Phillip Smith

Look into the fuss about fake news and you’ll see a view into journalism’s future

How individual journalists can "go direct" and rebuild trust one story at a time.

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I have a theory: I believe that the recent uproar about fake news is an opportunity for journalism. I think this is true because the contemporary fake news phenomenon is making it evident that the way people relate to news and information is changing. This is important, I believe, because many people have not accepted that this shift has happened – specifically, leadership at traditional news organizations and early-career digital journalists – and it’s possible that the implications will be huge.

From news packages to news stories

The first shift is fairly obvious. News consumers are “snacking” on stories – experiencing quick hits of information throughout the day; short news pieces, video stories, and articles that summarize larger news packages. News consumers want more information, not less – there is no doubt about that in my mind – and yet consumption habits are shifting to fit with distracted and on-the-move lifestyles.

I think that the “news packages” of tomorrow look more like information triangulation around a broad theme or issue – ongoing beat reporting, in essence – and less like the “Snowfall” news packages that we saw in recent years. I believe you can see this clearly in the work of, Quartz, and many others. Sitting down to a “meal” of news, whether that’s reading the paper from front-to-back or enjoying a high production value news package online, is becoming a rich person’s hobby.

This shift is important, because it starts to level the playing field between independent news producers, smaller newsrooms, and news collectives – and the larger newsrooms that have a greater capacity for (as well as addiction to, and obsession with) producing large news packages. The wave of fake news hustlers in Macedonia have shown the world that it’s possible to find an audience, grow that audience, give the audience what they want, and – most importantly – how to succeed financially as an independent news producer.

From news brands to new voices

The second shift appears to be less obvious to many. It’s been written about at length, and yet it must be a very unappealing thought because few want to accept it as true. With the exception of the largest national broadcasters and publishers, news consumers have less trust in established news brands, period. This can most likely be attributed to the ongoing and massive downsizing of newsrooms and the subsequent impacts on news quality.

This erosion of trust has spawned a whole sector of accountability journalism initiatives around the world. Initiatives like ProPublica and the Centre for Investigative reporting in the U.S., and Discourse Media, The Tyee, and the Global Reporter Centre in Canada, demonstrate the demand for this work, and alternatives for how to supply it.

Most importantly, however, this shift has also pushed consumers to “go direct” to the source (as Dave Winer would say). Going direct, which has been made increasingly possible by platforms like Facebook and Twitter, presents an opportunity for passionate, digitally-savvy reporters to build a direct relationship with an audience.

News consumers have demonstrated this hunger for a disintermediated experience with news again and again – to hear new, diverse voices reporting on issues that are important to the communities that those new voices authentically represent.

And yet, my experience is that early-career and mid-career reporters are addicted to pitching their stories in the traditional ways, to traditional purchasers of freelance reporting. To me, it often seems that freelancers want the validation, as well as the institutional support – editing, fact checking, etc. (If any of that remains in these institutions is another story.) – and a promise of an audience that these institutions are probably the least equipped to deliver on as consumption habits shift.

The worst part of this freelance arrangement is the pittance received for hard work, and a typically lackluster effort to help the reporting find it’s audience.

Rebuilding trust from the ground up

To put it simply, here’s the opportunity that I believe the fake news phenomenon presents:

All but the largest news brands are crumbling around us. This presents an enormous opportunity for individual journalists with passion and commitment to finding their audience and “go direct.” Trust needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, one story at a time.

Going deep on a single beat, putting out consistently well-reported content, giving it to the audience in the format they want – short, snappy, snackable, skimmable, and shareable pieces – and optimizing that content for a platform like Facebook is both a path to audience growth and securing revenue. No need to move to the Georgia, it can be done from anywhere.

There is more than one way to generate income as a reporter and selling your stories to traditional news sources is becoming the path of “most effort, least return.” As budgets get cut, and editorial mandates shift toward opinion (free) and entertainment (eyeballs), less “real news” pitches are going to be successful.

Fear not, because those trusted sources are becoming less important in terms of readers’ trust, and in terms of distribution. If you can shed this addiction and learn from fake news hustlers, you’ll find there are more ways to survive and thrive covering what you’re passionate about.

My aspiration this year is to help passionate reporters focused on accountability journalism to find their way to financial viability. If you’re ready to wean yourself off of an addition to freelance pitches to the established news brands, let’s talk.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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