TThe issue of trust has haunted journalists for decades. “A kind of henchman,” Janet Malcolm labels the journalist, in The Journalist and the Murderer, “taking advantage of people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, earning their trust and betraying them.” That point of view seems to resonate with the public. When asked to rate their trusted professions, people classify journalism in the murky depths, beaten to the bottom only by politicians.
For reporters who prefer to see themselves as truth-tellers, hold power accountable, or at least provide a useful public service, that irritates them. For others, trust becomes a point of fascination – the missing piece in the puzzle of how to make digital news pay for itself.
Sinead Boucher lands in the last category. A former reporter and editor, last year she bought Stuff, one of New Zealand’s largest news organizations, including its largest collection of regional and metropolitan newspapers. – for $ 1. With a year of local ownership, Stuff has been going his own way: breaking with Facebook, allocating massive amounts of resources to public service climate change reports, apologizing for his track record of racist reporting, giving the 10th % of the company to employees and replacing growth. with confidence as their main metric for success.
It is a path that has won the accolades of the company. But among the public, trust can be elusive.
After a year of betting on quality and public service information, things got out of hand. Colmar Brunton Most Trusted Brands Survey this year, after having increased in the previous two years. A recent report on media trust in New Zealand found that “media that advance certain social / other agendas (including climate change)” was a reason for mistrust. For media companies operating in small ponds like New Zealand, alienating conservative readers can be a financial and existential risk.
“Believing in the independence of journalism, believing that you are not politically driven in one way or another … In some ways, it’s still a big effort to get people to externally believe in that,” says Boucher.
Leverage readers’ values
At the moment, things are leaning towards high quality and great attention to social injustices. Those projects, and the promotion they receive, appear to be the culmination of a gradual overhaul of Stuff’s strategy and public image.
The company’s journalists always did some of the best public interest reporting in the country. But for years, his website was also known for its lustful click-chasing. TO RNZ summary less reputable moments included articles on “Athletes in Underwear” and “Who Has the Best Boobs in Hollywood?” (+ photos) ”. in a Editorial 2009, then-editor Mark Stevens responded to a question about the “tits and ass” coverage. “The answer was simple: we report what people want to read,” he wrote. “We don’t pretend to be sensational, but if our most popular story any day is about ‘titties and ass,’ as they say, it’s the readers who put it there instead of the editors.”
Today, the company dedicates significant resources to prestigious projects. He published extensive research on years of racist coverage, he apologized to the Maoriand established a new vertical dedicated to coverage of indigenous issues and diversity.
Boucher says that Stuff’s shift in focus has been a “maturation” rather than a revolution. “Certainly some of the content that was executed was not as dignified or as serious as some of the work we always create,” he says. “But the goal was never to chase clicks at all costs.”
Certainly, leveraging readers’ values can work in some contexts. Foreign news organizations benefited from the “Trump coup,” in part an increase in subscriptions by liberals who viewed journalism as opposed to Trump’s politics and falsehoods. “Operators in the subscription business, which includes cable and a growing share of print and online media, have been successful in … pointing out that, in a sense, they are part of their team.” wrote the New York Times media columnist Ben Smith.
Things may also be looking to attract passionate readers, with their projects in the climate crisis, #metoonzand campaigns like crowdfunding effort to purchase a portion of conservation land. But New Zealand is a small market, with a population of just 5 million. For the country’s big news organizations to survive, they must maintain their appeal to the masses.
The missing link between trust and profit
The reorientation toward click-confidence aligns with the company’s financial strategy, as well as its moral stance, says Hayden Donnell, producer at Mediawatch. “The click-maximization approach never had much financial backing,” he says. “It was like a graph, with 1. Maximize clicks. 2. Is a link missing? 3. Benefits “.
Today, he says, newsrooms are reorienting subscribers and readers’ loyalty. Many are pushing for more government funding to support journalism as an essential public service.
But while credibility and trust may be a precondition for financial investment from readers, nonprofits, or governments, they are not a guarantee. You may end up with a new version of Donnell’s “missing link” problem.
“There are still these underlying things that no one is really talking about,” says a senior manager in the Stuff newsroom who has since left the company. How is it financed? How will it be financed in the future? I don’t think those questions are being fully answered. “
At times, confidence and the economy seem happily intertwined. In 2019, the company stopped paying for Facebook advertising after the March 15 mosque attacks, during which the terrorist had uploaded a live feed of the shootings. About a year ago, they stopped posting to the platform entirely. The movement was “Inspired by principles” – but there were also financial bets at stake. Many news organizations allocate substantial budgets to promoting stories; The social media giants also annex ad revenue from local posts.
“We were trying to get data on what would happen to the traffic,” says Boucher. “And then nothing happened to our traffic.”
There were other unexpected results. The subjects of the stories, especially minority groups, said they received less abuse and trolls now that the stories did not appear on Facebook.
“The environment for that abuse to occur disappeared,” he says.
‘There is still a significant redirection to come’
“Of all the people running these media projects in New Zealand, [Boucher] is by far the most enthusiastic and motivated to create great journalism, almost to the end, ”he says The Cleave co–founder Duncan Greive.
“The business aspect and how you pay for everything seems maybe less interesting to her than pushing this huge amount of change through things, and really reconfiguring it as an organization.”
He is optimistic that the company will regain the trust of its audience. “It is already happening and it is inevitable that they will succeed.”
Whether things, or any of the other major players in the media landscape, can go the next few years without consolidations or closures, it is less clear to him. “It feels like something has to give in there,” he says. “I think there is still a significant reorientation to come.”
Boucher does not disclose the financial figures for the company, but says that digital advertising has almost returned to pre-Covid levels. Print advertising, a crucial source of income, is still low. She says the company is “cautiously optimistic and happy” with its finances.
She is also pleased with the company’s editorial emphasis on trust. “Unless we can grow that to the point where people are happy to believe what they read about us, trust us to present them with accurate and unbiased information, then what do we have?” she says. “We do not have anything. Everything else disappears. “