In (Fill in the Blank) We Trust

Legacy journalism brands are betting consumers will keep the faith. Will they?

While a majority of those polled by Pew signaled they wouldn’t much miss their local paper, Caroline Little, president and CEO of the trade group the Newspaper Association of America, notes that the very same survey found that the public continues to rely on the medium for news. Pew respondents rated newspapers either the No. 1 source or tied for No. 1 across 11 of 16 local coverage areas—among them, crime news and reporting on local government. “The idea that [newspapers] make editorial choices about what should appear, that we’re verifying content, is attractive to consumers, and more than what any other medium does,” Little says.

“What top news media get paid for—a very important asset—is judgment, and the maintenance of judgment is hugely important in this era when everyone must balance speed and accuracy,” adds Ken Doctor, news industry analyst for the research firm Outsell.

What mainstream news organizations cannot do is ignore a fringe story with the expectation it will die from lack of attention. “The new role for branded news is not ignoring that kind of story, and not necessarily repeating it, but putting news in context,” says Doctor. “In fact, it’s a new value for branded media to say, yes, it’s true or no, it’s not true or we don’t know yet but we’re working on it.”

Ironically, the advent of the tablet may hand another advantage to traditional media. Studies indicate that tablet users spend more time consuming news and are more likely to turn to the site of a legacy news organization rather than an aggregator for that content.

That begs the question: How does a relative upstart that has not yet built the reputation of a New York Times or CNN win the trust of an audience? Patch was confronted with that in 2007 as it prepared to roll out the first of what would become more than 850 hyperlocal news sites. “When we first came up with the idea for Patch, a few of us started throwing up concepts on a whiteboard with the word ‘trustworthy,’” says Warren Webster, president of AOL’s Patch Media. “We knew trustworthiness would be huge, and that as a new player we would have to earn it.”

Complicating matters was Patch’s plan to harvest content from unpaid bloggers. Its solution was to hire professional journalists as local editors. Those hires have “above-average training in journalism,” are carefully vetted and are supervised by region, Webster points out. “We know we have one shot at earning a community’s trust.”

One measure of the credibility Patch has achieved: Stories originating on its sites have been picked up by big media outlets including The Washington Post, CNN and Reuters.

Elsewhere, local news sites are giving hometown dailies a run for their money. Take the site The Batavian in upstate New York, operated by Howard and Billie Owens, which in March racked up 23,872 unique visitors, according to Compete. That makes it highly competitive with its more established rival, The Daily News of Batavia, which has a print circulation of 13,600 and 41,858 uniques.

The Batavian’s Howard Owens, formerly the director of digital publishing at Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse Media, which operates hundreds of local papers and news sites, argues that the community press stumbled after it began to staff newsrooms with journalists who did not have roots in the towns they covered.

“When journalism takes an institutional approach to how it covers communities, I think that breeds mistrust,” Owens says.

At Poynter’s MediaWire, the journalists’ site that combines aggregated news with tips and scoops, a key to winning trust is fessing up to mistakes. Poynter maintains a page listing every correction it has made going back to 2002, points out Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online. “And those, of course, are just the mistakes we’re aware of,” she adds. “How you handle mistakes is an important opportunity” to win the trust of consumers.

Another way of building that trust: Despite the pressure to do so, do not get caught up in trying to be first. “I actually do believe it matters less and less who’s first with something, particularly when you have two or more people reporting on the same thing,” Moos says. “What matters is the originality. It’s pretty rare these days for people to get a piece of information all to themselves.

“I sort of assume that in most cases,” she adds, “we will get beat.”