My new colleague, the Deputy Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, looked at me.
“Your turn,” he smiled. “Ask me anything.”
I mean, I had prepared for this moment, sure, but all my carefully crafted questions flew out the window. Here was an opportunity to learn almost anything. But instead of asking his opinion on native advertising, instead of quizzing him about the CMO Today column, instead of inquiring about WSJ’s Custom Studios or even picking his brain on the craft of business writing, I blurted, “Talk about trust in media.”
So he did.
He said the answer is not in messaging. It’s in positioning. If traditional news outlets positioned themselves carefully, fake news could come and go, just like it always has. So could “trust.” And when the dust settles, some publishers will write on, unscathed.
You see, when global information and research consulting companies publish dramatic reports depicting trust levels in unremitting swan dives, commentators naturally look for someone or something to blame. Today, that means charging one of two players: politicians or corporations.
It’s tempting for the chief editors to join the fray. After all, the commitment to quality journalism and factual reporting is so strong, and runs so deep, that indignation wells up in natural defense of the sacrifices each outlet – indeed, each individual journalist – has made. There’s a certain nobility in the purism of credibility. Often, I’ve wondered as I listened to the back and forth, how at some point, many publishers begin sounding like nonprofits. Endowed do-gooders. Civil superheroes come to save us from a few weird Twitter accounts or Facebook ads.
“The Wall Street Journal is in a good position,” my friend said. “We’ve deliberately stuck to our strategy, which means we don’t need to jump into every other conversation that lights up out there. Let me show you what I mean.”
We walked past the coffee station, past the news room, past the legal desks, past yet another coffee station, and arrived at a breathtaking display of brightly lit Pulitzer prizes. I gaped.
“Turn around,” my friend said. There on the opposite wall was an evocative enlargement of archival photomurals – the front pages published on days of pivotal, historical significance. Events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 confronted me in polyester fabric wallpaper. Each blown-up, typeset letter was the size of my hand.
“But look,” prodded my guide. “Every headline points back to the event’s effect on the markets.” And sure enough, there under the rubble of the photojournalists’ portrayals of each scene was the Dow Jones message to a specific, targeted audience. Their audience. While other papers immediately began speaking to an events’ causes, seismologic precursors, fallout potential, and political repercussions, The Journal focused on how businesses would feel the effects. How founders, owners, executives, and stakeholders could view the event. The focused angle let correspondents dismiss the temptation to wander into other parts of the story. Does a particular detail serve the audience? If so, then it’s included. If not, well, don’t worry – other papers will certainly cover it.
And it’s working.
In a panel discussion held just a few days before my visit, Gerry Baker, the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, sat down with CNBC’s editor-in-chief Nikhil Deogun, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of TIME Nancy Gibbs, and Joanne Lipman, Gannett’s chief content officer and editor-in-chief of USA Today. The discussion was moderated by Katie Couric, who, toward the end of the conversation, asked the panel how each news outlet could politically diversify their own personal circles to better serve all readers.
Everyone had an action plan except Baker, who pretty much dismissed the question. He said The Journal’s target audience is defined, and for the most part, his team reaches them. Considering that, why diversify? “I was at dinner in Chicago last night with 12 CEOs,” he said. “The topic of Russia, Mueller, and the inquiry, literally in an hour and a half, didn’t come up once. They talked about health care, deregulation, the economy, taxes, and foreign policy more generally. And by the way, it wasn’t as if they were either hostile or supportive of Donald Trump, it just never came up. It wasn’t seen as an issue.”
Baker’s team has obviously mastered the art of listening. He hears his readers. Perhaps even more importantly, he hears what they don’t say.
In other words, that publication is well-positioned.
When asked about trust in media, he wisely puts that trust back in the hands of his audience. After all, his team has done the hard work of getting to know their readership so well that they feel no need to take a stand on a conversation that’s not coming up.
The Other “Bad Guy”
Malicious foreign ne’er-do-wells and spoiled politicians aren’t the only forces chipping away at traditional trust in media, however. Some commentators say the rise of native advertising and news-oriented content marketing are also to blame. When “Courageous,” CNN’s custom content studios finally showed up to the native advertising party, a few critics nearly lost their minds. As though audiences didn’t know already that someone had to be paying for the programming. As though consumers didn’t know that brands have been behind segments, features, columns, and shows for generations.
It was a problem of positioning.
“When the New York Times launched their [content studio] and the Washington Post started theirs, it was like, ‘Oh, there goes journalism!’” he said, referring to the cacophony of naysayers. “But it’s all funded by corporations. It’s just whether it’s advertising.”
The answer, then, is in how a publication postures the creative service. “I really think this is a positioning problem,” Pulizzi goes on. “What if they had come out like NPR does, and say how these are really important news topics that we would like to cover, but because we have to put our money or resources somewhere else, we need them underwritten. So we’re going to start a new unit to help get this type of information covered and we’re going out to brands to help us cover that. Wouldn’t that be a little better way to do it?”
Yes. It would. But even the poor storytelling of these contents studios’ “unveiling” couldn’t dampen their momentum. Today, we see CNN drove further through, opening another entirely independent film studio called Great Big Story. And T-brand Studios is moving further and further from the Times, becoming a legitimate, full-on agency.
For all the dramatics, it seems audiences have survived. If anything, readers have grown more astute, more curious. More valuable. And instead of jumping into the trust-in-media debate, some publications (like the Wall Street Journal) are instead putting trust in readers. By sticking to a defined targeted readership, those journalists are trusting their audiences to meet them halfway with circumspection.
In a way, our audiences are parting the waters for us. If a brand does not commit itself to factual, helpful, fascinating material, audiences will dismiss their content destination in time. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, if editors are constantly checking the pulse of the state of journalism and blaming others for killing it, audiences will pick up on that, too – readers of a certain mindset will be put off in time, while others will be attracted to the melodrama like moths to a light.
The only question left, then, is exactly who you want in your trusted audience.