The year journalists become relationship builders

“This year, a meaningful number of journalists will understand that their deeply encoded aloofness to the public is really the mutation that’s afflicting journalism — and they will begin to rethink and recode their work as both reporters and relationship-builders.”

Journalists have a distant, fraught relationship with “the public.”

As a young journalist, you learn by osmosis that the public is who you seek out for quotes, local color, “man on the street” colloquialisms. The public is who calls in to your show, comments on your stories, turns up at events.

Sometimes what the public says is angry, or rude, or racist, or homophobic. Occasionally, it’s poignant or wise. But on balance, the public is seen as unpredictable, untrustworthy.

We are taught not to be part of the public, but to stand apart from the public. To paraphrase Edna St. Vincent Millay, journalists can love humanity, but hate people.

This year, a meaningful number of journalists will understand that their deeply encoded aloofness to the public is really the mutation that’s afflicting journalism — and they will begin to rethink and recode their work as both reporters and relationship-builders.

Business imperatives will require it. The momentum will continue to rapidly shift away from ad-based models for supporting journalism to memberships and subscriptions. Each piece of content we create, then, becomes less a bid for eyeballs and more an opportunity to create trust, loyalty, and a feeling of being served by journalism (vs. entertained, scared, titillated, or enraged).

More fledgling and startup projects like Discourse Media in Canada; De Correspondent’s new U.S. offering, The Correspondent; Outlier Media in Detroit; and Reach NC Voices in North Carolina will nimbly experiment with relationship-building approaches, ultimately showing slower-moving “legacy” media how it’s done in the service of journalism and the longer-term sustainability of our work.

More established outlets like ProPublica, The Guardian, and The Texas Tribune will refine and spread new metrics — knowing that you only get what you measure — to reorient newsroom reward structures around building deeper relationships with smaller communities vs. larger but less engaged drive-by audiences.

More audience members (a.k.a. the public), who increasingly expect personalization and localization in all of their online commerce, will get frustrated when — like everyone else — they get a standard form email to renew a subscription to a news organization whose stories they have commented on, whose personalities feel almost like friends and whose work they feel personally invested in.

They might ask: “Who do they think I am?” Good question.

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