Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
9 mins read

Here’s how publishers can stop people from avoiding the news

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This year’s Reuters Digital News Report provided us with a frightening reveal: people are sick of the news. Even internet users who surf the digital waves on a regular basis have openly stated that they are on an ‘informational diet’ right now. 

More precisely, 32% of people who participated in the above-mentioned research said that they’ve developed a habit of avoiding the news. 

More than half (58% to be exact – and let’s be exact) of individuals surveyed said that the reason why they avoid the news today is because it puts them in a bad mood. Clearly it depresses them so much that they’ve decided to go cold turkey on it and exclusively consume information that’s less news-y and more entertaining, or in sync with their interests.

For publishers, this is just another horror story to throw on the nightmare pile.

It’s not just that publishers are trying to find a business model to keep them afloat, or even a strategy to maximize loyalty. No: clearly even getting readers to read seems to be a problem.

This in itself should be enough to sit up and take notice, but there’s more. News avoidance is linked to falling trust levels in news too. In the UK – again according to that aforementioned Reuters report – trust in news fell from 51% in 2015, to 40% in 2019. There, Brexit has a lot to do with it, but it’s a pattern found globally with an average of a 2% drop over the same time period.

So we thought we’d take some time to think about what publishers can do to regain their readers’ trust and stimulate more people to start trusting – and reading – the news again.

1. Better journalism (an obvious one, isn’t it?)

Do people switch off from the news because the underlying journalism is bad? And, what would constitute ‘bad’, anyway?

The coverage of Brexit – and the related General Election in the UK last week – highlights a few issues at the heart of the problem.

When an organization like the BBC is accused of having a political bias, you know something’s up. The broadcaster has historically been seen as the bastion of journalistic neutrality, but has come under fire for allegedly abandoning its neutral position.

The curious thing? Both the left and the right were doing the accusing. Various Twitter-storms raged about apparent pro-Tory bias, The Guardian ran a piece about how BBC employees fear the election coverage has caused the public to distrust them, while The Telegraph reported that Johnson had indicated his intention to withdraw participation from a flagship current affairs radio program, citing ‘political bias’. It’s a curious time to be alive.

Whatever the truth, the fact is that social media and those outside the journalism realm have amplified these cries of ‘bias!’ and sown the seeds of skepticism into an electorate (and readership) already fatigued from several years of political wrangling over the issue of the day (Brexit, in case you were wondering). Those readers are – at least in certain areas – viewing the Beeb’s output through skeptical lenses. It’s akin to the canary in the coalmine: we’ve heard the charges that journalism has trust issues for a while, but it has been easy to dismiss these critiques as hysterical cries from the fringes. When it’s leveled against a generally-respected broadcaster, it’s time to pay attention.

Have the BBC dropped the ball? That’s a loaded question. Let’s go for this instead: right now journalists and publishers need to take stock of what they’re doing and where they’re at. There will be some great practices out there. We’ve seen plenty. There will also be some approaches which are now defunct, outdated or just supplanted by better ways of doing business. We could get caught up in post-mortems, but more usefully the question should always, always be: how can we do better?

If you want to keep people engaged and actually interested in your content, you have to give them a reason to trust you. Again, Reuters has some pointers. Across all markets surveyed this year, 62% of respondents remarked that the news keeps them up to date, but only 51% say it helps them understand what’s going on, and only 42% feel that it monitors and scrutinizes ‘power’.

When reading the news, people don’t just look for fresh information. They also look for guidance. They need a trustworthy voice of reason that will help them make sense of the news. They want to know what certain events actually mean on a larger scale and how they should process certain information.

The rise in the popularity of slow journalism startups supports these claims. Even though we live in a day and age where information travels fast and the goal seems to be first to breaking news, startups like Tortoise and Delayed Gratification have decided to break the mold and report the news with closer attention and more depth (And indeed the latter’s tagline, ‘last to breaking news’ playfully subverts that widely held view). 

Their success serves to remind us that readers are not sick of content; they’re sick of incomplete information that confuses them about the issues important to them and leaves them in the dark even when they’re following the news.

2. Better news distribution

According to Reuters Digital News Report, the most effective way to reinforce trust in the news media is to give people direct access, not distribute it through platforms and aggregators. In the US, research from Pew found that 57% of respondents didn’t trust news that came from social platforms; when it comes from directly from a publisher’s website, readers were more likely to trust it.

In Nordic countries, by preserving strong identities and high market penetration, brands have avoided the drop in traffic that come from the latest changes that occur with social media (talking about Facebook, to be precise). 

Schibsted, for instance, reaches 80% of consumers in Norway and Sweden. Thanks to its strong marketing, technological uplift, decisive restructuring, and overall rock-solid journalism – brands like Schibsted have turned the game in their favor.

But, as ever, Scandinavia’s success is tricky to emulate: there are so many hardwired cultural factors that make those countries more liable to pay for news. That said, there are clear patterns worth noting.

Remember the news avoidance statistics we hit you up with at the beginning? It’s currently at 35% in the UK, 41% in the USA. In Norway and Finland, those figures are 21% and 17% respectively. Reuters also reported that Finland and Norway recorded the highest proportions of readers who agreed that the media does a good job of monitoring the powers that be. These two countries also have much higher than average rates of readers who pay for online news – and Norway has seen the biggest growth.

The lesson seems to be that consumers who pay, trust their media more.

The correlation between direct access and trust should make publishers rethink their distribution strategies, the need to distance themselves from social media and the damages that result from the delusory concept of distributed content.

3. Better relationships with the community

Newsrooms, especially those that operate locally, need to know that building a community online is worth investing time and resources into. Getting readers to respond, interact, and share topics do wonders for the publisher’s image, website traffic, and new revenue opportunities – as well as demonstrating that the editorial strategy is on point. 

When it comes to building online communities, niche publishers have a slight advantage because it’s far easier to group people of specific interest under the same domain and stimulate them to interact with each other than to develop a strong community for a brand that covers a bit of everything.  

However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We have already talked on this blog about how establishing a dialogue between newsrooms and their communities requires patience, time, and a rock-solid plan.

There’s a reason that community-focused journalism, engagement journalism and outcomes-focused journalism are all being discussed with such fervor among the profession: it might be soul-searching, it might be post-election analysis, but publishers and newsrooms seem to be increasingly aware that it is not sustainable to work like the news landscape remains unchanged. 

As the rumpus with the BBC proves, social media has the power to destabilize even the most rock-solid media organizations, and that might be a good thing. Not because those kinds of organizations need toppling, but because it illustrates that the relationship between reader and publisher is irrevocably altered. Readers are more discerning, more demanding and there’s opportunity to listen to their requirements and try to respond.

Both subscription and membership strategies succeed or fail on the basis of how well publishers understand their readers – their success, after all, hinges on their ability to deliver the right content to the right people. Fail on this and readers are likely to become ever so slightly less inclined to part with their hard-earned cash.

Both of these models have different benefits, but they share the ability to help publishers recognize their most valued readers. Once they do this, publishers can deploy different strategies to ensure that their top visitors feel important and engaged. This isn’t just about unfettered access to articles – that would not be making the most of the considerable insights available to newsrooms. 

Now by understanding how readers behave, successful publishers can offer additional products and services that add value to the experience. This necessarily looks different from one organization to the next: it might be tickets to forums and symposiums; it could be the opportunity to contribute story ideas or advocate for those without the platform to do so. It might even be by delivering content differently: through briefings or podcasts or primers.

By fostering a strong connection between newsroom and reader, trust is built and part of this process means being transparent.

4. Better transparency and commitment to facts

Media has always been used for shaping public opinion and there have been well-documented cases of newsrooms pushing political agendas forward or fabricating facts in order to distort the truth – or even to boost circulation. The consequence of all this has been a corrosion of trust in the institution which has led to readers feeling like they need to act as fact-checkers themselves.

Much of the disillusionment with news coverage comes from the blurring lines between reputable and non-reputable sources. Our editor Em shared a recent example with us: in the UK, during the election campaign, the Conservative Party HQ (one of the main political parties) temporarily changed their Twitter handle to “factcheckUK” and proceeded to critique the opposition parties’ policies. This was particularly troublesome given that CCHQ hold a blue tick against their account. Because they had undergone a significant rebrand, to the casual user, without carefully scrutinizing, it looked entirely legitimate. 

So, what can publishers do to keep their readers properly informed?

For starters, they need to set the bar for ethics really high, be as objective as possible to avoid bias, and respect the journalistic code to the fullest. 

Part of this means being unequivocally transparent, and doing whatever possible to build news literacy. This doesn’t patronize the reader: in fact it’s easy to argue that showing your workings can actually help boost news literacy and  trust.

Take the classic example of the ‘anonymous source’. A recent poll showed that 41% of respondents are not likely to believe a story that quotes an anonymous source. In fact, it’s possible that even the term ‘anonymous’ causes problems for readers:

It’s very easy to assume that everyone has the same intimate understanding of newsroom workflows and practices as those of us who spend their entire working lives immersed in them. Those assumptions are best challenged, lest we risk alienating our readers.

Easier said than done

Ultimately, the way you can motivate people to engage with the news again is tightly connected with your publication’s reputation and the quality of your output. It’s easy for newsrooms to blame the readers and question their attention span and actual interest in the news, but that won’t solve anything.

It falls to newsrooms, editors and journalists to make the news easy to digest and understand. If people aren’t responding, that means that we’re failing at our job. Simple as that.

If more publishers start to think about their readers as people, not just faceless website visits – then we’re pretty sure that it will be easier for them to connect and figure out better ways to cater to their needs and interests.

by Goran Mirković

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.