There are multiple ways to define trust, still more ways to measure it, but what’s irrefutable is this: trust is the logical outcome of a nurtured relationship. And, like any successful relationship, it only works when communication goes both ways.

In his book Breaking News Alan Rusbridger pithily reminds us that the publishing industry sometimes looks like it’s trying to echo the chant of Millwall FC (that British soccer club whose fans are not exactly known for their social decorum): “no one likes us and we don’t care”.

We should care about people we're in a relationship with.

We should care what they think about us - and we should care what they think.

trust is the logical outcome of a nurtured relationship

It’s human

When we talk about metrics, it’s those which reveal the human impact of stories that are increasingly highly prized.

We look for indications of engagement, for loyalty, for trust. Business models which put reader revenue at their core simply don’t function if those things aren’t nurtured - they’re essential to sustained success, and they reveal the depth and sincerity of a relationship; the propensity to subscribe and the likelihood of churn.

If we’re trying to encourage and facilitate longer session times, multiple article reads and deeper engagement, it’s sensible to adopt a wider, brand-wide view.

And, let’s face it: a human-centred analysis post-publication necessitates a human-centric approach to pre-publication.

Yes, trust is low across the industry, but it’s time to get specific

At this point the fact that trust in journalism is low is hardly breaking news. It’s really not even newsworthy, to be honest. We all know it’s an issue.

(The reasons are myriad, and we’re not going to get into that here. This article is a good place to start)

As LSE’s Charlie Beckett pointed out earlier this year, one of the biggest problems with polling about trust levels in news is that they often fail to ask the really, really important question: why?

Why is trust lagging? What are publishers doing wrong? What aren’t they doing?

Trust and loyalty are vital to the continuance of a healthy news ecosystem, but the lens through which we typically study the problem is too wide to be useful to most of us right now. Newsrooms each face their own challenges, and each one is unique. Broad findings are important, but at the newsroom level what’s actually needed is actionability. We need to roll our sleeves up. It’s time to ditch the wide-angle lens in favour of a microscope.

the newsroom is no longer a conduit for news

Times have changed: we’re all newshounds now

It’s time to pivot, folks. Sharply and swiftly back to the readers because if they’re struggling, we’re struggling.

The newsroom is no longer a conduit for news. Much like water, news has a way of finding its way through the cracks. Most of us are kept informed of breaking news as if by osmosis. Headlines find us. Messaging apps facilitate sharing of updates easily between friends and family. There’s no need to gather around a TV for the evening news every night at 10pm.

Instead, technology has flipped the balance and shifted the paradigm: audiences search without waiting to be told. And, as our CMO likes to say: when search is high, loyalty is low. Reporters are no longer the only ones on the scent of a story.

What do your users need?

While we’d never want to call anyone ‘mad’, it’s probably not far from the truth to say that if you do the same thing time and again, expecting different results, you’re going to be severely disappointed.

It’s time to do something differently.

take a critical look at your publishing habits

Here’s our suggestion. Unlearn your publishing tendencies - or at least start to look at them critically. News used to be formed in large part of updates and breaking news.

User needs are as much a self-auditing system as they are a commissioning framework: they allow newsrooms to critically look at the ways in which stories are being told to their audiences - and which of those stories audiences are willing to be told.

So, if your audience is flagging from breaking news about the election, publishing something that’s the publishing equivalent of taking a deep breath may actually boost session time by allowing the reader space to decompress.

At BBC Russia, for example, 70% of content produced fell into the category of ‘update me’, but accounted for only 7% of their traffic. That’s an astonishing disconnect.

Attend to your readers, they’re people, not algorithms

Last year, we published the results of a study about reader loyalty. In it, we revealed that only 3.8% of readers are what we would classify as loyal, but they consume five times as much content as non-loyal readers.

building trust requires focus and dedication

That study emphatically showed that when we talk about loyalty, it’s not enough to take a one-article snapshot: loyalty is about a sustained pattern of content consumption (in this case being ‘sequentially highly engaged’).

It’s similar with trust. Building trust requires the same kind of focus and dedication to readers that you’d give to any long-term relationship. As publishers we need to find the equivalent of remembering anniversaries or when it’s our turn to take out the trash. It’s useful to know how it’s best to speak when things go wrong, and what lifts a mood in times of stress. When to telephone, when to email, when to meet in person. It’s not enough to focus on one of these things. They all need attending to.

Communicating the same way all the time (or, 70% of the time, as per the BBC Russia example) creates an imbalance, and - to abandon that metaphor now it’s served its purpose - does nothing to keep readers reading.

While loyalty is best understood forensically, through post-publication analytics, trust benefits from work done in the earlier stages of the Story Life Cycle, by understanding what readers need and want.

Time for some tips

While the following may not be an easy solution, it is nevertheless a simple one.

Anticipate your audience. And, don’t second guess them - ask them, for Pete’s sake.

This isn’t a gross oversimplification. There are straightforward ways to help your audience navigate their way through the quagmire of information, disinformation and alerts. Here are some quick-start pointers:

1. Audit your content

How is your content balanced across the six user needs? Compare this against your editorial analytics reports. As the adage goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and this is a good place to start. If you’re heavy on breaking news, but most of your engagement comes from deep-dive pieces, note that analysis.

2. Take one story, create six perspectives

What resonates with your audience? Again, marrying user needs-driven planning with editorial insights is a useful exercise. At the BBC, Dmitry Shishkin (with whom we’re working on the Triple N project right now) said that this was invaluable: “we’d take one piece of news in the morning and ask teams to go away from the newsroom meeting and come back with ideas reflecting all these different user needs. Effectively we’d get six different editorial treatments.” And, once you’ve got these variants in place you can start to see what works, when, and how. As we’ve said before: “because that’s what we’ve always done” isn’t a good enough reason to continue doing anything. Sorry.

3. Get the headlines right

This is a big one. We know that audiences rely on headlines: we all use them to see if a story is worth exploring further. If the headline is wrong or misleading, you’ve wasted that reader’s time. As Joy Mayer of Trusting News reminds us, many audiences are exposed to news articles on social media where the headline may be all that’s visible. Make it count. A/B test it. Check the read depth scores to ensure readers aren’t clicking and swerving away. If they are, you’re not delivering what they expect to receive.

4. Pay attention to post-publication activity

All too often the story is considered done when it’s published. Sometimes though, if you look through the comments or the activity on social media, you’ll get hints that there’s something you’ve not delivered on. Maybe people are asking what happened next. Maybe someone points out a connection with another story not mentioned. Maybe it’s spawned a meme or a gag on Twitter. In those cases, a follow up story, an article which ‘gives me perspective’ or something that simply provides some light relief may be all that’s required to stay part of the conversation, stay relevant and keep your readers on side - and on site.

Ultimately, trust means finding ways to build a healthier relationship: one where readers trust publishers because those same publishers value their readers - and not just in simple marketing or sales terms. Try new thing, experiment, get to know your audience - the hard work will pay off, we promise.

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