In (Fill in the Blank) We Trust

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

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” the famously intimidating editors of the old City News Bureau in Chicago once barked at rookie reporters and future boldface names like Kurt Vonnegut, Seymour Hersh and Mike Royko.

But today, it’s not just mom’s love that news organizations must verify. In their quest to be the most authoritative, most trusted sources of information, they must contend with a fire hose of real and imagined news, analysis, debate, speculation, rumor, opinion and downright fallacy gushing from all manner of sources—veteran journalists, self-styled investigators, guerrilla marketers, politicized talking heads, bloggers, flacks and Hollywood celebrities. All are disseminating content and jockeying for attention by way of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, news sites, blogs, hyperlocal online destinations and what have come to be known as “legacy media,” those newspapers and broadcast outlets that were once the unchallenged arbiters of what was or was not news.

To the ever-growing list of things news organizations can no longer take for granted (predictable revenue gains, a stable and mass audience, a monopoly on news coverage), the public’s trust has arguably become their most valuable asset of all. Yet as mainstream media downsize their newsrooms and ambitions, and as their audiences divide and disperse according to increasingly polarized political views, they are also forced to confront a potentially fatal loss of consumer confidence.

Dissatisfaction with the press is at an all-time high (or low, as it were). Gallup has been polling Americans on their opinions of news gatherers for several decades, and current trends do not bode well for the industry. In 1985, 34 percent of the public said the media report stories that “are often inaccurate.” By July 2011, that figure had spiked to 66 percent. By large margins, Americans now say the media “tend to favor one side” of a controversy (77 percent) and are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations” (80 percent).

When Public Policy Polling, a Democratic research firm, asked voters earlier this year whether they trusted or distrusted TV news outlets, the results read like a nail-bitingly close election. Barely winning the trust vote were NBC (44 percent trusting/38 percent distrusting), CNN (43 percent/39 percent) and Fox News (45 percent/42 percent). Losers were CBS (40 percent/42 percent), ABC (37 percent/40 percent) and MSNBC (38 percent/43 percent).

It isn’t just Big Media that are seeing trust and respect erode. The 2012 State of the News Media report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found an alarming ambivalence on the part of consumers about their hometown dailies as well. If their local paper were to fold, 39 percent say it would have no impact on them personally while 30 percent indicate it would have only a minor impact. Pew finds that young adults (those aged 18-29) are “especially unconcerned,” with 75 percent saying they could get all the local information they needed even if their local paper closed shop.

Distrust of legacy media’s editorial content is beginning to translate into distrust of its advertising. Last month, Nielsen issued its Global Trust in Advertising report, finding that among 26,000 respondents in 56 countries, ads in mainstream media are trusted by less than half. (Still, legacy media performs far better than online video ads or social media ads, with just 36% trusting those, or banner ads, which were distrusted by fully two-thirds of respondents.)

Certainly, some of the wounds suffered by legacy media are self-inflicted. It’s now accepted that they failed to grasp early on the implications the Internet had for their businesses and news operations, first regarding the Web as a sort of promotional outlet for the “real” report in newsprint or on the air. Now, traditional media outlets are tripping over themselves to proclaim they are “digital first”—and making some big mistakes as they race to keep up with the speed of the Web.

Acting on an erroneous report from an obscure Penn State sports fan blog, various news organizations, including CBS Sports, The Huffington Post and the Poynter Institute (home to the hugely popular journalists site MediaWire), all retweeted the “news” that fired coach Joe Paterno had died. The RT-ing on Twitter was furious—that is, until a New York Times reporter contacted the Paterno family and confirmed he was still alive. It was another example of a lesson not learned by too many mainstream media outlets.

Almost exactly a year before prematurely burying Paterno, news heavyweights including the Times, National Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and Reuters incorrectly reported that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had been killed in a shooting rampage in Tucson.

Tellingly, the Associated Press, which has been in the get-it-first game for 167 years, did not jump at either false alarm. Even as erroneous reports of Giffords’ death raced around the world, AP’s deputy West regional editor Josh Hoffner determined that none of the sources could have possibly had firsthand knowledge of her condition. “We’ve learned the hard way that people remember an error a thousand times longer than they remember that you didn’t make an error, or that you were behind someone else [in reporting a story],” says AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll. “I’d rather be behind and right than ahead and wrong. Mistakes have a long half-life, and they are corrosive to what you do.”

There’s a reason the mainstream media have developed an itchy trigger finger: Twitter and Facebook often are the first places real news breaks. The deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston and fast-moving developments in the wake of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s exit are but a few examples of the breathtaking rise of social media as a news source.

Meanwhile, the AP’s decision not to rush to judgment in the Giffords story was not without its downside. Impatient editors and news producers wondered why the news cooperative seemed behind the pack. For decades, the AP has issued private advisories for newsrooms, letting them know what its staff was doing to confirm breaking news. The service now realizes it has to do the same for the entire Internet, especially since so many of its reports go directly to news sites, where they are posted immediately.

“For years, the AP would not publicly knock down what others were reporting when we knew it to be wrong,” says Carroll. “Now, both newsroom editors and general readers want to know a lot more about what we know and why we know it. So we’ve gotten more comfortable telling them, in advisories to newsrooms and tweets to readers. We’re more comfortable saying so when we don’t know if something is true—and when we know for sure that it isn’t.”

Social media’s role in the coverage of news events has been sanctioned by no less an authority than the Pulitzer Prize judges. The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News won this year’s Pulitzer in the breaking news category in large part because of its extensive use of Twitter to report on a tornado last April that rendered useless local landlines and cellphones.

“They made it clear to all of us who were judges this year for breaking news that we needed to look very hard at real-time reporting,” Seattle Times managing editor and Pulitzer jury member Kathy Best told Jeff Sonderman of the Poynter Institute. “Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all of the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on.”

Consumers also demand immediacy—and it seems that in their quest to stay informed, they will turn to even the most dubious sources. After Spike Lee tweeted what turned out to be an incorrect home address for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain in Florida accused of killing teenager Trayvon Martin, the misinformation spread far beyond even the filmmaker’s already considerable audience of 271,000 followers.

Meanwhile, forget the fallacy that kids don’t use Twitter. Former Minneapolis Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, says that while Twitter was no big deal among young people a couple of years ago, it has become their go-to news feed—and regardless of who is doing the tweeting. “They talk to me about how news has become commoditized,” he says. “It does not matter where they go to get news—they believe that totally.”

Well, not totally, he is quick to add—and the singular exception could make all the difference for mainstream media desperate to hold on to the trust of their audiences. “If something big happens—the Gabby Giffords shooting here in Arizona was a good example—they want to go to a brand name,” the professor says. “They want to go to CNN or The New York Times.”

That, of course, has been a central message of traditional media brands since the dawn of the Internet, even as consumers increasingly say they have lost faith in the press. You will trust us because we have built a reputation—over decades, or in some cases centuries—by verifying information, assessing sources and purveying the most reliable news reports.

It is the view of no less than Jim Brady, a digital news pioneer at The Washington Post and the aborted hyperlocal experiment, who, as editor in chief of Digital First Media, is now part of the team upending the news operations of Journal Register Co. and Media News Group by turning them into digital-first news providers. “Precisely because there is so much information out there, [consumers] need us more than ever,” Brady says. “A lot of people, obviously, don’t like the press for what we report, but they do trust that the press is reporting with a lot of rigor. So I do remain convinced of the power of brands like The San Jose Mercury News or The Denver Post and all our other, smaller brands.”

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.”

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