Chris Satullo: How Local Media Can Regain Trust

March 27, 2017

Trust in local journalism will be built on new models of engagement with the audience. Photo Courtesy of Free Press
Trust in local journalism will be built on new models of engagement with the audience. Photo Courtesy of Free Press

Here’s a news flash: Journalism is in trouble.

The business models that once supported big newsrooms capable of churning out high-impact work are near collapse.

Purveyors of fake news and propaganda seem to be proving that Gresham’s Law — bad money drives out good — applies to journalism.

Four decades of “poison-the-wells” tactics by political partisans, with their claims that all news reports that displease or discomfit them are tainted by bias, have done great damage. On the left as well as the right, the ideal of “honest-broker” reporting is mocked.

In response, a proposition and a proposal:

The proposition: These trends can be thwarted and reversed. In your lifetime. Maybe even in mine. (I’m eligible for Social Security. Yikes.)

The proposal: Let’s not waste time trying to begin the fix at the level of national politics or political reporting. Those wells are too toxic. The damaging reflexes of both those who provide, and those who react to, inside-the-Beltway coverage are too deeply ingrained.

No, the fix won’t happen through trickle down from Washington. It has to be built from the ground up, from the furrows and fields of local journalism. The grassroots have the power, with patience and effort, to heal the capital.

This can’t be achieved merely by good journalists recommitting to do what they have always done, only harder.

It also has to be built on new models of engagement with the audience – and by this I mean far more than getting people to like a Facebook page, follow you on Instagram, or respond to an insta-poll.

It has to be built on authentic, aerobic, face-to-face (IRL, if you prefer) engagement with the audience. It requires engagement carefully designed to create virtuous cycles of input, reporting, impact, and feedback that propel new reporting.

This type of meaningful civic engagement is integral to the substance, the credibility and the sustainability of modern digital journalism.

To be meaningful, engagement must be based on active, patient listening in the community the journalist aims to serve. This engagement must relish real conversation with the community, in all its sometimes cantankerous and befuddling diversity. It must be ready to listen, learn and act upon what it learns.

Such engagement can improve and deepen journalism, discover new ways of serving the community, and help the public life of the community go well.

What does all this look like in practice?

Local journalism in New Jersey, where the Dodge Foundation has been seeking to nurture innovative practices, provides four positive examples that Dodge has supported.

1. Newsrooms pilot Hearken 


Three New Jersey newsrooms — Brick City Live, New Brunswick Today and NJTV News — are working with Jennifer Brandel’s Hearken technology, which lets the public assign stories and collaborate on reporting with newsrooms. Each New Jersey newsroom has created its own interactive website using the Hearken tool — Curious Brick City, New Brunswick Listens, and NJTV News Ask Away. Questions already posed by audiences on the sites range from affordable public transit routes to where to find the best zeppoli in the state.

2. Superstorm Sandy Community Dialogues

WHYY hosted community forums after Hurricane Sandy.
WHYY hosted community forums after Hurricane Sandy.

WHYY, the public radio station in Philadelphia, led a series of community dialogues in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Called “Ready for Next Time? The Shore after Sandy,” the four forums asked residents to react to three very different long-term strategies for rebuilding counties ravaged by the storm. Input from the forums then helped guide a reporting collaboration of WHYY, New Jersey Public Radio and the NJ Spotlight news site for the next year. The project also connected to a televised town hall on NJTV.

3. Creative Collaborations


Dirty Little Secrets” was a collaborative investigation by those same partners and some others. The series looked into the environmental and financial woes caused by leaking underground tanks all over the state. From its inception, with guidance from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the project was designed with civic engagement techniques built in. These included a student reporting project, a night of on-point standup comedy called the Toxic Comedy World Tour and a one-act play called Terra Incognita.

4. A Listening Post for Jersey Shore Hurricane News 


Jersey Shore Hurricane News, the digital local news phenomenon begun after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy as a one-man, Facebook show by Justin Auciello, has launched Listening Post Jersey Shore. This promotes a suite of citizen engagement techniques based on a successful model in New Orleans. The techniques range from audio Listening Posts in local libraries and nonprofits to Facebook Live Q and A’s with local mayors — all designed to amplify local voices to those who have the power to make change.

Nurturing face-to-face dialogue in the civic sphere

This is all good stuff. But, to be clear, the kind of civic engagement that makes a difference is not easy, and doesn’t fit nearly into the current routines of most newsrooms. A couple of caveats:

  • Engagement is not the same as marketing aimed at strengthening brand or building audience (though those goals can become happy byproducts of real engagement done well).
  • Digital tools are not satisfactory substitutes for face-to-face, on-the-scene contact with community– though those tools can certainly assist in the effort.

Nurturing face-to-face dialogue in the civic sphere is an intrinsic part of the template for quality, 21st-century journalism, just as much as data mining, crowd-sourcing or having a great Twitter game.

This type of dialogue seeks to create a self-sustaining cycle: find out what’s on the public’s mind, do journalism that addresses public questions and amplifies public voices effectively, then invite responses to that work to fuel new rounds of reporting and co-produced content.

The Holy Grail at which this cycles aim is real-world impact: a more responsive style of government that improves communities; a heightened capacity in the community to identify, discuss and act upon problem and opportunities.

The active listening of civic engagement does not require abandonment of journalistic independence or professional judgment. You are not “turning your publication over to the ignorant masses.” Civic engagement, done well, enhances community trust in the journalist’s integrity.  It informs, not supplants, the journalist’s judgment.

Think of it this way: Most journalists want as many people as possible to pay attention to and benefit from the work they do.

A crisis of trust

But consider: Do people often trust or listen to other people who never listen to them?  The active listening of meaningful civic engagement can address the crisis of trust that haunts journalism today.


How did that trust gap grow to its current yawning dimensions?

It has grown over decades as many media companies adjusted poorly to digital innovation, lost track of audience desires, and sacrificed community service to the bottom line. As these trends threatened their job security and professional standards, journalists (alas) often turned panicky, defensive and resistant to change.

These evil spirals were accelerated by the well-funded partisans and ideologues who poisoned the wells.  They have so discredited the idea of factual, balanced, independent journalism that many Americans now think down is up, true is false and false is true.

Civic engagement, done well, is a way to flush some of those poisons away, to restore to journalists a sense of the civic value of what they do, to create a new sense of connection and trust with the community. People are less likely to dismiss fact and to chase phantoms, more likely to accept and value real reporting, when a story is happening in a community they know well, rather than in Washington’s murky corridors of power.

Some might object that when news outlets are in a death struggle for fiscal survival, it’s hardly time to add the new work and expense of aerobic engagement. This is short-sighted.  While civic engagement is different from marketing and promotion, it still can legitimately enhance, not detract from, the revenue side of local journalism.

Here’s why: Many of the forms of content — international and national news, sports and entertainment, want ads — that used to sustain local newspapers now are commodities served up on-demand to mass audiences through global digital platforms.

For the local journalist, this means some formerly lucrative franchises are long vanished. Many forms of general-interest content can no longer be counted on to draw eyeballs and advertisers to a local publication, site or outlet; they no longer can cross-subsidize the difficult, expensive work of covering local communities well.

In fact, the entire construct of using content to collect eyes and ears that are in turn sold to advertisers has been exploded. In a world where a profusion of content is available at the stroke of a key, content is a commodity. In the global context, platforms are the engines of wealth, not content making.

The local journalist cannot survive simply by shouting, “Hey, I’ve got some content, too, over here, and it has your town’s name in it.”

The journalist must deliver content as part of an on-going pact of engagement with the community.  (This is something public media worked out and acted upon long before commercial media got a clue. Listen to a good public radio pledge pitch. What’s being “sold” is not stories or content; it’s a sense of connection and engagement between audience and outlet.)


A relationship rooted in community

While local journalism can’t ignore the power of global platforms, it can find solace in this fact: The core unit of value that local journalism provides is in fact a relationship rooted in community, a relationship that platforms can’t easily mimic.

Local journalism alone can make a pact with its audience built upon a sense of service, mutual listening, co-production and shared commitment to the health of a given community.  It is primarily out of such a sense of trust and connection that the revenue to sustain quality local journalism will flow, not out of volume or even quality of content.

But it is hard to have trust in someone whom you never see face to face, never hear speak in person. It’s hard to feel like giving money to someone who hides his face from you, who never asks what you think, and never responds when you do.

Local journalists need to be present, open and transparent to their community in a way that wasn’t the norm when newspapers ruled the local news world in all their citadel-like arrogance.

Digital tools can help maintain some sense of dialogue and transparency, but to a lamentable degree those tools have been colonized by the voices of complaint, grievance and mistrust. Anyone perusing the comment strings beneath most stories on a standard “newspaper” site would despair of ever launching a sane, useful, trust-building dialogue with audience members.

But the hyperlocal journalists who have worked with Dodge insist the following is true: Plenty of people are out there who still value solid local news coverage and want to engage with the story-tellers who provide it. (They just tend not to hang out in the bruising, troll-laden environs of a comment thread.)

Meaningful in-person civic engagement helps establish contact with such people, then nurtures trust between them and the journalist.

In this way, town by town, outlet by outlet, the toxins can slowly be neutralized, the noise from the capital overcome, and a model for an engaged, 21st-century, public-interest journalism built.

Chris Satullo is a Senior Advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.