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.

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