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When News Goes Totally Digital, How Do You Create Trust?

Is brand power the best way to keep the news trustworthy?

I spent much of last fall at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government as a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy. While there, I researched issues related to journalism, trust and credibility - and in particular what role emerging social media might play in addressing those concerns. Here's the latest in a series of posts on the topic of emerging media and journalism. (Read Part 1: " Word of Mouse" — Part 2: " The New Breed of New Media Researchers" — Part 3: “ Public Displays of Connection“) - Rory O'Connor

Google CEO Eric Schmidt believes the Internet is a "cesspool" of false information, and that filters are needed to help sort through the muck and mire. Most observers agree that some sort of credibility/trust delivery filter for news and information is now necessary — how else can we be sure that the news we see and hear is actually true? — but they disagree as to what the best filter may be. Predictably, corporate executives like Schmidt offer their corporate "brands" as the answer. “Brands are the solution, not the problem,” Schmidt told a collection of top American magazine editors last fall. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

Many executives in traditional media companies share Schmidt's belief in brand power. Richard Stengel, executive editor of Time Magazine, is among them. At the Time Warner "Politics 2008 - Media Summit" in October, Stengel remarked, "I actually think that in this blizzard-like universe of news usage, brands are actually more important and rising above the chaos because people don't have places they can trust and rely on."

Paul Slavin, senior vice president of digital media at ABC News, is in accord. "Brands are the answer to the credibility questions," Slavin says. "ABC News is known worldwide, and most people feel we are balanced and fair, that we offer a vetted, careful environment for news and information." He believes that brands are already being used as a necessary filter to combat the "too much information" problem, and that our reliance on them will grow over time. "Brand power will only increase as noise level increases," Slavin explains. "It will all come back to tried and true brands. The fundamental understanding of and protection of our brand truly is our future."

Slavin, who has coordinated ABC News' exploration of and collaboration with the emerging media, said in a 2008 interview that ABC "started looking for relationships with social networks a year and a half ago. We looked at MySpace first, then Facebook." The motive, he says, was simple: "We wanted to tap into their younger demo and expose them to our content." In the end, ABC decided to work with Facebook. "Facebook friends function as personal aggregators, and that can be very powerful," Slavin believes. "We needed to figure out how to tap into that."

In November 2007, ABC entered into a formal partnership with Facebook, the first of its kind with a traditional media outlet. The agreement enabled Facebook users to follow ABC reporters electronically, view reports and video and participate in polls and debates. The companies also announced that they would collaborate to sponsor a presidential debate in New Hampshire on January 5, 2008. Facebook users around the world could connect and instantly discuss the debate as it occurred live on ABC.

The ABC Facebook page received a lot of traffic "when actively promoted by Facebook," says Slavin. "We had very good cooperation and coordination initially, and it resulted in 1.5 million downloads." Slavin recalls. Later the social network changed direction, however, and decided it didn't want "a strong relationship with just one media group like ABC. We had talked about more collaboration in the general election," Slavin says. "Our goal was to expand our audience to include people not coming to us for news already. The Facebook relationship can be very powerful if and when Facebook wants to do it and pushes it."

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