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Can News Distribution Improve? Journalism Panels Consider the Question

When journalists think about the swirling world of news online, what ways would make it better? How can news distribution — or all the ways that it gets ranked, recommended, and shared — change and produce a “web [of news] we want” (h/t Mozilla)? This is the main question we at the News Quality Initiative (NewsQ) continue to wrestle with.

How Can We Improve News Online?
Image credit: Credibility Coalition

We were fortunate this year to be joined by a wonderful group of journalists, news scholars, and product leaders while delving into this main question in two ways, regarding the place of opinion and “representative” journalism within news feeds. We asked them to look beyond each individual article, and think about things more holistically through two smaller questions:

Question 1: How can the separation of news from opinion actually (or practically) work in feeds? In addition to building off of the work from the previous year’s panel on Opinion, we sharpened the question by throwing in the pesky category of “Analysis” news articles (e.g., different takes one and two).

Question 2: How might newsfeeds be more representative of their locales? While there are as yet no products that aim towards representativeness (diversity is related but different), it seemed meaningful to consider, given the values of democracies. Though a more imaginative exercise, we still needed to make sure that any suggestions would be grounded, so we chose two cities for focus: Albuquerque and Los Angeles. 

The result? The two NewsQ panels arrived with different answers. 

From the 2021 Opinion panel, our participants confirmed the previous year’s work suggesting that a separation of news versus opinion would be valuable. Clearer signposting and separation might not only help codify what journalists are aiming to do for the public (something that the public also seems to want), but also support consensus building conversations within journalism communities as well. As difficult as it might be, a separation also seemed technically possible to the seasoned journalists: a different way forward by this panel was to develop questions first. Isolating what groups of questions could lead to the identification of a quality opinion journalism article seemed needed before defining any rules for news versus opinion labeling.

The design of a representative newsfeed however eluded the 2021 Representativeness panel. In addition to all the complexity that representativeness might entail, a key problem is the difficulties of local newsrooms. Added to the problem of economic survival, there are also longer standing battles regarding representation that the journalism industry continues to grapple with. This means there is simply not enough quality local journalism from which to build an ideal feed; the metaphor bricks without straw comes to mind.  Still, part of the technological problem does seem solvable: community needs like representativeness might be better met in the future if the local news feeds of today were much better.

Ultimately, the concern about the quality of today’s news feeds and overall news distribution online continue to be the basis for journalist consensus within our panels. The news feeds aren’t great, when you take journalistic values into account. But, our participants also stressed that there are issues here that journalists themselves must also seek to solve. What ways can this happen in a relationship where arguably, news products possess most of the resources for surfacing news, while journalists have the expertise for determining what ‘news’ is?

And perhaps a final question: What should audiences do as they approach online news distribution, if the feeds can only improve so much? 

You can find out more about why and what the panelists thought in these white papers:

As always, the News Quality Initiative expresses our deep thanks to our panel participants who joined our conversations, all through the continuing difficulties of COVID-19, unforgiving deadlines, and too many video conference calls. What a year. Here’s looking forward to the next.