25 April 2022 |

The Uncomfortable Truths of Journalism

By Adam Ryan

Journalism has been a hot topic lately. Everything from fake news to censorship of journalists to venture capitalists launching their own media publications. 

Why so much interest in journalism?

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

– Thomas Jefferson 

Strong journalism is the best indicator of a strong society. Reporters Without Borders have shown this through the World Press Freedom Index — there’s a direct correlation between state-run media vs. free media and authoritarian vs. democratic states. 

Thing is, we’re not really debating the importance of journalism, we’re debating what successful journalism looks like in 2022. 

And to do that, we have to be honest about the state of journalism: Journalism is not perfect. It’s not only “the crazy people” who don’t trust the news. The system has flaws. 

It’s time to talk about the uncomfortable truths of journalism. 

Here are 4 of those uncomfortable truths that I’ve been thinking about.  Reply and let me know if there are more we should be discussing.

1. Journalists are humans

For journalists and operators who pride themselves on running independent, unbiased newsrooms, the ultimate indicator of success is trust.  

News companies have built armies of editors to work towards trust. The New York Times, according to LinkedIn, has more than 1,300 editors of various types.

The intention, presumably, is that all of these editors, along with the editorial board, provide the multiple perspectives that enable unbiased journalism — and that unbiased journalism leads to trust. 

But as Walter Cronkite (AKA “The Most Trusted Man In America”) said, “There’s a little more ego involved in these jobs than people might realize.”

The uncomfortable truth? Journalists are human.

And humans? Humans make mistakes. Humans have friends and favorites. Humans have an ego. Humans like to be seen as successful. Humans have personal agendas. Humans have experiences that shape their worldview. 

When journalists and operators claim they run an unbiased newsroom, they’re hurting their narrative — not helping it. 

According to Statista, 36% people believe there is at least a “fair amount” of bias in the top newspapers in the US, and 20% believe there is a “great deal”. 

Simply put, America isn’t buying what newsrooms are selling. 

This uncomfortable truth doesn’t only apply to journalists. The same can be said about judges, teachers, law enforcement, and other professions where bias exists but is relatively unacknowledged. 

And people are tired of this lack of acknowledgment.

To fix the trust issue in journalism, media organizations need to be as diligent with their fact-checking as they are with telling their readers who the humans are behind the story. 

And despite what archaic journalism schools may preach, letting the personality of the journalist be embraced will help journalism, not hurt it.

2. People want to know why it matters and fast

“The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.” 

– The Elements of Journalism 

For too long, newsrooms have correlated the length of an article with credibility. It’s led to massive investigative reporting pieces that don’t end up being read by anyone but other journalists and the Pulitzer board. 

An uncomfortable truth? Readers today are overwhelmed and media organizations don’t care to adjust. 

Journalists need to care about reader experience and how information is distributed. Axios has done a tremendous job of embracing this throughout their newsroom — I often say that the secret sauce of Axios is that they convinced amazing journalists to write 150 words instead of 1,500. 

And guess what? Readers love it. 

Americans are consuming 20% more media than they did 10 years ago, and that number is growing.

If the purpose of journalism is to provide information to citizens, then we have to do it in a way that they actually will consume and say why that information matters. 

Journalism’s job is no longer to just give the reader a bunch of dots to collect. Instead, it’s job is to help the reader connect the dots — and do it efficiently.

3. There’s no modern media without traditional journalism

Morning Brew now has more than 4M+ subscribers to its daily newsletter. It’s one of the largest and most successful modern media companies created in the last 10 years. 

The uncomfortable truth? There is no Morning Brew — or any other curation-driven media company — without the NYT, Washington Post, Bloomberg, and other journalist-led media organizations.

Those organizations have done some tremendous work when it comes to investigative journalism. They break news. They have sources. They inform the world what’s happening.

And companies like Morning Brew have taken full advantage of those strengths by countering the weakness of those same institutions.

Morning Brew leaned into having a culturally relevant voice. They leaned into curated, short takes, to efficiently and delightfully inform their readers on what they need to know for the day. They took ego out of reporting and, instead, listened to their audience. 

And they did it with relatively no costs, because the vast majority of the stories they covered were originally reported by a different newsroom. 

It was a brilliant arbitrage of information by Morning Brew and others. 

The question that remains: What if this continues? 

Will the power dynamics switch with curation-driven media companies leaning into journalism-driven companies? Will those companies then fall into the trap of losing touch with their audience for the sake of “great journalism”?

4. No easy fixes

The reality is that the internet both expanded the reach of journalism — and introduced a ton of new problems. And more new problems continue to show up as the internet is still, relatively, very new.

There are also old problems in journalism that haven’t changed in a 100+ years (see this thread I wrote yesterday about fake news). 

The uncomfortable truth? There are no easy fixes. The only way to fix both the new and old problems is to be honest about them, no matter how hard some of them are to admit.

Can we get journalism back to a point where it’s trusted? I believe so.

What do you think?

What are some other uncomfortable truths in journalism? Reply and let me know — I’ll tweet the best takes over the next week.