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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Heawood

On trust, audiences and digital tech: thoughts from the Society of Editors annual conference

Jonathan Heawood discusses his main takeaways from the Society of Editors' annual conference earlier this month.

Photo courtesy of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

On 15 March, the Society of Editors held its annual conference. Industry executives, analysts and lobbyists came together in a central London hotel to discuss media freedom and the future of news. Listening to the onstage debates, and chatting to people during the breaks, I discerned three themes that are important to all news providers, large and small.

Firstly, there is the continuing crisis of trust. The British news industry simply does not command the trust of the public. Some editors still want to deny this, but most now accept that lack of public trust is a very real problem. Where they disagree is over the solution.

Jo Adetunji, Editor of The Conversation (and PINF trustee), told the conference that she aims to build trust through the expertise of her contributors. The Conversation blends academic knowledge with journalistic storytelling to create engaging but authoritative content.

For Sophia Smith Galer, by contrast, trust is all about being herself. As a reporter for Vice with a huge profile on TikTok, Smith Galer doesn’t have separate professional and personal social media accounts. Her followers know her as a human being with values and opinions who is also a journalist.

I think the common thread here is authenticity. Audiences trust sites like The Conversation and journalists like Smith Galer because they are what they say they are. Trustworthy journalism can take many different forms, but it has to deliver on its promise of providing accurate information – whether that’s done with academic rigour or a strong personality.

For some editors, effective regulation is another important way of showing audiences that they can trust you. Cait FitzSimons of 5 News described the ‘brilliant’ regulation of broadcast media by Ofcom as one of this country’s ‘bulwarks against fake news and Trumpism.’ Rizwana Hamid of the Centre for Media Monitoring agreed that regulation is one of the most important pillars of trust.

Some old-school print journalists, however, were still grumbling about the Leveson Inquiry, as though it’s to blame for all the ills of the industry. They seem unable or unwilling to learn the lesson that trust has to be earned, and that independent and effective regulation can play an important part in this.

The second theme that came up for me was the rapidly changing role of the audience. Once upon a time, audiences sat quietly in front of the TV, radio or newspaper, waiting for journalists to tell them what was going on in the world. Those days are long gone. As Charlie Beckett of Polis put it, journalism has ‘suddenly discovered the audience’, just as audiences are becoming more demanding, more volatile – and more inclined to switch off the news altogether.

Abbianca Makoni described her workshops with young people aged 18-30, who have more trust in local than national media, because local reporters ‘come into schools and live in the area’. She also said that these young people want to see more collaboration between mainstream media and independent local outlets, to ensure that their stories are accurately told.

The legacy industry is making some attempts to deal with these changing audience demands. Sarah Whitehead of Sky described her moves to ‘open the door and let our audiences in’, with a Q&A session and diversity targets for reporters and guests.

I was glad to hear this, but somewhat underwhelmed when you compare it to the depth and breadth of innovation we see in the independent sector, from outlets like gal-dem (which doesn’t need diversity targets to represent people of colour from marginalised genders), Bellingcat (a world pioneer of open-source investigations) or Greater Govanhill (which recently opened a community newsroom in Glasgow).

These are just a few of the ways in which independent news organisations in the UK are radically rethinking the relationship between journalism and the audience, as we recently discussed in a PINF webinar on ‘co-creational media’. We also looked at the theme of community engagement at last year’s Independent News Forum, and we are developing more work in this area.

The third big theme at the conference was the changing role of digital technology in the news industry. Publishers still haven’t got their heads around the impact of platforms, and now they’re grappling with generative AI.

Alison Phillips, Editor of The Mirror, spoke for many at the conference when she complained that ‘advertisers are being stolen from us by Google and Facebook.’ She went on to say that ‘journalism is expensive – we’re all at so much risk from the platforms that until we’ve nailed that, we’re in a state of jeopardy.’

At PINF, we are working to rebalance the relationships between platforms and publishers through the News for All campaign. We think that, where platforms are benefiting from news content, revenues and data should be shared fairly with news providers. But we don’t think that publishers should become dependent on platforms, and I agreed with Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, who highlighted online membership and subscriptions as the most important future revenue stream for news. (I was also impressed by the cover of Nic’s latest report on trends and predictions, which was generated by AI, and which he has kindly given us permission to reuse.)

For me, the highlight of the conference was the keynote speech by Hannah Storm of Headlines Network, who spoke powerfully about the importance of protecting journalists’ mental health. This is a tough job at the best of times. When journalists are grappling with traumatic stories, hostile audiences and financial challenges, it can feel impossible. Through Headlines, Storm is helping newsrooms of all sizes to nurture the wellbeing of their journalists.

This, surely, is fundamental if we’re going to address all the other challenges and opportunities facing the news industry. Journalism is, after all, about human beings, and if, as journalists, we can’t be honest about our own human frailties, then they might as well replace us with AI!

Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of PINF.


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