About the time most of the United States was going into lockdown from the pandemic, MediaNews Group was finishing up its requirements as part of The Trust Project at its three main titles: The Denver Post, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and San Jose Mercury News, the latter of which was one of The Trust Project’s pilot sites a few years ago.
“Trust, of course, is such a major issue — no more accurate example than [the attack on the U.S. Capitol] and the crisis of trust we had in media,” said Dan Petty, digital director of audience development at MediaNews Group, based in Denver, Colorado.
Even before joining the Project, the media group discussed what signals its newspapers could give readers to show they provided trustworthy information — being transparent about writers, labeling stories as news or opinion, etc. The industry generally assumes audiences understand much more about such internal workings than they actually do, Petty said.
“We take for granted that people understand,” he said. “With social media, for example: To readers, a headline is a headline. They don’t have the context that they’d have an article clearly labeled opinion. It seemed like a really important thing for us to take on because it was clear that we — as an industry — needed to do more to reinforce trust with our readers.”
Implementing the Trust Indicators
The process of finishing the eight Trust Indicators takes several months and involves the entire newsroom, taking a deep look at ethics policies and other practices and standards throughout the company. One Trust Project criterion: collecting bios for all journalists, increasing transparency about the people writing the news.
“A lot of this stuff — like a policy about corrections or bylines, verification, fact-checking standards — these things are passed down over years and editors’ accumulated knowledge. This forced us to go through the process of sitting down and talking about standards and guidelines. It was a healthy exercise, frankly, especially in the important time of coronavirus, when you have so many people using information from our news brands.”
Trust certainly has taken a hit in the past several years in the United States. The news media industry has to address this as an ethical and as a business practice, Petty said.
“You have some segment of the population that just writes you off entirely because you are mainstream media, and this is a piece to the puzzle. Most publications are pivoting our digital strategies to focusing heavily on digital subscriptions and engagement. There is no way you can possibly grow your audience and sustain yourself to that level without trust.
“The good news is our newspapers surged in subscriptions during COVID, as did many other publications, and there’s just no way you get that without people actually trusting you. Sure, they’re going to read a story because it’s free. But if you’re opening your wallet and giving your credit card information, that’s a signal that you value the information you’re receiving and, presumably, you trust it. It’s not only an ethical and moral obligation to be sure we’re delivering trustworthy information, but it’s also people’s stakes in a business, especially in a subscription mode. If the vast majority of people don’t trust you, you don’t have a future.”
Placing facts front and center
In addition to publishing an article about the partnership with The Trust Project, the publishers applied the Trust Indicators to offer various touchpoints for readers, including, at the end of each article, photos and biographies of all journalists, as well as options to read company policies, report an error, contact someone at the newspaper, and submit a news tip.
“Previously, we didn’t have any clear mechanism to report a mistake,” Petty said. “We want to make sure we mention these things, like why somebody has expertise in this area and what their background is in. That’s all front and center in a way it wasn’t before.”
While trying to engage audiences with these trust points, measuring how it’s working is difficult, Petty said. The company is trying to gather data to see whether these on-page elements are more likely to turn a reader into a subscriber and visit the Web site more frequently.
MediaNews Group owns 60 daily newspapers throughout the United States, as well as many weeklies and bi-weeklies. Petty’s priority now is to roll out The Trust Project throughout the company.