How Vox ‘Supercharged’ Its Trust-Building Efforts

By: Erin Stock | 03/10/2023

Building audience trust is essential for news organizations as they work to spread verified facts and counter disinformation. Yet it can be difficult to step back and tackle this kind of challenge, given the daily demands of a newsroom and stretched resources. ICFJ’s Leap Solutions Challenge, is providing the space for journalists to do just that.

Through Leap, Susannah Locke had the opportunity recently to dive deep with a team of her former Vox colleagues on how to build audience trust. The training, mentorship and structure of the 10-week sprint – offered in partnership with Trusting News – helped them accelerate their efforts, she said.

“The program being so intense and immersive allowed me to build a pair of trust glasses that I now have on,” Locke said. “They're always out, and I see trust opportunities everywhere now.”

Locke was one of nearly 40 journalists from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North America who took part in the Solutions Challenge. Through the initiative, her team decided to focus on showing how and why stories are reported as a means to building trust and engagement. They have already rolled out products that add a transparency layer to, such as author bios and behind-the-scenes Q&As with reporters.

“I like to think that we now have trust experts on multiple teams, so that the knowledge isn't siloed,” Locke said. “And I like to think that each expert would possibly create ripple effects where they are in the organization.”

In addition to Locke, ICFJ recently spoke with Ryan Gantz, director of user experience at Vox Media, and Jacqué Palmer, Vox’s former senior editorial impact and loyalty manager, who also took part in the Solutions Challenge. Read on to learn more about what they are doing to build trust and what they would recommend to other news outlets.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you want to take part in a solutions challenge focused on building trust?

Jacqué: I wanted to participate because I truly believe in lifting the veil on how journalism is made and funded. I think that the audience is really curious about that and wants to know, too, and they're an essential part of that process. They may not be privy to that, and they may not have a clear picture of how they even fit into all of it. And so, being able to work on a solution that makes that process a lot clearer for them and drive home the immense value of our work was a win-win for me.

Why was it valuable to be part of a cohort that included news organizations from around the world, all tackling a similar challenge? 

Susannah: Seeing such a wide variety of audiences and how different their needs were really helped me question a lot of my assumptions about my own audience, like, “How much do I really know about them?” For example, there was a community getting almost all of its information from television. There was a community that really needed to learn about the world via WhatsApp. It was just so broad -- the different communities and their needs -- and it really reminded me to be open minded, truly open minded, about who my audience is, who my audience could be, and what their needs are.

Jacqué: It was interesting to see some of the individual newsrooms’ use of WhatsApp and other applications to try to get fact-based information out there in increasingly hostile environments, where the people in their governments might be in opposition and there might be more State-run news. Here in America we hear a lot of, “Democracy is at stake,” but to see another user really fighting through those things and trying to figure out savvy ways to get that information out to the people that need it was really inspiring to me. 

Was there a speaker or a particular training that stands out to you, as something that helped you advance your thinking or change how you work?

Ryan: I really appreciated Jennifer Brandel’s approach to what felt like a very deep and fundamental way to frame the questions. She had this thought exercise around, “If you needed to feed a thousand people and didn’t know their dietary needs, how would you proceed?” It was an interesting exercise to illuminate the value of starting from a neutral position, like trying to gather interest or curiosity or “what does your audience need to know” in a way that isn't structured around the assumptions or instincts you have.

Ryan, you have said that the biggest benefits of this experience was that it resulted in a stronger relationship between your editorial and product teams. How was the Solutions Challenge helpful in that?

Ryan: One of the unfortunate trends at our company over the last few years for various reasons – including the pandemic and turnover and just like a lot of the projects that we have – is that we have a relatively small, centrally organized product team and we have more and more brands. Part of what that has led to is a kind of insulation. It's just a big company and we each have different areas we work in. It's often meant that it's fairly rare, unfortunately, for product and engineers and designers and editors to sort of Voltron up into a team that's having a shared experience and building something together.

Had you not taken part in the Solutions Challenge, what do you think would have been different for Vox’s ongoing efforts to strengthen audience trust?

Jacqué: This Voltron effect of combining us all together, it allowed us to align it with our mission and align it with our larger goals in a way that was more clearly defined and more impactful as a team with more dedicated resources. It supercharged our individual efforts and helped spread that across different departments and teams.

[For example], there is now a Slack channel with people on the editorial and audience teams that's about trust and transparency and we all drop things that we've come across. So that's really cool that it's been spreading in a way that served our audience and our mission. 

Susannah: Being in discussion with other people allowed us to build a shared vocabulary and language, so that we can have these discussions and understand each other. When we say transparency, people know what we mean. We've developed a cognitive framework so that we can work on this together. 

What would you tell other newsrooms that want to build greater trust with their audience? 

Ryan: The concept or the way that you think about what your relationship is with your audience or what trust means is probably presently more limited than you realize. It's not until you dive in and have exposure to points and thinking about things that you kind of break out of whatever lane or whatever metrics or whatever things have been used to. 

Jacqué: I say lift the veil and share your process. You're going to be very surprised about how much the average person is aware of the journalism process and what actually takes place. To you, it's common knowledge, but the average person is not privy to the basic things. So you just lift the veil and share your process. You'll be surprised and they'll thank you for it in different ways. They'll start participating and they'll start sharing. They might make a financial contribution. They might subscribe. 

Susannah: I do think this program was really great, and I absolutely do recommend it. I think there are various levels of how deeply you want to dive in. Trusting News has a lot of resources. I'm constantly sending them to people. And I also think as a team that focused on transparency, transparency is an area of low-hanging fruit for increasing trust for newsrooms, just because historically as an industry, we've been so private. And not every solution has to be complicated, because there's this information that you already have that you have. We're the news. We have the means to share it.

Learn more about Leap, ICFJ’s news innovation lab, and other journalists who took part in the first Solutions Challenge.

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