Developing Trust in an Age of News Disruption

I’ve spent some time recently thinking about the role journalism plays in the world these days, and how we got here. As someone who’s been a journalist, on and off, for more than two decades I worry about how journalism has evolved and devolved during that time as we struggle to make sense of new business models, competition we did not anticipate, and the sheer folly of our decision to give our hard work away for free.

The way forward, of course, will have to do with creating and selling to our customers both traditional and new business models that will get them to do now what they did willingly until the last decade or so, pay for what they’re getting. And that will mean educating and re-educating them about what kind of news sources they should be able to trust, and therefore should be willing to support.

With that in mind, I’m reading an interesting book on the development of the European news market between 1400 and 1800, The Invention of News, by Andrew Pettegree. Pettegree, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews and founding director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute, asserts that “long before the invention of printing, let alone the availability of a daily newspaper, people desired to be informed. In the pre-industrial era news was gathered and shared through conversation and gossip, civic ceremony, celebrations, sermons and proclamations. With the age of print came pamphlets, edicts, ballads, journals and the first news-sheets, expanding the news community from the local to a worldwide audience.”

The Desire to be Informed

He goes on to explain how his book tracks that progress, taking into account four centuries of the history of news, broadly defined, in 10 countries.

He writes:

“Of course the desire to be informed, to be in the know, is in one respect as old as human society itself. People would go to some lengths to find out the news. In the eleventh century two monasteries in rural Wales, one hundred miles apart across rugged terrain, would every third year exchange messengers who would live in the other house for a week, to share the news.

“This tale, related in a Tudor chronicle, points up one other important aspect of the information culture of that earlier period. Our medieval ancestors had a profound suspicion of information that came to them in written form…So a news report delivered verbally by a trusted friend or messenger was far more likely to be believed than an anonymous written report. This old tradition, where the trust given to a report depended on the credit of the teller, had an enduring influence over attitudes to news reporting.”

(Page 2, The Invention of News).

This made me remember that as a beginning journalist I would strive for an impersonal, detached style of writing, one that I believe puts emphasis on the information gathered, rather than on the person (in this case me) doing the information gathering and the telling of the story. I do that even now when I’m reporting on a straight news story. On the other hand, when I write features, I’m experimenting with a style I’ve observed and admire, in the Financial Times’ FT Weekend, called Lunch With the FT.

In these features, the writer strives to make us feel like we are sitting down with her, having lunch with the subject of the story. The effect that kind of writing has had on me over time has been that I’ve gotten to “know” some of the writers, in the sense that I look for their bylines, and can start to make sense of whether they are credible or not (IMO, of course).

In this case, the style is a bit of a trick to get the reader into the story. And, over the long term, it can be used by skillful and experienced journalists to develop a relationship with readers in a way that benefits both the writer and the reader.

And, to my earlier point about developing business models that work, if I go online and don’t have a subscription, when I click on the link for the current week’s interview, it takes me directly to a page that asks me to sign up for a subscription. Fair enough, but in this case, I happen to be a happy reader of the print edition, which I pick up at my local gas station on the weekends when it’s available. I’ve also purchased the book Lunch with the FT: 52 Classic Interviews to study the form in more detail. This is solid reporting and great writing, and I’m willing to pay for it.

So, yes, I think that part of the way forward includes developing the solid reporting skills, interviewing techniques, and writing abilities that this kind of journalism requires. Several decades in, I am still developing all of those (and, by the way, having fun doing it). I’d like to convince my readers, most of whom do not know me personally, that I strive to serve as a trusted friend or messenger, and that they should take the time to get to know my work.At the same time I’m telling them about what I think is important, I also while I work try to find a way to publish conversation and gossip, civic ceremony, celebrations, sermons and proclamations as appropriate, often in the form of user-generated content. At its best, it becomes a conversation.

At the same time I’m telling them what I think is important, I also while I work try to find a way to publish conversation and gossip, civic ceremony, celebrations, sermons and proclamations as appropriate, in their own words when possible and with their photos, often in the form of user-generated content. At its best, it becomes a conversation.

When Print Was the Disrupter

And so the question remains of how to make sense of the current news environment, and what history can tell us about the era we are experiencing now. I was interested to read in Pettegree’s work that there was a time when print newspapers were considered the disrupter.

Pettegree, for his part, draws this as part of his conclusion:

“Living as we do now through the uncertainties of the evolving and unstable multi-media world that characterizes the early twenty-first century, it is perhaps easier to see why a similar variety of news delivery would have seemed utterly appropriate to the four centuries that have been of central concern to this book. The arrival in print in the mid-fifteenth century offered many new opportunities; but it had to make its way in a world where networks for the distribution of news had already been developed: networks with standards, conventions, conventions and social freight with which those in circles of power were fully conversant. In the centuries that followed print disrupted and then reshaped this infrastructure, bringing new customers into the circle of news but without fully superseding the established norms. The news media of this era presented every bit as much a multi-media phenomenon as our own. It is that which gives this period its particular fascination.”

(Pages 371-372, The Invention of News)

As an old-fashioned type who is still enamored of newspapers in print, I found this interesting. Why do I love print, despite its current troubles? Because a print product is a way for a news organization to plant a flag in the sand at the end of the day, or week, or month, saying that we stand by this version of the events we’ve observed, and you can trust that we did our best to bring you what we, as experienced observers, found to be true at this time.

Like any other forward-looking journalist, I love playing with the myriad online tools, from tried and true Facebook to the Taco app, which purports to integrate more than 40 online services. Some I stick with, others I discard like a four year-old on a Christmas morning gift-opening spree. Still, when it comes to making sense of where the news business and craft of journalism is going, I found it both interesting and comforting to read Pettegree’s work, and be reminded that disruption is a constant, and that it’s often true that, in the words of that old song Peter Allen song, “Everything Old is New Again.”

“…don’t throw the past away
You might need it some other rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again.”


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