On the Media

Twenty-two days into a new year, and there’s already been a fair share of news about the news. Last week alone, HuffPost Live announced it would end its daily programming, Al Jazeera America announced its demise, and Chris Hughes announced that he would put the New Republic up for sale, less than 3 years after he purchased it.

What’s curious about these particular media failures is actually what they all had in common: big money. So it would seem, after all, that money can’t buy everything.

In the formal announcement released by AJAM’S CEO Al Anstey, he said: “Our business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace.”  In a similarly defeated tone, Hughes’ announcement letter (posted on Medium vs. his own platform) noted, “I don’t have the silver bullet.”

Perhaps Hughes, like Anstey, was looking for the wrong bullet. I say this because there’s something else all three of these news outlets had in common: A general lack of trust.

Take Al Jazeera America. Despite being available to more than 55 million cable subscribers, recent viewership estimates put network’s viewership at between 20,000 and 30,000. And that was before recent struggles to correctly report on the facts.

Trust is often cited as a key ingredient in building a successful news venture. In general, I’d say building trust is a safe bet for any business. But, building trust takes time, and it requires a track record of consistency, neither of which AJAM or the “new” New Republic had going for them.

Hughes was challenged right from the start. In the first days after his purchase, many top editors at the publication walked out. They didn’t trust him, and therefore readers lost trust in the publication. Forget building a new “vertically integrated” digital platform if even your own people aren’t bought in.

In 1974, Gallup conducted a poll that found three in four Americans trusted the media. That number is down almost 35 points now. Readers admit that they can’t always tell the difference between unbiased journalism and opinion, especially with the rise of self-publishing media platforms such as The Huffington Post and Medium. And without that trust, it’s hard to gain the kind of loyalty that can keep an organization moving forward.

Simply put, trust can make or break any organization. And in the news business, where there is already so much fragility, if trust isn’t instilled right from the start, it’s hard to see any solid pathway to success.

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