Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Every time you turn around these days, another newsroom is embroiled in a public controversy, over a story, about a staff member, or even with their own staff generally. And many of these dust ups, it seems to me, aren’t being terribly well handled. The reasons are as varied as the circumstances, but a common thread that often runs through them is that many journalism institutions are trapped in a paradigm of how to communicate that has long since outlived its usefulness.1
That paradigm might be summed up as “trust us”—a curious approach in an age when everyone knows that trust in not just the press but almost all institutions is at a low ebb.
The better paradigm for our own time, I think, is to get much more serious about transparency, not as a buzzword—we have no need for more of those—but as a real commitment, and for its practical as well as philosophical benefits.
For most of the last 30-plus years, I have worked on the business side of journalism. But along the way, I have also been in charge of communications for a large publishing company, a major foundation and an emerging nonprofit. In all of these jobs, I have seen a sharp trend toward greater benefits for increased transparency, and increased costs for traditional opacity.
One way to look at this is by taking up a series of watchwords of public relations that have largely outlived their usefulness (if indeed they ever had any):
“We stand by our story”/ “The story speaks for itself”
To start with the obvious, if you are involved in a controversy about a news story, the story is clearly not speaking for itself.
If a story is under attack, your first question should be whether you’re sure the attackers aren’t right, at least about some part of it. If they are, a correction or clarification makes sense, and the sooner, the better. Moreover, corrections should be fulsome, and never grudging: it’s not the readers’ fault that you could have put it differently in the first place, and certainly not that you got it wrong. Readers know that no one is perfect; admitting an error can actually enhance trust, refusing to do so degrades it.
When the story is correct, answering critics in detail, and with specificity—“bringing the receipts”—only makes sense. The unlimited newshole, visual possibilities and hyperlinking of the internet make this much easier. When I was a kid, “show your work” was the motto of the New Math. Today, it should be more often on the lips of editors and publishers.
“You don’t want to sound defensive”
This is actually the trope that drives me the craziest. If you are under unjustified (or even just partially justified) attack, you have, broadly speaking, two choices: responding on the merits or not. If you don’t respond, experience has taught observers that the attack may well be justified. This is the fundamental point here: people are no longer prepared to assume the innocence of prominent individuals or established institutions. The line of those who first denied and ultimately admitted profound wrongdoing has simply grown too long in the last half century.
So if your position deserves defending, you need to defend it, and that means with recourse to the facts, ideally buttressed with the receipts establishing them. It is literally meaningless to deride such a response as “defensive.”
“Our business is none of your business”
People who work in newsrooms have spent more than 15 straight years now facing bad news from their company’s business, and the layoffs, furloughs, cut-backs, reorganizations, “right-sizings” and other nightmares that follow. At the same time, there are many fewer public companies in print and digital news, which translates into fewer early warnings of trouble, and challenges in understanding just how bad things may be. Greater transparency about business conditions and results with staff can reduce anxiety somewhat, can bolster any legitimate case for shared sacrifice— and yield credibility if and when optimism is actually justified.
“We’re bound by a non-disclosure agreement”
Signing NDA’s, apart from the need to protect genuine trade secrets, is almost always a bad idea, especially for organizations which thrive on making the affairs of others transparent. Such NDA’s are, purely and simply, a cover-up mechanism. We have known from national politics for a half century that cover-ups frequently don’t work, and that, when they unravel, things almost invariably just get worse. If someone suggests you sign an NDA (again, apart from genuine trade secrets), all sorts of alarm bells should go off. If one has already been signed, it’s worth actively exploring if it can be rescinded. And it’s high time to stop defending the practice of entering into NDAs.
A final thought
The point of discarding these watchwords is that your parents may have been wrong about unpleasantness: it’s simply no longer correct that “the less said, the better.” Instead, in a crisis these days, and especially in an institution that faces the public as much as does a newsroom, the most sophisticated instinct is one that favors transparency. If we want to regain the trust of our audience, after all, we need to trust them. That begins with sharing with them the facts as we find them.
This is especially ironic because some of those whose own content has evolved most successfully are among the institutions particularly mired in public relations strategies from the last century.