As faith in the establishment falters, trust is journalism’s greatest asset

In the runup to the Online News Association’s annual conference ONA18 in Austin, we’re discussing some of the key trends that will make an impact on journalism, and trust is perhaps the most significant.

Trust, in both public and private sectors, has never been at a lower ebb. We don’t trust our politicians, our institutions or the social media that tells us about them.

The only place where trust is actually increasing is journalism, particularly local journalism (

Understanding why journalism is regaining the public’s trust, and how to continue that trend is going to distinguish great publishers from mediocre ones, and will be the story of journalism over the next five years. The question is exactly how publishers are going to keep pace with, and benefit from, their audience’s trust?

The status quo

Trust in government is at an all-time low and much of our current politics is to some extent explained by this collapse in trust and the mechanisms that fuel it.

The rise of the far right in Europe exemplified by the recent Swedish elections, the election of Trump in America, and Brexit in the UK are all reactionary moves which indicate a lack of trust in the establishment.

There is no sense demonising the right, or blaming the public. This lack of trust is justified. Our institutions offer, as they ever have, immense value, but their reliability and the respect they command have been routinely and repeatedly undermined by actions that have lost the trust of the people they serve.

Cambridge Analytica blatantly stole millions of people’s information and used it to manipulate the fundamental power structures of our Western world. Equifax, a company whose only defensible value in society derives from the trust that consumers and companies place in it, lost the private and intimate financial data of millions of others. A year on, it’s still to be properly punished for its shocking lack of care.

Social media platforms, to whom we give the most personal insights into our lives, have allowed fake news to proliferate, and in part consequently, there has been an increasing influence on US and European politics from outside powers. It is no surprise that trust is fast becoming our most precious, and elusive, quality.

Our commercial leaders have fared little better, with high profile collapses like Carillion and House of Fraser, alongside ongoing tax-avoidance scandals, sowing more distrust in consumers’ minds.

Thanks in no little part to its role in spreading fake news, the cancer that underlies so many of our trust issues, social media has been the biggest casualty of this erosion of trust, with the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer finding trust in social media down two points to just 24% of the UK public.

The alternative

As the institutions we look to for stability have lost our trust, the people have needed an alternative. They’ve needed a strong third estate, and beset by its own crisis of financing and identity, traditional media has struggled to fulfil that duty.

This year, however, trust in traditional media has surged back. The Edelman Barometer found 61% of people said they trusted traditional media, the highest level since 2012, and 13 percentage points ahead of 2017.

When it comes to local news, the public’s feelings are even stronger, with local newspapers three times more trusted for news than social media platforms like Facebook, according to recent research from the News Media Association

This trust, along with the changing business models we highlighted in our last article, is causing a self-reinforcing cycle of great journalism inspiring trust, which builds the community paying to support it, and allows publishers to continue doing even better and more insightful work.

Great publishers are being rewarded for the trust their readers put in them.

The dangers for publishers

As trust and profitability become more closely correlated, the rub for publishers is that the quality bar for their content is rising at the same rate.

Newspapers that do not meet these raised expectations of community value and trust will be the ones caught in the spiral of decline that the industry is fast emerging from.

It’s no easy task and not everyone is going to make it; publishers need to execute a change of business model in lockstep with doubling down on their commitment to expensive excellence in journalism. We are already seeing the consequences for otherwise excellent journals that fail to make that transition.

The next five years are going to be a very painful time to be a mediocre newspaper.

Publishers have always been champions of truth. In an era in which trust is our most precious commodity, this has never been more important.

We’re entering another golden age of journalism where the public’s belief in, and need for, a trusted Third Estate is paramount.

It’s now time for publishers to grasp every opportunity they can to deliver on this mission; to bootstrap their prosperity through great journalism and a strong business model, bound together by the trust of their community.

Great journalists use Krzana to find pre-news.

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