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Distinguishing ourselves and building confidence and trust in a world of fake news and alternative facts

By Al Cross

Last month’s column was a warning that the attack on journalism by certain actors on the public stage is having an effect on community newspapers, and that social media are driving readers to spend more time with national news than with local news. How can community papers can adapt to this radically changed news landscape?

Al Cross

To survive, newspapers must stop thinking of themselves as being in the newspaper business, or even in the news business; you’re in the information business, competing with all other sources of information for people’s time and attention – even if you are the only newspaper in your market.

Increasingly, rural communities have become bedroom communities, and the longer a commute someone has to work, the less likely they are to read their local newspaper, according to research by Eastern Kentucky University and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. The ubiquity of information through smartphones means you have to be where your readers are, and that means mobile.

The new landscape requires us to operate on multiple platforms. Your newspaper’s web site should be attracting most of its traffic from social media. If it’s not, you’re probably not getting enough traffic.

And we need to be on social-media platforms not just to drive traffic, but to help people understand the difference in social media and the news media.

We also need to stop saying “the media” when we mean “the news media,” in order to distinguish ourselves from actors in the media who are more about opinions and an agenda than about facts and public service.

And we need to stop using “the media” as a singular noun. It’s more plural than ever, and it’s important for readers to understand that. The media are. And they are many different things.

If we don’t distinguish ourselves from our competitors in the information market, we are lost. The fundamental difference in social media and news media are a discipline of verification, as defined in The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.

Those elements have shifted a bit, but not substantially, in the new landscape of journalism. They are a guide not only for journalists as we do our work, but for citizens to understand how we work and why we do what we do.

Here are the elements, which would make a good standing box or filler on your editorial page, with a brief explanation of each:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth – not to some absolute or philosophical truth, but practical truth “by which we can operate on a day-to-day basis.” And that includes being transparent about sources and methods, so readers can make fully informed judgments.

Its first loyalty is to citizens – not to the bottom line of whoever is publishing the journalism. In the current environment, this test may be the most difficult for some publishers.

Its essence is a discipline of verification – not objectivity, which is rarely achievable because we are human beings, but objectivity of method: testing the truth of information so our biases don’t get in the way.

Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover – not pure neutrality, but an arm’s-length relationship that keeps our essential independence from being compromised.

It must serve as an independent monitor of power – not just keeping an eye on government, but on all facets of society, including business and nonprofit organizations.

It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise – not just offering an outlet for discussion, but improving the quality of the debate with verified information.

It must strive to keep significant things interesting and relevant – in other words, making readers want to read the news that they need to read. This is more important than ever in the new age.

It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional – an even more challenging task when competing for time and attention, but all the more important to build and maintain confidence and trust.

Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience – speak out against poor journalism, and allow others to do so.

Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities – to be responsible on social media. That may be too much to hope for, but if we ask them to be, that’s reminder that information needs to be more about facts than opinion.

While we need to do a better job explaining ourselves, ultimately we will not be judged on the arguments we make, but by the work that we do: reporting news that’s important and relevant, and more.

Even if you successfully compete in the information business, that’s not really enough to be a complete community newspaper.

You also have to be in the deliberation business. Deliberation is how democratic societies make decisions, and one of the best forums for deliberation is the newspaper – an editorial page with lots of letters.

And, ultimately, you also need to be in the leadership business, because there are times when a newspaper must take a stand and lead its community in what it thinks is the right direction it needs to go.

Nothing else in a community can do these three things as well as a newspaper, and now is the time to do it better than ever. Make yourself essential.

In your quest for people’s time and attention, you are also competing with other media for readers’ confidence and trust, which drive time and attention. Be worthy of that trust.

Al Cross

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. See www.RuralJournalism.org. This column was adapted from a speech at the Texas Panhandle Press Association in Amarillo on April 21.

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