Welcome back to another edition of the Baekdal Plus newsletter. This newsletter has been written on my new ergonomic keyboard, which is a really strange experience. Anyway, today we are going to talk about journalism.
One of the challenges we often face when doing media analysis is that, when it comes to change, we focus on the business side, but the newsroom is kind of like this protected environment where change is frowned upon.
This is fine if all we are talking about is how to transition from print to digital, how to build a subscription system, or how to set up an app. But those are extras because the real factors are not about this.
Why do people choose to subscribe to something? Well, it's because of the journalism. Why do people churn? Again, it's because of the journalism. Why do people say that they don't care about news websites, and instead just come across news by accident on Facebook or TikTok? Again, because of the journalism. Why do we have an increasing problem with news avoidance? Again, because they don't think the journalistic focus is valuable to them.
Don't get me wrong, the business side is also important, and over the past decade, we made a lot of extremely important business-side changes, but today, the new challenge is in the newsroom.
One example is this. This is a graph from the latest Reuters Institute report, and it shows how, in many countries, interest in news is dropping.
So, as uncomfortable as this might be, we need to focus on our newsroom. What stories we focus on, how we focus on them, what we define as being relevant, but also how outside elements are changing the way journalism works. For instance, if the outside elements are creating a world of abundance, trying to solve that by just doing more journalism doesn't really solve anything. Instead, all that does is to cause even more problems for us.
But how do we do this?
One way to talk about this is to start to really think about what journalism is .... And what it isn't.
In the past, journalism was defined by its profession. If you went to journalism schools, and if you worked for a newspaper, whatever you wrote was journalism. But in today's world, this definition doesn't work anymore. Instead, we need to define journalism by its output.
I have written a lengthy article about what I mean by this, with several examples of when something is or isn't journalism.
So take a look at "An ode to journalism".
Another thing that has a massive impact on the value and focus of journalism, is how attention is now undermining our value to the public. What I mean by this is that, in the past, the focus was to cover something if someone did something wrong, and this focus would shine a light on the issue, inform the public, and stop and/or shame the bad people into resigning.
This doesn't work anymore, and we have seen so many examples of this over the years. There is a recent example of this from New York which illustrates the problem very well.
I can't take credit for this. This was brought to light by Scott Hechinger in a Twitter thread he posted late last month.
In New York, the Mayor launched a political campaign against, what he claimed was a rising level of violent crime in the city, which he then ramped up after he was elected, and here is a graph of how we in the press responded to that.
As you can clearly see, the press massively increased the coverage of violent crimes, both after his initial campaign, and even more so after he was elected. We are "covering the issue".
There is just one big problem. The level of violent crime in New York has not gone up by any significant amount.
Scott also illustrated this in his thread. Here is a graph listing the level of homicide, and while that did slightly increase because of the pandemic, it's not any significant amount compared to past levels.
So what we see is a very clear disconnect between what is really happening and what we report in the press.
In fact, to make this even clearer, let's overlay these graphs (again, credit to Scott Hechinger).
Here is a graph of the actual number of shootings in New York compared to how often we reported in the press, and just look at how massive this disconnect is ... and more so how it perfectly correlates with the Mayor's political campaign.
Essentially, what is happening here is that because we are so politically focused in the press, the second the Mayor forwarded this agenda, not only did we cover what he said, but we went all in on violent crime as a theme.
This, of course, is not a new thing. We have seen this time and time again. Whether it is about crime, immigrants, climate change, or whatever other topic, we tend to write about what the politicians are focusing on, rather than just reflecting what is happening, or what needs to happen.
But what it also illustrates is that we can't solve this with more coverage. Instead, we should refuse coverage. Again, look at the graph above. More focus on violent crime as a topic was very clearly the wrong way to cover this.
This is the challenge we now face for journalism, that the solution to bad people is not more coverage, but less.
But, wait a minute, you say, we have to cover it. He is the Mayor. Are you suggesting that we should just ignore what he is saying?
Well, yes and no.
You should write:
The Mayor has launched a political campaign against violent crime, but as you can clearly see in the data, this is complete rubbish and is in no way based on reality.
This would be a true journalistic, fact-checked way to report this.
And then you should say: "In other news, here are some articles based on actual real-world issues" ... thus refusing to write any more about it. Nor should you interview someone else to get 'both sides', that just polarizes the issues, it doesn't establish facts.
In other words, we must teach the bad people that if they try to promote issues that are not based on reality, we are not going to help them by focusing on those topics, instead, we are going to starve them of any focus from the media. And you can see in the graph above how important it is that we start to do this.
To put it simply, we need to pivot to reality!
As you most likely have already heard (since it happened more than a week ago), Facebook is reducing its focus on news (again), and has started to end its news partnership with US publishers.
I wasn't planning to write about this, but I have been asked several times what this means for the future. So, let's cover this very briefly.
From a trend perspective, nothing has changed here. We have seen for a very long time that social media and news really don't work well together. I'm not talking about the tech companies, I'm talking about consumption and the public. And what the public is telling us is that they really don't like the idea of having their places of leisure and breaks to be filled up with stories that make them feel depressed.
What I mean is that exactly the same elements that drive people towards news avoidance are also what drive people away from social channels ... in fact, the effect is even stronger on those channels.
So things like politics, negativity, excessive volume, stories that have low relevance, and stories that lead to uncomfortable comments all drive people away from following the news on social channels. And, as long as people see us that way, it doesn't matter what Facebook is doing.
Facebook knows this too, which is why they have been reducing their news focus for quite a while now. In fact, Facebook is having a bit of a panic attack, where they are desperately trying to get people to engage with them. So they are trying to copy TikTok, and doing all kinds of things ... including minimizing those things that cause them problems. And, unfortunately, one of those things is news.
Mind you, I'm not trying to defend Facebook here. I'm just pointing out that all of this is entirely predictable.
And so the future strategy is the same as what I have been saying for years, being that publishers should instead focus on changing the value of the journalism they produce, and focus on getting people to connect directly.
Facebook is not a news channel. At best, it's a marketing channel, and at worst, it's mostly just a distraction from a news perspective.
But what about TikTok?, you ask. Well, here we see the same problem. TikTok is fundamentally an entertainment channel. It's a place where people go to watch something interesting, inspiring, uplifting, or just plain fun.
And so, unless we dramatically change our journalistic focus, people are not going to like watching news on TikTok either.
In fact, when we look at the data, TikTok for news is insignificant. I wrote about this in my previous newsletter. When we look at the latest data from Ofcom (UK), we see that the percentage who say they follow news on TikTok is so miniscule that it's not really relevant.
So, my advice to you is the same as always. When people use social media, they are in a very specific type of moment. We can try to tap into that by thinking about those channels as marketing channels, but they are not news distribution channels.
There are ways we can change this, but that requires a change in our journalistic focus. We need to be far more solution-based so that our videos and posts feel empowering to people.
However, I also want to remind you to be extremely mindful of the metrics. On TikTok, a view is counted the second any video starts playing, and again for every time a video loops, and if people come back later and watch the same video multiple times.
When you see a video that has 1,000,000 views, that doesn't mean it was watched by one million people, it doesn't even mean people watched the full video. It's a massively over-inflated metric (one of the worst metrics in the business).
Just be mindful of this. Measure the actual outcomes instead.
If you haven't seen them already, don't miss out on the 'known to work' series, where I talk about the things we know work for publishers.
Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).
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"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."
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