Inform17: Reinvigorating trust with traditional values

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Trust was a recurring theme for speakers at today's NewsMediaWorks Inform summit in Sydney.

And not just for keynote "global authority" Rachel Botsman, who was candid enough to suggest that concentration of media ownership may be a challenge to it.

NewsMediaWorks took the format of Sky News' nightly Paul Murray Live show as well as the presenter for a reimagined CEOs panel in which he got to interview his boss, News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller (or "dear lord and god" as he referred to him).

That much was transparent, at least, although the segment had its share of what seemed like Dorothy Dix questions. Miller got the opportunity to spruik scale-enabling media law reform, and Macquarie Radio's Adam Lang to lay into the unfair advantage of the disruptive duopoly, and (via a question from Darren Davidson of News' The Australian) the ABC.

That said and even without Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood - absent following a personal bereavement- it still made for an interesting segment, the social media criticism (on the Inform app) that it was a white blokes' gabfest answered by the addition of newly-appointed chief executive of Stuff (the former Fairfax NZ business) Sinead Boucher, to the line-up.

Trust recurred in a discussion of the treatment of press releases and native advertising: Lang says presenters are allowed to say 'no' to advertisers, admitting that a live read was seen as "something of an endorsement". Boucher - who says trust in the media has risen in New Zealand in the past year - said they needed to be "a constant guardian" of trust, although Miller asserted that consumers were "smarter than we give them credit for" and that there were "plenty of channels for an opposing view".

Optimism too, and love in the room, as Murray gave panelists the opportunity to say what they liked best about each other's products.

Out of the mouth of babes: Rachel Botsman likes to tell of the relationship her three-and-a-half year-old daughter Gracie has with Amazon's Alexa: In three days she's asking the voice bot what she should wear... but not before she's ordered a crate of blueberries from the e-commerce site.

Not yet able to read or write, she's discovered Alexa can tell jokes and play music, scores what she's wearing, and will deliver stuff. She might just be "like Siri, but smarter" - as Gracie's mother says - but she's already a trusted member of the family.

It's an extreme example of the trust some now have in technology, but it makes Botsman's point: That we have started to give our trust away too easily, in what she says is a move away from institutional to what she calls "distributed trust".

At the Inform summit, there's a moment of hilarity as she urges delegates to unlock their phones and pass them to the person sitting next; and a slightly predictable response to a request to clap for the organization you most trust: Uber, Google and Amazon do well, but FaceBook scores almost nothing from an audience whose living is being undermined by the platform. How well the Zuckerberg empire would fare with a broader cross-section is point we don't explore, but the exercise makes Botsman's point that trust is "highly contextual".

She says surveys show a gloomy scene, with trust in organisations at a historic low, and media showing the biggest decline.

So what's to do about it? Makers of autonomous vehicles could learn from the builders of lifts, and so can we. Lift "operators", groomed at charm school, and friendly signage, helped users make the "trust leap" to today's unmanned systems, lessons Google and FaceBook have used to "get us in".

"Technology is enabling us to take trust leaps, but demanding that we leap higher than ever before," she says.

Yet trust is collapsing, and inequality of accountability is one of the reasons: "The rich play to different rules to the rest of us," she says, citing the let-offs of those responsible for the Panama Papers, VW's "dieselgate" and the GFC. What will the payout of CBA chief Ian Narev be, after the Australian bank's money laundering failure, she muses.

And what they get away with pales in comparison with FaceBook, where 4500 "moderators" decide on the suitability of the 1.3 million posts a minute of its more than two billion active users. "We need a conversation about platform accountability," she says.

That they are trusted by so many users is a factor of the "inversion of trust" which has people more likely to trust a stranger on a bus than a reliable source. And there are examples... from Michael Fish, the Queen and Tory politician Michael Gove in the UK, and in Late Show TV host Stephen Colbert's "truthiness".

There is, she says, a "massive opportunity for the media to re-establish itself", but fake news has become a dangerous catchcall to all sorts of questionable content.

So back to Gracie and Alexa: "Is technology enabling me to give away my trust too easily," Botsman asks. But there's hope. Deciding who to trust is a "real science" based on factors such as competence, reliability over time, integrity - including the alignment of interests, if that's possible with concentration of media ownership - and "benevolence".

Trust will continue to collapse, but what are we left with, she asks. "People will end up trusting anything... or nothing". For the media, that's an opportunity - to be "inclusive, transparent and accountable" - but delegates were still left with questions... how to reinvigorate trust, how media organisations might push harder, how to beat the "machines" and algorithms.

"We need to question where stories are coming from, and hold the platforms to higher account," she says. But how?

INMA chief executive Earl Wilkinson had lessons from history, from extensive reading, and as an observer of societal change in a world in which we are "drowning in information". One solution for publishers is differentiation, and Wilkinson quotes Conde Nast's "people will pay for brands they love".

"We are getting better at brands, data, audience and culture, but I sense a great stall," he says, identifying print cultures as "an anchor to change". Needed is a focus on creating foundations - tapping "the real reason for being" - and knowing your platforms: "Most of you are in the audience business," he says, adding with a reference to Trump bumps, that's the "brand love" business.

"Stand for something," he urges.

Invest in foundations, "identify the big bets, and while being seen as a print brand may hold you back, "love the brands that pay the bills"... even if print is one of them.

A post-prandial delight - not least for the sharp minds it brought to the table - was another panel, this time with a hoarse TrinityP3 chief Darren Woolley quizzing News chief digital officer Nicole Sheffield and Fairfax managing director for metro publishing Chris Janz. Much here on media metrics, but also on the commitment and investment in journalism and content, something which both agreed was not being communicated well.

As was the way in which the tech giants "monetizing other people's content" had slipped through without an outcry, "perhaps because it was originally user-generated content".

Technology as publishers' servant was another topic, Sheffield saying that bots weren't taking over, but were about "being smarter about how we capture content" and to establish what is popular: "Once it's published, the story has only just begun," she says.

The shortcomings of the FaceBook relationship weren't going to be solved by bigger masthead logos and, with no chance to keep up with their tech development, focusing on customers was a bigger priority. And watch out for the next big disruption which, Woolley says, is Amazon.

If you've seen Yusuf Omar on his Twitter feeds for CNN and Hindustan Times, you wouldn't necessarily recognize the guy in the floral shirt who bowled into the Inform summit with all his mojo guns firing: 360° video camera, Snapchat Spectacles and a recalcitrant drone.

Clearly he's in his element as a conference speaker, a role where he can make the most of an outgoing personality and a lively sense of humour. Everyone has the device to "pivot to video" in their pocket, and Omar has real experience in the field, as well as in training journalists and the public in how to make use of it.

"It might be shaky and hand-held," he says, "but it's what people can relate to; what people trust.

And there's that word again, on which as a parting shot, NewsMediaWorks chief executive Peter Miller says new advertising research has shown "a change in the wind".

Peter Coleman

• Watch out for more online and in our upcoming print edition.

Pictured: Yusuf Omar keeps an eye on his mojo technology

On our homepage: Rachel Botsman with Peter Miller

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