Being Objective in Journalism


Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm is also the lead blogger at the PR and marketing blog Spin Sucks. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and is also co-host of Inside PR, a weekly podcast about communications in social media. Recently, Gini and I talked about objectivism in journalism, and how social media, page views, and Google are affecting it.



David Reimherr:         You know, we have lots of people, lots of news sites, lots of new 'news' sites, that have popped up over the years. Supposedly, they’ve given us newsworthy information, but it's really been about the click, all the way to possibly clickbait. At the very least, I think we can all agree that a lot of very surface level information is being given out. If the information is true or not, I’m not sure that these sites even care. This has affected other types of reputable sites like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They’re losing clicks, and those clicks are how they get paid. So, this is a big deal, and that's why you have the ad blockers coming up.  So first, please give me your take on where we are currently with journalism with regard to being objective versus sensational.

Gini Dietrich:         So, I'll give you a personal experience. During the Republican National Committee soiree, right after Donald Trump gave his speech to accept the nomination, I was looking through the front page of The New York Times the next morning, and the two stories on The New York Times front page front cover above the fold, were about how - and I can't remember the headlines - but essentially, the first one that kind of ran the width of the newspaper was 'He gave his speech, he's an idiot, I can't believe that we're letting this person accept the nomination'. The second one that ran the vertical of the front page was about how he had this opportunity to get up in front of millions of people on a global stage and talk about his childhood, and where he came from, and the things that he's learned, and start to talk about his policies, and he didn't take advantage of that. Instead, he chose to talk poorly about his opponent and all those other things. And even though I tend to agree that he should not be our next president, I looked at that and I thought, 'This is incredible,' because it was completely full of opinion, it was completely full of what I guess you would call clickbait, even though it was the actual newspaper, and even though it was somewhat based on facts, it was based in fact from the perspective of 'I'm going to use these facts to support my opinion'.

And The New York Times, even though they've always said it's the liberal bending and blah, blah, blah, it still has always had sort of that journalistic integrity, and I looked at that and I thought, 'This is where we are. This is the world that we're in.' Because no longer is it about journalistic integrity, it's all about sensationalism, and you know who changed that, was Michael Arrington at Tech Crunch. He's famous for saying 'It doesn't matter if we get it right as long as we get it first. We can always change it later.'

DR:         I saw that when I was doing research on this. I couldn't believe it. He only said that about two years ago, in 2014. That's awful. Do we blame The New York Times, or do we just kind of pity them, the fact that they're mixed up in all of this? You know you have your BuzzFeeds of the world, and then New York Times needs to be able to pay journalists. I just I feel so stuck, and I'm not even in that world, and I only can imagine where they are. So, basically, you're saying it's gotten to the top, the disease has gotten all the way to the top of the food chain. What do you think led to this?

GD:         Well, I think it's a couple of things. We all like a good train wreck, right? You always stop for a train wreck, always. It goes for everything from seeing an accident on the freeway to wanting to see whatever is going on online. And so, when you have what I'll call “journalism” working toward that and trying to appease that, that’s where I think it stems from.

DR:         And our attention deficit. Our attention span keeps getting lower and lower. It’s at eight seconds, I think, and that's just for social media. So again, we're basically just describing the world that we live in right now. The quick hits - I think BuzzFeed's probably a pretty big part of this, and taking money away from these other sites, and the decline of the newspaper print, and stuff like that. But who or what do you think are the biggest culprits in all of this?

GD:         I think it's BuzzFeed, it's Tech Crunch, the Huffington Post in some matters, Vox I would say is guilty of it, Upworthy - even thought hey post good stuff, it's very clickbaity. I think there're lots of organizations that are guilty of it.

DR:         Now, on the flip side - and unfortunately you led with an example of the highest on the food chain basically, or one of the highest - who are the ones, and maybe you can still give props to the New York Times and some of these others, but who are the ones still trying to do it the right way, in your opinion?

GD:         It's so hard.

DR:         I can name one for you. The Texas Tribune here in Austin, Texas. And I know they really, really do a very good job of biting their tongues, and doing it the right way, because it's a political site, and they have to toe the line between Republicans and Democrats. I guess that's one of those things where the forces of nature forced them to be that way, because if not, their whole business model breaks down, because it's about both, so, they're almost forced to do it. So, that's one, but it's kind of somewhat local. They’re pretty big, but do you know of anyone else on a national scale that might be trying to do it the right way?

GD:         I think you have to almost go international. You've got Guardian, who seems to be a little fairer and balanced, BBC of course does - I was sad to see Al Jazeera go away because they were doing a really nice job of fair and balanced. The Wall Street Journal I think still does to some extent, but The New York Times, which has sort of always been my favorite - just because I already said that I don't believe Voldemort should be our next president, you probably know which way I vote - so I tend to be more liberal.

DR:         And that might be part of the reason they did that, though.

GD:         Yes, but at the same time, and maybe they know their audience better than I do, and maybe their audience is ninety-five percent of people who wouldn't vote for him, and maybe that's why they did it, but it still seems like when you have a national media outlet that is supposed to be here for fair and unbiased information, and for us to get actual news without bias, and you have what's supposed to be one of the best in the country, and they're not doing it, it's a hard pill to swallow, I think.

DR:         A couple of other ones doing it the right way are MSNBC and Fox News. No, I'm joking.

GD:         No, neither one of those are biased at all.

DR:         You know what you can do, though, is you can watch both, and if you watch both, you might get some truth.

GD:         I still don't think you're getting the truth. I really don't.

DR:         No, I agree. I've always thought that's the only way I can even try to get a handle on what's going on, is I have to watch both. And I guess I lean left overall - I really lean middle, I want a middle party, that's really what I want, but I lean left.

GD:         That's what I want too.

DR:         But I'll watch Fox News because I don't want to just hear people massaging my opinion. I want to hear the other side.

GD:         But you're not the norm. I'm not the norm. We're both educated human beings, and they just did a study over the weekend that said that the number one person that has said that they're going to vote for Donald Trump is an uneducated, like eighth grade educated, white male.

GD:         So, they're not going to do that kind of research. They like to have their opinions massaged.

DR:         Yeah, it's awful. So, I think we've identified the problem. But do kind of see Facebook's role in all of this, and this filter bubble? Can you educate people what the filter bubble is, and what it means to all of us?

GD:         Yes, and I think it goes to exactly what you were just saying, where first of all you read or watch the news that you agree with, right, and I think that goes for anything. You read bloggers that you agree with, you read books that tend to support your thinking, all those kinds of things, so it's not just news media. So, we live in this bubble that we've created for ourselves, that we've filtered out the stuff that we don't agree with, and then of course, it's sort of been proven lately that this may not be the case, but it looks to be that Facebook particularly, they have that human being aggregator of content, and it looked to be that they tended to be more liberal leaning, and so the information that was on Facebook, trending stories and things like that, tended to be more liberal leaning.

I still think that that's probably the case, I do think just based on what I've been watching and reading from both sides of the party line that Facebook seems to be taking that very seriously and trying to provide a more for fair and balanced - but trending stories by itself, you're probably going to see something different than I see just because of friends, and who you let into your stream, and who you've unfollowed but remained friends with, and all those kinds of things. So, you've created this bubble around yourself with news, and friends, and family, and blogs, and everything that supports the way that you think.

DR:         So it’s like an algorithm, that Facebook will put on your feed what they think that you want to see. Is that basically it in a nutshell?

GD:         Which would be basically like only allowing a right-wing person to watch Fox News information, and on the left wing, only having MSNBC stuff get in front of them. Basically, you're just going to keep preventing that over and over, and if you're saying they lean left, well then, will they force the left-wing stuff in front of somebody who has shown to lean right as far as political stuff goes?

GD:         Not necessarily, but I think they are trying to balance it out more. I mean like it's this thing with Kim Kardashian. Why the heck do I have to keep seeing Kim Kardashian in my streams? I don't care, but apparently, my friends do. It's that kind of stuff where you may continue to see it. I mean if you just look at Facebook trending stories right this second, you'll see what it is. I'm sure there's some Olympics stuff, but let's look and see.

DR:         Got a little Usain Bolt on there?

GD:         No, Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, there's 'Kevin Hart got married', there's an unidentified woman's body found near a jogging pass right by my house - that's awesome - there's Kendall Jenner, so there's a Kardashian.

DR:         You're right. You called it.

GD:         Gabby Douglas is far down, but it's not about the actual Olympics, it's about her feelings were hurt over criticism, and that is that is the only thing in Facebook trending stories right now about the Olympics.

DR:         And did you see everything you just mentioned? And all of that should have been in one of those US Weekly's or whatever the trashy ones are, you know?

GD:         Right.

DR:         I don't know if the US weekly is trash, I can't remember, but those other ones. I mean every single one of those things, every single one. So, there is a problem. There's a problem, and getting to native ads, clickbait, you know native ads have been abused, and is there anything happening that might help control all of this?

GD:         No, because I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is, people love the trash. I mean that's just human beings; I don't think we can stop that.

DR:         I think we're in agreement, and I think most everybody would agree that this is actually happening. There's too much data out there showing that it is. So, I think we all can agree that the integrity of news sites and news, in general, has taken a hit over the years, but there have also been lots of problems that have had a light shone on them, which is a good thing, like the good old boy network, holding everything in, they were big brother, that kind of mindset. So, what's your overall take? Does the good that has come out of the growth of the web, and shining light on some of this outshine the bad that has come with it or vice versa?

GD:         Did you happen to watch the O.J. Simpson special on ESPN? The documentary?

DR:         Yes, I did.

GD:         So, what I thought was interesting about that whole thing is, you know they sort of wove in the L.A. riots, and Rodney King, and sort of all of that horrible, racist stuff that was happening back then, and I thought it was interesting how they talked about how O.J. Simpson didn't want to participate in that as a leader of the African-American community, because he simply just didn't want to be seen as an African-American.

DR:         That was O.J.

GD:         Right. He's O.J. Simpson, right? So, what I found interesting about that, and that whole side story of things is, nothing's changed. Black men are still being killed by cops, and I think what's happening right now is because of exactly what you said, that we have access, and there's a bigger megaphone, people can Facebook live stream being pulled over, or whatever it happens to be. People live streaming getting shot - it's now making it a priority to get fixed, and what was that, forty years ago? So, all of this has been going on underneath our noses for forty years, and it's never been brought to light until now, and I think it's because of social media, and the megaphone, and being able to do all those things. And I hope that it does fix it because it's been forty years. It's unreal.

DR:         The bad check mark is; what can you believe anymore? Are people getting their second and third sources, or whatever they need that journalists have as far as what they're supposed to be doing to hold their integrity? And I'm sure they're getting pressures for clicks, and money, and all that, and that's a big problem, and part of this could be an economical problem. Could be the economy's playing a part in all of this.

GD:         For sure. You're right. You said this earlier, but they have to be able to pay their journalists, and if they're not making any money. What I think is interesting about this is, do you happen to remember when Natasha Richardson, Liam Neeson’s wife, died, and she'd had an accident on the ski slopes, and had bumped her head and it killed her?

                  It was interesting because this had to have been - well, we can look it up - but it was several years ago, and I first saw it on Twitter that they were reporting that she had died from this fall, which seemed benign because I think she was even on the bunny hill. Like she just slipped and happened to hit her head, and that's what killed her, but they had reported it on Twitter, and TMZ kept saying 'She's dead,' and nobody believed TMZ. So, you waited - like I think it was two days before traditional media confirmed that she had died, so back then, you just sort of waited to see if the traditional media was going to confirm it. And now, TMZ, which I don't know how we live in this world, but every time they report on something like that, they're right. They're right every time, and you look at it and you go, 'How is it that the Wall Street Journal, or CNN, or MSNBC, or the Fox News, or whatever it happens to be can't get this right, but freaking TMZ can?

DR:         That's funny, and you know what, who knows? Maybe that's going to be the solution one day. Maybe these other sites who kind of did it in a sneakily, weird, almost bad way, maybe someone from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times ends up running one of those sites, and then they morph good journalism with that. I don't know, I'm just hoping that we get all this figured out, because I just think it's just the right thing, but I think overall, I would like to think if you do things the right way, it ends up being the best way for everybody as far as the economy and everything. I know that's stupid to say, but I'd like to hope.

                  I'd like to hope there's at least a solution, so let's move forward with that. So, you have paywalls, micropayments, especially with this other thing with the Bitcoin, and then some other form of micropayment, I don't know what it's called. You have mobile apps, digital subscriptions, so first off, just please quickly describe what these are in case people aren't familiar with them, and then move on to let me know if you believe - and you could talk about them in unison or individually - but if they work, and if these are potential solutions. So, we've got paywalls, micropayments, mobile apps, digital subscriptions, and then other forms of monetization that can work for newsworthy sites.

GD:       I think it depends on the site, I think it depends on the information that they're creating. For Spin Sucks, specifically, we've created sort of a professional development reputation, and so we can sell online courses, but I will tell you that in 2011, we had this big vision to launch a membership site that had courses, and this was before online courses were a thing, and you would join this membership site and pay fifty dollars a month, and you would have access to all these experts, and classes, and all those kinds of things, and it flopped miserably. I mean we spent six figures, I'll tell you that - a lot of money to get this up and going, and nobody cared.

DR:         Nobody wanted to pay, you mean? You aren't getting your subscriptions?

GD:         No. Nobody. Like zero dollars.

DR:         That was a bummer.

GD:         Yeah, it was bad. So, last year we decided to just sort of dip our toe back into the water. I was a little reticent of course, and we did a pilot of an online course and nailed it. We nailed it.

DR:         You just gave an amazing example of failure to success. What changed? What did you do differently?

GD:         I think this is what major media sites are going through as well, is they're testing certain things to see what works what doesn't, and that's what we did, and what we discovered was that, yes, we have created a reputation as a professional development site, and when there's something very specific that people have said they want, they're willing to pay for it, but it has to be at a certain level of professionalism. There are all of these things that have to happen.

DR:         And you built that in four years, in the four years you speak a lot and you travel, so all of that obviously, you promote books, so you did all that, and you've done all this free content, so you did that, you built clout, built reputation, built trust. You've got to build that trust, so you did that, but then you also mentioned something in there about 'people will pay for something specifically that they want'. So, how did you find out what that was?

GD:         I asked.

DR:         Okay. How did you ask?

GD:         I literally sent a survey and I said, “If you could spend one hour with me, what would we talk about?” And I got smartass answers like, “Well, we would just have wine and cupcakes,” - which is fine, totally cool, I'm good with that - and I got things like “An hour is not enough.” I didn't get anything real from some people, and then some people really took it seriously and then things like, “I'd love to figure out how you're all over the place from a content perspective,” or “I'd love to have an hour of your time every month for a coaching, to work directly with you.” They gave those kinds of answers, and then we just weighted those answers. We actually - this is a little-known trick - but we asked, “If you could spend an hour with me, what would we talk about?” and it was two questions. The second question was, “If I need more information, may I call you?” and the reason you do that is not because you're going to call all these people, it's because if people are willing to leave their phone number, they're more invested in the answer that they gave you, and they'd like to talk to you about it. So, some people said “no thanks” or “not necessary,” or things like that, except that it was an anonymous survey, and I didn't know who had said it, but if people left their number, then I weighted that higher than those that didn't, so then we sort of mathematically took the top twenty percent of responses, and we went through with those, and we looked to see, of those twenty percent where were we?

And we ended up with three different buckets, and so we created a course last year, the three launching later this year, on how to use media relations and content to increase your search results, generate qualified leads, and convert sales. So, that's an online course.

DR:         So basically, what you just mentioned in that course is basically how you combine PR. with content marketing?

GD:             That's exactly it.

DR:         Can I have an hour of your time on that one? I'm not joking, I just got asked that question to me in a sales meeting, and I, unfortunately, had to say no.

DR:         Over time, from doing content marketing, and blogs, and podcasts, and if you have the chops for it, write a book, do speaking engagements, or if you're just a good old-fashioned publisher, whatever your niche, continuously be an expert on whatever you're writing about. So, over time you're going to build the trust. So, I know that's a little bit of a fast assumption being made, nothing's really that easy, so that happens, and you build it. This is a huge key point. What would be worth twenty-nine dollars a year, or fifty-nine, or ninety-nine dollars a year?

What is that? And then that right there is a business model to figure out, and you can do the math really quick. You get a thousand subscribers paying you a hundred dollars a year, you're in business, right? So, I think that is a potential solution for some of these outlets that want to hold integrity, and hey, if they need to downsize a tad - but now they know that they can trust the money that's coming in, because they have this passionate fan base that is paying them for what they want to hear. And all you did - again, I fast forwarded through the four, five, six, seven, eight years that you've been putting in the elbow grease to get to the point where people will pay you for something, but then you just asked, and that worked differently than four years ago.

GD:         But I'm curious; how would you answer that? So, if the New York Times were to survey you and ask you what you would pay for, what would you say?

DR:         Well, people ask me this stuff, and I do a lot of reading, but only in a couple areas. Personally, I just like to read about spiritual stuff. On the business side, I just read marketing  stuff constantly, and normally it's from people like you, and Social Media Examiner, Joe Pulizzi, Marcus Sheridan, and the Andrew Davises of the world. So, I would probably say if I could get one particular question answered a month, I'd pay forty-nine dollars a month for that - my personal question.

GD:         What if they came out and they said - I mean the New York Times isn't going to do this, but let's just go on that example. What if they came out and they said, 'Wow, of all of our readers, marketing people tend to make up forty percent, so that's a pretty significant number for us. What if we went to the top marketers?' and it could be the people you just listed. It could be Joe, it could be Anne, it could be Marcus, it could be Andrew, it could be Andy Crestodina, whoever it happens to be, and say to them, “We'll pay you guys a stipend every month to create exclusive content for us that doesn't run anywhere else.” You can't get it on Spin Sucks, you can't get it on Marketing Profs, you can't get it on The Sales Lion - it's only going to be on the New York Times, and they charge for that. You'd be interested in that, right?

DR:         I'd a hundred percent pay for that.

GD:         Right, exactly. So, we just solved the problem.

DR:         Well, we do that right now with the guy named John Loomer with Facebook advertising, because he's just the best, and so we subscribe to his stuff, and that's his business model. I would say if a big site used that business model, yes, a hundred percent people would pay. I'd pay for it, especially if once a year I got my question answered, right? And do you really think my question's going to be unique? No.

GD:         Of course not.

DR:         From ten thousand people, there'll probably be a thousand that have the same exact question, so the business model could work, because you're not going to really answer ten thousand questions, you’d probably answer eight hundred. So absolutely, yeah, that's a potential solution. So, I guess, who can we trust moving forward, Gini? Is there anyone we can trust in this digital age?

GD:         Again, it depends. I don't necessarily know that the big guys are who we can trust. I think you said it earlier- you have to go to two or three different sites to confirm something. Snopes is my friend. People doctor photos and share them, and all those kinds of things are happening right now, so I think it's up to us as individuals to be as educated as we can, to try and listen to both sides. Before we're sharing information, make sure it's right, it's correct. I don't know if you saw this over the weekend, but one of the media sites, I can't remember who it was, took the picture - do you remember about a year ago when the picture of Steven Spielberg in front of one of the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park when viral? Everyone commented, “I can't believe he shot that, and he's using that as a trophy,” and people said, “That's a freaking dinosaur.”

DR:         No, I don't. That's hilarious.

GD:         Yes! About a year ago, everybody was up in arms because Steven Spielberg has hunted and shot this ginormous animal, and he's holding it up as a trophy.

DR:         That is unbelievable. No. I knew about Cecil the Lion, but I didn't know about that one.

GD:         Right. I think it was around that same time that he did it, just sort of as a parody to show that you have to use your brain. So one of the media sites took that photo like in the last week and went out on the street and asked people what they thought, and it was the same thing: “I can't believe he would do that,” and “What kind of person shoots an animal like that?” Hardly anybody said it was a dinosaur. It's a dinosaur. Use your critical thinking skills. And I think that's what we're missing.

DR:         Okay. So, where do you see the future journalism going, and how would journalists' jobs roles change?

GD:         You know, you said it earlier, and it may be that - I know BuzzFeed is trying really hard to become more trusted, and actually fact based, and deliver the news, but of course they have this reputation of being BuzzFeed. So, maybe it is something like that. I also saw that one of the editors - I want to say from the Wall Street Journal, but don't quote me on that. It was one of the big publications, and it was the managing editor who'd gone out on her own to start something new. So, I think it is going to be people, journalists who see what's wrong with the world and have an idea on how to monetize it, and they're the ones we're going to see stuff popping up that probably will be more trusted than what I'll call the traditional media.

DR:         Yeah, well let's just hope there's the Richard Bransons of the world in the media industry, right? People who want to do it right, but are smart, and understand that you need to mix - I don't want to use the word sensationalism with it, but the excitement I guess, or just knowing how to make money.

GD:         Yeah, play to the emotions.

DR:         From my experience, I do see a growing demand for high-quality journalism in writers. I thought maybe five-ish years ago, journalists couldn't make a buck. They were so devalued. When that changed, and especially as things have gotten more crowded, the quality of what you're reading has become so important. So, I do see, that's a very nice career you can go into now.

How do you see their job changing though? If somebody was wanting to go into journalism, where would you say - we've kind of touched on it, and I kind of have my own opinion, and I'll throw in my opinion after yours, but how do you see the journalist job roles and their skill sets maybe changing, or what do you need in this new age that we live in?

GD:         I think it is changing and evolving, because now, journalists are paid based on page views. So, they have to be good at social media, they have to be decent at search engine optimization, they have to understand how all of those pieces work, just like a content marketer has to understand it.

DR:         I think you nailed it. I think journalists need to be superior writers, and then on top of that, they at least need to know the basics of all the other stuff. They need to know how to tag everything right, and do all that good stuff, and possibly even getting into the social part of it all as far as the strategy around all of that, but that's not to say - great piece of content, and if it's spot on, well, can get going too. Maybe not as much as Cecil the Lion, or Steven Spielberg, but maybe that's the thing. Maybe it's these sites who mix in some of that stuff with 'people know it's not real like BuzzFeed could do this.

GD:         And you know, we do trending topics every Friday, which is just the five funniest videos that we found during the week. It has nothing to do with PR, it has nothing to do with marketing, it's just five funny videos that we give you once a week, so you can do that kind of stuff to bring people in, and then have the more serious stuff the rest of the time.

DR:         Gini, it sounds like you're doing it. I'm going to nominate you as my journalism ambassador because I think the two things that we've talked about that other companies can do, you're doing right now, and you're seeing them work, right?

GD:         We are seeing them work. I mean, we're definitely tested, but at the same time, we're not a journalism site. We're not the New York Times that's supposed to be out there telling the world all the good things that are happening. That's not us by far. We're definitely a professional development site.

DR:         Yeah, but you have an audience.

GD:         We do.

DR:         So, there are some similarities. Any parting thoughts Anything to leave us with?

GD:         I think it goes back to what we were talking about in terms of being diligent about making sure that the stuff that you're sharing is true, and it's accurate, and that you're not sharing a viral photo of Steven Spielberg who killed an animal. I think those are the kinds of things that we have to be really diligent about.

DR:         Alright. I think that's a good point. Everyone can help out with our new movement, Gini. It's our new movement. So how can people continue to learn from you?


DR:         And your Twitter handle?

GD:         My name, Gini Dietrich.

DR:         Thanks so much, Gini. This was a very interesting topic to dig into, and hopefully, maybe we got to one person who’s been sitting on an idea, and now they run with it.        



Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communication firm. She also is the founder of the professional development site for PR and marketing pros, Spin Sucks Pro, and co-author of Marketing In the Round

Gini is the author of the PR and marketing blogSpin Sucks, which is a 2012 Cision Top 100 Blog, the 2010 and 2011 Readers Choice Blog of the Year, a Top 42 Content Marketing Blog from Junta42, a top 10 social media blog from Social Media Examiner, and an AdAge Power 150 blog. And she is co-host of Inside PR, a weekly podcast about communications, social media, and where they all meet and intersect. 


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