The Lack of Public Confidence in America’s Institutions

Polling routinely tracks the decline in trust Americans have in their institutions, both public and private.  From a September 2023 Pew Research Report: “Fewer than two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (1%) or “most of the time” (15%)

In the private sector, this distrust can accelerate business uncertainty, or lead to failure.  When economic challenges combine with  the ever present potential for market disruption, continued  success can seem more tenuous.

One area where these negative forces have all combined is in America’s newspaper industry.  One of the survivors is  Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, owned by the Walter Hussman family,

I recently heard him speak about how his paper has continued to succeed in this “dying industry.” Today the daily edition publishes the third or fourth largest amount of news stories after the national editions of the NY Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

The challenges and Response

In his remarks Hussman said the peak in newspaper ad revenue was $60 billion in 2006. Now it is less than $10 billion.  Many local papers and national chains such as Gannett have been purchased by hedge funds or outside investors.  Their business model is to provide “less and less” and ask customers to pay “more and more” to maximize their financial return, not the newspapers’ role for the public.

The separate Democrat newspaper bought out its Gannet-owned competitor the Gazette in 1991,  becoming the dominant  statewide publication.  Hussman’s view is that national news and sports are available everywhere.  What matters to his readers is local reporting.

To meet the disruption of both advertising and readership by social media, several years ago Hussman converted the six daily editions to an online format only, with just the Sunday paper still in distributed in print.  He provided free iPads to all subscribers. Teams of employees travelled  throughout the state to show customers how to use the online format.

That digital offering is continuously upgraded to include videos and other editorial material and links that would not be feasible in a print edition. Another factor in the conversion: “Today’s younger readers want the news to find them.”  The cost is $39 per month.  The savings in both newsprint and distribution costs has allowed the paper to remain profitable.

But what about the public’s general mistrust of all news media, both print and broadcast.   He cited that only 16% of the public trusts the media.   Everyone can choose the source today that most closely aligns with their views reinforcing existing “confirmation bias.”

Publishing Operating Core Values

Hussman described his firm’s response to this pervasive mistrust.  Every edition contains a brief Statement of Core Values, summarizing the organization’s approach to reporting.  Here are excerpts:

Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.

. . . a news organization must not just cover the news, but uncover it.  It must follow the story wherever it leads regardless of any preconceived ideas. . .

The pursuit of truth is a noble goal of journalism.  But the truth is not always apparent or known immediately.   The journalist’s role . . .is to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that the reader can . . . determine what they believe to be the truth.

. . . as much as possible, there needs to be a sharp and clear distinction between news and opinion.

A newspaper has five constituencies. . . readers, then advertisers, then employees, then creditors, then shareholders.  As long as the newspaper keeps its constituencies in that order, especially its readers first, all constituencies will be well served.”

The Core Value Imperative

Hussman told the story about stating his core values when asked by a major television news network executive how to move his channel to a more neutral political public perception.

Most organizations, even credit unions, talk about and publish lists of value.  In many instances they affirm common sense principles such as integrity, openness, impartiality, etc.

There is a difference between virtue signaling efforts and core operating  principles as described by Hussman.

For the past week I have published brief excerpts from the Coach’s Playbook, a series of core operating statements by Ed Callahan.  Note that none of these was a list of personal values; rather they were the operating priorities he followed in multiple leadership roles with credit unions.

The difference between the two approaches is revealed when persons in authority fly from their responsibility to do “the right thing.”  Some will fall back on legal distinctions, some on tradition and others assert their positions of power or control of resources.

Banking on Values

Today is a celebration of Banking on Values, a global movement to change how finance can make change.

Their founding purpose:  “Banking is a powerful force.  From social equity to climate emergency the banking sector has a choirce; either ignore and exacerbate these issues or work together to overcome them.  . . banks must think bolder.”

Do credit unions today think bolder?   Are their values expressed in actual operating priorities?  How would they “square” their oft stated goals of growth and scale with the purpose to be a member-first design?

No one can question credit union financial success, the system’s stability and the avoidance of significant operational failures.   But is that what members and the country need at this time?

Can operating core values reignite credibility in purpose, or will we continue to float along with the rest of the financial sector?

Lip service to what credit unions should be will provide neither cooperative advantage nor market differentiation and success.  That is not the path of how we got to where we are today.




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