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By Thomas Baekdal - March 2021

Did newspapers in the past control all advertising, and does that even matter?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free).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.

In this edition:

When I stood up to write this newsletter (yes, I have a standing desk), my plan was to focus on the extremely important issues facing us right now.

We have the pandemic, its one year anniversary, and how many countries are now moving into a third wave, with a summary of how we covered that (and made things worse) in the press.

We have a growing problem with mental health ... not just with journalists, but equally so with our readers. In a time where people need our help more than ever, our coverage seems to be causing depression. That's not a good thing.

Then we have the whole issue around women's safety. In the UK, we heard the sad story of a woman being murdered by a male police officer on her way home one evening ... and then the police urged women to 'stay home' for their own safety. Obviously, that didn't go well. So women wanted to protest, but were told no, even though men had been gathering in the streets just weeks before, and this just gets worse and worse.

And in the media, we covered all of this (which is good), but here is a question. Are we helping? Are we changing things? Are we part of the solution?

Then we had the interview with Harry and Meghan, where the Society of Editors went out and proclaimed that the British press is not bigoted or racist, and that whole thing blew up in their face.

Then we have the problem with diversity in general, of which the media is a big part. Not only do we see a big diversity problem with old established companies, but we see it even more any time something new is being created. It's like every new media project has to start with men, and only later do people remember to also create a good platform for women.

Then we have the problem with opinion pieces. Most of the major newspapers have focused so much on opinions that it is diluting and undermining our journalism. In the past, opinion was dedicated to a few pages in the back of the printed newspaper, but today it's on the wrong pages, mixed with the front page news.

And many of these opinion pieces undermine everything I just wrote about above. And mind you, there are actually three kinds of opinions here.

All of these undermine the above problems and our journalism as a whole, and it's getting worse and worse. As a media analyst, I'm extremely worried about the trends I see in relation to opinions in newspapers.

Then we have other very big problems, like the press' focus on going after Google and Facebook. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, both in my newsletter, and also in "Facebook vs publishers: What is really going on? And why is it bad?"

There are so many things wrong with this, but one thing I'm very troubled about is how we in the press facilitate misinformation. We see this clearly in the US where there is a debate around Section 230. Section 230 is an incredible law (you can read what it does here), but the US politicians seem to be generally misinformed about what it is and what it does.

Every single day we hear about yet another politician making a statement about Section 230 that is just factually wrong. The 'lawmakers' don't seem to understand anything about the laws they are making. As a society, this is just scary.

But, wait, we've got the press. You know, the fourth estate? The fourth pillar of society? The watchdog that is supposed to stop things like this from happening? But we are not doing this. Instead, what I see is that, because so many journalists think this only applies to Google and Facebook (it doesn't), this misinformation is 'just reported', and I even see many editors and journalists who themselves have become misinformed about this.

As a media analyst, I'm really worried about these trends.

All of this links to the same questions. The questions around what is journalism? What is our responsibility as the press? What is our role in society? And what part do we have?

The world has changed a lot in the past 50 years, so we need to ask all these questions. And more importantly, we need to hold ourselves to account. If our way of reporting about the world is part of the problem, then how do we fix that?

This leads us to the next topic...

How can publishers measure trust and other editorial metrics?

Trust in news is obviously very important, and being able to measure that trust is equally vital. But, every other month or so, I keep hearing from publishers that we cannot do that, and analytics doesn't help the newsroom define editorial focus areas.

This, of course, is not true. You can measure trust, but before you do that, you first need to create the circumstances for trust to happen. This is where the real problem is. If we report both sides of a story, then the public can't trust either ... and by extension, they can't trust us.

If you have one person saying that climate change isn't real and another that it is, then when we just report that, we basically tell the public, "Don't trust us, because we can't help you. Just listen to these conflicting opinions and make up your own mind".

This is where the problem is. So, in my latest Plus article, I go into this in much more detail, to explain why we have so much trouble measuring trust to begin with, and how easy it actually is to do.

Take a look at: "How can publishers measure trust and other editorial metrics?"

Where did advertising go? And does that even matter?

So, I was asked to comment on something Benedict Evans posted recently. Benedict was commenting about how many publishers claim Google and Facebook is to blame for the demise of newspapers, and Benedict said this isn't true.

He wrote:

Far too many American journalists still believe this [that Google is the reason why local newspapers failed]. It's not true.
Yes, the Internet is the reason newspaper revenue collapsed. But around 3/4 of Google and Facebook revenue comes from small businesses that never advertised in newspapers.
The Internet destroyed a large part of the newspaper model. Meanwhile Google, and then Facebook, invented a new one selling totally different advertising to totally different advertisers. That's much more interesting than this dumb 'Google took all our money!' legend.

So, one of my readers saw this and asked me to comment. Is this true? Well, the answer is: Yes ... and no... but also yes. (It's complicated).

Let me explain.

There is a gigantic difference in the role of newspapers depending on where you live. For instance, I grew up in a small town with a population of only about 7,000 people. In this town, we had two local newspapers. One was a daily paid-for local newspaper (you had to subscribe to it), and the other was a completely free weekly newspaper, which was delivered to every single household.

I know this because I was one of the paper boys who went out with a cart to put a copy into every single mailbox on every street in my round.

Because the local community was very small, and the free newspaper got into every household, every single shop in my town, big or small, advertised in it.

It was the same for classifieds. Anyone who wanted to sell a used bicycle would put that ad into this local newspaper. The other newspaper also got some advertising, but it was much less because, being paid-for, it reached far fewer people.

So when Benedict says that these smaller businesses didn't advertise in local newspapers, for my town, this is simply not true. Everyone advertised in the local newspaper.

However, when we look at the bigger cities, we do see a very different picture. Look at a newspaper like the Chicago Tribune and the city of Chicago. How many small businesses are there in Chicago, and how many of them advertised in the Chicago Tribune?

You see the problem? So here, Benedict is right. In larger cities, many small businesses don't advertise in the local newspaper. It doesn't make any sense to do that.

Another thing that is also important to understand here is about the frequency. While in my local town, all the shops at some point did advertise in the local newspaper, they didn't do it every week. Advertising was expensive, so they basically only did it if there was a special reason to.

But this was back then, what about now?

Well, now, many local newspapers have closed (which is sad), but why?

First, let's look at classified ads. That changed because of two things. First of all, people liked the idea that they could sell to people outside the local area. Why limit yourself to only the readers of a specific newspaper if you could reach anyone across the entire country ... or even the world?

Just last week I bought something from someone, and I didn't even consider looking for it in my local newspaper because why would I limit myself to just local options?

The other factor is because of the use of pictures. The internet has allowed anyone to show pictures of what they want to sell to anyone, anywhere.

Here is an example from Etsy of many different mini-companies selling bird houses. Look at what has happened here. In the past, a local shop could only show people their products if they came to their shop, which dramatically limited their exposure and their market. And so to show their product to anyone 'outside', they needed to go through newspapers.

Today, people can do this directly.

But then think about advertising. Would any of these companies ever consider advertising in their local newspapers? No, of course, not. Why would you? Why would you limit your advertising to only people reading a specific newspaper on a specific day within your local area, when you can just reach anyone directly?

It's the same for bigger shops. During this pandemic, many local shops have been seriously struggling, and their only source of income during the many lockdowns has been whatever they could sell online.

So, for instance, if I visit the website of my local garden center, I now see this. Like everyone else, it has massively focused on online sales.

So here is my question. Now that it is doing this, does it still make sense for them to advertise in the local newspaper and be limited to only people in the area around their physical shop? Or would it make much more sense to advertise on another platform and be able to sell to anyone in the entire country?

The answer is obvious. If you want to maximize your sales, you would shift advertising spending to a place where you can reach more people. As a local newspaper, you just don't have the 'features' that online shops need.

And this is the problem. But it isn't about Google or Facebook. Sure they are big platforms and they command a lot of this market. And if you are another online platform, you might object to their dominance (as many do). But for local newspapers, they were not the ones who took your market, the world did.

As soon as local shops moved online, they needed a different feature set. In the past, being geographically local was a feature, but today, it's a disadvantage.

I illustrated this back in 2013 (I think). In the old world, we defined 'being local' like this.

But in the digital world, we define it like this:

This is why advertising is moving away from local news. And until we accept this and start to change the way we define local media, this will continue to happen.

Because again, this is not about Google. This is about local shops having different needs. And the only way to stop this from happening is to tell all the local shops to not try to sell outside the area of your newspaper.

If the very existence of your local newspaper relies on having local shops only advertise within the limitations of your newspapers, you are not going to have a good time in the future.

It's time to move on from this discussion. It's time to build.

(The lack of) diversity in independent publishing

Finally, just a quick heads up. There is a free webinar later this week about diversity in independent media. This is organized by Marcela Kunova over at

This is a continuation from the focus we had in January. As you probably remember, in January, we did a big focus on diversity in media, where I interviewed Isabelle and Penny here on this site (I have a summary here).

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.


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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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