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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

DCN leads new era of quality content signaling with trust.txt

February 17, 2021 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN @jason_kint

Since its founding, Digital Content Next has been at the forefront of emphasizing the importance of brands as proxies for trust and advancing the future of trusted news and entertainment. 

We share this message about trusted digital publishers with policy makers, advertisers, and the public. We share how the trust DCN members’ brands have built – both their reliability and integrity – is critical to their on-going relationships with advertisers and consumers. And today, we also share that message through an innovative new way – through the trust.txt framework.

What is trust.txt? 

The idea is disarmingly simple. 

Trust.txt is a machine-readable text string that enables any web-crawling robot to easily understand there is a relationship between DCN and our members who also choose to install a trust.txt file on their sites. The concept will be familiar to anyone familiar with robots.txt or the more recent ads.txt. Scott Yates, founder of JournalList.net is the caretaker of the trust.txt framework, along with a few members of his non-profit board. 

This simple idea helps to solve a long-standing challenge: Research has repeatedly shown that membership in DCN is a clear positive signal of trust to the industry, press and others.  However, that “trust signal” is not actionable for social networks, search engines, programmatic ad networks, researchers and others that wanted to transact only with trusted publishers. Over the years, platforms, agencies and advertisers have asked us to manage lists of trusted publishers however we’ve always been concerned those lists would be too narrow unless they recognized the entirety of the media ecosystem – not just DCN members. And that’s what the trust.txt framework does.

In support of this framework, DCN has placed a small text file on our website. You can actually look at it here.  

We recommend that all of our members install a similar file. It’s easy. And, significantly, it signals that the trusted publishers that do so have a relationship  to DCN. It confirms our association with each other in a decentralized and secure way. 

Why do this? 

As you likely know, DCN has consistently expressed concerns about how Google and Facebook have undermined the power of brands to serve as proxies for trust. We’ve held their feet to the fire in many ways. But they do have one valid excuse for why they do not send more users to more trusted publishers: They don’t have a way for their web-crawling robots to see that trust relationship. The same can be said for automated advertising systems and brand safety filters begging for automated inclusion lists.  

What they need are machine-readable signals that they can plug into their algorithms. With trust.txt they will have that and their last excuse for why they don’t more prominently feature trusted digital publishers evaporates.

When these trust.txt tags are on more trusted publishers’ websites, DCN will have a new way to hold the platforms accountable. We’ll also be able to use it with new and emerging advertising systems to encourage smart ad spending on trusted content creators. 

Trust us 

Members of DCN: I encourage you to install your own trust.txt file. The instructions to do so are here. I also encourage you to join JournalList.net, a member-owned cooperative that manages the whole system. It also means that Yates, the founder of JournalList, can help you get your trust.txt file built and installed.) 

DCN is pleased to be the first national organization to sign up for JournalList, and we encourage every other membership organization to start using this tool right away so that the network effect of trust will be visible as quickly as possible. The framework was built as a starting point that is truly open and available to all. DCN is, and will be, only as trusted as its  members. The same holds true for any other membership, whether it be a new coalition or an organization that has stood the test of time like the Associated Press. 

The last few years, and especially the last few months, have provided stark evidence that the underlying problems that plague society are made worse when the information ecosystem is weak. It’s time to strengthen our digital infrastructure with trustworthy information, We are hopeful that trust.txt is another powerful step in the right direction.

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