How can building trust with the public be a pathway to a sustainable future for news organisations? This was the main question at a virtual event held last week (29 January 2021) organised by the News Leaders Association (NLA).
As Rachel Wise, program director for the NLA, said, "Funding is essential for our future and sustainability. We know that getting audiences to trust us and the work we’re doing is mission-critical."
Sources of mistrust
But why do audiences not trust the news industry? Turns out, we assume that they know more than they actually do. Mayer said that people are not clued up on many areas like the economic pressures facing local news, or the relationship between advertising and editorial.
The biggest hang-up, according to recent Pew Research, is that nearly three quarters of Americans say news organisations do not properly explain where their funding comes from. The same research found that just 17 per cent of audiences are prepared to pay for news.
You can imagine that asking audiences to pay for news does not go down well when they do not understand why it is necessary, how their money will help and what is the commercial influence on news content. After all, wider Pew Research shows that audiences overestimate how financially stable news organisations are, and more recently, they have little idea of how covid-19 has impacted journalism.
Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, a research and training project specialising in the topic of trust in the media, said that news organisations must convince audiences that their reporting is genuinely useful to their lives and would be missed if it were gone. Journalists tend to focus on hard facts to prove credibility, like providing lists of donors and sourcing. Really, audiences simply want to feel they are 'on the same team'.
"Do people have evidence that you are providing value to their lives and community? And do they feel you're worthy of their support?" Mayer asks.
When given information about the financial pressures facing local news organisations and how local journalism supports healthy democracy, the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that respondents were "significantly more likely" (54 per cent) to donate to a non-profit organisation that supports local journalism, than those who did not get that information (40 per cent).
Creating a counter-narrative
The pandemic has pulled this into sharp focus. Mayer cited complaints about paywalls, though advertising is also questioned. Newsrooms are often seen as profiteering either from sensationalised news or blocking access to public interest journalism.
"We as journalists learn really early on to follow the money when we're wondering what's influencing something, who's paying for that research, who's funding that campaign. I think it's really reasonable that people ask who is paying for the news," Mayer says.
Do not let negative comments sit on posts, which most newsrooms do to avoid amplifying the complaint or making it worse. A better approach is an effective counter-narrative, to defuse the situation with the individual, and provide more context for a third-party looking in.
Mayer advised having some stock replies available on staff communication channels to keep messaging and tone consistent. Here is an example that Mayer gave for addressing complaints around advertising (note that the level of transparency is optional and to tweak for accuracy.)
About two thirds of our revenue come from advertising revenue and about one third from subscriptions. We charge advertisers for the ability to reach and engage with our audiences. Advertisers pay based on how many people their ads will reach and also how many people click on their ads. They want engaged users, not just a lot of eyeballs. When local businesses suffer, they often spend less on marketing and promotions. The cancellation of just one big ad contract could cost us thousands of dollars a month.
Our news organisation's finances therefore typically reflect the state of the local economy. While more eyes on our website content is always good, a surge in online traffic to our website is not likely to offset any meaningful decline in advertising revenue. What does affect our bottom line more immediately is financial support from readers - the other third of the pie. For us to serve you well, we rely on your financial support. If your budget allows for it, please subscribe. As always, with questions or comments, please contact us here.
Editor columns and Facebook Live videos can also be a way to address frequent complaints, as demonstrated by US local TV station WCPO when Mike Canan, senior director of local content, published a guest piece on why it was reporting so heavily on covid-19 last March.
This is especially useful for the touchy subject of sponsored or underwritten content. Mayer shared a draft example from Geekwire:
Editor's note: Microsoft is a Geekwire underwriter, financially supporting our news coverage civic issues. We have systems in place to ensure our news coverage does not influence our independent journalism and that all articles are held to strict ethical standards. Learn more about underwritten content on Geekwire.
The lesson is to calmly work through the root of the issue - do not assume any knowledge on part of your readers. Use transparency as a way to provide context for decisions and acknowledge what support has already been given.
When it comes to defending paywalls, for example, you can mention that your reader has already read their allotted number of free articles before the paywall has sprung up. By referencing the economic hardships and how their money helps the newsroom, you can ask for continual support without openly asking for it.
Deeper case studies
Trusting News works with a number of newsrooms that focus on audience's trust as part of a revenue model.
A/B testing on newsletters
Fact-checking website Politifact has an 80,000-strong newsletter following. Some of the early work between Trusting News and Politifact dating back a few years was simple A/B testing of different messaging around asking for donations in their newsletters.
It split their subscribers in half, with one half receiving a generic ask to donate button, essentially a plain reminder. The other half had a rotating list of value statements, like "our fact-checks disrupt the agendas of politicians across the ideological spectrum. Support the truth today." Bolted on was a behind-the-scenes bullet point on how the fact-check was achieved.
After an 18-week period, employing the latter strategy resulted in readers being more than twice as likely to donate and "perceptions of the brand improved significantly."
'Reporter asks' vs 'topical asks'
Local daily newspaper Coloradoan started to implement 'reporter asks' at the end of their stories, which would be a personal statement of goals, followed by an ask to support.
At the end of the first quarter in 2020, this strategy led to 1,000 visits to the subscription order page and directly resulted in around 24 subscriptions. A modest return, bearing in mind this does not include those who saw the plea and signed up through a different route.
The Coloradoan then decided to focus on stories with large amounts of scepticism around why it ought to be supported, like crime and breaking news stories. By putting 'topical asks' into stories, it achieved double the number of subscribers compared to 'reporter asks'.
It then employed the same strategy for covid-19 stories during the first few weeks of the outbreak, except using an editor's note. This resulted in 2,000 direct visits to the subscription page, and 26 direct subscriptions.
"I think journalists worry a lot about being redundant and annoying," says Mayer. "We see a message over and over and think everyone must be tired of it. But for all of our transparency strategies, we don't really hear from news audiences that are tiring of it."
The Day, a daily newsletter based in eastern Connecticut, went on a full-bodied marketing campaign to raise money when the pandemic first hit, through the Local Media Association's 'covid-19 Local News Fund'.
Most notably, it published a front page column candidly laying out the impact the pandemic has on its digital operations and asked for support. In addition to the above, it spread the word through local TV, online articles and a series of videos with staff reporters asking readers for support. That series opened up on how reporters have been impacted by the pandemic and new challenges to their work and business model.
Two weeks after the first column was published, it saw donations surge from $15,000 to $60,000.
Goals moving forward
Mayer challenged news organisations to think more closely about transparency of funding, labelling of paid-for content, narrative of values, and tracking your results with meaningful data by using unique URLs and A/B strategies.
"Think about being really experimental so you can see what really works and what resonates," she concludes.
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