Climate Journalism Needs to Mature from Topic to Mindset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Desperately Seeking Youngsters – Seven Insights About a Demanding Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Middle – Not even media leaders themselves think that they have the best ideas

Middle management in companies more often than not suffers from its infamous reputation. They are branded as rule-abiding busy bees, nitpickers who stick to processes just as much as they stick to their own chairs, managers, definitely not leaders. If they were, they would have long been promoted to the top – or so it is taught in many a business school. Former Siemens CEO Peter Löscher once spoke of a “clay layer,” the term even survived his own career in the company. A word that is like a slap in the face of all those tireless getting-things-doners who not only keep the company running on a daily basis, but also strive for constant improvement and overhaul, whether there is a crisis or not.

In the media industry, bosses are apparently no longer so sure about that clay layer. In the new “Journalism, media and technology trends and predictions” report by Nic Newman, which the Reuters Institute in Oxford publishes regularly at the beginning of the year, top managers were at least refreshingly self-critical about their own capacity to generate top ideas. Only about one in four (26 percent) of the 234 executives surveyed from 43 countries said they were convinced that top management generates the best ideas. The problem, as Nic Newman frames it: Innovation might not come from the top, “but companies are still run that way”. The report is not representative, but it is a must-read in the industry precisely because the respondents tend to be leaders who are particularly concerned about progress.

But where do they see innovation coming from? Nearly three-quarters revealed that data and audience research were most likely to give them a leg up, 68 percent bet on mixed teams from different areas, and still just under one in two admitted to borrowing the best strategies from other media companies. Okay, according to the survey, editors-in-chief and media managers trusted middle management as such even less (17 percent) than they trusted themselves. But who meets in the mixed teams, who evaluates audience data and derives strategies from it, who attends the relevant industry meetings, reads up on foreign material and then reports to the C-level? That’s right, in the very most common case, it’s the mid-level.

It is often those who are not celebrated as heroes in any industry publication and who neither management literature nor research has an eye on. They are the ones who are closest to the difficulties – and often therefore to the solutions. But they are also the ones for whom demands from employees and customers alike pile up into a sandwich of expectations. They are expected to be both operationally reliable and to think strategically and manage change. And if something goes wrong, it’s up to them to pick up the pieces and rebuild them into something else – in management-speak this is coined as “celebrating failure.

This layer of dedicated and loyal drivers of innovation, many of whom are at an age and in situations where family work demands additional work from them, is – no surprise – most at risk of burnout. Lucy Küng, who researches cultural change in media companies that go digital, has revealed this in countless interviews, including in her latest book: “Hearts and Minds: Harnessing Leadership, Culture and Talent to Really Go Digital.” This results in a huge brain and talent drain, she emphasizes again and again.

Yet many managers consider the mid level worthy of support only as long as they themselves are part of it. As soon as they have made it into top positions, they recoin themselves as visionaries. Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD Business School, calls this “leaderism.” Instead of valuing reliable and constructive management, which is so necessary especially in times of crisis, he says, people celebrate visionaries whose ideas all too often go down with them. The glorification of leadership on the one hand and the devaluation of management qualities on the other is a dangerous pair of opposites that is still taught, but does more harm than good, especially in crises, he eloquently describes in the essay: “Why leadership isn’t a miracle cure for the Covid-19 crisis (and what can really help).” It is time to put less hope in leadership and more humanity into management, Petriglieri said. Judging by the “Trends and Predictions” report, many media managers already understand this. Humility can be the first step toward innovation.

This text was first published in German with Hamburg Media School Blog on 15th January 2021, then translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator and edited. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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