slowly moving topic that doesn’t lend itself to capture audience attention for longer stretches of time in a news-driven environment. Reporting on it in a way that resonates with users requires scientific skills, time and thus considerable resources. And it is depressing, risking to drive people into news fatigue. Furthermore, in many countries it had evolved into a politically polarizing issue, making it necessary for newsrooms to rebut accusations of taking sides.

But things have been moving in recent years. Editors-in-chief have graduated from calling it “one of the defining issues of our age” (Alessandra Galloni, Reuters) to “perhaps the century’s biggest story” (Sally Buzbee, Washington Post). In 2022, large organizations expanded their climate coverage capacities considerably, sometimes with the help of external funders. In September National Public Radio established a new climate desk. In November the Washington Post announced to triple their climate team to 30 people. And these are just current examples from the U.S. Assistance from networks like the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, Covering Climate Now, and the Earth Journalism Network has been sought after.

Still, consistent climate strategies that are openly communicated and implemented throughout organizations are rare. Some examples: Norway’s public service broadcaster NRK developed one that establishes the role of climate coverage in the newsroom and how (not) to report on it. Radio France in 2022 published a strategy that includes a massive training program for all of editorial and sustainability guidelines for the organization. And French news agency AFP created its “future of the planet hub.” These are important role models, because while smaller players won’t have the capacities to establish hubs or desks, they will closely watch what happens in the industry and draw consequences that fit their individual context and needs.

A full-blown climate strategy makes good sense for several reasons beyond the obvious. Here are five:

First, engagement with climate issues needs to pick up, and this will only happen with excellent journalism that fits different audiences’ needs.

Second, younger, educated audiences are likely to be invested in the issue, and news organizations need to attract younger generations. So, this is a business opportunity.

Third, climate change needs to advance from topic to frame, gaining relevance in every beat to become more subtle and less one-off alarmist.

Fourth, comprehensive newsroom training is vital to make everyone climate literate, help them to apply it to their particular field, and to detect greenwashing.

Fifth, an editorial climate strategy cannot exist in a vacuum, it needs to be linked to an organization-wide sustainability strategy to maintain credibility.

At some point in the future, the absence of a climate journalism strategy might be a similar kind of negligence as the absence of a digital strategy. (Credit goes to Wolfgang Blau, who helped to elevate the issue to this level throughout the industry in recent years. For more, watch or read the lecture he gave as a co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/calendar/climate-change-journalisms-greatest-challenge.) Hopefully, this will help media organizations, citizens, and the planet alike.

This piece was written for and published by Niemanlab at Harvard University in the context of the 2023 prediction series. 

Getting climate journalism right means getting journalism right

Many newsroom look at expanding climate journalism as a duty, but not as an opportunity. This might be one reason why just a few media houses have a climate strategy. At the Constructive Journalism Day 2022 organized by NDR Info and Hamburg Media School, I talked about why climate journalism holds great potential for bringing journalism as a whole into the future. 

In November 2022, many people took in another big dose of climate journalism. For some, it may have felt like an overdose. The climate summit in Sharm-El-Sheik dominated the headlines for days. And we learned from the media: it was a disaster. “Less than nothing” had been achieved, was the title of a commentary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. In addition, there were the protests of young people who, in their rage, stuck themselves to streets or destroyed works of art. This, too, has been reported on in all its facets. Is that good?

It’s important, yes. But the debates about the protests, or even the big splash at events like COP27, obscure the fact that there are many reasons to be confident about the climate issue, too.

  • Researchers say the energy transition is no longer a technical problem, nor is it a price problem. It is a political problem – tricky enough.
  • New solutions are being invented practically every day, and a vibrant start-up scene has sprung up around green technologies, products, and services.
  • Most industries are intensely engaged in climate innovations, funds are shifting their portfolios, polluters are switching to climate-friendly technologies, even aircraft engine manufacturers have a climate strategy.

Only journalism does not. For the EBU News Report of the European Broadcasting Union – the world’s largest association of public service media organisations – we have been researching for months, interviewing editors-in-chief, researchers and other experts. We found that up to now, just a handful of newsrooms have strategically addressed the issue.

When you argue this way, you hear critics saying: What other industries are doing is often just greenwashing. That may be true in some cases. But if you want to be nasty, you could say that journalism often doesn’t even get greenwashing right.

When it comes to the climate, journalism lags other industries. Why is that?

  • Journalism is afraid of being perceived as partisan, activist. A small, vocal minority of skeptics sets the tone. Editors underestimate their audience. The majority has long since moved on, as surveys show. Most people know the problem – at least intuitively – and would like to see something happen.
  • There is little pressure. Many publishers are medium-sized, broadcasters are structured under public law. Newsrooms are not listed on the stock exchange, pension funds cannot withdraw money if the media botches on sustainability. Other things take priority, and cost pressure adds to the problem.
  • Climate journalism is misunderstood as one topic among many. Yet the protection of our planet’s livelihoods must be the frame under which journalism operates – just as it is with democracy or human rights. The climate must not only be an object to be observed and described. It must be the backdrop against which life plays out. It should define all storytelling.

The topic of climate is an opportunity for journalism because it exposes its major shortcomings:

  • Climate is about the future. Journalism is stuck in the now. The focus is on the quick news, the daily business. Surveys show: Too much is reported, too little explained.
  • Climate protection needs hope. Today’s journalism focuses on drama, omissions, failures. This is also expressed in language. Journalism warns, threatens, scares.
  • In climate protection, what counts is what is done. Today’s journalism focuses on what is said. The overproduction in “he said, she said” journalism often leaves people confused, empty, bored.
  • Journalism that works approaches people at eye level in a language they understand. Today’s journalism often arrogates itself above them in a know-it-all manner – especially when it calls itself quality journalism.
  • Journalism that wants to be effective respects its counterpart and relies on diversity, also in addressing the audience. Most of today’s journalism is still grounded in the age of mass media, where one size had to fit all.
  • Journalism that wants to have an impact reflects on its own practices and makes use of research. Today, many newsrooms almost pride themselves on ignoring academic knowledge. Yet there is a lot of knowledge about how communication affects people.

But can journalism that doesn’t have an impact be strong journalism?

To have an impact, you need to engage with your audience. What’s interesting is that the formats that win journalism awards don’t necessarily resonate with audiences – and vice versa. The impactful formats don’t win awards.

So, what is effective climate journalism, what do we know from research?

  • Effective climate journalism focuses on the here and now rather than the distant future when describing the problem. It anchors the issue where people live.
  • Effective climate journalism paints the possibilities of a good future, shows: What will be gained, instead of always emphasizing what will be lost, what will have to be sacrificed. It’s about developing a sustainable economic system. Climate journalism expert Wolfgang Blau calls it the biggest transformation since World War II.
  • Climate journalism works when it is constructive and solutions-oriented, instead of always painting the apocalypse on the wall. If you want to engage people instead of making them run away, even humor works better than constant alarm. Scientists are already looking at the effects of comedy in climate communication.
  • Climate journalism can work if it gives people agency instead of making them victims, or at least “those affected”, as is almost universally done in the news.
  • Effective climate journalism serves different audiences in a way that makes them listen. It takes note that the messenger is often more important than the message itself. At best, the ambassador is a person with high trust and credibility ratings. It also takes into account that an abundance of facts does not replace empathy.
  • Effective climate journalism is powerful journalism. Editors should not be too preoccupied with incidental details. A corset of language is not needed. What is important: depth, research, factual accuracy, strong images – especially strong images of solutions. What never works: Images of “men in suits,” as one Norwegian editor-in-chief put it.
  • Effective climate journalism needs a credible foundation. Media organisations should do their homework, work on their carbon neutrality. And that is possibly the biggest challenge. But anyone who writes flaming commentaries but does not live climate protection in a credible way is quickly exposed as a hypocrite.

Mark Hertsgaard, co-founder of the Covering Climate Now platform at New York’s Columbia University, said, “If we don’t transform the media industry, no other industry will be transformed.” You might hear some hubris in that. But the truth is that only constant public pressure will spur everyone involved to finally tackle the issue.

Climate journalism has what it takes to push journalism into its best future. It is high time to seize this opportunity – for journalism and for the climate.

I gave this keynote on 29th November 2022 at the Constructive Journalism Day in Hamburg, organized by Hamburg Media School and NDR Info. The research for this project has been funded by the news committee of the European Broadcasting Union. 

Climate Journalism – What works?

While the war in Ukraine and the pandemic have taken up a lot of space and energy in newsrooms recently, there is hardly any issue that will define our future more than the climate crisis: how it’s reported and received by audiences worldwide and how journalism can spur the debate on how to rebuild our economies in a sustainable way. 

I’m lead author of the upcoming report “Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact” – that will be published in full in Spring 2023. Working with me on this have been Katherine Dunn from the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, and Felix Simon from the Oxford Internet Institute. The report will look at how to craft journalism about climate change that is likely to have an impact and to resonate with audiences and how to restructure newsrooms accordingly. It will also include best practice case studies and Q&As from thought leaders and influencers on what actually works.

These are some key preliminary findings that we presented at the EBU’s annual News Assembly on 12th October 2022:

•    Facts alone don’t help. More facts are not necessarily more convincing
•    The messenger is often more important than the message. It is a matter of credibility with the audience.
•    It is important to make climate impact part of all the beats in a newsroom – rather than confine it to a dedicated climate desk. All journalists need basic climate literacy.
•    There is no one-size-fits-all model for newsroom organization, language to be used or visual policy. Everyone has to make it fit their resources, values, culture.
•    Images matter a lot and the formats need to fit the particular audience
•    Leaders experience little resistance when implementing climate strategies. When leadership doesn’t make the topic a priority, a climate desk might flourish but the rest of the journalism will stay the same. 
•    The media has a hard time living up to their own standards when it comes to measuring carbon footprints or making newsrooms more sustainable. Travel is a pain point. 
•    There is a lot of material out there on how to communicate the climate challenge successfully, particularly from the field of communication studies. Newsrooms just haven’t used it yet.

Academics doing research on climate communication have discovered: Stories are more likely to work if they are related to the here and know instead of to the distant future, tied to a local context, convey agency, are constructive or solutions-oriented, and envision a sustainable future instead of emphasizing sacrifice, crisis, destruction, loss, and disaster. While doom scrolling might capture attention for a brief moment, it also risks to drive people into news avoidance.   

We also uncovered some indicators on how climate change and the environment resonate particularly with younger audiences – and how focusing on sustainable issues could help public service media speak directly to this audience and solve some of their own problems in the process.

Interestingly the same focus also appeals to young staffers – and attracts young talent – in newsrooms themselves. And there is evidence that these topics energize veteran news reporters and help promote overall diversity. They make journalism broader, more constructive, and help to break the dominance of the “he said, she said”-type of political reporting that hasn’t served audiences too well anyway.  

We will cover all this and more in the next News Report. But you don’t have to wait that long to read our findings. We will be publishing selected Q&As with media leaders, climate journalists and experts in advance of publication. You can read Wolfgang Blau’s take on some of the challenges – and opportunities – for public service newsrooms.

Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact by Dr Alexandra Borchardt, Katherine Dunn and Felix Simon, will be published on 1 March 2023. This blog was first published on the EBU’s homepage.
 

 

Jay Rosen: “Journalists have to become more explicitely pro-democracy”

Jay Rosen, journalism professor with New York University, recently joined the Board of the new Bonn Institute for Journalism and Constructive Dialogue. His reasoning: If journalism is to survive in a polarized world, it has to provide perspectives and solutions. In this interview, initially published by Medieninsider, Rosen talks about attacks on democracy, diversity, innovation, and why the media industry is particularly reluctant to change. 

Medieninsider: American journalism has been pretty hung up with Donald Trump, now he is gone, at least as a president. What has this done to the industry?

Jay Rosen: Donald Trump was good for ratings and for subscribers, he was good to create interest in the news, but I don’t think anyone misses the kind of frenzy everyone went into when he tweeted something. The more serious question is, what happens when he runs again? Because his whole approach is to destroy journalism, to destroy trust in it. He tells his supporters, the press is critical with me, because they hate you. How should journalism respond to that? I think the industry has been reluctant to face this question, also because the stakes are so high.

But the industry must have learned something from the Trump years?

Our journalists did learn to say sometimes: This is a lie. They didn’t do that before that often. To simply offer a platform to someone who proceeds to supply disinformation is something journalists should not participate in. So the challenge is, how to avoid amplifying disinformation while still covering the news. The press is finally waking up to the fact that some people are antidemocratic. There are not just populists but fascists in that crowd. There is a real danger here to America democracy, and it is coming from an awakened right wing. Right now, the mainstream press doesn’t know what to do about it. A complicating factor is: The right wing has its own media system now and it doesn’t necessarily need the rest of the press. In this ecosystem things that we would call misinformation and disinformation are absolutely believed and promoted. There are actions being taken on the basis of misinformation and disinformation, like changes in law and governance, that arise from politicized fiction. Fox news is an extremely important actor in this. 

Has the significance of Fox News decreased now that Trump is gone or has it increased?

Increased! Now that Trump is out of the way, Fox is the home of his supporters. In a way Tucker Carlson, who is the most powerful figure in the Fox lineup, has taken over from Trump as a nightly presence. It is a very potent organization. 

Are these really two different worlds of journalism, or is there a crossover of journalists?

There is very little of it, a few journalists who start in conservative publishing like for example the National Review might change to other media like CNN or one of the big newspapers. But an increasing part of the right-wing media sphere is consumed with fiction and things that never happened, like the stolen election. Once you have written stories on premises that are false, it is very hard for that person to shift somewhere reputable, because they are on record with it. 

Many European countries have strong public service media. We like to believe that a polarization like that could never happen here.

That is a huge advantage and does make it harder for this extreme propaganda approach to reach as many people. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say it couldn’t happen. There are political forces on the extreme right wing, also in Germany. If they can discredit the public service media complex enough, if they can wip up resentment against paying the fees that are necessary to keep it going, they may be able to weaken the political support for public service broadcasting as part of their political campaign against elites. That would erode this advantage. You can witness this in the United Kingdom, where the Conservatives are attempting to push back the BBC. 

It is hard to overemphasize how much hatred for the media is itself a huge mobilizing factor in the politics of the right wing

What could the US teach the world about doing journalism in a polarized society?

We don’t have anything to teach the world with that. About 25 to 30 percent of the American voters are in many ways lost to mainstream journalism. It is not that they don’t use it. They mistrust everything they see. And it even goes beyond that: If a story appears in the mainstream press, it is a reason to disregard or disbelieve it. This is active distrust. It is hard to overemphasize how much hatred for the media is itself a huge mobilizing factor in the politics of the right wing. Nationalist populism generates power by raging at elites, and the central elite in that system is journalists. Resentment against the press is a political mechanism. 

What kind of consequences do reputable Media draw from that? Have they changed their approach?

I tend to say they are not doing enough. One thing we have seen is that how much the Republican Party has taken on the Trump attitude and approach. It is now the Republican way of operating, even if Trump is not involved. For example, Republicans are trying to make it harder to vote. Or they are making it easier for public officials to manipulate the vote. One of the things big news organizations are doing is they are putting a lot more people on the voting beat, covering changes in the voting system. The Washington Post has a new democracy desk, AP is doing something similar

Do journalists have to stand up more for democracy?

Journalists have to become more explicitely pro-democracy. They have to undertake the defense of democracy. That includes things like reporting about voting but also about disinformation. When you have a party that is turning anti-democratic, and you are supposed to cover that party fairly, you have a problem, because you are also supposed to be pro-democracy. Unfortunately, in the States being pro-democracy is increasingly seen equivalent with being pro Democrats. 

In 2018 you spend a summer in Germany studying “German press think”. What is it that makes German press think different?

One of the pillars of German press think is that journalism should help to prevent the return of totalitarianism. We don’t have that in the US.

Funnily, this is exactly what Americans taught Germans after the Second World War. So, is it time now for the American press to learn from Europeans?

That’s right. I don’t think in any of these problems we have talked about, American journalists are the leaders. 

Newsroom leaders have more and more to decide will they have the view from nowhere to prevail or will they have the “diversify the newsroom project” to prevail?

These pressures come at a time when many American newsrooms seem to be consumed by internal debates, for example about diversity and identity.

The campaign to diversify the American newsroom has gone on for about 30 years, even longer. The warning that the news media is too white goes back 50 years. The campaign hasn’t worked. In positions of power, you don’t see any real movement. Lots of minority journalists got frustrated with that and quit. 

Even with Dean Baquet having been the first black editor of the New York Times? 

Yes. In fact, just last year they had to do this big report on newsroom culture. The younger generation of minority journalists is more committed to these changes, they are less likely to accept excuses. They have also more tools for expressing themselves, they can always go to the internet. There is now a kind of confrontation happening between rhetoric and results. It is revealing this contradiction at the heart of the diversify the newsroom process:  Journalists are being recruited into the newsroom to bring in a different perspective to the news. Once they are hired, they are told to check their perspective at the door and show that they can be a professional like everyone else with a view from nowhere, as I call it. Newsroom leaders have more and more to decide will they have the view from nowhere to prevail or will they have the diversify the newsroom project to prevail. 

The debate about impartiality in journalism is alive and well in Europe, too. What do you think about it? 

I have to be careful when I talk about it. It depends a lot on what you mean by impartial or objective, in the United States that tends to be the term. We need journalists that are intellectually honest. If objectivity means, let’s use facts rather than arguments, that is important. If objectivity means getting a larger picture, that is extremely important as well. Impartiality means trying to describe what the situation really is instead of what we prefer it to be, that is super important and very basic to journalism. But if impartiality means you are above it all and you have no perspective, that is a lie. If you think of yourself as the only one who doesn’t have an agenda because you are a journalist, it is a dangerous thing to believe. 

The BBC has reworked the concept to make it fit their purposes, their regulator Ofcom now calls it due impartiality, meaning it has to acknowledge the context.

They discovered that the old concept didn’t work in daily newsroom practice. They saw that their managers who run the desks where doing this with climate change, to allocate the same time to climate change proponents and deniers. That is not what they wanted, so they went through this process. If you have two parties and one of them is powered by fictions, lies, and disinformation, simply reporting on what they do feels and sounds biased. 

If our newsrooms cannot learn how to become more helpful in problem-solving, they won’t survive as influential

The former editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, says that the media has failed in the biggest story of our times: climate change reporting. Do you agree?

Today’s news system, at least the one we have in the US, is not designed to create public understanding. It is designed to produce new content every day. With climate change the first step that is required is learning, you need background knowledge, without this the news about climate change doesn’t make any sense. But our news system is not designed to create background knowledge but to report what’s new today. It is a new challenge. Journalism has to become more problem-solving.

Is this why you decided to join the board of the new Bonn Institute for Journalism and Constructive Dialogue?

Yes. If our newsrooms cannot learn how to become more helpful in problem-solving, they won’t survive as influential. It is a huge challenge for the profession, this will be around for the next 20 or 25 years. It is not like this week’s flavor of ice-cream. For us journalists it used to be that our job was to uncover problems, to put a spotlight on them, and it was governments’ job to solve them. This is no longer appropriate. But the move toward solutions journalism is happening. In the US the Solutions Journalism Network has been active for 15 years. They have reached 30 000 journalists and  collaborated with over 300 newsrooms. The movement is slowly spreading. Even small changes can take years. 

Can you please give us an example how this is reflected in American journalism?

With mass shootings it used to be that there was all this publicity about the shooter. You could read his bio in all detail. This encouraged other shooters to take up their guns. Critics said to major networs: You cannot feature the shooters as the star of the story without encouraging more violence. Now the stories are much more about the victims. This is a response to the criticism. It took 15 years. The adoption curve in journalism is absurd, it takes too long. We don’t have that long. The 2024 election is around the corner, for example.

Why is this industry so slow in adopting change?

One reason is, journalism is a team sport, in most cases it is collaborative. You need everybody to be on the same page on what our job is. It is a consensus practice. If the consensus becomes a problem, journalists are reluctant to give up their intellectual tools even when they are broken, because they need everybody to operate in the same way. There is the production routine after all, deadlines have to be met. Additionally, journalists get a lot of bad faith criticism from people who are trying to undermine the press. This is why sometimes they get defensive about criticism. Also, there is a cultural thing: journalists are a herd of independent minds, they are people who think alike but also think of themselves as individuals who make their own choices. This is how White House correspondents work: in their minds they are intensely competitive with each other at doing exactly the same thing. But the business prospects for the press are dim if they can’t help solving problems. When it is done properly, you often see in the numbers that people are paying attention and their satisfaction with the product grows. If those metrics show that people are paying attention and they find this kind of journalism more valuable this is a huge thing. 

Do we have to revolutionize journalism education then?

Slowly journalism education is changing. We are now seeing programs that are focused on innovation, teaching people how to become innovators in the newsroom and in these companies. That’s not the way it has been for a long time. Journalism schools were usually trailing changes rather than the other way around. It would be a significant change if they led the way. 

Do we also need more executive education?

Leaders of news organisations have to become smarter with a lot of things. There is a lot of pressure around developing the business of news. The news industry had remained remarkably stable and profitable for a very long time. That created a culture that isn’t build for rapid adjustments and changes, it is not exactly agile. That the news industry has to learn from the tech industry. 

Is there anything else the news industry could learn from the tech industry?

Iteration. This is a buzzword, I usually try to avoid those. Because the costs of trying things have fallen immensely in the digital era, you can use iteration. See what works, improve it. Innovation used to be creating a new food section. Now it is about quickly changing your product in response to user data. Incorporating your audience in the production of the news is also a whole new world. Previously the job of the audience was to sit in their seat and consume the news. The job of journalists was, finish your story, job done. Now your job is: how to get it to the people who really need it. That is something you cannot really outsource. In job interviews it used to be that the editors who did the interviewing had all the skills, now they ask the job seekers explicitely about the skills they themselves don’t have.  

So, it is all about figuring out user needs. What are the user needs journalism can and should fulfill?

People do consume news because they want to know what’s going on. They need journalism to know what is true and not true, what they can ignore and not ignore. But also: They want to know, how are we getting out of this mess? They need a reason why to keep paying attention. 


Interview: Alexandra Borchardt, the text was first published in German by Medieninsider on 20th May 2022.

 

Climate Journalism Needs to Mature from Topic to Mindset

Scenes like this are probably familiar to many: At a preparatory meeting for an event later in the year one participant suggests that it could revolve entirely around climate change reporting. One of the participants, an editor-in-chief, is skeptical: “Won’t this be a little old by then?” The reflexes work, the man has done his job. Be fresh, be surprising, don’t ride anything to death  – everyone who is trained in the daily business of news has internalized this way of thinking. It is called news for a reason after all. But how does that fit with an earth-altering development that manifests itself mostly in slow motion and only at times with the force of catastrophes? Newsrooms have not yet had to cover anything like that, a for the most part unpredictable process which challenges our way of living and doing business right down to the smallest personal habit.  

Wolfgang Blau knows all about these reflexes. Few media managers are currently dealing as intensively with the demands and difficulties of climate reporting as he is. The former editor-in-chief of Zeit Online, who pursued his career at the Guardian and the publishing house Condé Nast, is currently focusing on the demands and difficulties of climate reporting. Being the co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, he pinpointed the hurdles to overcome for those who want to report on climate change seriously and effectively in a lecture. The list is long.

In conversations with media people around the world, Blau identified operational but also cultural and ethical challenges. The compulsion to highlight the latest news, the fixation on disasters, the lack of expertise among reporters are the best known. Nic Newman’s media leaders’ survey “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions,” also reflected on some of these. In the 2022 edition, the nearly 250 editors-in-chief and top managers from around the world complained about two things in particular: First: There is a lot of good climate journalism, but the readership does not take to it to the extent they always claim in surveys. Second, there are too few experts in newsrooms, and the scientific culture is weak.

One of the biggest difficulties, however, that few are aware of who now dutifully identify topics, commission stories, develop explanatory formats, hire climate reporters, or set up special desks, is: Excellent climate journalism requires an entirely different mindset, explicitely a commitment to the very subject itself. It does not regard sustainability as just another topic to be dissected from an observer’s perspective alone, but as a goal. The preservation of the natural foundations of life would then be equivalent to the preservation of democracy and human rights to which independent journalism is committed.

Only, the problem is: At a time when some declare impartiality to be a religion and confuse pluralism with relativism, those who take climate journalism seriously tend to come under general suspicion. Those who openly strive for sustainability are accused to follow a green political agenda. Many owners, business managers, funders, and even quite a few editors who are committed to the journalistic principle of objectivity are therefore reluctant to follow suit. In addition, a corresponding attitude deeply interferes with personal lifestyle. It is comparatively easy to behave as a good democrat. Living as a responsible citizen of the earth places considerable demands on everyone and also raises many unanswered questions.

Blau argues that climate change requires a similar rethinking in the industry as digitization. There’s something to that, because it’s also down to the nitty-gritty: digital journalism requires a different attitude than classic print or broadcast journalism. Instead of assuming the position of the head teacher, as in the past, modern journalists are concerned with the needs of the users. Editors study and know their audiences, and ideally serve them so precisely that even demanding material is gratefully accepted – not just the clickbait scolded by digital skeptics. The goal is to build trusting relationships between senders and recipients. In climate journalism, it becomes something like a triangle: Users are supposed to engage with often uncomfortable facts and ideally derive consequences for their own actions: behave differently as consumers and/or get politically involved in preserving the planet.

This is where problem number two arises: Journalism that deliberately aims to change behavior comes under suspicion of activism. And yes, journalists who care about strong, independent reporting should be suspicious of the campaigning nature of activism. But can climate reporting that accomplishes nothing be good climate journalism at all? When it comes to the big issues like democracy, equality or even sustainability, something that could be called activating journalism is necessary. It is precisely in this balancing act that constructive journalism finds itself, which is sometimes accused of being activist. Constructive journalism works primarily against the audiences’ feelings of powerlessness. According to surveys, one in three people regularly avoids the news, mainly on the grounds that it leaves them behind helpless and/or in a bad mood.

What could climate journalism look like that doesn’t do that? The French news agency AFP, for example, has reorganized its entire newsroom into “hubs,” including one that deals with the future of the planet in all its facets. Every story needs a climate dimension, says AFP editor-in-chief Phil Chetwynd. Ritu Kapur, founder of Indian news platform The Quint, also believes looking ahead is crucial. Doomsday scenarios don’t go down very well with audiences, she says, but anything that involves people and the impact of climate change and strategies against it on employment, growth, mobility, and lifestyle. A big hit with the Quint-audiences was: How can the ecological footprint of a big traditional wedding be minimized?

Good climate journalism definitely needs to become a cross-cutting issue. Every reporter, every commentator should critically examine in all assignments what impact events, new products, projects, or political steps have on sustainability and climate protection – whether that’s the Olympics, new car models or transport projects. Correspondents must address was digitization does to energy consumption, they still do this far too rarely.

Problem number three arises from all of this: the contradiction between commentators’ demands and the media’s own role model function. Media companies, which are often medium-sized and financially strapped, seldom excel in practicing sustainability. While it has become increasingly common in many other industries to calculate and document the ecological footprint of products and processes, this is rarely seen with publishers and their newsrooms. This mirrors a common trait, witnessed also in other areas, for example gender equality or diversity: There is a gap between flaming commentary on the one hand and corresponding, transparent action on the other. Only a few companies have understood that this puts nothing less than their very credibility at stake.

So, what would help climate preservation is an activating journalism, supported by a commitment and mindset that is reflected in the entire organization, its products and practices. So much for the ideal. If you want or need to start a little smaller, start with a qualified, energetic, and outspoken climate correspondent. But he or she should have a seat at the table every day, not just in case of floods, storms, or fires. 

This column was first published in German on 16th February 2022 by Medieninsider.         

 

 

Newsrooms that Care: why diversity and inclusion will define the future of journalism

Before Russia started the war in Ukraine, most efforts in the media industry centred around digital transformation. Let’s get that done and then tackle newsroom diversity; this was a common, if not always openly voiced narrative. Then came 24th February when Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine while starting a propaganda war at home. Rightly so, issues of press freedom, disinformation, the sheer protection of journalists’ working conditions and lives took centre stage. Diversity, gender equality? Let’s leave that one for better times, some have been tempted to say. But not so fast. Media organisations and managers should be aware of the fact that making newsrooms more diverse and inclusive will define the future of journalism and the industry. Not only is diversity at the core of digital transformation: Going digital means serving different audiences better and meeting them where they are. But it is also essential for an industry that increasingly suffers from brain drain and a talent crisis.

A report commissioned by the European Federation of Journalists published on 14th April 2022 makes the case for diversity and inclusion from different perspectives. It provides concise talking points for those who need arguments to push for diversity in their organizations or when talking to potential funders. The report can be downloaded free of charge here

Interview: There is no willingness to pay in journalism

Digital transformation has put the business models of news organizations under pressure. More than ever media outlets want and need to make their customers pay for journalism and other products. This is a unique chance to build closer connections to audiences and learn about their needs. But when are they willing to pay? For Medieninsider, I talked to Florian Bauer, a professor for behavioral pricing at TU Munich’s TUM School of Management and runs the pricing consultancy Vocatus, about opportunities, strategies, common assumptions and the mistakes publishers make. 

“We advise against proactively justifying price increases, even for subscription prices.”

Many people have not yet made this shift, don’t you think?

“Nothing is worse than giving people something they don’t want.”

Most media offer their content in different subscription packages.

“In subscription management, the first customer transaction is only the beginning, not the end of the sales process.”

Why has the industry been asleep for so long?

“A subscription should not be a prison.”

Customers often want to be able to buy individual articles. As we know, this is not profitable for the publishers.

Florian Bauer is professor for behavioral pricing at TUM School of Management and director at the German pricing consultancy Vocatus. 

 
 
 

 

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.

 

Interview with Alan Rusbridger: “Journalists Have Allowed Themselves to Become Part of the Culture Wars”

Although news coverage during the pandemic has seen trust in journalism rising, attacks on media have increased at the same time — not only in Germany. Alan Rusbridger knows this very well. In an interview, the journalist, who served as editor-in-chief of the British Guardian for 20 years and has just started as editor of Prospect Magazine, talks about the role of the media in a polarized world, the ongoing difficult relationship with young audiences, and the importance of climate journalism as well as public broadcasting. He does not hold back with criticism of his own industry.

Medieninsider: Alan, you just gave a speech titled “Why should they believe us?” It also deals with the low level of trust in journalism. But the numbers show that during the Corona pandemic, trust in the media has increased in many countries. At the same time, a minority is positioning itself increasingly radical against the media. What is your take on this?

Alan Rusbridger: There is a populist movement against elites that now also includes journalism. We as journalists have to ask ourselves: How could this have happened? From my point of view, there are a few reasons: One is that newsrooms have become very homogeneous. Journalism has become somewhat removed from society because it is done from the perspective of better educated people. Just as politicians have learned to play the media game, a lot of media outlets are interested in playing the political game. There is some truth in it when populists say journalists are all on the same side. Journalists have allowed themselves to become part of a culture war.

Would you explain this, please?

Let’s take climate change as an example: Journalists have made it a cultural issue. It’s about being for or against it, and not about treating it as a scientific issue. The same thing happened during the Covid pandemic. In the U.K. some media outlets have chosen to take a clear position against lockdowns.

Unlike in Germany, the majority of the media in the U.K. is conservative.

Exactly. The media don’t campaign against vaccination, but what they do is take this radical position for freedom. However, this bears no relation to public health, nor does it listen to what scientists say. Certainly, this accusation is not fair to all media; most do their best in very difficult times. Nevertheless, journalists must ask themselves about their share of responsibility for current developments.

You’ve been saying for several years that climate change is the number one issue for journalism, and that journalism has failed in this. What are you accusing your colleagues of?

For some time now, evidence has been piling up that climate change is a pressing issue and that delayed action will only cost us more. Instead of taking this seriously and acknowledging it appropriately in reporting, the opposite has happened. Many newsrooms have downsized their sciences desks, cut back on reporter teams for this topic. They have also done this because in the past it was perhaps not possible to generate many clicks or sell subscriptions with this topic. This is precisely why many media outlets have made it an issue of the culture wars.

In that sense: “tell me if you believe in climate change, and I’ll tell you your political views?”

This is a terrible mistake of journalism. It seems like journalists care more about opinion and politics than about facts. That erodes confidence in journalism in general.

What do you think about the principle of impartiality? According to the Digital News Report, the vast majority of the audience cherishes it, especially the older generation. In public service media, it is almost a religion. But many young people feel that real impartiality has never existed and that more perspectives need to be shown.

The problem already starts with the fact that impartiality is a very difficult concept. In the U.K. right now, we’re having a big debate about impartiality in a world where most newspapers are on the right. But from that perspective, the BBC, which would describe itself as strictly neutral, is already on the left. There will be no agreement between these poles about what impartiality is. The younger generation is now growing up with the perception that journalism is biased.

Coming back to climate journalism: There is evidence that this issue particularly moves and engages young people. Do you think journalism will still get its act together?

I believe that something is changing there right now. On the one hand, this has to do with a new system of values that can be found in younger generations, but also because society is beginning to rethink. Climate change has an impact on the economy, on migration, security, and many other areas of life. I think the penny has dropped in the better media houses that one reporter alone is not enough to deal with climate change in terms of content.

As a journalist, you have always been in the tradition of investigative journalism that uncovers grievances. But when it comes to the climate, you call for solution-oriented journalism. What needs to change?

Climate change is rarely featured on the front pages. That’s also because the story won’t change much in the near future. The topic only gets attention when disasters happen. That’s why journalism has a hard time dealing with this. It’s difficult even for scientists to definitively attribute such events to climate change. Journalism has to find a way to explain the issue to people accurately and clearly.

You say journalism is too negative for young people.

It’s always been hard for journalists to celebrate positive results or events. The motto is “what bleeds, leads,” and you’re not necessarily wrong with that if your business model is very focused on reach. Always highlighting the sensation, however, distorts perception. The psychologist George Marshall says that people physiologically can’t handle being too scared. That’s why it makes sense to focus on how some things can be done better. Showing people solutions and explaining how they can get involved is better than scaring them and telling them they’re all going to die.

Are people willing to pay for that kind of journalism?

If people are going to pay for any kind of news, they will be more likely to do it for this kind of journalism. It’s about addressing the issues that move people, showing them solutions, and making them feel like their actions and opinions are contributing to something. In a society where you feel your voice isn’t worth anything, nothing will change. That’s something we’re seeing in the U.K., where political power is centered in London and power is being taken away from local governments, for example.

Several media organisations are currently working on moving staff back to the regions. BBC News is doing that to a significant extent, something similar has happened in Sweden. Will that help?

It will contribute to getting closer to the people again. But it doesn’t help much to move a reporter to a place where there is no power. Changing something is not only up to the media, but also up to the government.

In Germany, power is not as centralized, yet regional newspapers in particular are suffering economically. What role will public service media play and what does their future look like?

Paying license fees or going to jail instead has been a good business model for public broadcasting. Public service media fulfills all the prerequisites for achieving what we have just been talking about. Public broadcasting doesn’t have to hunt for sensations; it can be as serious as it wants to be. Looking at the U.K., I can say: This is an important role, because otherwise you’ll encounter a lot of opinion.

Could that be the future of the media system? There’s public broadcasting that’s as neutral and serious as possible, and opinion-driven commercial media?

If you think into the blue, it’s also possible that in some regions there will be hardly any local newspapers left, or none at all, because they’ll lose their business model. If public broadcasting can absorb that, there’s no longer any reason to abolish it — except just ideology.

So, you think local journalism doesn’t have an economic future?

No, I say it should. We’re already seeing news deserts spreading in many parts of the world. What do you want to tell people in these regions later? “It was a tough business, sorry it didn’t work out”? Or do they still want to rely on media like the BBC?

… which is under heavy attack by the Johnson administration.

Just how anxious the local media are can be seen from their campaigns against the BBC. BBC Local Radio, for example, is doing a good quality job, but private media are campaigning against the public service media and claiming that they are the reason why they cannot exist. All I can say is that the evidence from the U.S. speaks a different language. There, the big public broadcaster is missing, and yet newspapers are dying. You can’t blame the New York Times alone for this. So do people really want to destroy a functioning model out of sheer spite? Just because one is ideologically opposed to public funding?

One last question not about the future of journalism, but the future of journalists. Young people often find influencers more exciting than journalists. Will enough of them even want to enter the profession?

We should first ask ourselves why influencers are so popular in the first place: They look like the people who follow them, they talk like them, and it seems like they’re moved by the same issues and concerns. You have to convince young people that there is something called professional journalism that is clearly better than anything these so-called influencers can offer. Journalists don’t deliver good work if they understand research as clicking on page two or three in the Google results. Journalism must prove that it creates value and that it is significantly better for society.

Interview: Alexandra Borchardt, published on 15th October by Medieninsider.