I began my fellowship focused on trying to find ways to keep excellence in journalism -— in-depth reporting, reliable sources, great writing — when most news outlets in Brazil are offering snackable, audience-guided content to chase online users.
As I explored this issue, it became clear to me that legacy newsrooms have a crucial advantage over digital media ventures: Most of them have a powerful and established brand, built over years with audience support. The fact that they don´t need to constantly introduce themselves — or prove their founding principles repeatedly — is a great asset that I believe should be used to attract new consumers while keeping existing audiences. With Facebook, Google and Twitter acting as the new information gatekeepers, newsrooms need to react and focus on building their own audiences and engaging with them directly. I believe one way to do this is to offer multiple entrance doors to the brand. They should, for example, create diverse journalistic products combined with high-end editorial material — overall trustworthy and contextualized news. Another avenue is to create premium experiences, including tailored products and events, exploring the news organization’s reliable characteristics.
In its 2014 Innovation Report, The New York Times addressed this problem for the first time. Until then, content was the core of the newspaper’s marketing strategy. But the competition for audience’s attention and the success of listicle-specialized websites has forced a rethinking of strategy. The NYT solution included adding value and diversifying products. There was a massive investment in alternative media, such as podcasting, virtual reality and video, among others. At the same time, the NYT kept its focus on great reporting and long-form journalism, which I would argue are its core products.
While the NYT does not expect to scale many of these new products, executives say they are worthwhile as a way to promote impact and reinforce the NYT brand. More than 1 million U.S. subscribers had their first experience with virtual reality through The New York Times.
Another relevant example came from The Texas Tribune, a successful nonprofit investigative journalism outlet that is now mostly self-funded through commercial activities. With events, conferences, receptions and symposiums, the online organization has generated $1.5 million in revenue each year. The idea behind the strategy is to understand events as sources of both content and revenue. Not all of them are paid. But again: audiences can be attracted even by the intrinsic value of the content. Being in a high-end debate about relevant subjects with respected journalists is a very compelling way to get readers to decide to join (and stay in) the club.
Trustworthiness is also a main challenges in the digital era, but has not been fully explored. I believe that offering reliable content — and showing that it has value — is a great way to attract, and keep, a loyal audience. Initiatives such as The Trust Project are a good first step. It provides guidelines to distinguish bad from good information/data and reveal journalists’ expertise in the subjects they are writing about. But we need to go further. This could be extended, for example, into building a strong fact-checking service that allows the public to identify your brand with correctness and meticulous journalistic work.
In Brazil, legacy newsrooms are trying to overcome the worst political and economic crisis of the recent past. Many of them are searching desperately for their audiences and abandoning core principles of journalism — aiming to have clicks and get ads. In this case, it is less about listicles and more about ethics.
The current political crisis has also exposed a crisis of journalism — Brazilian media hasn’t been immune from corruption. It hasn´t been rigorous enough. It hasn´t been honest enough. Chasing public support (endorsing policies without criticism, for example) brought to light a broader crisis of the journalistic institutions, but also of the core values of the profession.
I am bringing back to Brazil new tools and skills that could help me to improve, or even create, organizations to elevate the country beyond the cycle of crisis, scandals and distrust in journalism. One of my ideas is to formulate a set of guidelines and best practices for newsrooms, based on the successes of different media outlets worldwide. Those successes have had a real impact in journalism. They showed that serious work and creative strategies can break through the noise and — yes — could bring money.
This can be done through workshops or even in a book — a new edition of the old newsroom manual, for the Unicorn Era. Having a practical outline is an useful tool to shape strategies for the future. But most of all, it serves to remind us that journalism is a craft that requires talent and certain skills — and that media outlets can expand their impact beyond counting clicks or page views.