Finley: Restoring media trust starts with personal ties
Navel gazing is the preoccupation of the media business.
That’s particularly true since the November election, when the industry was reminded it didn’t know as much as it thought it did about its readers and viewers.
The talk now is all about community engagement and rebuilding trust. I’ve just returned from a provocative Knight Foundation conference that focused on the need to establish a stronger bond with the people we serve, and to reflect in our reporting a diversity of views, including those of the silent plurality that elected Donald Trump.
One participant suggested newsrooms scour evangelical colleges and other right-leaning institutions to find more conservative journalists who might add a broader perspective to our coverage.
I’m all for hiring more conservatives. But I’m not sure the way to reconnect with that portion of the public we’ve ignored is to toss a few reporters who voted for Trump into newsrooms where they will soon learn to keep their views to themselves.
Nor is the answer parachuting into Middle America with our notebooks to ask folks how they feel about things.
Of course we should be doing that.
But the break between news providers and news consumers, particularly between metro newspapers and their readers, can’t be entirely explained by a perception of political bias in our coverage.
Not so long ago we didn’t have to hold seminars on community engagement because we were embedded in our communities.
We showed up at local city council and school board meetings. We were in high school gyms and football field press boxes. We wrote obituaries of everyday people that got carefully clipped and placed in scrapbooks.
When I came to The Detroit News four decades ago I was assigned to one of our suburban bureaus, the common starting point for new reporters. I was handed a dozen communities to cover, and over the course of a week I visited most of them at least once.
I got to know the people I covered, and they me.
That pens-on-the-ground style of coverage has receded along with our revenues over two decades, not just for the large dailies, but for many smaller ones as well.
Our readers and advertisers left the print product in favor of the website, where we can reach customers in exciting new ways but still can’t make enough money to sustain a staff adequate to intimately cover a sprawling region.
The resulting breakdown in the personal relationship with readers impacts trust. We’re viewed as an aloof institution, and not as individual reporters who they see and talk to regularly.
What people want from a news outlet — more than a reflection of their political views —is coverage of issues and events that matter to them. Those things mostly happen close to home.
We have to figure out how to stretch ever-shrinking resources to allow everyday coverage of our communities, so we’re not just dropping in once in awhile to ask them how they feel.
That requires fixing a broken business model. Or finding a new one that enables us to rebuild the personal ties to the people we cover.
Nolan Finley’s book “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.