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The NYC summit that journalists should have had: How to get audiences to like them again 10/14/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Likeability, netj, Trust.

Looking back at Jeff Jarvis’ ambitious and impressive “Networked Journalism” summit last week, I think it is fair to wonder whether it inadvertently might have done more harm than good. To the extent that it inspired those who work in established news outlets, it may have reinforced the belief that the best way to reverse the decline of their industry is to put most of their energy into adapting to and taking advantage of new technologies. It’s not.

The biggest problem — and there is no nice way to say this — is that most of their potential audience doesn’t like them anymore. There is, of course, the problem that two-thirds of the public believes in media bias while Modern Journalism doesn’t. This leaves the public with only a few possible, very unfavorable conclusions — journalists are either dense, or are liars, or must think their audiences are stupid, paranoid, uninformed, or delusional. Believability of News MediaThe other room-elephant is that much of the public no longer believes established outlets reliably deliver truth now that they are regularly exposed to alternative information on the Internet and have witnessed high-profile failures, like Dan Rather’s. The graph shows how much mainstream media’s believability has declined. It speaks, if not shouts, for itself. If Jeff Jarvis held a summit on restoring audience trust and likeability, would established outlets admit to their problem and attend? I suspect that if the answer were “yes,” their industry would not be in the hole it is in today.


1. Adam - 10/14/07

I have two stories for you on that note–

On by the Vulgar Moralist, and one by myself.

The Vulgar Moralist’s in particular touches on just what you mentioned, the fact that the demand for news is disappearing.

2. Steve Boriss - 10/14/07

Adam, The link beneath “Vulgar Moralist” led to an article from Editor & Publisher magazine. Please let me know if the correction I made to this link now points to the correct article. But, I enjoyed both articles. The Vulgar Moralist sounds like my twin. And your article contained a lot of good original thinking, like the newspaper-as-bundle concept. That’s a keen insight.

3. Adrian Monck - 10/15/07

“If Jeff Jarvis held a summit on restoring audience trust and likeability, would established outlets admit to their problem and attend?”
I say let’s keep people sceptical!

4. Steve Boriss - 10/15/07

Adrian, If you are not joking, please tell us more. Do you think that in this case having skeptical customers is a healthy thing?

5. Ydobon - 10/15/07

“Most of their potential audience doesn’t like them anymore.”

That’s a grand slam home run.

Here’s another, from Sippican Cottage, “I’m Not Interested. Period.

And, to paraphrase Jack Lemmon in “Mass Appeal”, maybe the problem isn’t so much getting their potential audience to like them, as it is getting them to like their potential audience.

6. Don - 10/15/07

Ben Bradlee foreshadows a potential MSM (re)action line by smugly dismissing journalism’s unpopularity with a shrug.

JIM LEHRER: … Ben, most evidence, anecdotal, surveys, whatever, journalists and journalism are not held in very high esteem right now. What’s happened; what’s going on?

BEN BRADLEE: I wonder how much that that’s changed. I can’t remember–we had a brief, little period, it seems to me, after Watergate where we edged up to about 50 percent in the, in the respect area, right along with the congressmen and the lawyers. So, we’ve never been very high.

7. Adam - 10/15/07

Whoops! What’d the link point to before?

In any case, it goes to the right place now–VM spends a great deal of his time on media analysis; I’ve been urging him to read your “Vision of the Future” series.

8. Adrian Monck - 10/15/07

Theodore Lowi’s review of Lipset and Schneider’s Confidence Gap is probably the best re-framing of the whole trust conundrum:

IF the so-called confidence gap is relabeled distrust, then I for one need to replace malaise with another diagnostic concept. Reaching back into the American tradition for such a concept, I find vigilance – the vigilance that has something to do with the price of liberty. Distrust, which is as well grounded in the survey data as the confidence gap, and vigilance, which is just as logical a diagnostic concept as malaise, seem to be appropriate if not downright healthy responses to the rise of big institutions. In the past 50 years, the United States has emerged from an 18th-century system of weak national government into a modern, massive national presence. Mainstream ideology, once deeply anti-statist, now holds that the state is virtuous. In the last 50 years national government not only became big; it adopted policies whose purpose was to underwrite most of the other big institutions, so that we now have socialism for the organized and capitalism for the unorganized. So different is this modern system from the system preceding it that it deserves to be called The Second Republic.

All the survey data on which Mr. Lipset and Mr. Schneider relied to document their confidence gap can also be used to demonstrate that the American public has responded to The Second Republic with appropriate attitudes. In other words, although it took two or three decades, the American people during the 1960’s and 1970’s began to see their system for what it really is. As Mr. Lipset and Mr. Schneider say, the American people do not reject their system; they see it as a source of hope and of very great danger. The reputed decline in public confidence or trust can be seen as the emergence of a mature, modern citizenry appropriate to a mature, modern state. In such a situation, there would be cause for real panic about a real malaise only if the survey measures showed no confidence gap at all.

9. Steve Boriss - 10/15/07

Adrian, Thanks for elucidating. I would agree that distrust and dissatisfaction are healthy in American society. They spark energy to innovate and improve. Moreover, distrust of government is in our DNA, as the premise behind my nation’s founding was that government would be kept at bay to suppress their natural instincts to encroach on individuals’ natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Ultimately, I am bullish that today’s dissatisfaction with news will yield better news. But that’s not to say that today’s news providers, who are the targets of customer dissatisfaction, won’t be at a disadvantage relative to newcomers who don’t suffer from a tarnished reputation.

10. Jeff Jarvis - 10/15/07

You’ve made another assumption. There was next to no conversation about technology. This is, indeed, about forging a new relationship with the public. A relationship of collaboration is also, necessarily, a relationship of trust.

11. Jeff Jarvis - 10/15/07

And to the point, I think the distinction we’re seeking is between skepticism and cynicism about the press and the powerful.

12. Steve Boriss - 10/15/07

Jeff, Whereas before you said I took your definition of “am” too literally by filling it out to non-paid “amateur,” now I’d like to ask that you not take my definition of “technology” too literally. I am including the types of new structures now enabled by technology, like “Networked Journalism” and “Plug ‘n Play” Journalism.

Also, I think there is a significant difference between skepticism/cynicism about the press vs. about the powerful. Jefferson viewed the “powerful” specifically as the government, who could infringe on individuals’ rights, and saw the newspapers as one of several “fences” to prevent them from encroaching. Skepticism/cynicism was the ideal, default position against government. But journalists are not as powerful — they are in business — and what keeps them and every other business in check is competition. Having skeptical/cynical potential customers is a business problem, not something for an existing enterprise to celebrate.

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