CT No.58: How news media companies lose audience trust

Gripes galore, The Social Dilemma, better journalism & a clever content research tool

I don’t have much of a formal editorial calendar around here, but my rule is, generally: no more than one ranty post every month. Well, today is that ranty post.

And no, the rant is not about The Social Dilemma, which I watched and yelled at. You can find plenty of good critique and send up this brilliantly obtuse statement from Tristan Harris, who gets far too much screentime in the doc.

Cultures in the U.S. and around the world still get upset when women ride bicycles, but if you never include women or history or general cultural awareness in your conversations, I guess you wouldn’t know that. Hilariously, VC tech money power dude Ben Evans tweeted about Harris’ statement, “Anyone can screw up.” Because gosh, isn’t it funny how these little misinformation “screw ups” from tech folks find their way into the public discourse and make a small sector of tech gents of money! Boys will be boys, after all.

(Do you ever think the money and the power goes to the wrong people?)

What I found most damaging was the metaphor for algorithms as three independent Vincent Kartheisers controlling your social media actions. In true tech industry fashion, it’s a depiction of algorithms as something much smarter than they actually are, with a power much greater than they actually have. “It’s not us, it’s the AI” is a misleading and disempowering argument.

The casting choice of Pete Campbell as a smug algo is pretty apt, tho.

Oh… yeah, so that’s not my actual rant today!

In this newsletter I prefer to write about how tech and media intersect, but today’s post is strictly about news ecosystems because in the misinformation economy, all systems of information production need to evaluate their assumptions, processes and operations. Also, before I started The Content Technologist and before I got into SEO, I was knee-deep in the Minnesota media ecosystem. So, our contents:

  • On trusting journalism and media companies - with some tips that could honestly be applied to any information production operation in content marketing or tech development

  • A review of audience research software Answer the Public

  • Content tech links of the week

Now I sink into my identity as a true Minnesotan, one who can never stop talking about her (adopted) home state.


Journalism in its current form won’t save us either.

The Twin Cities has a thriving journalism and media ecosystem — but it fails the public repeatedly without much help from either big tech or big media.

We have all you could ask for in a media market: conservative billionaire-owned “mainstream” outlets; two local dailies; three Black-owned news organizations, two of which have been around for decades; Indigenous-run news organizations that serve both the urban native populations and those in reservations out-state; a leading journalism and communications university with a solid student newspaper; our own uniquely boring political news analysis tv show focused solely on Minnesota; business-only media; arts-only media; neighborhood-only media; socialist-leaning newspapers; jingoistic glossy magazines; a somewhat-alt weekly; that blog that took down Dan Rather back in the day; and the holy grail of it all: member-supported nonprofit journalism.

Ah, yes, Minnesota Public Radio! You know, the one that used to distribute the extremely nationally famous radio show about how goshdarn adorable smalltown American life can be with the oh-so-charming host who was rightfully fired after years of sexually harassing his women employees. Aside from that folksy now-cancelled show, MPR has a long and somewhat troublesome history in the state — ask anyone involved in public radio, and it’s likely they’ve reluctantly accepted MPR’s dominance as a necessary evil. As with many media companies, good people work there, but they don’t always have good things to say about the company.

A part of American Public Media Group (AMPG), MPR operates a news outlet and two music stations, one devoted to classical, and the other to the adult contemporary continuum of Prince-Father John Misty. DJs at MPR are household names in the Twin Cities, and all three stations have a solid reputation for, well, public radio. You know.

I like MPR because it has fewer ads and because, to some extent, it creates community through events devoted to civic education. But the underwriters are still the mining industry, the donors are still the wealthy, and the attitude is still pro-business versus pro-audience. In the past I supported MPRNews when the Republican billionaire-owned newspaper regularly published racist reporting and editorials. (FYI the newspaper still publishes racist reporting and editorials, but they have some good reporters at the moment, so I’m still tentatively subscribed. Trust me, I reconsider my subscription every day.) But my sustaining membership for the nonprofit MPR has fallen by the wayside, and I have minimal interest in renewing for a number of reasons.

The latest in a history of MPR bad decisions

Last week, Garrett McQueen, the only Black DJ on the classical station was fired, purportedly for not following standard procedure in adding Black composers to the playlist. This week, we have this kerfuffle with celebrated reporter Marianne Combs. Click through to read the whole tweet thread.

You can also read an MPR editor’s response here.

To quote Baby Herman in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the whole thing stinks like yesterday’s diapers. The subject of Combs’ reporting, a relatively minor overnight DJ most of us hadn’t heard of, has since been summarily removed from his position after public statements from most of the DJs at The Current.

It’s blowing over like the west coast wildfire smoke that’s clouding our midwestern skies. What scares me is the idea that an award-winning journalist like Combs chose to leave — in what’s obviously not the first challenge she’s ever felt in the newsroom. And based on MPR president Duchesne Drew’s response, she was challenged extremely dated editorial ideas that don’t benefit the public they serve.

In over a decade of studying both local and national media, both professionally and as an enlightened voyeur, I’ve heard the promise of member-supported nonprofit media held high like Simba, a catch-all remedy for journalism’s decline. Recently the folks who think 501(c)3s will save us are louder than they’ve been in about a decade, and to them I say: my dudes, please look at Minnesota.

Nonprofit journalism and multiple news options don’t create change or accountability.

We have so many nonprofits in MN. Not just media nonprofits, but massive foundations, arts funds, fellowships galore. Charity bleeds out our ears. We are drowning in news options.

But nonprofits — media or otherwise — are slow and difficult to change. Despite the massive amounts of charity and wealth of media to choose from, we still live in one of the racially segregated states in the union. George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Jamar Clark were all murdered here, and the largest media organizations are still calling for law and order. Our largest newspaper regularly runs pro-Trump stories with minimal fact-checking, and even the publicly supported news stations fall prey to both sides-ism and outdated ideas of what’s newsworthy. The billionaire-supported and white-run foundations provide next to no help for our ailing neighbors. Money grows moldy in endowments while the rich decamp to their second homes and our neighbors live in tents in public parks while a brutal winter is very much on its way.*

For workers, nonprofit media orgs have the reputation for being every bit as awful as other news media organizations. Layoffs, sexual harassment, blatant racism, you name it: both nonprofit and for-profit local media are dripping with stories of abuse. The open secrets of bad behavior are shared in happy hours, morning coffees, bathroom sob sessions, but as long as the same (wealthy, white) people are in power, nothing changes.

As long as news media companies adhere to the same “journalistic standards” defined by rich white men decades ago, nothing changes. When the systems that produce what are supposed to be “quality” news and journalism harbor abusers, serve the interests of business underwriters, and make decisions they believe will placate rich donors, it’s extremely hard to trust the media we see. We’re still stuck with journalism that is pro-oligarchy and anti-democracy, whether it’s for- or nonprofit.

* Still on this soapbox. Donate to the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement’s mutual aid initiatives through Zacah.

Journalists need to hold their industry accountable.

I’m just as concerned as everyone else about our environment of misinformation, but the lack of trust in journalism is truly on the media itself to fix. People turn to independent news or social media when they don’t trust what they see in the mainstream, when their voices are distorted or dismissed, and when their media doesn’t reflect the world they live in.

Although social media makes it much easier for political bad actors to flood social media with questionable content, upcoming big tech antitrust or pro-privacy regulations aren’t going to solve legacy news media’s longstanding reputation of discrimination, marginalization and just plain abusive behavior toward its audience.

I understand that journalists feel they are under attack, and they’re not wrong. Reporters and editors have extremely hard jobs, exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle, trolls yelling from all sides, and the need to get facts correct. But when journalists claim “free press is under attack” and then insist that there are two sides to Black Lives Matter, or that unreported sexual abuse isn’t newsworthy, that peaceful protests aren’t worth coverage, or that their entry-level employees can’t earn a living wage, it’s really hard to give the American mainstream news unwavering support.

How the news shifts the narrative away from itself.

Despite journalism’s professed commitment to objectivity and truth, American media rewards hyperbole, quick facts with no context, good guys and bad guys. Both journalists and advertisers alike talk in the language of efficient narrative storytelling, which cuts out externalities, deep research, and, most often, data and science. Although journalists understand complex and nuanced storytelling, old media formats like local evening news or newspapers fail to provide the detail that can be included and expanded in the digital formats that their audiences use most often.

In recent reporting on protests and civic actions following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, it’s rare to see either for-profit or nonprofit news outlets acknowledge the massive amounts of data on systemic racism. Instead we see incomplete reporting on even the idea of police abolition in favor of stories like “suburban visitors won’t go downtown.” (To be fair here, reporters at several local news outlets have done a good job at combing the local police data and discovering gross inequities and misconduct.)

In the treatment of COVID-19, our local news media companies continue to publish the important dailies of our case numbers and deaths. But they also happily jumped back on the “reopen businesses” bandwagon the second the option was available, and very few accompany stories of indoor dining with disclaimers about how eating at a restaurant is really inadvisable. Reporting in the public interest would support keeping the population healthy, not keeping businesses open.

News publishers shout loudly about a loss of ad revenues at the hands of digital vendors while profiting from programmatic media networks that use a disturbing amount of your data, including credit card and other personally identifying information. Did you know that many local news publishers sell “reach” to their advertisers using the same ad tech networks that low-quality misinformation and conspiracy sites use? Sure, it’s anonymized, but if you’re going to take Facebook to task for a lack of privacy and spreading bad info, local news orgs: look at the shit on your own shoes.

On top of it all, there’s the disdain for the people who are actively engaging with journalists. In both working in media and munching popcorn while watching editor gripe-fests on Twitter, I see all levels of media workers— editors, reporters and publishers— complaining that the public doesn’t understand their work, sometimes to the point of mocking their audience. “Media literacy is bad and has to be fixed,” they say, and then do nothing to fix it because hey! At least their engagement numbers are up.

What should journalism do to save itself? Some suggestions.

Whether billionaire-owned, non-profit, or member-based, the business and practice of journalism needs to enhance its own accountability and transparency — without blaming digital competitors or politicians or whatever. Here are some ideas, with varying levels of complexity and bakedness:

  • Radically improve transparency, beginning with publicly posting editorial standards and processes on news organization websites. Write in plain language how ethics codes make their way into reporting processes and provide specific examples of how they are used. Update those examples on a quarterly basis.

    Take the grand statements about “conflict of interest,” “fairness,” and “balance,” and break them down into how they might be incorporated into a reported story. I don’t know why news organizations don’t do this, but maybe they feel grand statements of intent are more important than details of how processes actually work.

    Journalism isn’t a trade secret, but the media industry seems to be operating on the assumption that everyone knows how reporters work because Bob Woodward is still somehow around. Y’all, even my smartest friends don’t know the difference between background and on-the-record unless they work in comms. Most journalists don’t know how journalism works until they get their first journalism job, which is a damn shame.

  • One of the major shifts in our society’s discourse is moving from the default white, wealthy, male “objective” to acknowledging that lived experiences contribute to biases across the board, and these biases show up in everything from our treatment of coworkers to our use of “standard” English.

    Journalism-driven organizations need to acknowledge that all reporters are biased, that there is no universal standard for objectivity, and that unnecessarily rapid production cycles exacerbate those biases. Beginning an ethics code with “we are unbiased in our reporting” is not appropriate for our current information ecosystem. Everyone, everything is biased from our lived experiences, and sometimes that lived knowledge enhances a story.

  • Provide education around personal biases and retire outdated “best practices.” Ensure that all newsroom employees and leadership receive ongoing education and discuss regularly, even when the most HR-averse motherfucker in the room complains about wasted time.

    Acknowledge that newsrooms need to change, from the most grizzled newsroom vet to the newest intern. All employees, whether long-term or interns, should be held to the same standards of transparency and bias acknowledgement.

  • Ensure that codes of ethics are reviewed and enforced by a diverse group of journalists.

  • Publicly display news org diversity data, including that of leadership.

  • Conduct regular surveys of public trust in news coverage and oversample underrepresented communities until that trust is improved.

  • Document and link to all sources where available upon publication, along with publishing reporting processes and questions when available because we have unlimited space on the web and that sort of transparency is literally what the internet is for.

    Document the questions asked, the research done, the previous news stories that led to this one, the press releases received, the full transcripts of interviews for on-the-record subjects. (IMO, software should be developed for exactly this purpose. We don’t need more software in general, but this tool we need! The only citation software out there is designed for academics, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to create similar versions for reporting.)

  • Provide sources with context about reporting processes before the interview is completed. A customized boilerplate for how the reporting process works is fine, but make sure that sources understand how their words will be used. Each individual reporter is different, but all follow distinct processes. Your sources should know yours.

  • Treat sources as audience members — with respect, dignity, and acknowledgement of the complexity of their lives — while still asking tough questions. Many amazing reporters already do this, but just as many act as if they are owed an interview or a response. (Sooooo many entitled, unnecessarily prickly reporters out there. If you’re scoffing at this suggestion, that’s probably you.)

  • Ensure leadership in both editorial and publishing is actually diverse — and give up power when it is not. (I assure you, giving up power will make you feel better in the long run.)

  • Shift from examining the abuses of individual people in power to larger systems. The past four years have taught us that individual people in power are rarely held accountable, even with all the good journalism in the world. We need to interrogate the values woven into our lives, not individual bad actors.

  • Invest in radically different business practices that develop audience trust, rather than more programmatic display networks that rely on poor data and destroy the integrity of content around it. Stop thinking of your audience as eyeballs. (I realize this is loaded but we have to imagine something else because legacy media websites are universally a pile of garbage.)

  • Don’t refer to readers as “customers.” Ever. I know everyone complains about “users,” but “customers” indicates a transactional relationship that does not serve the public good.

  • Clarify the difference between opinion and reporting. Fact-check opinion pieces. (And justify why an opinion piece is running if it seems contrarian.)

  • Believe underrepresented groups. Examine data about racism, sexism, and homophobia and include it in every story that addresses racism, sexism, LGBTQIA rights and sexual violence.

  • Believe science and report on the realities of how scientific research works in a similar fashion. Scientific research is almost always toward an answer, not a definitive answer in itself. It needs to be presented in context with other research.

  • Realize that white rural and suburban people are not actually an underrepresented population.

  • Stop drooling over runaway business success, and do the work to create deeper narratives that illustrate trends in the public interest. (At the same time: if you’re going to write about either the evils or the benefits of technology, try to understand how the tech works and its actual capabilities before you praise or deride it.)

  • Never ever ever say “we’ve seen this before” as a reason for dismissing a recurring or ongoing story. Just because a local issue is not breaking doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

  • Stop publishing opinion columns or interviews or journalism about abusers and racists who have lost their platforms! There are so many other people out there with valid, high-quality opinions who haven’t repeatedly abused and dehumanized others. And there are plenty of abusers and racists who still have platforms to provide that perspective!

Audience, send your financial support elsewhere!

Here are a handful Minnesota media organizations (presented alphabetically) doing good work that you can support if you are interested:


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Auto-complete data in context: Answer the Public review

Digital content research is a legit hydra, with a never-ending supply of keywords and ideas and queries from different sources, all positioning to be the best fountain of ideas for your content calendar. It’s hard to know where to start and when to stop during the research process, with new ideas and new software surfacing endless amounts of user queries that could be used.

For the past few years, one of the most popular sources of keyword data has been tools that scrape Google’s auto-complete suggestions. I’ve always found these marginally helpful. The auto-complete algorithm’s dependence on existing datasets and location biases means it’s simply not as helpful (or as accurate) when compared to either keyword planner/Ads API data.

But Answer the Public mitigates some of those tensions by organizing, contextualizing and storing that auto-complete data, which makes it the first auto-complete scraper I recommend for as part of a content research program.

Answer the Public at a glance

Answer the Public is a freemium content research tool that generates auto-complete terms, organized by question signifiers and then by alphabetical. The free version lets you search on two queries per day, which can be exported and analyzed with your own tools. But the paid version is far more valuable, allowing users to save and compare auto-complete results over time and over geographies.

Using it is simple: Type in a one- or two-word search query, select a country, and receive a host of ideas and questions about that query based on recent searches.

More important than the tool’s direct function, Answer the Public provides educational materials on how to use the data and what it means in context. Moz is the only other keyword research tool that invests that deeply into educating its users about what the data means and why they should use keyword data.

My only two problems with the tool:

  • The creepy dude in the background video who watches as you type. It’s an apt metaphor for the surveillance economy, but it’s legit disconcerting.

  • The name of the tool. “Answer the Public” implies that the data is some kind of noble town hall when it’s the same Google data every other autocomplete scraper uses. The data is not from the public; it’s the Google user. “Answer the Searcher” would be a better name.

As with all keyword research tools, Answer the Public should be used with other tools to triangulate insights and identify trends. (I run all the queries I get from ATP through SEMRush’s Keyword Magic to determine popularity and search volume.) But it’s a good start for content research and a worthwhile addition to your tool stack.


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