Addressing news avoidance will help you fix the entire audience flow
Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, we are going to talk about several things. First, why focusing on news avoidance is so important, then about audience addiction, why you shouldn't define people's age, and finally why Mastodon may not be the Twitter replacement people hope for.
News avoidance is a pretty big problem, and the trend is that it is getting worse and worse. However, there are two kinds of misconceptions that I often come across.
The first one is the 'blame game' which not only distracts us from the real issues, but also causes people in the media to focus on solutions that are likely to make the problem worse.
The second problem is just what news avoidance is. Many people seem to look at news avoidance as a specific point, like "this percentage of people are news avoiders". And while those numbers are technically true, real news avoidance exists on a far more gradual scale, where many different factors define how people react, and what that means for you as a publisher.
In my latest Plus article, I go into all of this, to help make sense of how to better think about news avoidance, so that you are better equipped to do something about it.
Take a look at: "Addressing news avoidance will help every other element of publishing".
I came across a quick quote from the WebSummit conference, where Sasha Kaletsky, Caspar Lee, and Sara Fischer were talking about audience addiction, and Sasha said something brilliant. He said (see longer version):
On YouTube, users' addiction is to the creator. On TikTok, users' addiction is to the feed. This is why TikTok creators have short lifespans.
This is such an important point, not just about YouTube and TikTok, but in general. When we as publishers optimize for our audience, we need to ask who this audience is addicted to. Are they addicted to you as a publisher, or are they addicted to someone else's platform where you are just a random element in the feed?
So, for instance, when I see a magazine trying to focus on getting more traffic by optimizing for the feed, that might give you more traffic in the short run, but also means you are effectively losing your audience. They are not addicted to you anymore.
It's such a simple point, but one that is often forgotten in the media industry.
There is a recent study from Adobe, which asked 2,000 UK consumers about engagement and marketing, and one of the really interesting things they found was people really don't like being grouped into a "generation".
As Adobe said:
As a society, and particularly within marketing, we have become obsessed with dividing people into demographics, then drawing comparisons between those groups. Meanwhile, the real world is actually made up of individuals with unique wants and needs, who are in a constant state of change, and who defy such simplistic categorisation.
Not only are labels such as Millennial, Gen Z or most recently, Gen Alpha divisive or even mildly insulting, but they're also not even very useful in marketing terms. Our latest research [...] found twice as many people feel closer to others who share their interests (45%) than those who are of a similar age (21%). Which makes sense; marketing in the same way to two people merely because they were born between 1981 and 1995 (Millennials, apparently) is about as specific as basing it on their astrological star sign or the colour of their hair. In fact, over three quarters of those polled want to be seen as an individual, and a quarter say they either don't fit many, or any, of the stereotypes associated with their age group.
That is not to say people don't want to interact and engage with brands, but rather that they demand a much more sophisticated approach to digital experiences. Seven out of ten say brands should demonstrate empathy by seeing things from their perspective and understanding what is important to them.
This study was about marketing, but people obviously feel the same way about the media as a whole. Whether this is about news, magazines, podcasts, newsletters, or how publishers try to engage with people on social channels ... defining that as "we are trying to reach Gen Z" is not a good focus.
But there is also a much bigger trend here, which is that people now expect to be approached as an individual.
In the past, we didn't necessarily think like this because back then we were very limited in what we could do. As a newspaper or magazine, you had to focus on some kind of mass-market audience where everywhere was defined the same way (or not at all, in many cases).
But today, people expect to be able to use media as an individual. We see this very clearly on channels like YouTube. Here people wouldn't follow someone because they're Gen-Z focused. That makes no sense. Instead, they follow someone because of the specific thing they are doing. It's not based on age. It's entirely based on interest.
This, of course, is not a new trend. This is a pattern that has been growing for the past 20 years, but it's really fascinating to get some data on where this trend is:
So, think about what this means. First of all, it means that you cannot just create one publication for everyone. You have to design individuality into what you do.
A simple example of this is the difference between NYT Food, and NYT Cooking. NYT Food (the old food section) was based on just reporting to people different recipes, and people didn't really have a choice. The editors picked what they saw. NYT Cooking is a place where you, as an individual, can define and find what you like.
It's such a simple change, but an important one.
But also think about local news, TikTok, magazines, how you report about politics. Are you seeing your audience as individuals, or are you saying that "young people do this"?
Anyway, I actually wrote an article about some of these things a couple of months ago: "How to publish news for young people (advisory analysis)".
As you probably know, Twitter is becoming a bigger and bigger mess, and Elon Musk seems to be fumbling around like a bull in a china shop. Here is a summary from his latest call with advertisers, I mean... he is just completely clueless about things.
And then this two days later:
This is obviously a problem, especially considering just how many times he has elevated bad people, and has been spreading misinformation. Focusing more on that instead of the voice of journalists is not a good future outlook. And then there is the problem of how he wants people to pay Twitter, but several publishers say that this is not something they are going to do.
So what now? Where do we go from here? Well, many people are talking about Mastodon. This is a decentralized social platform with individual servers rather than a centralized tech company, where we have already seen several journalism-focused servers being created. And, there has already been a number of high-profile people, like Stephen Fry, who closed his Twitter account (with 12.8 million followers) to start an account on Mastodon.
But while Mastodon is interesting, it also poses a number of problems, and I want to highlight some of the key issues that have a very serious impact on journalism.
The first issue is because Mastodon is a decentralized system. Instead of having one platform (like Twitter), we have thousands of individually-run Mastodon servers, each with their own focuses, rules, moderation, capabilities, staff, etc. In fact, you shouldn't really think about Mastodon as a social platform, instead, it's much more like email, but it looks like social media.
Think about how you run email. Either you have your email on some kind of server run by others (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo etc), or you have your own server. It's the same with Mastodon. You might sign up on one of the public servers (which are all overloaded because they don't have the scale needed), or, as a publisher, it might make more sense to have your own Mastodon server.
This is a really big change in the way we think about this. If something bad happens on Twitter, we blame them. But if something bad happens on Mastodon, it's up to each individual server to decide what to do.
And this is the key. What people do, where, and how is completely dependent on what server you are on.
But this also adds a lot of other risks, especially from a journalistic perspective.
The first problem is that there is currently no monetization with Mastodon, so all of these servers are run by people as a hobby, which also means that as soon as they start to get overloaded by people coming from Twitter, the cost of running it goes up by a lot.
So, you create an account on a server, but then the admin realizes that it's getting too expensive and has to shut it down, or limit it. In which case, you have to move your account to a different server, but then that server gets too expensive to run for the person behind that, and the problem continues.
This is not sustainable. Running a social network, a platform where we have thousands of individually run servers, run by people as a hobby for no money ... I mean, this is going to break apart very quickly.
To give you an example of how decentralized these Mastodon servers are, here is one that my friends joined (without knowing who the administrator was):
This server, as you can see, only has 1,200 users (super-tiny), and is administered by "Meave". So, who is Meave? Well, if we look at the admin page, we see that it is a 20-something woman from Norway running it in her spare time.
And then, if we look at this a little deeper, and look at her actual profile, we see that ... ehm... she is running an account posting pictures that ... Well, let's just say that clothing is optional.
Now, I'm sure that she is a wonderful person, and that she is keeping the server up-to-date, and not doing anything wrong with people's data. And it's like this all over. The server that many scientists have signed up to is run by a former meteorologist who has turned software developer, the Journa.host server that many journalists have signed up to is run by Adam Davidson (formerly worked for The New Yorker, NYT, NPR's Planet Money), as an experimental server. The AI server is run by... uh... a cat (at least, that's what the admin is listed as).
There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Most server admins really mean well. But I want you to realize that Mastodon servers are generally not run by companies. It's just ordinary people running a small server as a hobby, and when people sign-up, all they see is this:
The second problem is privacy... or the complete lack of it.
What you have to realize is that Mastodon has no privacy. First of all, everything you post can be seen by the people who run the server, and since, again, that is not run by a company but instead by some individual (who you likely don't know), that's an insane level of trust to put on them.
But the problem is not just about who is administering it, and what they might or could do. It's also the technical implementation. You see, every Mastodon server downloads a copy of your posts and images. They are literally transferred from one server to the next. So, if you delete something, it might still be on any of the 100s of other servers.
That's a problem. Mastodon's system tries to handle this automatically, but there is nothing stopping a rogue admin from creating a copy of the copy, and this includes all your private messages.
And speaking of private messages, this too is a massive problem.
I came across this from Mike Masnick:
This is bad enough from an individual perspective, but think about this from the perspective of journalism. Imagine that you are having a private discussion with a source, where they reveal confidential information to you. If any of you then during this discussion write @[person] in any of those messages, the person you are talking about will instantly get access to everything.
They can see what you and your source were talking about, the information provided, and ... of course ... who the source is.
This is just insane. And remember, this is on top of the server admins being able to see this regardless. So, if someone was revealed in the press, that person could just contact that admin, bribe them with some money (again, remember, all these admins have huge costs and no income), and secretly gain access to any of the posts and messages from any of your journalists.
I mean... ?!?!!?
This makes Mastodon one of the most insecure systems we have, and worse than that it creates a massive ops-sec (operation security) problem for any publisher.
Sure, you can then run your own server, as mentioned above, but this doesn't solve anything. Sure, now all your journalists are on a server administered by your own IT team, but remember, every person who follows them will cause all the posts and messages to be sent to their servers too.
Now, Mastodon said back in April that it was considering implementing end-to-end encryption (which is critically important for a distributed system), but there is no word yet on when that will actually be made (it could take years).
So, right now, remember that absolutely everything on Mastodon is unsafe. I would never discuss anything privately on their servers, I never contact sources via it, and I would not expect that deleted content is fully deleted.
On top of this, there are a ton of other problems, both technical, but also cultural. I have seen people on certain servers have an argument about whether linking is allowed, I have seen servers that want to add rules about images, and all kinds of other things.
But the biggest fight right now is that the old users of Mastodon really don't like all these people coming from Twitter. In other words, there is a cultural fight over what Mastodon is supposed to be, and the old guard not liking the way these new Twitter refugees are using it.
In short, it's a mess.
Now, as a media analyst, I have a lot of mixed emotions about all of this. I like the concept of a distributed system. It's a welcome break from the hyper-centralized platforms we have had so far. But, Mastodon is very far from being ready, and as soon as it grows, all of the problems we see everywhere else are going to cause a lot of havoc.
But, to me, the biggest problem is the money. Having people just run these servers, without income, and without a business model is just a disaster waiting to happen.
Take someone like Stephen Fry. He already has 35,000 followers ... which is more than the total user-base on many of these servers. And that's just after a single day. If he can build that up to a million followers, he alone can cause the servers to fail due to the overall load, and the massively increased cost of running things at that scale. And he is just one popular person.
So, the future of Mastodon is really sketchy. Not because it's bad, but because it's not ready, nor does it have the business model to run something like this at scale.
Mind you, none of this might matter to you. If all you want to do is to post public posts, it's fine. This is how I use it.
Speaking of things that are changing, I wrote an article about how to think about niches several months back:
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