Overcoming journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience

Like many blogging journalists, I now find myself spending more time with Twitter and seeing the conversation take place there instead of on blogs. I suspect it is down to time constraints. As Stowe Boyd said last week at the Thinking Digital conference in Newcastle, blog rhymes with slog because blogging is a lot of work and has produced a natural barrier to entry. Yes, anyone can blog but few people have the time to devote to maintaining a vibrant blog. I find myself now often wanting to capture some of those Twitter conversations.

Today, Adam Tinworth said on Twitter:

I think that journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience may be the most difficult challenge to overcome in jobs like mine.

Andy Dickinson, who teaches Digital and Online Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, asked:

do you think it’s entitlement or just institutional blinkers?

To which Adam replied:

Entitlement. “I’ve made it as a journalist. Hence, I have an audience.”

I think the problem is actually deeper than that. I think the institutional belief is that if we work for a major publication or broadcaster that not only do we have a de facto audience but that we deserve an audience. It’s the height of institutional arrogance and self-importance, and it’s obvious to anyone who even has one foot outside of the bubble of institutional journalism that this is the case. But therein lies the rub. For many journalists, we never get outside of this bubble. I think it’s one of the reasons that journalists are bewildered by the fact that viewership and readership numbers are declining. Journalism matters, we say, and it does. But we are too often the authors of our own increasing irrelevance. We trivialise the important and amplify the trivial. In this noisy age, we don’t help our audiences find the signal but instead make a vain attempt to drown out the noise, often with self-serving arguments about our own importance.

Our audiences understand this more than we’d like to admit. I still remember as a cub reporter having a member of the public tell me I was full of shit because I was a journalist and that he wasn’t going to talk to me. I said fair enough and talked to him about the weather until he opened up and answered my questions. Put another way, if journalists’ relationship with our audiences was a marriage, the audience is filing for divorce.

This isn’t a bout of professional self-loathing. I am still very proud to be a journalist and, if anything, I am someone clinging to my journalistic ideals as I too often see my industry making a joke of them. I believe strongly in the public service that journalism can provide, but too often recognise that instead of a public service, our audience sees us a public nuisance, nothing more than professional gossips and self-appointed scolds. We don’t hold power to account. We don’t seek out facts and cut through opinion. Too often, we are playing a bit part in a what can only be called a high-stakes but low budget soap opera. We are nothing more than supporting and enabling characters to the drama queens of political and entertainment celebrity. Yes, in the UK, we have uncovered MPs abuse of the expenses system, but the journalism is all the more exceptional because it has become the exception.

This is also not about being liked but about being relevant and earning respect rather than assuming it. We don’t deserve an audience. We aren’t owed a living. We might think that we provide a valuable public service, one essential to democracy, but the public doesn’t buy it. We have squandered the public’s trust.

The issues as I see them:

  • There is no clear division in the industry between fact-based analysis and commentary. I find well researched analysis valuable. I rarely take the time to read commentary, no matter how inflamatory.
  • There is over-reliance on a few sources throughout the industry with very little original reporting.
  • We live in an age of information abundance. We need to seek information that is rare and valuable for our audiences, or we have no reason for being.
  • Finely crafted prose is no substitute for reporting. Our audience sees through our attempt to write around what we haven’t found out.

We live in an era of information abundance. As Andy says in a follow up to Adam, “the expectation is more that the audience comes as a given not earned or nutured.” We’ve taken our audiences for granted, and now we have to do a lot of hard work to earn them back.

18 thoughts on “Overcoming journalists’ sense of entitlement to an audience

  1. Of course it’s deeper than that. Very hard to be deep in 140 characters or less. 😉

    (And the perfect reason for moving a conversation from Twitter to a blog)

  2. I agree that it’s more nuanced than 140 characters can make out.

    We are used to seeing “the man in the street”, ‘Some people have said” or shouty broadcasters demanding answers on behalf of the public. All of which are shorthand for assumptions made about an audience always spoken of and never spoken to.

    But my phrase institutional blinkers was an attempt to sum-up the bunker mentality of some journalists struggling with more to do and less resource. It’s easy to forget who you are doing it for when you have so much to do. Not that I’m making excuses and it can soon fester in to the arrogant stance you describe.

    I’m still not sure who should take the blame for letting that happen. Journalists feeling entitled. Management for treating those that make the product as the least important. Or the audience for letting us get away with it for so long.

    But journalists have no Speaker to sack. It’s all onthem as they are the ones visible in this. The positive, I think, is that if journalists opened up to the audience a little more then the opportunities are there for them(as individuals) to gain from. They aren’t the rabid mob the media makes them out to be.

  3. As I replied to Adam earlier on Twitter, the sense of entitlement is something I’ve never felt. Maybe that’s because, primarily working as a freelance, I’m constantly aware of the precariousness of my situation – that the next job and next pay arrives only if the work I’m doing now is of sufficiently high a standard and delivered in timely enough a fashion to ensure that editor uses me again, and that its publication doesn’t lead other editors to think I’ve lost whatever I had last time they commissioned me and think better of doing so in the future. Partly, too, it’s probably because I’ve spent most of my journalistic career writing about relatively specialised topics in fairly mainstream places (hip hop music in the NME in the early ’90s, for instance) where you know that the primary reason the reader is looking at the mag isn’t to read about the stuff you’re covering.

    I find it hard to believe that many principled and thoughtful journalists take their readerships for granted. It certainly doesn’t sound like you are, Kevin. Doesn’t the observation, then, more directly apply to publishers? Looking at the issues as you’ve outlined them, those sound less like things individual journalists would want to cling to than inevitable outcomes of a) failure of newspaper and magazine publishers to keep their products relevant to their customers, and b) the culture of cost- and corner-cutting that leaves smaller staffs filling greater media acreace with fewer resources. I’m not trying to excuse lazy journalism, nor pretend there isn’t a lot of it about; yet it seems to me that the lack of original reporting isn’t really the fault, first and foremost, of journalists, but of the titles that demand more work from them at greater speed while skimping on providing the tools that would help them do their jobs properly.



  4. Adam, and by saying it is deeper than that, I wanted to say that I was speaking for myself and not trying to put words in your mouth or intuit what you meant. But, I’d be interested in hearing more about what you think.

    Andy, yes, this is a slightly more sharply worded call for what I’ve been saying for several years. Journalists can and should take more responsibility for renewing our relationship and relevance with our audiences. It’s an opportunity to reverse this slow slide that we all can describe but almost felt as if it were happening by gravity instead of forces we had control over.

    I think the idea that the public is this rabid mob has been a symptom of this decline and also an excuse for failing to engage with the public. As twee as the Evening Standard’s ‘Sorry’ ad campaign is apologising to its audience, in some ways, I agree with it. Unfortunately, just like the ad campaign, I don’t think anything will actually change.

    The public as rabid mob is actually not only a symptom but actually exacerbated by what I describe. Only now, you can see publications like the Economist trying to positively engage with its audiences, but too often we are just using incendiary comment to stoke our audiences into rage. I’ve been speaking about it for four years now, and while heads all nod knowingly in the audience, nothing has changed. And as you say, now, we’ve pulled back into this defensive crouch because of the recession. We are afraid, and it’s ten times more difficult to operate from this position of fear as opposed to a position of strength, confidence and optimism.

  5. Good article. As a member of the public, I really don’t want to see investigative journalism disappear, but I find I get more of that from sources like truthout than most traditional papers. I’m unimpressed by almost all professional commentators, and see a decreasing role for media in covering traditional news stories. I still see a role for the aggregating of news, but I don’t think there’s much money in it. I’d like to see the investigative side of things revitalized, and possibly even funded by the public. But for that to happen, one thing that will certainly have to change is the sense of entitlement as embodied by Rupert Murdoch. It’s hard to have much faith in papers when they’re just busy re-running the latest interesting stuff they found from searching the net…

  6. It’s likely to get worse for real journalism. What journalistic form has successfully adapted to the Web? Tech journalism. How have they done this? Complete, utter, blatant, unashamed whoredom. Cheap whoredom at that. It really doesn’t look good for public discourse.

  7. I stumbledUpon this article. Great intelligent conversation!

    I think the barriers between audience and journalist are collapsing in our new social media world. As the barriers collapse there is a greater responsibility on me, John Q. Public. I am both reporter and audience. 1) The responsibility to seek and disseminate truth. No longer can I allow others to do it. I need to report what I learn because I have the tools. 2) To carefully consider what I read. Not just imbibe anything given to me by the “journalist”

  8. Angus, your point is taken. Most freelancers haven’t been able to take their audiences for granted. However, what is happening in the broader industry is having an impact on freelancers on a number of levels, whether it’s anger with journalists or the economic position of outlets. There is less of a market for both paid staffers and freelancers.

    As for finding it hard that ‘many principled an thoughtful journalists take their readerships for granted’, I don’t, but then it might be where I sit in the industry. I’ve gone from being a local reporter at a tiny newspaper in western Kansas to working for international news organisations. Commentators speaking for or as journalists are really the target of this post.

    I don’t really see this as a publishers versus journalists divide. Yes, as both you and Andy point out, there are increasing pressures in the industry. To end on an optimistic point, I think that social media allows journalists, whether staffers or freelance, to actually build their own audience. That’s the opportunity and possibility a future that will keep food on the table.

    A, yes, I hope that investigative journalism doesn’t disappear either, but it’s always been subsidised by other things journalists have done, such as classifieds and sport coverage. As the Economist wrote today, it’s that package that supports the expensive high investigations that is under threat.

    I worked for the BBC for eight years, and there are pros and cons to public funding, and all you have to do is look at the capricious of various administrations in funding NPR and PBS in the US to see how problematic that can be. I tend to think that if we produce something of value that we can pay for journalism. What I was trying to say in this post is to reconsider what we’ve thought of as valuable.

    Ryan, yes. That’s a great argument for improved media literacy. That is definitely one of the themes that I see emerging in journalism circles. Dan Gillmor made a plea for it recently at a talk at the Berkman Centre at Harvard.

  9. @Kevin I’ve added some thoughts over on my own blog.

    I suspect that the fact that you, Angus and myself are all highlighting different potential causes of this syndrome suggests that it’s actually quite a complex issue, which is another reason it’s both deep-rooted and difficult to deal with.

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  11. Currently in talks with an NGO who I fear don’t really “get it”. They have blogs, they have a YouTube account, they have a Twitter feed – but what they don’t have is the slog.

    They thinking that tweeting once a week will be enough. They think it’s okay that they host a handful of blogs on their site and yet those blog writers aren’t really bloggers because they don’t engage with anyone.

    Their YouTube films are uploaded but aren’t promoted or embedded elsewhere because people don’t know they exist.

    I’ve been blogging long enough now to know that SEO is all very well but it’s the slog that is important. You have to engage you have to find your niche readers. Blogs have made it easier to have your say but we’re all going to have to work harder to ensure that people actually read what we write.

  12. Indeed we do live in an age where the information is reported on extremely fast. In order for the journalist to have a purpose in life, they are going to need to find information that is new and interesting. Freelance Journalist have an advantage because they can use the internet and get the information or quicker than that of a journalist who writes for a newspaper. I think that the public journalist is going to become less and less relevant as the years go by. The internet will just keep getting faster and more widely used. Whether i like that or not, that is how it is going to go down unfortunately.

  13. This makes a lot of sense. With the never ending updated information on the internet, a news story can be posted before it even hits the evening news. Newspapers have become so out of date due to the fact that information is so readily found on the internet. No one wants to wait for the newspaper in the morning and it is sad. Any boob can post a news story on the internet, but real interesting in depth stories can be shown in the paper. Internet users want quick information and do not want to spend the time reading an entire article. Our society has moved away from the days of sitting on the couch reading a newspaper and has found that a quick little post will suffice their time.

  14. While I do not believe journalists are necessarily “entitled” to an audience, I think the general public needs to be a little more attentive to where they receive their news from – professional journalists do deserve to be a primary source of information, just as the public deserves to hear the facts rather than a random blogger’s opinion. It is unfortunate that so many people count on unreliable (yet convenient) sources of information, but I don’t think this will change until the majority of people learn to value facts over infotainment.

  15. I agree that there is an abundance of information and stories for the general public to view and form their opinions over. It is overwhelming for people to try and sort through the stories to get the right facts. But if you find a reliable source, chances are you are going to stick with that person and put your trust in their stories. Those of you journalists that have an established audience now probably would not have to worry about losing them.

  16. The fact the most people do not have the cognitive ability to distinguish between factual information and opinion makes me not approve of using blogs and, websites like twitter, as “news” sites. Journalism will never die out because most people have a need for tangibility, they like to be able to pick up the news paper that they paid for and sit down and read it. This trend of pixels over paper may go on a little run, but will not last very long. So no worries, you will as a journalist have a job in the future.

    P.S. the fact the you say you don’t like commentaries and you’re writing one, is quite ironic.

  17. To slightly ignore the meat of your story, I find your first point about blogging having self-created a barrier to entry to be a valid one.

    We all assume blogging is free and anyone can do it. But the fact is it’s bloody hard work, as I’ve discovered since turning my football blog into a real player rather than a personal scrapbook. It’s almost like a second job, and were I subject to different circumstances it simply wouldn’t be sustainable.

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