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By Thomas Baekdal - June 2022

How to build a propensity model, and let's talk about news avoidance

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today I have three very important stories for you. We need to talk about the latest data about news avoidance, and why it happens. And we need to talk about the problem that randomness creates in lowering the quality of news.

But, before we get to that, let's talk about propensity models.


Creating a propensity model for publishers

One of the big things that large publishers have seen some incredible results with is to build propensity models. This is a model that you build to segment your audience so that you can show each group different things in order to change the way they act.

The goal being to get them to subscribe more, engage more, get your newsletter or podcast, or ... just as important ... to not churn.

But building a propensity model is not just for big publishers with huge data teams and tons of data, it's also a vital focus area for medium-sized and smaller publishers as it helps you understand the audience so much better.

In my latest Plus report, I write about what a propensity model is and how to build it. What should you consider when building such a model? And how do you organize the data?

So take a look at: Creating a propensity model for publishers.


News avoidance ... is growing

One of the most important studies in the media world is the annual Digital News Report from Reuters Institute. And, the latest issue (2022) was published last week.

Like always, there are good things and bad things. But one thing that really stood out was that we had a big crisis on our hands in the media industry.

If you think about our industry, we have been through a lot over the past two decades. We have had an attention crisis, a financial crisis, a format crisis, and a relevance crisis.

Each of these had a negative impact on the industry, but we have worked to fix them. The best newspapers today have fixed the attention problem, their subscriptions are growing, they're profitable, they are no longer stuck with print ... and, well... we still have a relevance problem.

Obviously, not all publishers are at this point. There are still publishers who are 20 years behind the rest, and just last week, I saw the editor of a big newspaper say that "print helps us extend the runway to our digital transformation", as if we were still living in 2010 again.

But for all of these factors, we generally know how to fix them.

The crisis we are facing today, however, is a different one. It's a noise and abundance problem, and it shows itself very clearly in the form of news fatigue and avoidance.

For regular readers of Baekdal Plus, you will know this is not a new topic. I have talked about this problem for years, I even did a much discussed experiment back in 2019. The problem, however, is that we are currently making it worse. And it's getting to a point where it's fundamentally undermining the value of news.

We see this in the latest Digital News 2022 report. For instance, we very clearly see that this is a growing problem across all ages (just as we predicted it would be). And, it's particularly strong among the younger generations. Basically, we are losing the future generations of news subscribers.

This is a really scary graph to look at.

And when we start to ask why, the reason is exactly what we have now heard for five years. Fundamentally, it's about emotions and volume.

And we see this, not just in the study from the Reuters Institute but, across every study that looks at this problem. The numbers are slightly different, but the factors are not.

You also see this every time people talk about it. In a tweet from @GingerGorman, they asked: "[As a woman] when you avoid consuming the news, what's your reason for that?"

And the replies are telling:

Rachel: Emotional exhaustion, usually related to what's going on in my personal life. I can't consume upsetting news when I'm already a full bottle.
Zoe: Protecting my kid. The news is where all his violence exposure comes from. [...] the little dude was exposed to more violence & horror in that 20 minutes than he'd usually see in a month.
Hels: News regarding climate change, war, and the costs of living all give me anxiety as I consider how it will impact my child. I find I often have weeks away from the news in order to remain positive and not overwhelmed.
Patricia: Mental well-being
Anthea: Way too sensational and depressing. I have heaps of real life conversations with my kids but I don't want to do it through the lens of the news.
Katharine: It stresses me out when it's terrible & there's nothing I can do about it. I've been deliberately avoiding political news since 2018.
Amy: Protecting my mental health - often at the suggestion of my kids. My 21yo daughter asks 'mum, is this good for your brain?' Usually, the answer is no.
Liz: I don't generally avoid all news, but will often switch off specific stories eg a politician who I know is going to say something horrible or be very "on message"; anything with distressing detail about kids or animals; reporting on hate speech or similar

And the list goes on and on. But you can see that there is an overwhelming theme here. People are avoiding news because the way we report about things is directly damaging to their mental health.

This is really bad because it massively undermines our society. If the public are brought to the point of mental collapse, we become a hated element of society, rather than an informative one.

In other words, we have a huge crisis on our hands. And it's a much bigger crisis than the financial crisis. The financial crisis was bad because it impacted our profitability, and it forced us to update our revenue models. But this crisis is worse because it's a newsroom crisis. It's about our journalism.

And we can see why this is when comparing the survey results from Reuters Institute.

Reuters Institute found that:

43% say that there is too much politics: And they are right. In the press, we have a very unhealthy obsession with politics, where every single thing is reported through that lens. And even when a story isn't actually politics at all, we still interview politicians to get their reaction to it.

36% says it has a negative effect on mood: This too is very clearly seen in the focus of the news. News today has become far more negative, far more antagonistic, and far more confrontational in its form. When you see news today, you don't feel that you are getting informed, instead, it feels like you are watching a fight.

And, in the press, we are encouraging this fight.

29% are worn out by the news: This again, is a very clear trend. People today are being absolutely bombarded with news. We see news on every single channel, and it's like there is no escape from it anymore. And we see the effect of that too. On Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, people really don't want those channels to have news. There is a good article about this over at NiemanLab.

But it's not just on other channels that this is a problem. It's also on our channels. We have created newsletters and podcasts, to massively increase daily exposure. We use notifications to constantly interrupt with random and disturbing news. And, today, most news articles are atomized into tiny bits.

In print, you might have one good story about a topic, but online, you get 20 of them throughout the day, and the next day, and the next day after that.

The volume of news is just out of control. It is not aligned with what people can actually use it for. The result is a news experience that feels exhausting.

29% say that news is untrustworthy and biased: This is slightly trickier because there are several reasons why this is happening. There are external and internal factors. I'm not going to talk about the external factors, but let's talk about what we can do ourselves.

The problem with trust and bias is that we are not clear in our reporting, and we mix our journalism with so many conflicting opinions that the public has no way of telling what is true.

We see this so many times. Opinion based articles have gained an insane level of prominence in newspapers. In the old days of print, opinion was a section in the back of the newspaper. But today, it's on the front page, mixed into everything else.

But it's not just the editorials that are a problem. It's also the news itself. We have created a culture where every story is based on opinions. We ask people to comment on 'what they think', rather than focusing on informing the public about what is true.

But worst of all, we often report about things in such a way that people can't tell what is true. We don't give people the information they need to distinguish between what is a fact or not. We just have conflicting information.

17% say it leads to arguments I'd rather avoid: This is another worrying number. Now, 17% might seem low, but remember, this is the average across all countries. It's far worse in some countries than in others. But when they talk about not wanting an argument, what they are really saying is that they don't like the polarization that has happened.

This again, reflects on the way we cover the news. Are we fueling the atomization, creating more conflict and more arguments, or are we helping to alleviate it?

And finally, 16% say there is nothing I can do with the information. This is all about relevance and usefulness. This is a terrible metric because if people don't feel that they can do anything with the information we bring, they are not going to subscribe. And remember, while only 16% say that they avoid the news because of this, the actual number of people who feel this way is much higher.

I have seen internal studies from publishers where the number of people saying that the news was "useful to them" is in the single digit percentage. It's scary how low our relevance levels are.

But, the problem with all of this is that this is what we have optimized for in the industry. Over the past decade, we have optimized for more volume, more opinion, more politics, more outrage ... but we now clearly see that while this focus has helped give more traffic, it's undermining our role in society.

Again, look at this graph, and think about where we are going to be in five years if we don't actively start to change this.

As I mentioned before, we have faced many crises in the media industry over the years. Just think about the financial crisis, and how much that impacted us. Well, if I look at the trends, this (relevance/news avoidance) is the next big crisis.


Random news leads to low quality reporting

One of the problems I come across many times is that journalists often don't really know what they are writing about, leading to low quality news and basic mistakes.

I want to give you a simple example of this, and talk about why I think it's happening in the first place. Because it illustrates a general problem with the way we think about news.

So, on June 17, I came across this headline (Google translated) in one of the large newspapers in my country.



As you can see, it talks about the growing level of infections from the new BA.5 which is spreading across Europe, and it tells the public that it 'may' also happen here in Denmark.

The problem, however, is that it isalready happening. Here are the graphs for Germany and Denmark. As you can see, Germany has had an 83% increase in cases, whereas Denmark has had a 99% increase.

So, as a media analyst, I start to think about how things like this happen. How did it happen that the very premise for this story was wrong?

I mean... What the heck?

I can't answer why the expert didn't know, but I have a pretty good idea about why we in the press made this mistake.

It's all about randomness.

You see, the problem is that this journalist, like so many others, doesn't have a focus area. If I look up what other articles this journalist wrote recently, this is the result:

It's random. It's everything from foreign reports, political scandals, maternity leave and then some football. And with this random focus, you can't really expect this journalist to be knowledgeable about any of the topics.

In other words, this person's job is just "find some news to write about".

And this is what I think happened. This journalist came to work, and started looking through other newspapers in Germany and the UK to see what was new since yesterday. And here they came across the story that, in Germany, the numbers have nearly doubled.

So, the journalist very quickly put together an email to one of their regular experts, asking: "There are reports that Germany has nearly doubled their infection levels, could that also happen here in Denmark?" ... and the expert replied: "Yes, that could happen here as well."

And so, the story was written, and the journalist moved on to the next random story.

Mind you, this is not a critique of this particular journalist, or of journalists in general. I'm sure this is a brilliant person. The problem is the way we structure our work.

Think about this in terms of any other profession. Imagine, for instance, that you have a garden project, and you have two different people that you can hire to help you.

The first person is a handyman, who isn't that knowledgeable about gardens, but can do the work, you know, lift the shovel, mow the lawn, and cut the hedges.

The second person is a gardening expert. This person actually has deep expertise about plants, and what conditions they thrive in. This person knows about plants that fit together, what trees would work well, and how to organize the whole thing so that it looks amazing.

Which of these two would you hire?

What we are doing in journalism is basically focusing our work on just being the handyman.

But also, think about this from a reader perspective. What do the readers expect from us? Do they expect us to be knowledgeable about the topic we cover? Do they see newspapers as a place to get reliable and trustworthy information?

Well sadly, today, most of the public do not think newspapers are a trusted source of knowledge. We see this, for instance, in this study from the Reuters Institute. Here the public overwhelmingly say that newspapers should not try to provide guidance.

They are saying this partly because they worry about newspapers being biased, and partly because they don't trust us to actually know about the stuff we write about.

Think about how bad this really is.

Again, let's compare the gardening example above. Imagine if you had hired a gardener to fix your garden, but you also said: "I don't want you to give me any kind of gardening advice, or in any other way try to tell me how to do things better. I just want you to come in and do the work."

This is what we are doing with journalism. We have created a situation where the public basically says, "Just give us the news, but don't try to do anything about it. Just give me the articles, and then get out of the way."

Think about how insane this really is. We have created an industry where the public don't trust us to use our expertise and know-how. In other words, the public is merely seeing us as random handymen, who can mow our lawns, but would never be someone we ask for advice.

And I think a big reason (but not the only factor) is because of how the newsroom works. Like in the example above, we just report random news without having any kind of specific knowledge about the topics we cover. In other words, we act like handymen ... as opposed to something better.

As a media analyst, I think this is an area of focus that we seriously need to do something about. Having an industry where basic mistakes happen because we don't have the insights (like in the example above), and where a huge majority of the public is saying that they don't want our expertise is not a healthy marketplace.

It affects so many things. It affects how people consume news, how they think about journalism, it impacts trust (or lack of trust), loyalty, and ... subscription rates. As long as this is how people see the news, fewer people are going to want to pay for it, and those who do will want to pay less for it.


Want to know more?

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.


Support this focus

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).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. 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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