- As social media becomes more polarising, users are increasingly turning to mainstream media for in-depth news and fact-checking.
- In an environment of distrust, strong relationships with readers are more important.
- Investment in technology is also increasing, to take on disinformation campaigns.
Toxicity on social media is carving out a new niche for mainstream media companies, as globally, major players in the industry pour resources into building trust in an era of fake news and "alternative facts".
This was a theme that emerged during News24's Future of News Summit on Thursday.
Fin24 editor Ron Derby moderated a panel discussion between News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson, editor and communications expert Nic Dawes, YOU/Drum editorial director Charlene Rolls, and Gazeta Wyborcza publisher Jerzy Wójcik.
Speaking on the role of social media in engaging with readers, Dawes said it had its place, but that it "shouldn't be the place where we live entirely".
"Feeds that are algorithmically moderated to reward polarising modes of engagement don't encourage the best of our journalism," he explained, adding that there was a "global journalism emergency" and "democracy emergency" at hand.
Building the "connective tissue of democracy, governance and good citizenship" required using such a medium consciously and carefully, he argued.
"On social media we [media professionals] are propagating our role in that regard. We have to be there in a way that is guided by our principles and our process," he said.
Basson agreed, referring to a recent column in which he had vowed no longer to tweet.
"[I]t's time to go. I can no longer justify spending time and energy on a platform that has essentially become the playground of haters, disinformation merchants and trolls," he wrote.
"[Twitter] is no longer contributing to me, my time, or my purpose, which is to make a difference," Basson added during the panel, saying that it was "almost a useless exercise" to deploy journalists on a social media platform when they could be better used in the field.
This, according to Basson, is also partly why the decision had been taken to allow News24 subscribers to comment on articles - in order to foster a more direct relationship.
"When I was in print…you always had those readers who wrote to you. It was good to hear from them and to be in touch with them," he said, adding that it was a key development to retain those readers on the News24 platform instead of "send[ing] them away to Facebook and Twitter".
Rolls – who said Twitter in particular had become "quite toxic in many ways" – noted that social media commentary was often not representative of what readers more broadly really thought. This, ironically, made it more difficult to tune into what they wanted or to really listen to them, which she argued was critical.
There are other, deeper developments driving a shift in the relationship between readers and mainstream media. As social media increasingly becomes polarised, or a home for echo chambers, readers are increasingly uncertain who to trust for reliable information.
On one hand, this has birthed an increasing number of fact-checking media houses across Europe, the UK and the US, as well as institutions like Africa Check locally. It has also, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, given rise to an increase in paywall content as media houses opt to invest in investigations and in-depth journalism, and readers, in turn, are willing to pay for trusted information.
In the US, for example, notes the report, paying for online news rose sharply after the election of Donald Trump. Whichever side of the political spectrum respondents supported, they attributed this to wanting a news source they personally trusted.
In this environment, three key trends take shape: one, media houses become viewed as crucial to the architecture of democracy. Two, it becomes increasingly important for each media house to communicate its brand, values, and identity. And three, a personal relationship with its readers becomes essential, in order to cement trust.
Wójcik had some comment on this. Gazeta Wyborcza – one of Poland's leading newspapers – grew its number of digital subscribers from 170 000 subscribers to 200 000 in nine months and has been the subject of studies on the topic. At the end of 2019, it was ranked ahead of the LA Times, New Yorker, and National Geographic in the Global Digital Subscriptions Snapshot at the end of 2019, according to What's New in Publishing.
Fire with fire
Wójcik attributes this in no small part to a relationship of trust built with readers through a turbulent period in Poland's history. Additionally, he says, an investment in technology has paid off: during the pandemic, the publication was able to access the most accurate data.
"They had to buy our subscription to find out what was going on," he said.
Investment in technology was a sticking point at first, explains Wójcik.
But this is a critical point, notes Dawes: Media companies that have successfully transitioned do not see themselves as operating only in the traditional model anymore.
"They don't see themselves only as journalism companies but as technology companies," he told the panel.
Ultimately, it comes down to fighting fire with fire. As bots, sock puppets and sponsored propaganda – such as the likes of Bell Pottinger's handiwork in SA – become the weapons of disinformation campaigns; hard data, in-depth news and incontrovertible fact-checking becomes the weapon of media companies.
And in this environment, real knowledge is power. It becomes critical to invest in technology and quality journalism, and it becomes critical to build a personal relationship with readers.
"We stand for human rights – it's not political correctness," explained Wójcik. "We are who we are. People who share our values, it's absolutely crucial, they are engaged."
Fin24 is part of News24.
*This story has been updated to remove Dawes' previous job title.