Is news of a crisis of trust in media exaggerated?

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Welcome to the latest Newsroom Initiative newsletter

First up, an interview all about trust, then a look at why Cox buying Axios is so close to the principles of the INMA Newsroom Initiative and has lessons for us all.

Then there’s my usual recommended Twitter follow and some must-read stories on media.

Trust is critical, but maybe the crisis is overblown

Trust — how to defend it or regain it — is a central theme in the INMA Newsroom Initiative. We devoted one of the pillars of the project to the combined topics of trust and quality, and it was a big part of the master class with which we launched the initiative in March.

Often it seems we are in a crisis of trust, with audiences disbelieving even the most solid news services with the strongest ethical frameworks and journalistic skills. It’s also apparent that trust in news correlates closely with trust in politicians and the whole business of politics.

But how bad are things, really, and is a crisis of trust general or worse in some places? 

Patrick Crewdson, the editor-in-chief of New Zealand news site — the largest in the country and built on a network of regional newspapers — wanted to test the assumptions about trust and see whether the presumed crisis applied to his market.

Crewdson used a fellowship at Wolfson College at Cambridge University to produce a sort of meta-analysis on trust in journalism, referring to established work such as the annual trust report of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, but also taking the temperature himself of different markets away from the noise and partisanship of the United States.

His conclusions? It may not be as bad as we have told ourselves; we may never have been trusted as much as we think we were; and trust and the loss of it are not evenly distributed.

I asked Patrick about the project and his findings and how he will try to apply what he’s learned to his day job running one of his country’s most important news outlets, whose proprietor has based her business model on engaging with audiences and advertisers on the basis of trust.

“I was really interested in the prevailing idea that theres a crisis of trust,” Patrick told me in the interview. “I wanted to get a dig into that and find out why — not just from a newsroom, from an editor or a journalists point of view, but about deeper reasons in society. I also wanted to look at it from the point of view of what newsrooms, what journalists, what newsrooms, what the industry as a whole, could potentially do about it.”

Patrick told me he was also influenced by the work of Oxford academic Rachel Botsman, who has studied trust and trustworthiness and talks of four traits needed to establish trust: competence, reliability, integrity, and benevolence. Without targeting those attributes, Patrick believes, media companies may not create the climate of genuine trust they seek.

He also recommends the media industry takes five actions:

Here’s the interview, presented in Q&A format so you can digest the nuggets directly from Patrick. The interview is edited for brevity and clarity.

INMA: Not to jump straight to the end of your analysis with a spoiler, but it seems that your conclusion is that the alleged crisis in trust is unevenly spread.

Patrick Crewdson: Yes, I am much less convinced there is a widespread crisis of trust that has somehow gotten worse. There absolutely is [a crisis] in America. There’s a tendency in other English-speaking countries to see the U.S. as representative of media trends because it’s so central to so much of the discourse about journalism. But for many reasons, the U.S. is an outlier. It’s not representative. It’s a unique case, and that’s definitely the situation with trust.

INMA: That’s backed up, as you say in your paper on this, by the RISJ work that puts the United States 47th among the 47 countries surveyed in its trust analysis and with the biggest fall over time, so say a bit more about those unique factors.

The United States is last in global media trust levels.
The United States is last in global media trust levels.

Patrick Crewdson: It’s possible that what happens in the U.S. is a harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere. But I don’t think that’s a fait accompli, and I don’t think that trends are necessarily seen with the same impact or severity elsewhere.

INMA: What are the implications for the climate in other markets?

Patrick Crewdson: The distinction I’ve been drawing is that in many countries — New Zealand being the one that I focused the most attention on — there isn't necessarily a crisis of trust, defining a crisis as a rapid and negative change in circumstances. 

Trust is low, but it's been low for a long time. It’s still a critical issue because nobody wants trust to be that low, but it’s not necessarily a crisis. I think that’s a meaningful distinction because it influences the attitude you take towards the problem.

If you think of it as a crisis and you say, “We used to be really trusted and now we’re not,” that leads to an attitude of entitlement where you think you deserve to be trusted and that you once were — and the thought is that there is something we can restore.

INMA: You reckon there was no golden age of trust?

Patrick Crewdson: I think that instead of trying to restore lost golden days, it needs to be an approach where you think about what it is to be trustworthy; we need to better establish this relationship and maintain it rather than turn back the clock in some way.

INMA: How is that finding relevant to your business model and market?

Patrick Crewdson: One of the ways in which New Zealand has better conditions for addressing trust than some other Anglophone countries is that there are factors that have fed into the perception of media as elite and isolated in the U.S and the UK that are less pronounced here. 

I think in New Zealand, our newsrooms are still too homogenous. But to a much greater extent than in other countries, we still exist in the communities that were covering with those tighter links at the local level. We are part of communities. … Its also about conscious efforts by media companies to be more diverse and representative.

INMA: With something like 40 newspapers and more than 150 years of history in some of those towns, Stuff journalists are presumably relatively well placed to counter the idea they are some sort of elite from a remote capital. Yes?

Patrick Crewdson: I think that its a strength for Stuff that we are that dispersed and in many communities because one of the reasons that people tend to cite for not trusting journalists or journalism is that they dont know them. They have an image or a perception of what a journalist is, which is often not aligned with reality.

INMA: Stuff recently took a symbolic step to reinforce that with a new Wellington office at street level, with windows and public areas that expose the newsroom to the passing citizens.

Patrick Crewdson: The more active you are in your community, the more connected you are, the more you’re meeting people and they’re making those trust judgments or relationships based on familiar faces. That’s an advantage broadcasters have had, and that in New Zealand keeps them high in the trust rankings — that news comes from recognisable personalities.

INMA: Your analysis of some of the factors behind trust also suggests the need for a much greater distinction, visually and in tone, between reporting and commentary.

Patrick Crewdson: Every media organisation has to take a hard look at what they do with opinion and commentary. If enhancing trust is the goal, then maybe it’s necessary to engineer a much greater division or separation between impartial news content and opinion content. 

We have to take a really close look at the way we report and edit stories to ensure that they are actually impartial, rather than influenced by an editorial line. We need to understand more from our audiences about why they sometimes believe that news coverage isn’t impartial.

INMA: How have your colleagues and leadership responded to your ideas on trust?

Patrick Crewdson: Someone asked me, “What’s the low-hanging fruit? What are the quick wins?” My answer was that unfortunately, I think when it comes to making meaningful gains on trust, the significant things aren’t quick or easy. 

Useful resources on the question of trust in media and how to establish or win it back include:

Analysis: Axios acquisition has big lessons for newsroom focus

The acquisition of Arlington, Virginia-based news service Axios at a rich valuation may hold important lessons for other digital news publishers, especially around their commitment to a singular focus in their output and a joined-up strategy between editorial and product.

Even more than their original creation, Politico, the founders of Axios created a news service stripped of what they deemed to be unnecessary clutter — even excluding almost all video — in favour of a rigid style of bullet points, must-read encapsulating paragraphs, extending beyond 300 words only when absolutely necessary, and always with the message to “go deeper.”

Brevity, clarity, and need-to-know information was the style of Axios, enforced and agreed with its journalists and baked into its content management system. The proposition that Axios would be clean, clear, fast, and informative was simple and effective — along with its newsroom team’s skill at getting genuine scoops on critical political and technology beats.

The market value of Axios — US$525 million — is a lesson in how “smart brevity” sells.
The market value of Axios — US$525 million — is a lesson in how “smart brevity” sells.

Seldom did Axios reporters depart from a standardised format that emphasised high up in the story, literally, “Why it matters.” It was a modern-day version of The Bloomberg Way style guide that helped propel Michael Bloomberg’s news agency to dominance over less agile rivals during the 1980s with clarity and a formulaic approach that was delivered speedily.

Now Axios founders Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz have turned their formula into a spectacular transaction, apparently valuing Axios at US$525 million in a deal for the privately held Atlanta-based family company Cox Enterprises to take 70% of the firm. 

VandeHei, a former Washington Post reporter, embodies many of the central elements that underpin the INMA Newsroom Initiative: editorial and product joined at the hip; clear understanding of the business model; total editorial focus on quality and a reader proposition.

I asked David Clinch, head of global partnerships at Mather Economics (and a friend of mine and solid media analyst), what he thought Axios had that made it valuable.

“I would say their secret sauce is their founders because I think Mike and Jim both had magic from Politico. But Roy brought rigidity, a focus on the business,” David said. Adding, on my prompting: “It was this approach to ‘how we’re going to do stories’ and ‘let’s build a CMS to do stories that way.’ Then everything follows from that, where you can’t really do stories any other way because you break the CMS. And there is a discipline to that. That is, you know, that is a conjoining of editorial and product.”

VandeHei told The New York Times when announcing the transaction: “The lesson of the digital era: Chase fads, fantasy, and clicks, you fade or famish. Chase a loyal audience with quality information, you can flourish.”

Inevitably, VandeHei turned a simple idea — “smart brevity” — into a TED talk, a book, and, more importantly, a news site that seems to be worth half a billion dollars and has lessons for us all.

German publisher Axel Springer bought Politico for US$1 billion late last year in a comparable transaction to draw a super-focused and efficient digital publisher into a traditional media house; they had had been in negotiations with Axios at the same time. In 2015, Alex Springer bought BusinessInsider for US$422 million, again drawing in a highly disciplined digital publisher.

Cox, along with a range of closely held media firms and investors, already had a small stake in Axios. The transaction allows Axios to keep its consulting and engineering arm — which developed its content management system — within direct ownership.

The New York Times reported Axios was selling to Cox at five times its projected annual revenue of around US$100 million. Axios HQ, the branch of the company that licenses the use of its content management system, is being spun out separately. That might echo what BuzzFeed did with its content management system related to the Rebel Mouse firm and the approach of The Washington Post even before Jeff Bezos had created its ARC platform as a service.

“I believe theyre actually going to have to be much more flexibility going forward for the format. I think the format got them here. And I think they think they can sell the format separately,” David Clinch said when we discussed the Axios formula.

Of course, it doesn’t guarantee future success, and Axios hasn’t had to solve the subscription versus advertising and events model before being acquired. But Cox has effectively bought into a vision of the media future and some tools to help it get there.

“They have convinced Cox that they are a news organisation,” David told me. “They are a news organisation, and they want to do news, and they want to do it nationally, domestically, and I am pretty sure they want to do it internationally. Cox likes that.”

Recommended follow

Margaret Sullivan @sulliview was the last New York Times readers’ editor before the newspaper effectively abolished the role, closing down some of the internal public scrutiny of its work, which moved rather alarmingly to social media — not always for the good.

Margaret moved to The Washington Post as a sagacious media commentator. This week she’s said she’s moving to an academic role at Duke Univesity. You can bet she will continue to comment on Twitter and elsewhere. Her latest book, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, is due to be published in October. 

Recommended reads

I have been taken by how many newsroom leaders have talked to me about stress, anxiety, and the need to think about mental health among their staff since we launched the Newsroom Initiative. It’s more than a question of duty of care and is becoming a critical management issue.

An innovative source of information on the topic is the Headlines Network, set up by Hannah Storm and John Cowley in London. Hannah spoke in the first Newsroom Initiative master class. John explained in an interview with why mental health among reporters is an increasing issue and needs to be addressed.

Journalists have always been told to subsume our feelings, almost like we’ve squashed ourselves as humans and erased ourselves out of the picture, says Crowley. Read on.

We put understanding business models as a central pillar of the Newsroom Initiative, and this analysis from Poynter into the different models and outcomes in the annual results of The New York Times Co and Gannett makes interesting reading. As Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds noted, “The juxtaposition was striking.”

Talk back

Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don't like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: I also plan a Slack group. Interested?

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at or with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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