Is a lack of trust really what ails newspapers? Not the British tabloids

I’m going to mix apples and oranges here a bit, mixing the US newspaper industry and the British industry. If you think that isn’t fair, then you can click away now.

Some have argued that the decline of newspapers has been down to a loss of trust. A couple of examples of that point of view. James O’Shea, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times said in 2008:

“(the) main problem journalism now faces is the lack of public trust in journalists.”

O’Shea feels that for newspapers to thrive and prosper they “have to figure out how to deliver journalism that makes the public believe we once again are a public trust, something of value and something they won’t hesitate to pay for.

When The Economist asked Jay Rosen last August what the biggest problem was with the news media in the US, he said:

Another example is the decline of trust. In the mid-1970s over 70% of Americans told Gallup they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the press. Today: 47%. Clearly, something isn’t working. But revisions to the code of conduct that has led to this decline would be seen by most journalists as increasing the risk of mistrust. I’ve tried to argue that the View from Nowhere—also called objectivity—should be replaced by “here’s where we’re coming from.”

The other problem he identified was that the bulk of revenues still came from print “but cannot provide a future”.

For those who argue that the decline of the newspaper industry is down to a loss of trust, I’ve never been convinced that this is the fundamental issue. It might be coincidental, but I’m not entirely convinced that it is causal. To me, the decline of newspapers is down to competition from other media for attention, disruption of display and classified advertising and changing media consumption habits. Did they move to other platforms for news because they had more trust or were those other platforms simply more convenient? Do people in the US trust TV news anymore than they trust print?

Roy Greenslade at The Guardian makes the point forcefully today that trust and reading a tabloid in the UK have little to do with each other. “Trust and the red-tops? It’s irrelevant to the millions who read them“, pretty much sums up his point. At the risk of quoting a bit too much from Roy, in terms of the trust=readership argument, at least in terms of print circulation in the UK, that doesn’t really match reality.

Yet, as the print sales figures show, those red-tops – The Sun, Daily Mirror and Daily Star – together sold 4.2m copies even in the dismal sales month of December (with a probable readership of 12m plus readers).
To put that in perspective, sales of the other seven national titles – the middle market pair and five quality titles – collectively totalled roughly the same as the three red-tops.
In other words, though we might think trust plays a crucial role in the decision about media consumption, it is not the defining factor for the regular red-top reader.

To put this in stark terms, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun had a circulation of 2.5m, -6.85% YoY, -3.56 MoM, compared to The Guardian which had a circ of 230,108, -13.11 YoY but fortunately up 1.61% MoM. The Sun has more than ten times the circulation of The Guardian.

I’m not saying that I like this reality. Frankly, I’d rather that trust guaranteed financial success for newspapers, but sadly, the world doesn’t seem to work quite that way. The tabs are easily digestible entertainment, and they show their readers the world they want rather than an accurate picture of reality. However, to argue that a decline in trust is the cause of declining readership and the decline in fortunes for newspapers, doesn’t quite square with reality.

I’m not saying that trust and credibility aren’t important. They are core to my professional identity. However, when it comes to answering the business problems of newspapers, it’s probably down to a collapse in traditional sources or revenue rather than simply collapse in trust.

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