Industry Insight: A News Industry in Transition Fails the Transparency Test

By: Matt DeRienzo

On which side would your news organization fall if the industry were divided into two camps–those who are genuinely laying the groundwork for a long-term business, and those who are making short-term decisions to maintain as much of the profit print provided for as long as it might last?

How a company treats its customers is the biggest indication, and much has been written about how engagement and transparency are not only essential to today’s journalism, but running any kind of sustainable business, for that matter.

Yet an increasing part of newspapers’ business model-in-transition is based on deceiving customers.

  • We’re squeezing every dime out of loyal print customers before they die. We passed big price increases onto print customers under the masquerade of a digital paywall strategy in which few people actually paid for digital-only content, and a small percentage of print customers actually bothered to even set up the digital logins they were paying for. We added fine print to subscription invoices passing off extra charges for special sections no one asked for. We even stopped extending subscriptions for the time that readers stop the paper for a vacation. And, of course, we made it nearly impossible to get a real person with knowledge or authority on the phone so it’s hard to complain.
  • Without explaining it to our readers, we’ve embraced an ad technology system where their every move on the Web is tracked and privacy is nonexistent.
  • We’ve done little to stop that same advertising on our sites from infecting our readers’ computers with malware, or explaining the risk when we learn about it. Nor do we want readers to know that ads on news sites can eat as much as 79 percent of the battery life on their phone.
  • We take no responsibility for ads that are clearly deceptive or pitching scams.
  • We run ad formats that are purposely intrusive and difficult to exit out of (where’s that tiny little x?).
  • And as readers wise up to the risks and annoyances posed by this stuff and install ad blocking technology, we move to a “sponsored content” advertising model whose very success is based on the fact that most readers don’t know it’s advertising.
  • We’re still pretty bad about making corrections, and being transparent about what we got wrong and why when we do. And we’re still more likely to correct something like the spelling of a name than the big, important stuff like inaccurate reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that actually helped plunge our country into war.
  • From the New York Times’ quiet changes to a story about Bernie Sanders to the Hartford Courant’s unexplained removal of a cop’s racist quote, we fail the transparency test when it comes to important decisions about the news.
  • Under pressure for more page views, we write “click bait” headlines where the stories don’t live up to what was promised, or purposely hide the fact that the story happened in a far-away place, not locally.
  • We give readers no assurance that conflicts of interest and manipulation of the news will be disclosed as ownership of so many newspapers changes hands. We can’t write off the recent debacle over Sheldon Adelson’s “secret” purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and use of reporters for dirty tricks as a lone bad actor. One of the country’s biggest and fastest-growing newspaper chains was complicit, and is coming soon to a market near you.
  • And we fail the transparency test with advertisers, too. Was that video ad we charged you for really seen by anyone as it auto-played at the bottom of one of our pages? Are we auditing our traffic and more importantly, the programmatic deals we sell to local merchants, to assure that impressions are genuine and not part of bot traffic schemes that have run rampant?

New York University Professor Jay Rosen lays out an alternative he calls “full stack credibility” — “when you try to make not just the journalism, but every layer of the operation trustworthy.”

It’s hard to envision a long-term journalism business built without it.

Matt DeRienzoMatt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.

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Published: May 20, 2016

One thought on “Industry Insight: A News Industry in Transition Fails the Transparency Test

  • May 20, 2016 at 7:56 am
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    Great article. A local newspaper’s most important asset is its brand. But, only if it stands for honesty, integrity, accuracy, true investigative reporting and journalism excellence . Those that subscribe to this mantra will survive and thrive if they migrate to a digital first model and focus locally. Like it or not, digital is the future and the sooner newspapers get on-board the less painful it will be.
    If you think about it, there will always be a demand for local news and there will always be somebody willing to gather and report it. The challenge is how to make money in the process.
    The answer for local newspapers is to let others gather state, national and international news and if good, just deliver it. And be diligent in finding and objectively reporting every aspect of local news.
    Those that don’t do these things will go out of business or be purchased at hard asset value plus a small premium for brand. Those that do will refocus on digital, align their hard assets with the new market realities, and increase ROI – even if the total revenues might be less than the good old days. Local newspapers can still be great and viable businesses and serve the public good.
    Roy Truitt, CEO, HubCiti.com

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