Paul Farhi, media reporter at The Washington Post, opened the Editor’s Retreat session of the 88th-annual INMA World Congress in Washington, D.C., with a discussion about “fighting the fake news challenge” — an issue in today’s world that, while challenging, has proven to be an exciting time to be a reporter.
“I sometimes feel like a man collecting rainwater during a storm,” Farhi said. “There are just so many stories.”
People always ask him what is different about covering the news today. His answer is: “I used to get up every day to derive truth from power. Now I get up to try and put power back in truth.”
Fake news versus facts
Farhi was quick to clarify there are two kinds of fake news: actual false news and that which U.S. President Donald Trump calls “fake news” — the kind Trump considers “inconveniently factual.”
“Trump distorts reality and fact as a political strategy,” Farhi said. “He’s not the first to lie, but perhaps the first where the constant misdirection is meant to discredit the media. There’s not much we as journalists can do about this, other than keep writing stories that are true and factual, and hope that people can determine the difference.”
Here’s where the two sets of fake news come together and collide, giving birth to something that is unholy and even dangerous, Farhi said: Trump is largely winning the war on the media — one that the media hasn’t waged back yet.
“He’s opened up this Pandora’s box in which it’s possible for people to treat the truth as if it’s up for grabs. If all news is fake news, which is what Trump contends, then there’s no reason to look for the truth. If all media cannot be trusted, then you might as well get behind the guy who told you it is [Trump].”
The media and the public are in uncharted waters here, Farhi said, in an era in which the President has engaged in a battle to turn actual news into something no better than what the Internet Research Agency produced.
“The good news is that mainstream journalists aren’t buying into this. They are invested on a daily basis to fighting these claims of fake news,” he said.
The Washington Post has a staff member whose sole job is fact-checking Trump’s tweets and statements. President Trump has made more than 3,000 false or baseless claims since he took office. “He’s on pace to reach more than 10,000 false claims in a four-year period,” Farhi said. “That’s truly an amazing number.”
Fake news is pretty much the same as nuclear waste: it’s toxic, and it will affect a lot of people for a lifetime. “The measure of how we live today, maybe the measure of our civilisation, is how people work with this ideological waste,” Farhi concluded. “I’m proud to be among those who are ‘making America factual’ again.”
Global attitudes and trust toward media
Katerina Eva Matsa, associate director of journalism research at Pew Research Center, shared some key findings from the centre’s report on global and U.S. media attitudes and habits.
“First off, we asked people whether it’s acceptable for news organisations to favour one political party,” Matsa said. “Seventy-five percent of respondents worldwide said that this is never acceptable, yet they also feel this is an area in which the media does not perform well.”
Following that, Pew asked four questions about different areas of media reporting. Respondents rated the media highest for covering important issues but lowest for reporting on politics fairly. In most countries, answers about whether news media cover political issues fairly ran along political divides.
“The interesting thing is that the U.S. and Israel have not only the widest divide between those who support the current government and those who think the media reports fairly, but they are also upside-down from all the other countries surveyed,” Matsa said.
In other countries, people who support the incumbent government are largely satisfied with the media coverage. In the United States, however, the majority of people who support the current administration do not feel the media coverage is fair.
In a Western European study, broad majorities say the news media are important to society but fewer trust the media. Northern countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden reported much higher levels of trust, while southern countries such as Italy reported far lower trust levels in the media.
News media rated highest for covering important issues but lowest for being politically neutral and independent of corporate influence.
In regard to media consumption, the majority of people in European countries get most of their news from social media. This is not as high as in the United States, but still encompasses a majority of people, Matsa said. “When we ask people about sources on social media and whether they pay attention or are familiar with the sources, we find that they just don’t pay attention to the sources. Not just whether they think the source is reliable, but that they just don’t pay attention to it.”
In relation to trust of the news media, 2017 revealed the sharpest political divide in the U.S. ever measured. “We’ve never seen this kind of divide before,” Matsa said.
Content: What do readers want?
As speaker Katie Kutsko, programme manager at the American Press Institute, took the stage, gears shifted into insights and resources for delivering great content. On the topic of fake news, trust and quality content go hand in hand, Kutsko said.
“Analytics are meaningless without your local expertise and local knowledge to add context to them and make them relevant to your news content,” Kutsko said. A lot of news organisations look at analytics the wrong way — focusing too much on pageviews.
“There’s a lot more to it than that,” Kutsko said. “What you care about as a news organisation should guide what you’re measuring. We firmly believe that growing your audience aligns with your newsroom goals.”
She provided three major ways to achieve this:
- Give the audience news and information to help them in their lives.
- Match coverage to audience passions.
- Provide new opportunities for audiences to buy what they want.
Journalism is moving away from ads, toward subscribers. “This is actually great for journalists, because it means that people care about your content and are supporting your work,” Kutsko said. They are seeing this work more at large organisations than at smaller ones.
“That shift is from chasing pageviews to the newsroom being the engine of your consumer relevance and loyalty. It all has to work together to be successful,” she said.
Though analytics are used to measure circulation and ad revenue, there are now dozens of things that can be measured, including popularity, depth of content (such as time spent), social reach, and segments (specific niche audiences).
Kutsko provided participants with several tools for managing analytics, depending on the objectives an organisation wants to investigate:
- For real-time tracking, use Chartbeat.
- For a deep-dive review, use Google Analytics.
- For engagement tracking, use CrowdTangle.
- For context information, use Metrics for News.
- For a deeper look into competition, use Alexa.
- For blended tools, look into Mather and Content Insights.
Kutsko provided additional insight on Metrics for News, a Web-based app to track journalism qualities that drive engagement. It helps to track topics, authors, originality, multi-media aspects, depth of reporting, and audience appeal of the content.
“This turns your Web analytics into news analytics, which is more useful,” Kutsko said. “Another element that stands out is that we look at your content through a blended metric.” This includes what the API calls an engagement index, which is weighted to what the organisation cares about. “This gives a more holistic view of what your content is doing and how your audience engages with it,” she said.
Instead of asking what kind of content the audience wants to see, the API asks what they are passionate about.
Among 70 partners in the United States, API research has found:
- Crime and food are the most popular topics overall.
- Major enterprise boosts engagement by 55%, but only makes up 1% of content produced.
- Original stories boost engagement by 40% and make up 6% of content.
Once you have the data, it should be democratised; Kutsko recommended offering access to analytics across the company.
Commerce: What’s the newsroom’s role?
Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media, then took the Editor’s Retreat in the direction of commerce and the newsroom.
Spirited Media is a young, bootstrap company aimed at an audience aged 40 and younger, designed and produced for mobile. It is focused on a clean user experience (no pop-up ads, for example) and curated with an emphasis on local news. Distributed heavily on social media, Spirited monetises primarily with events, not display advertising.
The key for local news brands is passion, not pageviews. Brady broke revenue lines into three tiers:
- Tier 1: Surviving — memberships, event sponsorships/ticket sales, and platform sales.
- Tier 2: Sustaining — consulting and grants.
- Tier 3: Accruing — advertising.
The goal at Spirited was to align editorial and revenue goals. To do this, the company used a chart comparing revenue options with product quality, community impact, consumer passion, and audience size. Membership, events, and sponsorships, for example, hit those first three areas absolutely, and audience size somewhat. Advertising, on the other hand, didn’t really hit any of the areas except audience size.
The overall lesson, Brady said, is that everyone must own responsibility for all they do: “The number of problems we’ve run into by fully engaging the newsroom and sales together have been almost nothing. Part of this is in the hiring process; you have to hire people who are open to this.”
Brady had some advice for companies wanting to integrate this way.
- Be fully transparent about how the company makes money.
- Make sure the newsroom knows it is expected to help that cause.
- Don’t create any separation between departments.
- Be fully transparent about financials.
- Always understand the wall between the editorial and business sides.
“But that wall is about action,” Brady said. “It’s not about knowledge.” For example, the business won’t write editorial about a company because it sponsors an event. “I think people use the wall as a crutch to not even know anything about how the company makes money. The more you know about the business side of things, the less likely you are to cross that line,” he said.
Culture: New models for journalism
All of these various issues, from fake news and audience trust to content and revenue, come together in overall culture. Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab at American University, concluded the Editor’s Retreat on this topic.
“I would ask you the over-arching question: Are some of our conventions actually hurting journalism?” Schaffer said. “Has the value proposition of journalism been disappearing long before now?”
This has resulted in a lot of “gotcha” journalism, as well as repetitive coverage and unreliable wisdom. Schaffer wants to look at how we can do things differently — making a case for new taxonomies in journalism.
“I want to look at some new models of journalism. Consider advocacy instead of objectivity,” she said.
This is not to say partisan advocacy, but rather advocacy on behalf of our audience and civic impact: creating knowledge, serving needs, and building community.
“It’s a question of, do we want to be a catalyst, or do we want to be a commodity?” Schaffer asked. “What we’re seeing in the entrepreneurial space is a lot of mission-drive sensibilities and transparent statements of purpose.”
Schaffer identified emerging journalism taxonomies:
- Knowledge-based journalism.
- Soft-advocacy journalism.
- Constructive journalism.
- Activist journalism.
- Restorative narrative journalism.
- Social journalism.
- Solutions journalism.
- Dialogue journalism.
“We’re seeing signs of change all around us,” Schaffer said. “I think there are calls to revisit some of our rigid journalism and where they are preventing us from having impact in our communities.”