Americans have trust issues with the news media. A recent Gallup poll found American trust and confidence in the mass media has sunk to its lowest level in polling history—just 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust. This finding indicates one thing: the news media needs an overhaul.
But what should the media do to shift this trend? In this blog post, I analyze the situation and offer recommendations for regaining trust.
However, all of this is not to suggest journalists are failing at their jobs. In fact, I work with reporters daily who are hardworking, knowledgeable and dedicated. But there are opportunities to regain the public’s confidence and evolve the process of how it informs audiences. Just as we perform SWOT analyses for our public relations clients, I have done one here for the news media at large.
A SWOT of the current media landscape
The news industry has proven it is nimble and embracing the shift to digital. The majority of outlets now offer digital subscriptions, and have witnessed a spike in mobile traffic. And the good news for cable outlets is that viewership is up, which is likely driven by 2016 presidential election coverage. Factors influencing strengths include:
- Surveys estimate that 75% of newspapers use a digital subscription model
- Outlets shifting to mobile, with majority receiving more unique visitors to their mobile sites than their desktop sites
- More viewers have turned to cable news channels in 2015 than in 2014, causing a ratings bump not seen in several years
Over the past few years, weaknesses within the industry center around reduced readership and shrinking newsrooms. Additionally, bias in reporting now appears commonplace, while audiences seem to have developed an allergy to this practice. While skeptical of sources, audiences are not as likely to question stories that affirm their viewpoints. Yet many stories may not cover what audiences deem important. Factors influencing weaknesses include:
- Weekday and Sunday newspaper circulations saw their greatest declines since 2010, and 83% of newsrooms have reduced their number of journalists
- A series of Harvard studies found minimal coverage of policy issues during the 2016 presidential campaign, and “journalistic bias” resulting in over-coverage of some candidates over others
- There’s speculation bias is prevalent in news media and is fostering distrust among readers and viewers, while conversely others suggest the media may be most valued when confirming audience bias
- In 2013, opinion and commentary filled 85% of the airtime on MSNBC and filled 55% of airtime on Fox News
While circulation and viewership has declined, audiences have moved to online and mobile formats. In response, some outlets have already begun embracing the shift like CNN expanding digital channels and mobile. Additionally, as audiences grow more weary of opinion, outlets should present all pertinent facts upfront. In fact, MSNBC and NBC are shifting from “progressive hosts to more straight news.” Factors influencing opportunities include:
- Nearly twice as many adults (38%) often get news online than get news in print (20%)
- Digital display ad spending overall—including mobile—grew 27% in 2015 to $26.8 billion
- Majority of U.S. adults get news on social media—particularly on Facebook—and 18% do so often
The industry continues to face declining readership and viewership of traditional formats. This will likely have a negative impact on revenue and newsroom staff size, as digital ads may not fully compensate for this loss. As the cable cord cutting trend continues, another threat is audiences shifting away from TV sources. Factors influencing threats include:
- In 2015, more than 1 million US households cancelled cable television subscriptions—reducing TV as the main source for news
- Local TV has seen a gradual decline in viewership and stations generated less revenue in 2015 compared to the year before
- Circulation revenue is forecast to fall to $7.7 billion over next three years, and digital-ad gains aren’t expected to offset print losses at newspapers
All this indicates the news media needs a new approach. Outlets should 1) continue embracing digital channels, 2) reduce amount of opinion, 3) reformat articles and 4) reinvent subscription models. Below are my suggestions for how.
A new digital format
It appears a growing number of outlets have embraced an essay format. While making for interesting reads, it doesn’t always lend itself well to digital channels. This format runs the risk of making important details less digestible and injecting opinion—potentially undermining trust.
The first suggestion is to kick it old school by revisiting the inverted pyramid style, but turning it up to 11. My concept for this is in the whiteboard sketch to the right.
While seemingly familiar, it’s the inverted pyramid on steroids. The format has familiar components but makes the news more scannable and interactive. Its anatomy is comprised of:
- Important information with bulleted out key takeaways
- Collapsible sections with more details
- Contained section on analysis, if necessary
- Additional background information
- Links to related articles
This provides a cleaner approach to presenting the news. It would also work well on mobile or online. Additional suggestions are limiting distracting ads and ensuring any videos don’t play automatically.
Reinvent the subscription paradigm
As news outlets have shifted to online, consumers increasingly expect free content. This goes as far as consumers utilizing an ad blocker or circumventing pay walls using a browser’s “incognito” mode.
However, offering free content drives up the importance of advertising and page views. It also increases the incidences of dreaded “clickbait.” To turn the tide, I suggest a new Netflix-type subscription model that spans outlets.
Most readers get their news from a variety of sources, making it unappealing to subscribe to each outlet. Instead, readers could use a single paid-service that gives them unencumbered access to various outlets’ articles for the cost of something like $0.10 per article. This would help shift the focus back from the interests of advertisers to readers.
I don’t know if this service exists, but I’d be curious to see it in practice.
Recommendation for readers
A way readers can regain trust in the media themselves is to consult a variety of outlets—even ones they disagree with. This will aid in getting a deeper understanding of the news, empathize with differing viewpoints, and provide a more well-rounded perspective.
After all, one article will have different information from the next. It’s best to get a fuller picture of the day’s happenings.