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By Thomas Baekdal - March 2020

Audience engagement, and a whole lot of things related to COVID-19 for publishers

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

We live in crazy times. Everything is shut down, people are afraid and are panic-buying, and small businesses with non-essential goods suddenly have no customers.

On top of that, most of us know someone who is either ill or has been in contact with someone who is a known COVID-case, and everyone is told to stay at home, many people are going stir-crazy, but as a friend of mine posted on Facebook:

Your grand-parents were called to war. You're called to sit on your couch. You can do this!

In this (quite long) newsletter, I have a whole bunch of things related to COVID-19 and publishers to talk about. And I also just published my latest Plus report.

So here are the topics for today:

How important is audience engagement for publishers?

I just published a Plus report where I talk about the importance of audience engagement. This article is specific to COVID-19, but it's an important topic that many publishers often don't prioritize the way they should.

So, in my latest Plus report, I talk about why this is so important, but also how to actually listen and engage with people and how to measure whether you are having an impact.

And this is even more important right now when we are all covering COVID-19. So take a look at "How important is audience engagement for publishers?"

The crazy thing about COVID-19 data

One of the first things you learn as an analyst is that you will never have accurate data to work with, and covering COVID-19 is no exception.

Let me give you an example.

One dashboard that many people are looking at is the COVID-19 dashboard from Johns Hopkins University.

It's not a bad dashboard, but it's also not very accurate. What you may not know is that there is a Github page that tracks all the errors they are currently dealing with, and, at the time I'm writing this, there are 442 open issues, many of which involve wrong data, duplicated data and other problems massively skewing the numbers.

So, how big a difference does this make? Well, let me give you an example. Let's look just at the USA, and compare the data we have from three separate sources (as of March 18 when I'm writing this).

First, we look at the dashboard from Johns Hopkins University. It reports that, in the US, there are 6,496 cases, 114 deaths, and 17 recovered.

Meanwhile, if we look at the official WHO dashboard, it reports that there are 3,536 cases, 58 deaths, and no info on recoveries. The main reason for this seems to be that the US government hasn't supplied any data to the WHO for days. (Update: They resubmitted data to WHO on March 19).

Then we also have the New York Times COVID-19 database, a project they set up to try to track the data independently, since the official data was so inaccurate. They report that there are 5,881 cases, 107 deaths, and again, no info on recoveries.

So the data is all over the place.

On top of all this, none of this data is accurate because they are not even testing people, so we pretty much don't know how bad things really are. This, of course, is not unique to the US. We hear the same stories from all over the world.

So, how do we deal with this? How do we analyze this?

Well, first of all, we need to shift our focus to the data that we do have. While the total number of cases is all over the place, we have a pretty accurate view of how many have been hospitalized (especially in countries where the healthcare system is fully connected and digital), so use that as a guide.

But more importantly, look at the patterns instead of the numbers. If you look at Johns Hopkins, WHO and NYT, they all report wildly different numbers, but the pattern (the graph) is the same for all.

Again, this is not a new thing. If you are a publisher and you measure your traffic using Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics and Comscore, what you will notice is that each service disagrees on how many visitors and views you have, often massively so.

There are many reasons why that is, which I won't go into here, but the way you deal with that is that you look at the patterns instead. If you see a 10% increase in traffic, you will likely see this across all of them, even though the specific numbers might not be the same.

Facebook and YouTube are having problems moderating COVID-19

Speaking of problems, you might have heard that several of the social channels are having problems moderating COVID-19 posts and many people, including publishers, have had their posts flagged and taken down for 'violating community standards'.

This is obviously not a good thing, especially if it's very important information from a publisher.

All of the social channels are currently scrambling to deal with this situation, not just to help people get the best information possible, but also to block all the bad actors who are trying to scam people. But it has also introduced some problems.

For instance, on Facebook, some of the changes introduced to block COVID-19 scams had a bug in the code that resulted in an increase in false-positives.

But that's not the only problem. Both Facebook and YouTube have sent most of their moderators home, just like most other companies, but because of privacy reasons, these moderators cannot work from home.

This means that they are now relying much more on just the algorithms to 'do their thing', and so the error rates are now higher than before.

In other words, we are going to see more examples of people and publishers getting their posts blocked for the wrong reasons.

But remember, they are working hard to fix this, but they are also in the same situation as the rest of us. They need more resources to get this done, but many of their people have been sent home. Do the math.

Also, I see many people use this to claim "this shows that the algorithms don't work".

No, it doesn't show that at all. The algorithms do work most of the time, but what to block is constantly evolving and COVID-19 is a very new thing the algorithms are still learning how to deal with.

Should publishers make COVID-19 articles free?

I also want to address a question that many people have been asking (or demanding), which is "should newspapers make their COVID-19 coverage free?"

My position about this is very clear. No. They shouldn't. In fact, people should support the news now more than ever. Every newspaper is doing so much work to keep people informed at this very critical time, and every single person in the world is being helped by our reporting. We should not demand that this should be free. We should instead say: "Thank you so much for all the hard work you do. Here, have some money!"

But let me talk about this in slightly more detail.

We have seen a lot of cases where media companies have made their journalism free because of COVID-19. The New York Times is doing it, as are many others, and companies like Condé Nast have decided to go digital only and then give away their magazines completely for free (in some countries). They even guaranteed the local newsstands that they will keep supporting them financially at the same level as previous months.

And there are many good arguments for why we might want to provide the news for free.

One argument is just that we should do it as good citizens wanting to help others. In other words, we should do it as an act of charity to the public. Now, that's certainly a good gesture, but why should those who have the least give the most?

I'm reminded of a story from Whole Foods in the US, a company owned by Amazon. Here several of their workers are home, sick, and so the CEO suggested that "employees who are not sick could donate their vacation time to employees who are sick."

Obviously, this caused quite an uproar, because why should the workers who have the least give up their vacation time just so that the company didn't have to pay sick pay? ... And for a company owned by the richest man on Earth? And what happens when those workers also get sick?

It's disgusting that a CEO would even suggest something like that in a time like this. But this is what people are now also doing for the press.

Most newspapers don't have a lot of money. In fact, most are still struggling just to survive. Why should we give our time away for free? It doesn't make any sense.

The second argument is that our readers might not be able to pay. For instance, with many countries now in lockdown, a lot of businesses are struggling and many are facing layoffs. Most countries are trying to mitigate this with emergency packages to help keep companies afloat, but just here in my country, about 1/3 of the population expects that their financial situation will take a hit.

So, as media companies, there is an argument to be made that it's better to support those people than to just leave them behind. I, for instance, have done this here on this site for many years. Every time someone has told me that they had to cancel their subscription because they had lost their job or had other financial problems, I have instead given them a Plus subscription completely free. And then maybe a year later, when their financial situation improved, they started paying again.

Newspapers might want to consider doing something similar. You might tell people that:

If you have lost your job or seen a dramatic decrease in income because of COVID-19, click this button and you will get completely free access to our newspaper for the next 6 months!

No questions asked.

Of course, as a newspaper, you might then also set up a donation system to encourage those who do have the means to help to do so. You might put a message on the top of each article where you write:

There are currently 2,673 people who have been impacted by COVID-19 financially, and therefore are getting the news completely free. We did this to help the best we can. But remember, as newspapers, we are also struggling to survive, so if you have the ability to help, please donate to cover those subscriptions.

Status: 2,673 people impacted, current donations help 481 of them.

I think this is a much better way of doing this than to just give away all the news for free. We, as publishers, need as much help as anyone else.

The third argument, which is also a very good one, is that COVID-19 news is 'public' to begin with, so shouldn't that be free regardless?

Think about it like this. If the government makes an announcement about new things it's doing to stop COVID-19, and we then take that information, put it on our sites, and ask people to pay to read it ... that seems incredibly greedy.

We are taking information that isn't ours, that we didn't create, and monetizing it for ourselves. If anyone else tried to do that, we would call that freebooting.

Back in the old days, in the 1960s, this system made sense. Back then the government had no way of communicating directly with people, and there was a much higher cost involved in printing and delivering the news to people's doors. But today, people can just get the information directly if they want to (and many do).

There is a very good argument to be made that newspapers should only monetize the news that they create and that is unique to them, but they should stop charging for news that everyone else is also covering because it came from somewhere else.

And this, of course, is not unique to COVID-19 coverage. This is a general question about what role newspapers have, and how we fit into a world that is already connected.

So, there are a lot of ways where we might want to consider changing the way we think about this. However, don't forget what I said earlier. We need to change the culture we currently see around news.

In the world today, we see that the public are showing a tremendous level of gratitude towards people who help keep our society going. In Spain, the public has expressed their gratitude towards doctors and nurses, by clapping every night at 8 PM. We see how people are sending thank you notes to the grocery store workers and delivery drivers. How garbage collection people are being praised on social media and the list goes on ... except for journalists.

For journalists, we are seeing that people demand that we work for free and they get angry at us for asking for money to do our work to keep people informed.

This culture is scary, and it shows how much we have lost as an industry.

We need to change this. And I don't think the way we can do that is to give our work away for free, because that only enforces people's bias that we shouldn't be supported.

When people demand that what we do should be free, that is a symptom of a larger problem that we need to fix.

How will COVID-19 impact publishers' revenue?

Speaking of revenue, I have been asked a number of times how I think COVID-19 will affect publishers.

I'm working on another article about this, but to summarize, three things are happening:

Subscriptions: Any publisher who has been focusing on subscriptions over the past year is much better off. Not only is it a far more stable form of income, it's much less susceptible to changes in the market, and people also need news now more than ever.

We are likely still going to see some drop in subscriptions due to people just generally having less money, but as I wrote on Twitter the other day, I'm much less worried about this than I was during the last financial crisis.

Advertising: Obviously, advertising is going to take a massive hit, and this is especially the case for local newspapers who are relying on local shops ... many who are now closed.

The estimates we hear right now are pretty brutal.

Just take some of the media companies near where I live. Here in Denmark, a publisher of several local newspapers expects a $15 million loss because of COVID-19, and in Sweden, they are expecting a $200-$400 million loss due to loss in advertising. At the same time, we hear that journalists being fired all over the place ... and yeah, it's pretty bleak.

I wish there were something I could do or say to fix this, but there isn't. As long as local shops and all non-essential businesses are closed, there is just no money flowing our way. This is bad for us, but it's just as bad for the shops.

Also, you can't fix this by telling brands to advertise locally. Their shops are closed, and for the brands who are still running (like webshops), what we offer doesn't match their audience.

The future: However, when we look at the trend overall, I'm not worried at all. Yes, right now, things are pretty terrible. And yes, right now, this situation might lead to newspapers closing.

I hate that this is happening, but from the trend perspective, it's a short-term bump on the road.

I wrote a longer Twitter thread about this recently, where I compared what is happening now to what happened during the last financial crisis. So take a look at that.

Whatever will we do now?

Another question I have noticed many publishers ask is, what will we publish now when everything is closed down? This is particularly something I have heard from the magazine industry.

I honestly don't understand this question. There are so many things you could be doing right now. In fact, when one person asked this on Twitter, I replied: "YouTubers could tell you this for days!"

My point being that YouTubers don't have a problem thinking about new ways to help people, even if their regular focus no longer works that well.

Let me give you an example.

Take a look at a person like Maddie Moate. She is a TV presenter and YouTuber from the UK. Among other things, she is the host of the children's series: "CBeebies - Maddie's Do You Know?", and the winner Best Presenter BAFTA at the Children's BAFTAs 201

So she asked:

How would your families and little one's feel about me and @GregFoot starting a daily live show Monday-Friday? Lots of fun, educational content with a focus on FUSS FREE activities you can get involved with from home?

And the response was overwhelmingly positive. Because, in the UK, all the schools and nurseries have closed down. So, in the coming week, parents now need something like this more than ever.

It's absolutely brilliant! She is basically offering to babysit your kids every day for a period of time.

Here is a link to her show.

And this is how you should think as a publisher. Right now is your time to shine. People need us more than ever, so listen to what people are saying and solve those issues for them.

Finally, I will end this on a very positive note:

I came across a tweet the other day from Bloomberg's, Jonathan Ferro, where he said this:

China getting back to work. FedEx says demand rebounded more than expected, 65-70% of small business operating again, and 90-95% of large manufacturers operating.

We will get through this!

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


The Baekdal/Basic Newsletter is the best way to be notified about the latest media reports, but it also comes with extra insights.

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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