What can we do for journalism?

When I think of journalism I think of the journalists who do it and the people they do it for, and the question for me as new Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford is what we can do for them through our activities, including our journalism fellowship program, our leadership development programs, and our independent research.

Nobody knows better than journalists that journalism is not perfect. It ranges from the heroic to the humdrum. Some of it is amusing and useful, a bit of it is crap or even outright dangerous, even as much of it is informative and empowering—everyday reporting in some ways as important as the occasional big stand-out investigations. When I think of the people who do it, I think of the journalists I’ve met in newsrooms across the world and through the Journalism Fellowship program at the Reuters Institute, journalists who have done it all, from the daily grind to outstanding examples of determined reporting in the face of extraordinary obstacles—like the Mexican journalist Juliana Fregoso, who told me the advantage of reporting on organized crime as a woman in a society with a strong strand of machismo culture was that the cartels would warn female reporters before they killed them, or Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, who was detained and threatened by Botswanan security operatives when he and his colleagues tried to investigate whether the president was using public funds for renovations at his holiday home, but who persisted and went on to obtain satellite imagery to document that that was indeed the case. They are just two examples from the many amazing journalists we have hosted.

Ultimately, most journalists do what they do for the public. Journalism exists in the context of its audience, and its social role, its political importance, and the entire business behind it is premised on that relationship. When I think of the people journalists do journalism for, I think of my nephews in Denmark, one a plumber, the other probably heading to university. Like their counterparts across the world, they are part of a generation that will never be regular readers of a printed newspaper or routine viewers of television news bulletins. They have the same need for accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced reliable information about public affairs that my generation and my parents’ generation have had. But like most everybody else under 40 they will never miss the 20th century media environment I grew up in. Their media environment is defined by digital media, mobile, and by platforms, and they have no sentimental longing for paper or broadcast. Why would they?

For both journalists and the public, the basic journalistic aspiration of finding truth and reporting it is of enduring importance, as are all the ways in which journalism can empower people by helping them keep informed about, oriented in, and engaged with the world around them. Even as much else change, core elements of the craft of journalism, and many of the fundamental challenges, remain constant—like holding power to account, whether people in public office or private interests who shy publicity, like clearly narrating complex problems in real-time, like making the significant interesting and the interesting significant.

In my office, I keep a picture that reminds me of these challenges, and why they matter. It is from the Atocha Station in Madrid, one of the places where an al-Qaeda terrorist cell set of bombs March 11 in 2004, killing 192 people and wounded thousands more three days before Spain’s general elections. Leading members of the governing Partido Popular claimed that Basque terrorist separatists were behind the bombings, even in face of mounting evidence that radical Islamists were responsible. Some news media accepted, publicized, and stuck by the ruling party and its line even as voting grew nearer. Others, like El Pais, questioned it, and reported the truth in advance of the election.

A man pays his respects at memorial site at Madrid's Atocha station.

Picture © REUTERS/Susana Vera

I keep this picture as a powerful reminder of the enduring importance of journalism’s commitment to finding truth and reporting it – quickly, in the face of much confusion and competing claims – to meet people’s need to be informed and empowered to make their own decisions.

This commitment is timeless. These needs are constant. But much else in journalism is changing, often in challenging ways.

The question for me as incoming Director of the Reuters Institute is thus the one I began with—what can we do to help journalists (and all of us who rely on journalism) reinvent the profession and the industry that sustains (and sometimes constrains) it the 21st century so that journalism can inform and empower the public in the future?

There is no question for me that continued, radical, and sometimes painful professional and organizational change will be a necessary part of that reinvention.

My theory of change is this—we at the Reuters Institute cannot change anything.

But we can empower those who will shape the future of journalism—especially in the profession itself and in the news media industry, but also in technology companies, amongst policymakers, in the academy, and in the broader public. We are not an advocacy group or a lobby organization, but we believe in the power and purpose of independent journalism and we want to help.

My vision is a Reuters Institute that empowers a new generation of leaders in news and help them reinvent the journalistic profession and the organizations that enable it, a generation who on that basis can face the opportunities and challenges offered by a changing audience, technology, and political environment from a position of strength.

Recent years have seen incredibly impressive examples of journalism and journalistic innovation. From new forms of storytelling, like the Daily Mirror’s Wigan Pier Project and the BBC’s experiment with telling the story of migration through a “takeover” of your mobile phone, over new forms of reporting like the Washington Post’s carefully orchestrated and reader-powered investigation of the  Donald J. Trump Foundation and initiatives like “My Country Talks” pioneered by Die Zeit or Rappler’s work on disinformation in the Philippines and joint debunking, fact-checking, and source verification work by collaborations like CrossCheck in France, Verificado in Mexico, and Comprova in Brazil, to classic investigative reporting ranging from individual stories like the Wire’s Jay Amit Shah revelations in India to the Panama papers project orchestrated by ICIJ and enabled by Süddeutsche Zeitung’s decision to share documents with a network of partners.

But for all these immensely encouraging examples of powerful, public-impact journalism, it is also clear that this is an incredibly challenging time for journalism.

The challenges are many and complex and include, at the very least—

External challenges, including (1) increasing political pressures from prominent politicians (in some countries amounting to an active war on journalism, in others attitudes ranging from benign indifference to barely disguised hostility), (2) the ongoing and inevitable decline of business models built around print and broadcast that historically funded professional news production, and (3) a changing media environment increasingly dominated by platform companies that presents both challenges and opportunities to journalists and news media alike.

Internal challenges, including existential questions (1) about what journalism is and what it is for, how it and the organizations that enable it can reinvent itself, (2) of how it can remain relevant and be genuinely valuable for the public as a whole and for us as individuals by keeping us informed about, oriented in, and engaged with the world when it is so clearly losing the battle for attention, and, in many countries, (3) how journalism can ensure that news is trustworthy and trusted.

There are no clear, singular, “right” answers to these challenges, or the opportunities that come with some of them.

We don’t have them at the Reuters Institute.

I most certainly do not have them.

But what we and I do have is the conviction that facing these questions will require a renewed commitment to core principles of journalism (like the ambition to find truth and report it), as well as continued professional and organizational change (with everything from forms of journalistic work to new business models to support it).

No one knows what the future of journalism is. But we know it will have to be different from its past. In some ways, we know that it should be different from the past.

Can we look at the question of whether journalism captures the full range of diverse groups, voices, and views in society and say that all is well? Can we look at some of the most important issues of our time, whether climate change, the financial crises, or political events like the Brexit referendum or the election of Donald J. Trump, and say that journalism has got it right? At its best, journalism is amazing—informative, empowering, really engaging and relevant, diverse and empowering. But much of it is not, and has not been. Journalists know this. The public know it. And we need to face that fact and think about how to do better in the future, and what kind of professional, organizational, and institutional change doing better will require.

My ambition for the Reuters Institute is that we help those journalists, editors, and others who will lead the profession and the industry on that journey into the future, and try to help them make journalism the best it can be. Help them though our fellowship program, which brings outstanding journalists from all over the world to Oxford where they learn from each other, benefit from our research, and engage with academics from many different backgrounds. Help them through our leadership development programs, where we host events for leading editors and executives and help them work through the challenges they individually, and the profession and the industry as a whole, faces. Help them through our independent, evidence-based global research, which address some of the core issues around journalism, news, and media in an accessible, timely, and relevant fashion. And through more than that, our participation in professional and industry events, our work with policymakers, our own events, communication, and much more.

Anyone who tells you that journey will be easy is a liar or a fool.

But it is an incredibly important journey. We at the Reuters Institute want to be part of it, and we believe we can help people make it work. Together, we won’t be trying to go back to the journalism of yesterday, but build towards a better journalism for tomorrow. For the sake of journalists all over the world, like our fellows. And for the sake of the public they do their journalism for, like my nephews, like you and me.

Note: I was offered the position as Director July 17 and will start in my new role October 1. I never for a moment doubted that this is what I wanted to do. I believe very strongly that independent journalism, with all its imperfections, is incredibly important. I believe in the mission of the Reuters Institute, I believe in our efforts at connecting practice and research, and I believe in the global community around the institute. I’m delighted and honoured that Alan Rusbridger’s public announcement of my appointment and the official release from Monique Villa, CEO of our main sponsor, the Thomson Reuters Foundation as well as from the institute itself was so well received by so many people from all over the world that I greatly respect, I won’t name anyone, but I’m glad that the people who responded to the announcement included all the different communities of journalists, editors, executives, technologists, policymakers, and academics that we engage with, and came from so many different parts of the world, reflecting our global orientation.

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President Trump does not trust news from platform companies – nor do right-wing voters

President Trump not only considers wide swaths of the US news media “enemies of the people”.

He is now also asserting without evidence that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter “silence conservative voices” and has alleged that Google search results are “rigged” and are “suppressing” Republicans and conservatives.

Trump’s attacks included some demonstrable false claims, as for example BuzzFeed News has demonstrated, including the idea that Google promoted president Obama’s State of the Union on its homepage but stopped promoting these speeches when Trump took office.

As Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association that represents online news publishers and a frequent critic of platform companies wrote after Trump’s attacks on Google, “He’s 100% wrong. He’s spreading complete BS. If he was even remotely correct, I would be the first to call it out. I have a lot of issues with Google, this isn’t one of them.”

But will his attacks resonate with conservative voters? Our Reuters Institute Digital News Report survey data suggests it might.

Not only are partisan voters likely to take cues from politicians they support. In this case, the President’s attacks also plays into widespread distrust not only of news media, but also news found via social media and search engines. (Our survey was in the field in January/February so well before Trump started publicly attacking the platform companies.)

People on the political right in the US not only have far less trust in the news media than the rest of the population.

They also trust news in social and search far less than people in the center or on the political left, as shown in the chart below.

17 percent of those on the political right say they trust most news, compared to 16 percent who say they trust news in search engines and just 8 percent who say they trust news in social media. (The latter perhaps complicating the narrative that Conservatives favor social media.)

Trump trust US

Google has denied using political viewpoints to shape its search results, and said “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.” (Facebook and Twitter have not responded directly.)

But Trump’s core supporters may not believe it, or any of the other platform companies the President is now attacking. As news media have long known, it is one issue how you can try to avoid political bias. It is another whether some people think you are politically biased.

Thanks to Antonis Kalogeropoulos who helped with the chart.

 

Trust in UK media

“The British people simply don’t trust the media”, Jeremy Corbyn said in his Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. I spoke to BBC News for the News at Ten about trust in UK media, and below is a bit of Reuters Institute data for those interested.

RKN103ps

1) Trust in news is lower in the UK than many other countries,42 percent say they think they can trust “most news most of the time”, placing the UK 20th of the 37 countries we surveyed in 2018.

Trust

2) Corbyn also said that “most of our citizens think our newspapers churn out fake news day in, day out”, and indeed out survey data suggest that many online news users in the UK are also very or extremely concerned over what they see as “stories where facts are twisted to push an agenda” (55%) and “poor journalism” (51%). (Just as 44% are concerned over “the use of the term ‘fake news’ to discredit news media” by politicians and others).

concerns

3) But, while overall trust is low, and many are concerned that much of what they see is biased and shoddy, 54 percent say they trust the news they use, and at the brand level, most people find the BBC and other broadcasters, regional/local papers, and upmarket papers like the Times trustworthy — irrespective of whether they use them or not, whereas some digital-born sites and mid-market/popular newspapers have limited trust even from the people who use them.

brands

All this data and more from our 2018 Digital News Report by Nic Newman et al, available at for free download, interactive graphics etc.

Newsroom Integration As An Organizational Challenge: Approaches of European public service media from a comparative perspective

Newsroom integration has been a priority and a industry buzzword for more than a decade, but how far have European public service media actually integrated their newsrooms? In most cases, not very far.

In an article published in August by Journalism Studies, based on ongoing comparative, qualitative research that Annika Sehl, Alessio Cornia, and I are doing on how European news media are adapting to digital, we (with our colleague Lucas Graves), use interviews at a range of different European public service media to show only a small minority have in fact integrated their newsrooms, and that organizational legacies shape how they are dealing with digital, with especially those with a history of separation between media (as in France), between different channels (as in Italy), or a regional structure (as in Germany) have so far not really integrated.

Abstract below and article here.

In this paper, we examine to what extent public service media (PSM) in six European countries have integrated or are integrating their newsrooms in order to adapt to an increasingly digital media environment. Based on 67 interviews over two years with senior editors and managers, this study constitutes the largest comparative analysis of newsroom change among PSM organizations conducted to date. Despite much talk of “convergence”, our empirical analysis shows that full newsroom integration remains the exception in this sector. Although all of the PSM studied experience pressure to reorganize across platforms, only two have achieved high levels of newsroom integration. Our findings suggest that centralizing online news under a single operational roof — only recently undertaken and still incomplete at several PSM — is a necessary first step to more thorough editorial reorganization across platforms. Our data also shed light on the complex ways that internal and external variables combine to shape organizational change: in addition to organizational challenges, we highlight broader historical, political, and economic factors affecting how PSM have responded to rapid technological shifts in the media environment.

‘We no longer live in a time of separation’: A comparative analysis of how editorial and commercial integration became a norm

Back in June, Journalism: Theory, Practice, Critique published an article based on the ongoing, comparative qualitative research Alessio Cornia, Annika Sehl, and I have been doing on how European news media are adapting to digital.

Based on interviews as 12 different private sector legacy news media, we show how many are rethinking the traditional separation of editorial and commercial operations, and that the increasing integration between editorial and commercial (not assimilation of editorial into commercial, not hierarchical relegation of editorial to commercial) is motivated by the same aspiration as the traditional separation: to ensure professional autonomy, only today that is pursued by working with other parts of the organization to jointly ensure commercial sustainability, rather than by trying to remain completely separate from commercial issues..

The abstract below and the article here.

The separation between editorial and business activities of news organisations has long been a fundamental norm of journalism. Journalists have traditionally considered this separation as both an ethical principle and an organisational solution to preserve their professional autonomy and isolate their newsrooms from profit-driven pressures exerted by advertising, sales and marketing departments. However, many news organisations are increasingly integrating their editorial and commercial operations. Based on 41 interviews conducted at 12 newspapers and commercial broadcasters in six European countries, we analyse how editors and business managers describe the changing relationship between their departments. Drawing on previous research on journalistic norms and change, we focus on how interviewees use rhetorical discourses and normative statements to de-construct traditional norms, build new professionally accepted norms and legitimise new working practices. We find, first, that the traditional norm of separation no longer plays the central role that it used to. Both editors and managers are working to foster a cultural change that is seen as a prerequisite for organisational adaptation to an increasingly challenging environment. Second, we find that a new norm of integration, based on the values of collaboration, adaptation and business thinking, has emerged. Third, we show how the interplay between declining and emerging norms involves a difficult negotiation. Whereas those committed to the traditional norm see commercial considerations as a threat to professional autonomy, our interviewees see the emerging norm as a new way of ensuring professional autonomy by working with other parts of the organisation to jointly ensure commercial sustainability.

Changes in Third-Party Content on European News Websites after GDPR

Working with RISJ colleagues Tim Libert (now at Carnegie Mellon) and Lucas Graves, I’ve worked on a short piece of research examining changes in third-party content and cookies on news sites across seven EU countries before and after GDPR.

Tim led the work using his tool webXray to collect and analyse a total of 10,168 page loads, nearly 1 million content requests, and 2.7 million cookies from April (pre-GDPR) and July (post-GDPR) across over 200 news sites.

We find that news sites continue to be deeply intertwined with a wide range of third parties, especially in advertising, social media, and the like, though there is some drop in the amount of third party content and cookies after GDPR.

The factsheet is here and abstract below.

This factsheet compares the prevalence of third-party web content and cookies on a selection of European news websites one month before and one month after the introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).   To understand how news organisations may be adapting to the new privacy framework, prominent news websites in seven countries (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK) were analysed during the months of April and again in July 2018.

While there is no change in the overall percentage of pages from news providers which contain some form of third-party content (99%) or third-party cookies (98%), we find a 22% drop in the number of cookies set without user consent and an observable decrease in third-party social media content.

Free Media Are Not “The Enemy Of The People”

“Confronting powerful politicians who attack free media is a start. But the real issue is how journalists and news organisations can gain and retain people’s trust. If free media are to win a fight that they never wanted, and hold power to account, they can only do so with the public on their side.”

Today, August 16, around 350 US based news organizations have published editorials challenging President Trump’s “enemy of the people”-rhetoric.

But the problem of powerful politicians actively attacking free media goes well beyond the US.

Self-styled strongmen all over the world, from Italy to India, from Poland to the Philippines, from Ecuador to South Africa are trying to bully journalists and news media into submission.

Free media are not “the enemy of the people” – to the contrary they can at their best inform the public and help them hold power to account. And that is precisely why they are under attack from politicians all over the world.

Standing up to that is not a partisan move, but a public commitment to the values that underpin journalism at its best, a plea that the public trusts trustworthy news media, and a commitment to delivering on and deserving that trust.

I’ve written about that for the European Journalism Observatory here, and why public trust is critical if journalism is to hold power to account.