El Comercio’s relationship with The Trust Project started as a regional effort in mid-2019. Founded by award-winning journalist Sally Lehrman, The Trust Project is a consortium of news organisations working together to create greater transparency within the news media.
When Jaime Bedoya, El Comercio's head of qualified content, first heard about the project, he was fascinated by the idea of regaining what he saw as lost confidence from the audience. By the time the project really got going with several news media companies in Latin America, the pandemic hit. The regional group disintegrated, but El Comercio continued its path.
“The Trust Project is consistent in reconsidering the importance of transparency in this profession — the need to recover some kind of intellectual humility, which I think we have lost since the Internet started taking advantage of that territory,” Bedoya said. “The Trust Project will force us to a permanent evangelisation of good journalistic practices, which I think have been lost in the newsroom. But they haven’t been forgotten.”
The mission to restore trust
Bedoya says the elevation of trust is a win for any newsroom. He has seen angry citizens disengage from traditional media sources, not unlike what the United States has seen with Trump supporters.
“We have potential Trump voters in every country — people who believe in conspiracies, superstition, anything that can be considered anti-journalism,” he said. “The Internet is a great developer for all this kind of false information. That’s why trust is a priority, because we need to be forced to regain what the Internet has taken from us.”
Donald Trump exacerbated this problem, but he didn’t create it, Bedoya said.
“This is a human problem,” he said. “It’s in us to lie, so the possibility to fabricate to create a better impression of your true self is in the human history. We were discussing this with the newsroom the other day. History is full of fake news, from the Bible to Peruvian history. Mr. Hearst and Mr. Pulitzer sent the U.S. to war with Spain based on fake news. Maybe Mr. Trump is going to say he invented it, but that will also be fake news.”
Human nature, the Internet, and social media created the trifecta needed to birth the current mistrust of news media. And media companies tried to compete by joining in, Bedoya said.
“We started to produce garbage content, clickbait,” he said. “We forgot what we’re about. Now we’ve taken notice that that wasn’t the way. The way is precisely doing the opposite of social media. I think now we are gaining a place of respect, a place of purpose, and also the possibility of economic life. The New York Times is setting the example. You can be a serious media organisation and, at the same time, be profitable. We are on that path. We are on that quest.”
Imagine the newsroom as a restaurant, the trendy kind that features seating at the counter so you can see every move. That’s the idea of the trustworthy newsroom, Bedoya said.
“The idea is to open a window to the newsroom so people not only can consume what you produce — for instance, not just see the beautiful plate you are being charged for but you can see the process. You have some kind of guarantee it’s done with hygiene, that it’s the correct product, and with some kind of love for the craft. That’s the basic idea of The Trust Project: transparency.”
El Comercio has completed all of the Project’s eight Trust Indicators since joining in November of 2019. The road to those eight wasn’t always easy with journalists, who were not happy to be reminded to check their sources. They now had to show their work, as any solid math teacher requires. Teams on the tech side, however, were immediately enthused.
Measuring trust is part leap of faith (do good journalism because it’s your job) and part business (the paywall is a “cruel way of measuring” whether you are trusted,” Bedoya said). El Comercio instated its paywall about a year before joining The Trust Project. After an expected steep decrease in engagement, readers are now responding.
“We are putting all our stakes in quality content,” he said. “Maybe our audience is not going to be as great in volume as when we publish stories from the Kardashians, but maybe it’s a much more loyal and close to our hearts audience, which is what journalism is about.”
In the middle of a pandemic with national elections coming up in April, this is a moment of truth (so to speak) for El Comercio, Bedoya said.
“We are embracing that concept of truth as the main purpose of our work. Sometimes it’s not going to please the journalists and sometimes it’s not going to please the audience. But that’s what you have to do. It’s a very simple and clear strategy. The pandemic has cost many lives. These are terrible times. But that’s the moment in which you see much more clearly the purpose of what you are doing.”
This case study originally appeared in the INMA report, How News Brands Are Rebuilding Trust.