Credit: Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

Journalists are trying to regain lost trust. We saw much of this in the Digital News Report 2022 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It is not about mistrust; the research shows that people selectively avoid the news because they cannot establish a rational connection with it.

Especially in the US during the first half of 2022, engagement with news content across all platforms declined significantly. If take a closer look at the stats from the Digital News Report, in the US trust in news overall is 26 per cent - close to the percentage in my home country Greece (27 per cent) and the UK (34 percent).

All these countries have something else common. They have been through several political crises which have impacted quality journalism throughout the last year. Especially during the pandemic, the emotional connection to the news is predicated upon negativity and toxicity. This affects revenue. The percentage of readers who pay for online news is 19 per cent in the US, higher than the 11 per cent in Greece and nine per cent in the UK.

Somehow, that is how I got involved with news entrepreneurship. 

Tassos Morfis, co-founder of Qurio and AthensLive

In 2015, Greece was going through one of the most dramatic years in its modern history. A populist, inexperienced government was elected, bringing the country to its knees fiscally with a referendum polarising Greeks like never before. Among all, refugee boats were arriving en masse on the islands. 

With my team, we were working for foreign media covering the multiple crises, and our clients merely broadcasted the content we were producing. They used the most cliche photos, quotes, soundbites, and footage to support the dramatic narrative around Greece collapsing. In our hands, we had a tonne of content that was of high quality and helped us understand the real deal. 

From know-it-all to meticulous listener

That was when we decided to start a non-profit newsroom called AthensLive, trying to tell the story from a local perspective.

Despite successful crowdfunding and reader support, we could not sustain a business. We missed the recurring revenue we could have had because we were too focused on the journalism, and not on the audience engagement side. 

I was a 28-year-old, know-it-all editor who thought he knew what a global community of people (I had never talked to) wanted to read. 

Much later, when we had to ask for institutional support, I only realised that we had to embrace audience engagement as a critical operation and needed a tool to do this at scale. The idea was born. An audience engagement platform for news publishers. And I had to do my homework.

A labour of love

We saw newsrooms striving to find new ways to reach their audiences and engage with them in creative ways. A few years later, with a new passionate team of builders, we did not know where to start. 

We knew the audience engagement problems first-hand, but still needed to verify them with honest feedback. That is why we reached out to small newsrooms in the US and asked them about their pains with audience engagement. The patterns were there. 

Audience engagement comprises a vast array of activities across tools and methodologies. One of the most popular methods is reader surveys, providing journalists with real insights. Most commercial tools do not look good on news websites. There is no centralised way to process audience engagement metrics and produce meaningful insights. 

What we have heard most is newsrooms feel "overwhelmed and understaffed" to do whatever they think is necessary. And they feel this way because audience engagement requires a lot of workarounds and tedious manual work.

Information needs

While journalism has played a vital role in shaping modern democracies, the public still negatively perceives journalists. Due to the publicity and exposure, we are perceived as an enlightened elite, but everyone in the industry knows it is not like this. 

The more journalists genuinely express interest in their community, the more people respond willingly to engage in a quality dialogue. There are multiple examples of newsrooms engaging in quality discussions with their community. And people trust them, something that leads essentially to revenue.

The practical problem occurring with selective news avoidance is the lack of trust that leads audiences to become more and more reluctant to give their data to news sites. Newsrooms should be genuinely interested in their community because they value and want to form a relationship with them. That is the only way they will fulfil their information needs and essentially become cash flow positive. 

Listening at scale

At Qurio, we have decided to take action and create a tool that enables small and medium-sized newsrooms to create engaging call-outs that look native throughout their stories and bring back qualitative data that help improve reporting.

Every publisher that relies on advertising revenue should prepare for the impending 'Cookiepocalypse'. Privacy regulations and data protection legislations take very seriously our digital health and how we voluntarily share our preferences online. And regulation should make the internet safer; no one can argue this.

That is why publishers dependent on either reader revenue, membership, or donations should prepare to understand the information needs of the communities they serve, and then the rest will come. 

Like in startups, where customer feedback plays a significant role in shaping the product and the business, talk to your audience and listen to them.

Ask your community questions not only when in doubt but consistently, discretely, and meaningfully for all parties. We need to think about journalism not as a nice-to-have feature in our daily lives but as a utility like the rest of our routines. We buy services and brands because we trust them. 

And in the news business, because it is a business, trust is the currency of success, and in the dawn of Web3, even more so, we need it. So, ask for it.

Pause for thought

Spare one last moment to think what if a tool like Qurio were around in 2015 during the Greek referendum or in 2016 during the UK referendum.

News publications would have datasets of voices, quotes, and tips that would give them a distinct sense of their readership wants to learn. This would help them produce journalism that would make an impact, allowing citizens to make a more informed decision based on facts, not a shady non-paper agenda or algorithmically created propaganda.

No matter the outcome of any significant political change, newsrooms would be able to help their audience navigate the crisis and prepare for the next day or even years. And after years, when things will be different again, the most valuable asset will be datasets with authentic voices from real people sharing honest thoughts. Journalism turned into history.

Tassos Morfis is a co-founder of Qurio, an audience engagement platform. He has also built AthensLive, Greece's first non-profit newsroom and worked with several media startups. He has covered the Greek crisis for international news outlets.

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