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.

 

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.

 

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