Viewpoint: We Broke the News Media, How Can We Fix Them?
by Melissa Bell, Publisher and Founder of Vox Media
Let me paint a picture of an industry squeezed from all sides:
- When the President of the United States does not like a story about his work, he calls it fake news.
- When the average 18-year-old checks her phone, sometimes up to 200 times a day, she is bombarded by videos and ads and stories from uncertain sources, with little to guide her on how to distinguish between quality and trash, to tell truth from fiction.
- When the Interactive Advertising Bureau counted up all the online advertising dollars spent in 2016, 49% went to Google, 40% went to Facebook, and ‘everyone else’ split up the last 11%.
- When media organisations finally figured out how to bring their work to mobile websites, the web splintered into many multiples of media: Instant Articles and AMPs (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and Snapchat and VR headsets and Amazon Echoes, to name a few.
The media industry is stretched thin, anxious, and walking a razor’s edge. And perhaps the biggest threat to our business is not an external pressure: we have a broken media industry because we have broken the confidence of our audience.
We have a broken media industry because we have broken the confidence of our audience
According to the 2017 Reuters’ Digital News Report, less than half the population (43%) trust the media across all the 36 countries surveyed and almost a third (29%) actively avoids the news, rising to 38% in the United States. Instead of enriching their lives, our work depresses them. And underlying this loss of trust is a perception of media bias driven by polarisation. People cluster to media organisations that fit their belief, and dismiss other outlets. The internet, once thought to open the world up to all the information possible and bring people together, has instead drawn people into their own corners.
How did we get here? News organisations moved too slowly to adapt. For too long, we used outmoded approaches built for the technologies of print and television, in a wholly new medium, the internet, and in so doing failed to address the problems facing audiences today.
What were some of those problems? A surfeit of information was one. Audiences had to contend with too much information, rather than not having enough. In the cacophony, they sought out voices they could trust, topics they admired. Rather than shifting towards developing relationships with audiences in a very real, committed way, the media tiptoed into community engagement.
Another issue: the media once had a monopoly on information and the means to distribute it, but that made us a bit too comfortable, sinking us into a sanctimonious belief that we were the truth holders instead of truth seekers. We used ‘editorial judgement’ as a code for ‘what we think is important and think you should know’. Particularly in the US, this notion of objectivity allowed Roger Ailes to stroll right in and tell half the US audiences that his Fox News network would offer up ‘fair and balanced’ news, setting off a battle between news organisations over who had the more accurate facts.
It seems a pretty bleak picture, I know. But there are some small signs that there may be an answer to our problems in the problem itself: if we work to rebuild trust with our audiences, we may find our way to more stable, significant businesses. This Report has found that in the US, after the election, the news media gained five points from the prior year in terms of audience trust, at the same time that subscription rates climbed for the first time in years and major platforms – from Facebook to Twitter – sought to pay for quality work.
We started Vox three years ago, worried about how broken the news had become. We wanted to test ways to create a news product built for today’s technology and sustained by today’s business models. We haven’t solved all the problems, but we have found loyal audiences looking to us for quality work across platforms. There’s still work to be done, but we’re finding the beginning of a path by asking ourselves these questions:
- What are we missing about audiences these days? And what are we not providing them?
- How do we make our content irresistible and essential to them?
- Journalists used to live next door to their sources and their audience. How do we recreate that sense of community when our audiences live across the country – or the world?
- How do we redefine civic duty in an era when the parameters of civic life are much narrower or much larger than we’ve ever known?
- No one likes to be told what to think. Most of us appreciate being invisibly guided to our own understanding and conclusions. How can we, then, help our audiences seek knowledge instead of simply publishing information?
- Now our audiences can see, in 360 degrees, the suffering in every corner of the world at any time, the emotional impact of an overwhelming, never-ending news cycle. What should we be building when we are all inundated with anxiety and uncertainty in streams of content every day?
- What happens if we face our biases and start to build news products that show our work and make our evidence part of the product?
This business has long been built on people who love the thrill of competition, whether it’s an arms race of technology or sales deals or scoops. But the golden era has long since faded. We don’t have enough resources to go around and the competition has grown beyond other media organisations. Instead of fighting over the same stories, we need to amplify each other’s work, and then push to discover other stories. You’re seeing that with partnerships forged around storytelling, such as the recent shared Pulitzer Prize between the New York Daily News and ProPublica1 or the recent announcement of a content partnership deal between the Guardian and Vice.2 You see it happening in the technology and advertising space. At Vox Media, we’ve partnered with Condé Nast and NBC Universal to build a better approach to premium ad experiences. And you see it in platforms as well, such as with Google’s open-sourced AMP project. What happens if we treat the lessons we’re learning as a way to build each other up instead of tear each other down? Our audiences deserve – and the speed of change demands – this type of cooperation, not competition.
We have to constantly challenge ourselves to build something that solves a problem for our audience
Finally, we have to be seized by a sense of purpose. We have to know who we are and what we are trying to do, so our audience can come to know us and what to expect from us. We have to constantly challenge ourselves to build something that solves a problem for our audience. This is a choice we all make: you can try to scale by creating a shallow product that reaches everyone, or you can try to scale by creating different unique products that deeply matter to loyal audiences.
This work is too important to move slowly. We need to find the answers to these questions, to go deep, to matter, to make a difference every single day. Our audience’s trust, and our businesses, depend on it.