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.

 

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.

 

Optimism is underrated – What will remain when Marty Baron leaves the Washington Post

Even on the European side of the Atlantic, Marty Baron may be a household name to some outside the journalistic microcosm. The reason is “Spotlight.” In the movie, which won an Oscar in 2015, a young, new editor-in-chief drives an investigative team at the Boston Globe newspaper to top performance. The reporters finally succeed in uncovering a huge abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The editor-in-chief’s real name is Martin Baron, and the actor Liev Schreiber, who played him, actually looked a lot like him in the film. By that time, however, Baron had already buzzed off to the Washington Post (WaPo), where he became editor-in-chief in 2013, shortly before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the paper. There, @PostBaron, as he calls himself on Twitter, has now had enough. 66 years old, he announced he would be leaving his post at the end of February 2021.

In many a newsroom, reporters might have wrangled over who gets to pay tribute to Baron on his farewell. Of course, lots of journos are in awe of such a seasoned colleague, who during his time as editor-in-chief expanded the editorial team from 500 to 1,000 people, won ten Pulitzer Prizes with them and still managed to do a first-class job with digital transformation. “Democracy dies in darkness” – the WaPo’s claim will hardly be missing from any article. And if you like it funnier, you can integrate the expression “swashbuckling” into your English vocabulary. Jeff Bezos used it to say goodbye to his business partner: “You are swashbuckling and careful, you are disciplined and empathetic.” Never mind Baron could also be quite exhausting, Bezos admitted.

You can say a lot about this Marty, who was well aware of his importance. However, he was not so aware that he did not repeatedly tell young and experienced journalists about his work, as he regularly did at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where he sits on the advisory board. He was happy to do so, also in the hope that a few of his messages would find their way back across the Atlantic. Only when he said something publicly did his newsroom take it from him that he was serious, he once said. He was obviously serious about one thing, because he repeated it, and it stuck: “I only hire optimists.” A flair for those colleagues* who push things forward with tenacity and a belief in success, whether investigative research or product development, may have been part of his recipe for success in digital transformation (the other’s first name was Jeff).

As a pragmatic, confident optimist, one can only agree. How nice it is, even as a boss, to share everyday life and offices with colleagues who take a deep breath at every minor and major crisis and then assure you with a desperate yet hopeful smile: “We’ll get it right.” How do you appreciate them, the ones who keep experimenting, digging in, doing the math and ultimately turning the corner with the message, “It’ll work out.”

In the media industry in general though optimism as a concept is not very popular. On the one hand, this is due to the less than encouraging balance sheets and the crumbling business models. On the other hand, it also reflects the self-image of a profession that often succumbs to the reflex of attaching the word crisis to every problem, thus making it seem a little more insoluble – think of the Corona crisis, the refugee crisis, the climate crisis, the vaccine crisis and, yes, the media crisis. Optimism in this reading is often misunderstood as whitewashing. Journalists, after all, are supposed to be critical and uncover messes. To bathe the world in optimism, that’s what PR is supposed to do. For this reason, journalism that calls itself constructive or solution-oriented sometimes has a hard time, at least communication-wise.

The audience, however, is increasingly annoyed by this. More than a third of users find journalism too negative and therefore switch off, as can be read in the Digital News Report year after year. Not necessarily because they no longer want to hear bad news, but because many perceive the world around them very differently – at least when there isn’t a pandemic going on. They often have quite positive experiences with colleagues, friends, neighbors, even complete strangers in the supermarket or at the train station. Therefore they feel that they can achieve something if they get together and tackle problems rather than going into hiding. Challenges have to be overcome, nothing helps.

And that is indeed the core of optimism: not a rosy view of the world, a denial of the facts, a euphoria-soaked jumping on every trend. But the confidence that with proper use of brain cells, diligence and cooperation, one will somehow make progress on the path to a better future, no matter how far away the goal may be. Things don’t always turn out well for everyone; many a generation carries burdens that are almost impossible to shoulder. But anyone who follows Max Roser’s long-term data series in Ourworldindata.org knows that progress is reality, not fiction.

Now it would be wrong to claim that progress is built by optimists alone. In every team there must be doubters who see details and nuances, point out risks and dangers and do not let themselves be silenced by bosses who divide the world into “trouble shooters and trouble makers”. Many a misfortune could have been prevented, many a danger averted, if the worriers had been listened to in good time. But the power is in optimism, the belief that something good can come of it if only worries and doubts are taken seriously enough.

They certainly weighed on Marty Baron, the great investigative journalist, when he met with Jeff Bezos eight years ago to talk about the future of the WaPo. Would the newsroom be able to remain independent under the eye of a man for whom the paper seemed more toy than vocation, and whose corporate empire earned far fewer stars in the humanity department than in the “customer obsession” category? In any case, the editor-in-chief was happy with the owner, he emphasized this one time after another. Possibly Marty Baron would have even hired himself.

This post appeared for the Digital Journalism Fellowship newsletter on January 28 on the Hamburg Media School blog. It was translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and then edited by the author. 

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.

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


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

Getting Real About Talent and Diversity – Ten Recommendations

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

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

Get out of the office and talk to people!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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