Blog Post

The future of media isn’t about breaking news scoops, it’s about credibility and trust

As I was nursing my 50th cappuccino in Perugia during the recent journalism conference there, a small bomb blew up in my Twitter feed thanks to a keynote presentation by Felix Salmon, in which the former Reuters blogger said that the journalistic obsession with scoops is a form of masturbation. Needless to say, there were some shocked reactions to this statement, but I think Felix is right -— even if the metaphor he chose is somewhat unappealing.

As he describes in his own post about it, what Salmon said was that “breaking news is the most masturbatory thing journalists do. The reader couldn’t give a flying f*** who broke it.” In other words, the question of who breaks the news about a specific story is largely irrelevant to anyone other than the journalists involved.

This is almost certainly true. In general, regular news consumers want someone to tell them when a news event occurs, but they don’t necessarily care who tells them —- it could be a friend on Twitter or Facebook, or a radio announcer, or a person on the street —- nor do they really notice who told them first. But I would argue that many do notice one thing: they notice who told them something correct, or more importantly something useful or true about that event.

The half-life of a scoop is dwindling

In a response to Felix’s comment, Emily Bell of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University said that both scoops and useful information matter, which of course is also true. Ideally, the two things work together, and news organizations want to have plenty of both if they can manage it. But I think in general we’re going through a period of upheaval in which the latter is becoming much more important than the former, and this will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

It’s not easy for journalists or news organizations to give up the obsession with being first —- even for newspapers, who have by now gotten used to TV and radio being the first to report many things. After all, the news business is called that because it is primarily about what is new, and so as a journalist if you aren’t telling people something that just happened, it feels like you aren’t doing your job (“We’re writing news, not history!” an old editor of mine used to shout while chomping a cigar, J. Jonah Jameson style).

But the reality is that the half-life of a scoop or breaking news alert is already extremely short, and is dwindling rapidly. Within minutes of almost anything newsworthy happening anywhere around the globe, there are hundreds or even thousands of tweets and status updates, and in some cases even photos and video recording the event. In what sense does a subsequent news alert or brief from a media outlet qualify as “breaking news” that justifies a huge amount of attention? It almost seems absurd now.

Not so much news, but understanding

Despite this process, what many readers or news consumers won’t have is context or background or an understanding of where the news event sits in relation to them or their lives — and that to me is the killer app of the modern news business. It’s what Ezra Klein is aiming at with Vox, and Nate Silver with 538, and the New York Times with The Upshot. What does this event mean? How did it happen? How is it different from other similar events? What happens next? Call it the “long tail” approach to news. That is where the real value lies.

In the early moments of a news event like a shooting rampage or a bomb explosion, the appetite of the typical news consumer doesn’t really distinguish that much between rumor or hearsay and fact — which is why so much false information gets passed along via Twitter and other social media, and even by the mainstream press. Many people are willing to trade off a little uncertainty about the facts for some immediate info about what is happening. But as time goes by, the importance of verification and context inevitably grows.

In that kind of environment, what matters most is whether a news outlet — traditional or digital — is adding value, and whether they have built up a reputation for credibility. As Eric Scherer of France Television pointed out at the Perugia festival, the trust that is created by doing so is virtually the only valuable asset that media companies have any more, now that they no longer control the platform through which their news reaches the end consumer. As Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has said: “Trust is the new black.” Being first may still feel like the most important thing, but it isn’t — and it is becoming less and less important all the time.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Sam72

17 Responses to “The future of media isn’t about breaking news scoops, it’s about credibility and trust”

  1. Howard Owens

    I’ve gone from nothing to the largest news org in our market by making breaking news a priority. It’s not just an obsession. It’s a critical component of our business model. Readers who truly value a news org that can tell them what’s going on in real time. You ignore that market dynamic at your own peril.

  2. edmundsingleton

    Talk about trust, I remember an ad for the PBS NewsHour, then the MacNeil/Lehrer Report or was it hour, a politician was asked to comment on a breaking story, his reply was to answer by saying, I will have a comment after having it fully discussed on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. My point is in this digital age one cannot put trust in Fox News or MSNBC but a combo of the two, CNN perhaps, perhaps not?

  3. Chris Eddie

    From a consumer point-of-view, I agree. However, in this world of “Who can get the most clicks,” the first one to a hot story, is the one with the most clicks. (At least in my market.)

  4. John Hamer

    Good piece, Mathew. Journalists should ask themselves this question: Whom do you trust most among your friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances? Answer: Those who don’t hide anything from you, those who admit their mistakes and apologize, and those who listen to your opinions and suggestions. So which journalists/sources will readers, viewers and listeners be most likely to trust? Answer: Those who are Transparent about who they are, Accountable if they make mistakes, and Open to other points of view. We call it the TAO of Journalism. We have written a voluntary pledge and designed a seal that anyone can take and print or post, as a promise that they’ll follow those simple guidelines. Your audience will hold you to it, not any outside oversight authority.

    If trust is the “next big thing” and “the new black,” then the TAO of Journalism is a cool tool to help earn trust. The idea is slowing growing nationwide and globally, although our trademark application is currently on hold because Alibaba wants to trademark the word “tao.” Seriously! See for more details. Take the TAO Pledge! It’s no panacea, but it can help. Why should any journalist object to being Transparent, Accountable and Open? After all, that’s what we demand of everyone we cover. If anyone knows a better way to build credibility, what is it? We’re also totally open to ideas for improvement, so let’s hear them.

  5. Godzilla

    Yesterday Jeff Gomez hold a confrence in L.A, and to me, it was exactly about this. You really need to listen and build trust to the people you are communicating with.

  6. Mathew, I liked that; it was well written, well thought out, and well argued. But I’m afraid that you, as did Felix, missed the disconnect.

    While it’s true that readers don’t give a rat’s patootie about who broke a story and are far more interested in what I’ll just call “trust” and leave to be misinterpreted at that, journalists’ BOSSES (are editors/curators journalists?—actually, probably not) care enough to make it the issue that must matter most to their charges. Which is what creates the problem.

    I’m sure this is why Felix parted ways with Reuters, even if he hasn’t expressed it that way.

    Even if he got a huge bump to move.

    So readers know they want to trust their information providers, WRITERS want to be trusted, and those pesky “others” want the credit for magnificence to go to their organizations rather than the writers.

    This is a problem, because while there is an undeniable benefit to ALL parties if the work is coming from, for example, The New York Times, the reader cares more about David Pogue than about the Old Grey Lady. And the Old Grey Lady can manage that ONLY by demanding speed, since quality of work is simply a given to keep the gig, and the readers are loyal to the writer, not the outlet.

    Except fr HuffPo. Other than already-famous people, no-one can even name the writers of stuff they read there.

    And by the way, while I’d continue to read Pogue if his pap kept landing in my inbox, someone else’s pap lands there now.

    It’s a broken system, and no coincidence that one of the marketing taglines we’re using for is “HuffPo for Video”.

  7. realjjj

    Well, trust and credibility might be important in a perfect world but the real world is far from it.
    The average consumer is different than the people that imagine these scenarios based on what they need. And …. that average consumer might be becoming less interested in understanding the world.
    Would be nice to have better press but maybe the quality of the press goes with the quality of the society and then more circus might be what we get.

  8. Jim Bob

    This isn’t even the real issue. “Trust” today is just a pseudonym for confirmation bias to the individual. It’s the reason why conservatives watch fox and liberals listen to npr.

    • Valentine North

      It is an issue, because a lot of other news outlets don’t even bother with that.
      For them, “trust” is a commodity, that gets people to buy their products and visit their websites.

    • craig

      The difference is that confirmation bias pertains to matters of opinion. Trust is across the board, pertaining to matters of fact as well as opinion.

      Fact is what sells news. Repeat that: fact sells news. What so many news outlets (particularly the declining ones) fail to understand or appreciate is that people who differ on opinion will still read/watch/listen to a news outlet that proves itself truthful on matters of fact.

      ‘Context’, on the other hand, is merely supplementary material, and it can consist of either fact or opinion. But news editors prefer to sell opinion, for two reasons. First, it’s far cheaper to produce; anyone can spew out opinions. Problem is, the audience is increasingly less likely to pay for the same opinions one can get for free on the internet.

      Second, facts can be checked. The danger is that audience members often know supplemental facts in far greater detail than the journalists do. When the journalist is wrong on basic facts, it taints his credibility on all other matters. Better to report opinion that can’t be refuted.

      This is why tens of thousands of scientists and engineers dispute the climate-change alarmists: because they know how statistical analysis is properly done, and they can follow the math. This is also why gun owners don’t trust journalists and politicians who don’t know basic firearm facts: e.g., assertions that AR-15s constitute massive deadly firepower, when anyone who has shot one knows they pack far less oomph than a typical deer rifle. Untrustworthy in little things, untrustworthy in big things.

  9. Jack C

    You totally nailed my experience as a consumer. Trust. Credibility. One of the odd things about, to steal an Om’ism, the democratization of distribution, is that people I’ve never met can be the equivalent of my go-to friend on all things X.

    I get a huge amount of my music from The Beat Oracle; a few tech blogs duke it out for my tech interest (Kevin T’s a given, but also The Verge and Engadget), Lifehacker covers ~DIY/random life stuff, and so on. GigaOM is literally at the top of my daily feed and, thanks for some pretty good curation on Om’s part, you’ve got a team of folks who I know are generally interesting, provide a rounded take on issues, and cover impact/context in a way that is compelling to me.

    Not only that, but a few of these connections have totally *shaped* many of my interests. I could trace a straight line from my interest in mobile tech back to Kevin T. I simply didn’t care about Journalism or the broader issues of content in the digital age before reading your stuff, Matthew. I wouldn’t be as concerned about broadband and mobile internet connectivity if not for Stacey H. JJ Roberts is another go-to. I don’t always agree with my go-to folks, but they are powerful voices in my life and I expect the same is true of readers in general. That’s a pretty big deal.