To hell with the trust gap; worry about the uninterest gap

I greeted this Gallup poll about the continued decline in trust in the news media with “meh.” Trust has been trending down for a while, and the clamor about media trust has been so loud for so long that it is hard to get excited about it. That feeling is clearly tempered by my experience as a newspaper editor. For years, I joined in the hand-wringing, trying a variety of things to stanch the bleedout. We included more “community news.” We solicited reader-generated content. We added folksy columnists. We engaged with people, using blogs, story comments and social media. We focused on being fair. We refined the voice of the paper.

While I believe they all improved the content of the paper, I have no sense that any of those efforts created more trust among readers. Trust, at least in this community, is hard to regain once it’s lost.

Forget the trust gap; focus on the disinterest gap.

The news media needs more focus on reporting stories that are just plain interesting and relevant. You might think that this would be a given for any news organization, but it’s clearly not. That sounds harsh, I know, but readers wouldn’t be turning away from newspapers so steadily if the stories were closer to being indispensable than indistinguishable. (And I say newspapers, but I include in that description all of the products that newspapers produce, including digital.) Imagine if every reader found at least one item in which he said “Wow! Listen to this.” or “Hey, did you read about the ….” Instead, it is too easy to scan the front pages of the papers and find little to read that is new or vital.

If I ran a news organization, I would post the details this report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project on every newsroom desk. I’m not sure if Greensboro, for instance, is considered urban or suburban so I include capsules of both.

“Urban residents: People who live in large cities rely on a wider combination of platforms for information than others and are more likely to get local news and information via a range of digital activities, including internet searches, Twitter, blogs and the websites of local TV stations and newspapers. Urbanites were also those least tied to their communities in terms of how long they lived in the community and how many people they know. They were the least interested of all groups in information about local taxes. At the same time, those who live in large cities, along with suburban residents, are the most likely to be digital “news participators” who email local stories to others, post material on social networking sites, comment on news stories online, or contribute to online discussions on message boards.  Also along with suburbanites, they are more likely to get news via mobile devices. Additionally, they are the most likely to rely on local TV news for information about breaking news, weather, crime, politics, and traffic.

“Suburban residents: Those who live in suburban communities are more likely than others to rely on local radio as a platform (perhaps because of relatively longer commuting times); they are more interested than others in news and information about arts and cultural events; and they are particularly interested in local restaurants, traffic, and taxes. Like urbanites, they are heavy digital participators who comment and share the news. These suburban residents rely mainly on the internet for information about local restaurants, businesses, and jobs. They look to television news for weather and breaking news.”

What among these topics of interest can I create an interested community around? How can I make the content they are interested in interesting? How can I deliver it in the ways they want it vs. the way I have it?

None of this is particularly new, which is partly why I reacted to the trust survey with shrugged shoulders. I wouldn’t give up on trust, but I wouldn’t stress over it. My stress would be, with smaller staffs than ever, how am I going to regain the interest of readers?

Revisiting the View from Nowhere

Back in the day, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was known as the “most trusted man in America.” It was the highest praise a journalist could get because, at its core, the relationship between a journalist and his or her audience is nothing without trust.

A friend of mine in the TV news business told me the other day that the emphasis has shifted. Now it is more important for viewers to like the announcer than to trust him or her. That’s one reason that anchors in local news seem so darned friendly and nice. (Another reason is that they are friendly and nice.)

Aren’t the trust and likability two sides of the same coin? If you like someone, doesn’t that lead to trusting him? No. I like Bill Clinton but don’t trust him. I like Bill O’Reilly, but don’t trust him, either. When I was in college, I liked a lot of people who were entertaining and fun to be around. But I only trusted a few.

For most of the time I was editor of a newspaper, we emphasized trustworthiness. We asked questions about it on annual surveys. We created action plans to improve our trust ratings. It was a big deal. Being liked? Being liked wasn’t important. When you’re writing about topics that made some readers uncomfortable — same-sex marriage, to take a recent example — likability wasn’t in the cards. Did Woodward and Bernstein worry about being liked when the Republic was at stake? (Remember the look on Bernstein’s face in the movie “All the President’s Men” when Woodward told a source that he was a Republican?) Anyway, how can you worry about being liked when you take it as a creed to afflict the comfortable?

That’s one reason why I clung to the “View from Nowhere.” My thought, along with many traditionalists, was that if we’re straight down the middle, then readers couldn’t fault us for being unfair. (That didn’t work, of course. Many readers did accuse us of being biased.) It was easier, too, in many ways.

But if you believe that viewers — and presumably readers — prefer journalists they like, then perhaps it’s time to drop the View from Nowhere. Perhaps it’s time for the journalists to establish their authority in a different way. Letting people know where you stand may well make them like you and, eventually, trust you. From Jay Rosen, the NYU professor who champions challenging the journalistic View from Nowhere:  “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

It is too late for me, dammit, to challenge the View from Nowhere in a newsroom. But it’s not too late for you to experiment with it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either.

Jay, again: “Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.”

Lex Alexander proposed this approach years ago, and I didn’t pay him much attention. (Sorry, Lex, for my short-sightedness.) But you can be smarter than I was. Besides, given the media’s low trust rating and newspapers’ declining circulation nunbers, what do you have to lose?

Am I making too much of a leap that crashing the View from Nowhere will improve likability and then lead to increased trust? I don’t think so. Try this experiment: Google “most trusted man in America.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If your filter bubble is like mine, Cronkite’s name comes up on five of the first 10 links. Jon Stewart, a funny, likable faux newsman, a guy who explodes the View from Nowhere, comes up with four.

And that’s the way it is.

Where the reporters have gone

When I left the News & Record last December, we had fewer reporters than anytime since at least the 1970s. Maybe earlier than that.

Madison Taylor, editor of the Times-News in Burlington, accurately describes what has happened to reporters in his post, “Where have the reporters gone.”

You could see it Tuesday at the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office when a press conference scheduled a day in advance to discuss new evidence in a cold case drew one print reporter — us. Only one TV station sent one of its reporters. The rest simply sent videographers who would supply B-roll for a quick voiceover taken from a press release. Not very long ago the Times-News would’ve been joined at such a press conference by the Greensboro News and Record the Durham Herald and possibly the Raleigh News and Observer. And every TV station would have a camera crew and a reporter. Might’ve even done a live satellite feed on site in Graham.

I, too, mourn the loss of reporters covering a community. Still, these days, the value of reporters from Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh covering a news conference in Burlington is dubious. As a Greensboro resident and News & Record reader, I don’t feel any loss not reading about that new evidence in my paper.

But I understand his point. The more reporters covering a community, the better. Yet, I must sadly note that, despite the decline in reporting strength, the collective news media has enough reporters to staff the Edwards trial as the jury deliberates. I don’t know how many reporters and photojournalists are twiddling their thumbs waiting. I am sure, though, that many of their readers and viewers would just as soon see their talents used in some other enterprising way.

(Photo credit: Charlotte Huffman, NBC-17)


Respect your readers — don’t ignore them

Columnists like to get in pissing matches with each other. It’s a spectacle for readers — who will get in the most blows??!!! — and it provides fodder for the next column, which columnists are always searching for. Back in the golden age of newspapers — the 80’s, for me — the News & Record had two columnists who would argue back and forth for days until the managing editor told them to shut up and write about something else.

Times have changed. Thanks to the Internet and blogs and comments, you don’t need a fellow newspaper columnist to take up the cudgels. Readers do it on their own.

Case in point: the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser characterized Greensboro as a “derelict town” on Thursday. Before News & Record columnist Jeri Rowe could respond on Saturday, Greensboro defenders voiced their thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter and in the comments section of the Peyser’s column. (For those keeping track, Peyser’s column was “liked” on Facebook 548 times; Rowe’s column, 401 times.)

What actually strikes me most by this kerfuffle isn’t Peyser’s egregious attack on the city. She is a columnist for the New York Post, after all. She, like many columnists, simply likes to stir the pot. The more response, the better. If it’s angry, that’s the best. From her Wikipedia entry:  The Washington Post has described Peyser as an “object of fascination among some media observers in New York, who count her unforgiving, exuberantly spiteful columns as a guilty pleasure.” New York magazine described her as “the Madame Defarge of the New York Post” in a 2004 profile.

But nowhere does she respond to questions and comments about her column. Granted, I’m not a great fan of online comments on newspaper sites. I used to be but I’ve seen how comment fields tend to be populated by anonymous commenters who write abusive, racist and stupid things. But many of the comments on Peyser’s column deserve a response. At this writing, there are 68 comments on her column. Most want an explanation for her characterization of Greensboro. Most of the comments are signed with seemingly real names, as opposed to those commenters who hide behind pseudonymns.

This is where journalists fail when they don’t engage with their readers. I understand not responding when the trolls take over a comment thread. I routinely told reporters at my old paper to monitor comments on their stories, to participate to help readers, to be polite and receptive, but to steer clear of crazy. (And it quickly gets crazy.)

My observation is that most journalists steer clear of comments, period. When I mentioned this on Facebook, several told me that comments fields are not the place to interact with readers. I acknowledge that, in many cases, that is true. But if journalists aren’t going to interact with their readers online, then perhaps comments should not be enabled on their stories. If the comments are so toxic that reporters won’t engage, what is the point? It’s certainly not contributing to a safe path for the community to discuss.

Yet, in the case of the Peyser column, readers are asking a good question that deserves an answer. When they are ignored, they feel disrespected. And no journalist, even at the New York Post, should want to disrespect her readers.

Understanding Amendment One: N.C. is better than this

Update: Well, that didn’t go quite the way I thought.

I’m trying to wrap my head around the polling that says that so many likely North Carolina voters — 46% — don’t fully understand the so-called marriage amendment. I get that uninformed people go to the polls and vote. (How is anyone really supposed to know which judgeship candidate to vote for? Or the Council of State positions?) I also get that misinformed people vote. Happens in every election.

What puzzles me is how they can not understand that the marriage amendment is not an up or down vote on gay marriage.

53% of voters in the state support either gay marriage or civil unions, yet a majority also support the amendment that would ban both. The reason for that disconnect is even with just 24 hours until election day only 46% of voters realize the proposal bans both gay marriage and civil unions. Those informed voters oppose the amendment by a 61-37 margin but there may not be enough time left to get the rest of the electorate up to speed.

Now, I know that sowing confusion was purposeful in how the amendment was written. The wording is broad and full of misdirection. The Republican representative who championed the amendment through the House as much as admitted it to the Fayetteville Observer on Sunday. “(Rep. Paul) Stam, the Raleigh lawmaker, said he wanted a more narrowly worded amendment but was ‘overruled’ by ‘national experts’ he identified as the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group.” (That story buried the lede, if you ask me.)

Still, with all the publicity of the last week, I am befuddled by the polling that suggests tens of thousands of people don’t understand what it means. Newspapers across the state — country, actually — have written endlessly about it. TV stations have run report after report. Facebook and Twitter has been lit up over the past few days.

I know that readership of newspapers is down, and viewership of TV news isn’t great. But is this a case of people getting all their information from friends and acquaintances, information that is incomplete or wrong? Is that what is going to decide an amendment to the state Constitution? Say it ain’t so. North Carolina is better than this.

For the record, I think the amendment has a decent chance of going down…and I’m betting it will be closer than the 14-18-point range by which the polls predict it will pass. Perhaps that is my heart talking rather than my head, but I think people are learning what the amendment really means and I think the energized anti-turnout may well turn the tide.

Not a student; a learner

A week or so ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the kind of student I was in college. I said, “I wasn’t a student; I was a learner.” I meant that I liked to learn stuff — to read, to listen, to watch and experience — but I didn’t care to recite it back or answer a bunch of true/false questions. I was a B-/C+ student in a family of straight-A brilliance. I was a learner; my siblings just called me dumb. (That’s what brothers and sisters do.)
I think that “learning chip” is partly why I became a journalist. I got paid to observe, to ask questions about things I didn’t understand, and then write what I found out. Yes, I ended up “reciting” what I learned, but I wasn’t overtly given an A or a B. People either read me or they didn’t. If I found an interesting story and I didn’t get in its way in the telling, I passed. If I put a dull finish on a story, I failed.
And then I got to go out the next day and try to do a better job on something else. I got to keep learning something new every day, and it was my job! For a learner, how awesome is that? So what that it didn’t pay much.
When I became an editor, I had to adjust my reward and recognition system. I found stories, but I wasn’t writing them. (Except, of course, when I had to rewrite someone’s  sloppy reporting/writing job.) I needed to find another outlet and I discovered the online world. It was new and exciting. It seemed as if it changed every day, with new processes (blogs?) and practices (linking out?) and terms (viral?) and ethics (transparency, how?). It morphed into digital and social and networks and mobile. The learning curve looked sharp, but once I started, I found it was smooth and gradual and easy. It fit my mode of education: observe, read, ask questions, experiment.
The grading system is the same, except it’s faster and, honestly, more fun. If you have something to say, people read you. It might be a story, a blog, a Facebook post, a Tweet, an Instagram, a video. I could go on for awhile on that track. And people would do more than read you. In real time, they would tell you that they enjoyed it or that you sucked or that you got this or that wrong.
You learned something, you told people and they reacted. Not bad for a journalist.
I thought of this when I read Steve Buttry’s excellent “Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon” post. I don’t know that I ever feared being a curmudgeon. I think I just feared getting bored and being left behind. Maybe that’s what happens to B & C students whose siblings are straight A students.

Quit screwing around; to regain trust, it’s time to change

Craig Newmark’s survey on the credibility of various news sources is simply the latest that shows the public doesn’t have much trust in mainstream media. Not much trust in any of the mainstreamers: newspapers, TV, radio or news websites. (Yep, news websites are mainstream now.)

The survey shows that only 22 percent of respondents say that newspapers are “very credible” in reporting on politics. And that’s the top rating. Cable and network news get 21 percent, and talk radio and Internet news sites each register 13 percent.

For years, traditional news organizations have marketed themselves as trustworthy. It’s time to acknowledge that most people aren’t buying it. That bond of trust may be irrevocably broken.

So, how about we try something different? What if mainstream media covered politics differently, focusing less on the horse race and more on the issues? What if television rambled on less about, say, the Catholic Church’s fight with the Obama administration over contraception insurance and delved deeper into health insurance, period? What if the time spent dissecting who made what gaffe after each GOP debate — and forcing viewers to listen to the candidate’s handler explain what he really meant — was actually spent talking about Romney’s time at Bain, Santorum’s voting record in the Senate or Paul’s record in the House?

What if the reporters actually had the freedom to call BS when candidates or campaigns parsed the truth? (Here’s an attempt.) What if they followed the Daily Show model in covering the hypocrisy of some political candidates and government policies (without the humor, presumably)? What if television actually gave more than a soundbite and didn’t let candidates off the hook? Watch the morning news programs and it’s either he-said, she-said journalism, or the reporter asks a question, the candidate doesn’t answer, and the reporter moves to another question that the candidate doesn’t answer. In the end, the viewer gets little sustenance.

One of the common assumptions is that the public doesn’t like the sausage-making process that hard-nosed reporting is. They think it’s intrusive and rude, and it often is. Good interviewing often makes people uncomfortable because the reporter is trying to pull the truth together and match facts with what’s being said. It does get ugly. But I think the general public wants to see reporters who are independent and boldly seeking to get answers to the questions the public has. (And that isn’t which GOP candidate is leading in the polls today or an embarrassing video of Romney singing “God Bless America.”)

It’s also transparent, and transparency builds trust. (Think it doesn’t? Think of how you feel when a news exec declines to talk about something going on at his shop? Or think about your reaction when you hear a news exec who has announced layoffs say, “it won’t impact our news coverage.”)

Case in point: Jay Rosen and NYU Studio 20 took a look at the questions posed to the GOP candidates at all of the 20 debates and asked if it reflected the “citizens agenda.” (113 questions were asked about campaign strategies and negative ads!) Rosen suggested that last night’s debate viewers pose their own questions on Twitter with the hashtag #unasked. As Jay tweeted afterward, “Number of questions tonight about science: zero. Technology: zero. Climate change: zero. Small business: zero.”

There is a reason that the trust bond is broken between the public and the news media. It’s us.

Sunday sampler

Sunday is the day newspapers showcase their best work. Here are some from North Carolina papers that are worth reading:

From the Asheville Citizen-Times: A piece about the Henderson County Sheriff spending county money probably in a way taxpayers would prefer he didn’t. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it’s the thought that counts. Henderson — With caramel mochas in Charlotte, a meal at the famed Cheers pub in Boston and bar food at Fat Head’s Saloon in Pittsburgh, Rick Davis made himself comfortable on the road — enjoying perks put on a county credit card.

From the News & Observer: The paper uses the compelling story of a 16-year-old who was the driver in an automobile accident that killed his passenger to take another look at the state’s parole system.

From the Fayetteville Observer: There were 29 homicides in Fayetteville last year, compared with 18 the year before. A typical end of the year story, significant to me because Greensboro also had a jump.

From the Charlotte Observer: The big banks gave the most money to Mitt Romney. Probably no big surprise, but a good analysis showing where the money is coming from and going. And interesting that the banks seem to be punishing Obama.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: Hard to believe but this isn’t against the law. A firm owned by a member of the board that oversees the state’s Golden LEAF Foundation has received more than $129,000 so far for two projects funded largely by the foundation for work in Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties, according to local and foundation records.

From the Wilmington Star-News: “If you’re homeless in Wilmington, they’ll throw you in jail.” That’s the attitude of Super Dave, Animal and Lurch, three homeless guys through whom the Star-News discusses the problem of homelessness in New Hanover County.

What will your legacy be?

Before I left the News & Record, I joked to a co-worker. “My legacy will be that I laid off people and that I started the Good Stuff.” Layoffs you know about and I don’t want to relive. The Good Stuff is a column I started in early 2009 in which  readers submit stories of extraordinary acts of kindness they have witnessed.

There is truth behind the legacy crack. The Good Stuff is one of the more popular columns we publish. Because I solicited and edited the items, people got to know me and would send me notes saying how much they enjoyed the column.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what readers remember about me. (Here I should make a distinction between readers and staff members. I’m pretty sure my bequest to the staff is different.) While I wish the readers identified me with some of the investigative work the paper produced, some of our special projects or the expansion of our online work, I don’t kid myself that they do. After all, right or wrong, I’m not the face they see on any of that.

It raises a question I wish I had thought about more when I was still at the paper: What will your legacy be? And how are you going about delivering it?

Restoring a sense of community ownership in the local paper

Two days ago, I wrote about how “our newspaper” became “the newspaper.” I ended the post with a copout: “Newspapers — new organizations, actually – can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.”

Many commenters left suggestions. Here are some more:

* Figure out what jobs people need to have done. That came from the 2005 Newspaper Next project. Both Steve Buttry and Justin Ellis evaluated the success of that project this past fall. (Answer: Not all that successful.) OK, the problems still remain and answers are still out there. Revisit it. What does the community need? Too often news organizations are focused on what they want to give the community. That’s a notion rooted in the boomtimes when newspapers dominated their markets. Now circulation and revenue trends indicate that the community doesn’t need what papers are doing.

* Develop an engaging, constructive social media voice. Ideally, the top editor would be on Facebook and Twitter talking with people in the community — really talking, not just posting links to the paper’s website. She would seek out everyone who lives in the circulation area and invite them to join in. (A lot of people would be flattered when the editor invites them into her circle.) She would be active and attentive. Best of all, she would have a personality that suggests she wants to help, to listen, to improve things.

* Forbid all anonymous online comments. Most people want to live and visit in communities in which real names are used.

* Release obits and wedding announcements from paid advertising. They should be free. They do one of the things newspapers say they want to do — track the passages of the community. You want people to say, “Hey, I saw in the paper that Sheila is getting married.” I know how much money obits bring in. (Weddings don’t bring in that much because so few people are using papers to announce them.) The elimination of one page of newsprint each day would cover the lost revenue. And I would eliminate one of the pages devoted to national/world wire copy. (While I’m at it, pay the person who takes obits to ensure that he knows how to spell, how to follow style and where the local landmarks are. His primary goal should be to make sure every single obit is perfect.)

* Hire someone to answer the phone. In my old job, I heard from readers and advertisers who couldn’t get a real person to answer the phone and who reached deadends in phone trees. Imagine the dividends in having someone answer the phone who cared about getting you help. I know the cost of a phone operator, too. I promise media companies can afford it.

* Unleash editorial pages to kick ass and take names. The institutional newspaper editorial voice is often like reading a textbook. I want people to talk about the editorial in the morning paper. Let them hate it — that’s ok. The readers you care about will respect you for saying it.

* Tell the truth in political reporting. This seems obvious but it is increasingly hard to do.  Government reporters know who the crackpots are and what the crackpot ideas are. But they err on the side of “objectivity” and don’t describe them as crackpot. Or unlikely. Or contradictory to something said by the same person in the past. Readers deserve the truth about Ron Paul’s past comments, Rick Perry’s term as Texas governor, and Mitt Romney’s record at Bain. At this point it seems as if reporters are only covering talking points and gotcha moments. That tends to make everyone but political partisans sick of it.

* Create content the community needs and that people care about. It is community news that many of us know as “chicken-dinner news.” It is strong watchdog reporting that takes on issues of wasted tax money, fraud in government or an injustice involving the little guy. If your own staff doesn’t read the paper every day — and I assure you that many of them don’t — you need to get a clue that your content isn’t relevant enough.

These are just a beginning. I know you can come up with many more, and I encourage you to do so either in the comments and/or at your own workplace.

These won’t bring back the times when “everyone” subscribed to the paper. But they will restore some people’s trust in the paper. Will it translate into dollars and cents? I don’t know. But journalists should embrace the idea of trust between them and readers. That’s the only thing we have going for us.

(P.S. I know some of my former staff are saying, “Where the hell has this guy been.” I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.)