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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Confidence can rebuild trust in news media

April 18, 2024 | By Richard E. Brown, Media Revenue Consultant @richardebrown17
The topline: Audiences have alarmingly low trust in news media. It’s time to undertake a radical revenue remodel, but first we need to find the confidence to get started.

If you were fortunate enough to have a grandmother like mine, who served as both a protector and a source of wisdom, count yourself among the blessed. Recently, I’ve found myself reminiscing about her, particularly thinking about a bittersweet memory from my teenage years. I spent a few weeks at her Missouri home when I was about 16, seeking a haven from life’s tumult. During the visit, I became fixated on revitalizing her dilapidated basement.

My grandmother’s home was built in the early 1900s and it bore the marks of time, including structural issues and flooding. Amidst the turmoil and events following my parents’ divorce, I yearned for a project to occupy my mind and hands. Armed with carpet, paint, screws, and lumber, I set to work, determined to transform the basement into a sanctuary of sorts. My goal was simple: to bring a smile to my grandmother’s face.

In retrospect, that time holds a mix of emotions. While the project provided a temporary escape and a sense of purpose, I now recognize its limitations. Despite my efforts, the temporary facelift I offered couldn’t mend the home’s deeper issues. Over the following 25 years, the house fell into disrepair, succumbing to floods and neglect after my grandmother’s passing.

Reflecting on this experience, I can’t help but draw parallels to the state of the news media industry. We, too, seem focused on mourning a historic structure that is no longer sound. While it is better to take some action than none, we can’t restore news media revenue through superficial updates. It’s high time we find the confidence to undertake a radical remodel.

The news media’s confidence gap

Despite producing valuable content and abiding by high journalistic standards, trust in the news media has eroded in the face of rampant misinformation. In the wake of this decline, consumer engagement plummets, subscriptions struggle, and advertising revenue dries up. This is underpinned by a stinging irony. We possess the potential to be bastions of truth, yet our message lacks resonance with both subscribers and advertisers because of a fundamental question: Do we truly believe in our own value?

A recent study by the Pew Research Center paints a concerning picture. Public trust in news media is declining, mirroring a broader trend of declining trust in institutions. Several factors contribute to this erosion, including the rise of misinformation online and a shift in news consumption habits. Consumers are bombarded with information from various sources, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

However, the study also offers a glimmer of hope. People are more likely to trust news outlets they feel a personal connection with. This highlights a crucial strategy for the news media to rebuild trust: fostering a sense of community and focusing on local stories that resonate with readers.

Here’s the crux of the matter as we seek to rebuild news media trust and revenue: confidence is the missing piece. We can’t project strength externally if we doubt it internally. We resemble a once-grand home, its foundation weakened, its purpose in some ways forgotten. It’s time to rediscover our core values and embark on a comprehensive renovation, one built on a foundation of unwavering confidence.

It is time for the news media to take action

Throughout my tenure in the industry, I’ve noticed a pervasive tendency to operate solely on the defensive. However, a recent insight from an editorial leader resonated deeply with me: it’s time to stop playing defense and start playing offense.

This call to action struck a chord because it underscores our urgent need to break free from conventional approaches. Too often, we find ourselves caught in the whirlwind of day-to-day operations, constantly putting out fires and mitigating losses. This reactive mindset inevitably leads to painful layoffs and compromises the quality of our journalism.

My grandmother’s basement would have fallen into dilapidation even faster if I hadn’t taken action. And it helped me regain some of my personal confidence at a challenging time because action breeds confidence. As an industry, going on the offense will help us seize control of our destiny.

This proactive approach requires us to move beyond simply reacting to challenges. It demands we undertake a strategic shift that empowers us to stop only playing defense and start playing offense. We must confront issues head-on and unlock the full potential of revenue strategies that lie dormant within our news media organizations.

Revenue experimentation and diversification

One strategy that has captured my attention in rebuilding revenues is sponsored content. When executed effectively, sponsored content can be a powerful tool that serves audiences and the bottom line. For example, partnering with local businesses to sponsor informative content about financial literacy or health generates revenue and provides valuable, niche content to our audience. That in turn builds trust and strengthens our community focus. Sponsored content should be clearly labeled and adhere to strict editorial guidelines to differentiate it from traditional reporting. This transparency illustrates our commitment to ethical journalism and further builds trust with audiences.

Going on offense also means consistently communicating the narrative of what we represent to our core audiences, to our communities, and to democracy itself. We are the watchdogs, the truth-tellers, the vital link that empowers citizens with the information they need to participate. This is a story we need to tell consistently and with unwavering conviction.

The same proactive approach applies to our role as advertising partners. Sponsors aren’t just a revenue stream – they’re potential partners in progress. By demonstrating the engaged demographics we reach and the lasting impact advertising can have within our platforms, we become trusted allies in achieving their marketing goals. This shift in perspective – from passive recipient to active collaborator – is key to forging mutually beneficial relationships.

This type of strategy should also lead to increased audience engagement, positive feedback on content, and a rise in subscriptions or memberships – all indicators that we’re moving in the right direction to improve news media trust and revenue. Ultimately, we can measure success through our ability to regain public trust, elevate our journalistic standards, and secure a sustainable future for our organization.

Reflecting on my grandmother’s home, I can’t help but feel a sense of regret for what could have been. Yet, I’m reminded that in our industry, we have the chance to make a real impact, to enact change, and to revitalize our role in American society.

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