Newspapers Have High Level of Trust, but Will They Capitalize on It?

The red columns in the chart below are worth a thousand words.

Americans are polarized in many ways, pre-eminently in politics. But a big majority of them agree that Facebook is not a trustworthy news source. As the blue bars in the chart show, a significant majority of the public also agrees that newspapers are trustworthy.

I assembled the revealing chart on media trust from raw data in a January survey commissioned by BuzzFeed. In its article on the survey, BuzzFeed chose to focus on the low public trust of Facebook. It made only an off-hand reference to the high trust in newspapers — both Web and print versions.

To be sure, newspapers can’t cash their chart trust numbers at the bank. Last week, Facebook reported record quarterly revenue of $8.8 billion, most of which is from ads. But their trust ratings should point newspapers toward an aggressive and smart strategy that will win them the higher revenue they need to be more than metrics in Facebook’s news feed — to inform Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike, to protect democracy in crisis times.

Newspapers aren’t exactly sitting on their hands at this hinge moment. They are finally coming out of their daze from losing the pre-eminence they had in the palmy print era that is no more. Gradually, they are beginning to innovate in the digital space, especially in utilizing technology to connect better with their audiences and tell their story to advertisers. But they need to do so much more.

Just one example: Messaging apps are becoming a major source of news and how it’s distributed. The potential of chat apps, both in serving and expanding audience and in turning them into revenue generators, is detailed in these two recent reports, here and here. But all major activity in chat apps is occurring outside of the U.S.

Chat apps would be the best way for newspapers to cover the huge local impact of the “Trump-Quake in Washington, D.C. We’re seeing how President Trump’s executive order banning immigrant travel to the U.S. from seven mostly Muslim countries is materially affecting communities in such unlikely places as Erie, Pa., Fayetteville, Ark., and Twin Falls, Idaho.

But immigration is only one wave of the seismic shocks that will radiate from Washington smack into and throughout communities everywhere. The repeal of Obamacre, tariffs and other trade action and stepped-up school “choice” all will have material affects on millions of Americans.

With their now-validated high trust levels, newspapers are well positioned to be reliable sources of the stories detailing all the local repercussions. Most of these stories won’t be told by reporters scribbling in notebooks. Newspapers don’t have enough reporters to do that. But through crowdsourcing from chat apps – balanced with editorial oversight – newspaper websites can do the job. (Pure-plays can do the same thing, but they would be less influential because they operate on a much smaller scale, and, according to the Ipsos-BuzzFeed survey, while they are rated as much more trustworthy than Facebook, they aren’t as nearly as reliable as newspapers – Web and print — as news sources.)

Then there is Facebook, which, despite its low trust, isn’t going away. Newspapers can’t ignore its reach to nearly 2 billion people around the world. But by capitalizing on their trust to build more connections with their audiences, newspapers can make their own digital real estate more relevant to news consumers, especially those who worry about fake news. When they do that, they’ll be able to make a better case with all the businesses that have been putting more and more of their advertising on Facebook.

Newspapers and the rest of the publishing industry that were sent reeling by the massive growth of Facebook and other distribution platforms are beginning to recover their self-confidence. Toby Young, President of Hearst Magazines Digital Media, said in a recent Q & A in Digiday, “Platforms are not forever.”

Facebook, responding to the new pushbacks from publishers, has created a Journalism Project that will, among other things, look at current revenue-sharing formulas.

But in the end, the key difference will be not how Facebook shares its revenues or tinkers with its news-feed algorithm, but how successful newspapers are in achieving sustainability will depend on the richness of the connections they build with their audiences. They’ve got the trust of significant shares of those audiences. But their tall blue bars in the Ipsos chart are just part of the climb that newspapers need to make to secure their future.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.

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  1. Roy Bode
    February 10, 2017

    Tom, There’s some encouragement here for newspaper publishers. But I’m wondering how this fits with Pew studies showing historic mistrust of the media. I’m relying on memory, but as I recall, Pew found more trust in hometown newspapers and broadcasters than in national media and more in legacy news sources than in all-digital websites. So if read the Pew research alongside the BuzzFeed study correctly, people don’t believe any of us much, but Facebook — at least — has less credibility than the rest of us.
    That leads me to this conclusion: Take the technology, as you suggest, but keep the traditional journalistic values. Becoming just like many of the digital news purveyors is a sure way to lose what credibility we still own.

    1. Tom Grubisich
      February 11, 2017

      Roy, a Pew Center from (I think) last year did find “local news orgs” a bit more trusted than “national news orgs” in their news sources. In the category “a lot” the score was 22% to 18% in favor of local and in the category”some” it was 60% to 59%. The Pew methodology included all local news organizations, so its results are exactly comparable to the Ipsos/BuzzFeed survey, which produced a moderately lower trust level for online news sites other than newspapers.

      I can’t agree with you that the Ipsos/BuzzFeed trust results show “people don’t believe any of us much.” Respondents were asked about their trust of each specific media category (e.g., newspaper websites, print newspapers, Facebook) based on news sources. So the answers are absolute, not relative to other factors.

      I do agree with you that newspapers should “keep the traditional journalistic values” — to educate and inform (and “entertain,” as Hearst Newspapers put it) — which is one of the rationales put forward by advocates of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights that, happily, was added to the U.S. Constitution. The digital medium offers newspapers powerfully positive tools to fulfill all aspects of its mission. Newspapers are beginning to utilize some of those tools. But, as I argue in my column, it has to embrace more of them.

      1. Roy Bode
        February 11, 2017

        Sorry, Tom. I was thinking of the Pew study showing a little more trust in hometown media than other sources.

        But my woeful comment on general disbelief in journalists can be sourced to neither Pew nor BuzzFeed. It actually came from Gallup last September: “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news
        fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup
        polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount
        of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last
        year.”

        Important to note, as you did, that the BuzzFeed survey compared the trust in select media.

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