The financing of journalism solved, let’s move on to 3 bigger problems

By Espen Egil Hansen

Fyrr.co

Oslo, Norway

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We have spent the past 20 years struggling with the fundamental question of how to finance journalism. It’s time to move on! 

INMA has challenged me to point out three big problems editors and newsrooms need to solve in the coming years. Shortly, I will outline my candidates. But since you might not be fully on board with the idea that we now can consider the problem of financing journalism as solved, hear me out.

I am not saying the money problem of journalism has been fixed for everyone. Many newsrooms still struggle. But from being a life-and-death issue for journalism as such, we have worked out business models with a better fit in the digital age. It pays to invest in good content. Journalism has become a product people are willing to pay for — not mainly a wagon to carry advertising.  

Espen Egil Hansen, who will lead the Newsroom Innovation Master Class for INMA, made international headlines when he wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg in 2016 about Facebook censorship.
Espen Egil Hansen, who will lead the Newsroom Innovation Master Class for INMA, made international headlines when he wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg in 2016 about Facebook censorship.

Yes, many news organisations are still struggling to balance legacy platforms such as print, TV, and radio with digital. Yes, plenty of media companies are too dependent on falling advertising revenue. But the playbook of transformation is by now well known. It can be learned, trained, copied, and innovated. It’s hard work, but by and large, we know how to do it.  

Adding to my optimism: We finally see regulatory measures worldwide that aim to better balance global tech and local media. Early attempts like the recent Australian regulation might be imperfect (as Facebook’s Nick Clegg argues in this blog post). 

Still, these attempts represent an almost universal acknowledgement that the relationship between media and platforms need to be regulated. This insight will, in the coming years, materialise in better financing of journalism. 

Yet all this optimism comes with a pre-condition: With the new business models, we establish a more direct relationship between the audience (they pay us) and the job we do for them. To succeed, we need to do a better job.

In this article, I present three large problems I think we must fix in the years to come. 

These problems will serve as a framework for an INMA Master Class on Newsroom Innovation that I will moderate beginning on Tuesday, March 9. Nine top editors from around the world will share best practices and thoughts on strategies to solve them in three sessions throughout March.

Click here for information on the INMA Newsroom Innovation Master Class starting next week

Problem 1: Covering disagreement in society

Polarisation is a tempting business model. Go with the crowd, give them what they want, and money will stream in.

Like many other editors, I have been busy finger-pointing at the platforms. Obviously, Big Tech’s role as global amplifiers for hate, lies, and misinformation is part of the distrust problem. Scrupulous politicians found their perfect tool to rally support and, in effect, kidnap elections and democratic institutions. Along the way, platforms made good money, too.  

Yet there are many sinners in the congregation. Global tech cannot be the only one to blame for the current miserable state of the world. For hundreds of years, we editors had a near-monopoly in choosing which voices and stories worthy of relaying to the public. When the Internet gave this public a voice on its own, it fired back: The world as we described it and the world as they experienced it didn’t connect. They still don’t.  

Not all criticism has been fair or well-articulated. But when they went low, we went too high.  For millions of people, we are not relevant anymore. Rather than being seen as the scary watchdog protecting people from abuse, many see us as distant birds in a pale blue sky. They are up there, so what? 

The upcoming Master Class will feature three sessions on Tuesdays throughout March, starting March 9.
The upcoming Master Class will feature three sessions on Tuesdays throughout March, starting March 9.

Instead of understanding fake news as a symptom of fundamental distrust in society, we saw it as a lack of facts. Yet four years of fact-checking Donald Trump’s 30,573 lies as president didn’t stop 74 million Americans from voting for him again. 

Just about every editor struggles with the thorny question of trust, relevance, and public confidence. Undoubtedly, we have become better at fulfilling our self-defined mission of holding governments accountable. Still, despite all of the good work, trust in media is falling.  

Over time we need to change this, and it is a job we have to do ourselves:

  • Strategies to earn higher trust: Neutrality, objectivity, fairness, and even subjectivity and actionism represent very different strategies that a news organisation can apply to reach higher trust. What are the practical implications of choosing one over another? What works? 

  • Rethinking buzzwords: Words like “quality,” “journalistic standards,” and “fairness” are used so routinely that they lost their meaning. We have to rethink them. 

  • The risk of only becoming relevant for the few: Subscription is a solution to the money problem but may drive us into an even larger problem: We optimise for those who can pay. 

I think a good start is to learn from those editors who stand in the middle of the furious distrust storms. And this is just where I want to start the Newsroom Innovation Master Class on March 9: How do we cover disagreement in society and the strategies to build trust and handle polarisation?

  • Lionel Barber just published his book The Powerful and the Damned, about his 14 years as editor-in-chief of the Financial Times. Keywords: “Brexit,” the “financial crisis,” and “social media.” 

  • Maria Ressa was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her outstanding courage and results as a journalist, editor, and founder of the Philippines’ news site Rappler. She has repeatedly been arrested, convicted, and threatened as a result of Rappler’s critical investigative journalism. 

  • Folha de S.Paulo Editor-in-Chief Sérgio Dávila in Brazil stands in another crossfire off attacks by populist President Bolsenaro and supporters.  

Problem 2: Getting the newsroom onboard 

No other problem keeps editors more awake at night than this: You built a great digital strategy, but so many things — from newsroom traditions to lack of resources — stand in the way. The problems seem endless and intertwined.  When you decide on a solution for one problem, five new ones pop up. 

Do you build specialised digital teams or go for an “everyone onboard-strategy?” How do you secure necessary digital resources without losing the quality of your print paper — still loved by thousands of your subscribers? How do you get the product, marketing, tech, and newsroom to work together on solving fundamentals?  

Getting a newsroom onboard with data and other necessary changes takes creative and strong leadership.
Getting a newsroom onboard with data and other necessary changes takes creative and strong leadership.

And when you bring data into the newsroom to lead a more fact-based discussion on what editorial quality looks like, the room falls silent. There is no open opposition, but you can see the crossed arms and hear the mumbling in the corners. This doesn’t feel like a winning newsroom. In fact, you know it’s not. 

It’s essential to fix the problem of getting the newsroom on board because it will end your news brand if you fail. In digital, competition is absolute. Your brand name and print revenue could give you a short-term advantage, but not for long.  

As editor-in-chief of Schibsted’s Aftenposten and VG Nett in Norway, I emphasised the different aspects of newsroom transformation in my leadership. I looked for inspiration from colleagues and even leaders in various industries: tech, banking, retail, academia, start-ups. (Don´t tell anyone, but the problems are the same. We are not that unique). This convinced me that digital transformation is not a technical issue. It is a mindset. 

In advising companies and editors on transformation, I have found the most effective way to move the mindset of a newsroom is to have a systematic approach along three dimensions:

  • Leading and communicating the transformation: Top editors need to spend most of their energy on leading and communicating the transformation. This could mean the editor has to spend less time in public debates on today’s big story and more on internal newsroom discussions. Not all editors feel comfortable in leading the nitty-gritty of change themselves. As an editor, you can organise and delegate in multiple ways. Still, no organisation will genuinely succeed without the top leadership, showing they are “all in” and willing to get dirt on their hands. 

  • Tear down the silos: Leaders need to tear down the silosbetween departments and professional groups in their company. When organising resources, try to take your readers and subscribers’ perspective and ask: What job do we do for them? Most departments in a news company are there for an internal reason. Successful media companies I’ve studied find ways to align resources from different professions — reporters, product, marketing, and reader revenue — around solving the most significant problems on behalf of their audience,.

  • Work culture: Finally, culture is the sum of all the small and big things we do — not what we say we do. Work culture is, therefore, not something a CEO or an editor can decide. It has to be owned by everyone in the company. Still, successful companies find ways to work consistently with the culture fundamental for the business. Let’s learn from them. 

These three dimensions are the framework for the third session of the INMA Newsroom Innovation Master Class, on Tuesday, March 23, focused on how to transform your newsroom: 

  • Central to The Washington Post Managing Editor Kat Downs Mulder’s leadership is forming teams with members from different departments to solve problems and develop ideas.

  • As an experienced leader, having been the editor-in-chief of Dagens Industri, Bonnier News Editorial Director Lotta Edling knows what works with culture and digital development across multiple successful brands in Bonnier. 

With a personal strong digital foundation, including having helped launch Huffington Post in Munich, Handelsblatt Editor-in-Chief Sebastian Matthes’ job is now to bring the German legacy brand into the digital age.

Problem 3: Engaging the audience through compelling storytelling

This problem shouldn’t be a problem. It should be to the core of what we do: great storytelling as the basis of great journalism. Sadly, it’s not. 

Twenty years after we started experimenting with video, audio, live coverage, interactivity, dynamic graphics, and data, many newsrooms are still doing just that: experimenting. Although we daily see great digital storytelling examples, most journalism is still presented similarly to how we did it 50 years ago. 

The reasons for this are complex. Partly it has been a problem of competence and having the right people. Partly it has been about technology, tools, and how to use them. Partly it has been a cost problem. And partly it has been about pure tradition in the newsrooms. 

It is essential that we move to a better place for journalism. In print, we could build a strong reader habit by daily filling the newspaper with text and pictures. In digital, we should let the story decide the format. Meanwhile, in choosing formats, we have to be much more mindful of the audience’s situation when consuming our content. 

Podcasts are one of the most popular platforms on which audiences enjoy news content. NRC will discuss its podcast success during the upcoming Master Class.
Podcasts are one of the most popular platforms on which audiences enjoy news content. NRC will discuss its podcast success during the upcoming Master Class.

For example, the podcast has proven to be an effective channel for reaching a younger crowd used to plugging in their earbuds. But not anything goes. You need to produce and format so every second brings value to a specific audience group. Be a bore, and the listener will never return. Be relevant, and you have a loyal user with engagement minutes you can only dream of in text-based journalism. 

In the past 25 years, we learned how to digitise print newspapers. Now, the most significant opportunity is in digitising audio and video. The objective would be to secure a position in a bigger pie of attention. Ultimately, people spend more time on audio and video than on text-based media.

Creativity, imagination, and spontaneity are trademarks of great storytelling. But to get to the next level of storytelling, newsrooms need a more structured approach.

This will be the focus of the the second Newsroom Innovation Master Class on Tuesdays, March 16. I have invited three editors, all successful in what they are doing. Their subject will be very different storytelling formats: podcast, visual- and data journalism, and live video. Still, they share a structured approach to storytelling we can all learn from when developing our newsrooms:

  • Amanda Farnsworth, head of visual and data journalismat BBC News, will focus on where you need professional teams and where you can provide tools and training that enable all reporters to do visual and data storytelling.

  • Alexandra Beverfjord, editor in chief of Norway’s Dagbladet, has successfully made breaking news video core to the tabloid newspaper’s strategy.

  • Harrison van der Vliet, deputy editor-in-chief of NRC in The Netherlands, will talk about podcasts and how they are formatted to build strong reader/listener habits. 

If these are problems facing your newsroom and you are looking for solutions, join INMA for this unique dive into an under-covered subject for the news industry. You will walk away with practical advice from peer editors from around the world — from our faculty and from our audience. 

Looking forward to seeing you soon at the INMA Newsroom Innovation Master Class!

About Espen Egil Hansen

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