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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2020

More about independent journalism, revenue models, and professionalism

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free).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

As you may know, I'm currently focusing on the trend of individual journalism, and how we are seeing many journalists starting their own thing.

Last week, I wrote, "What business model should independent journalists and creators use?", which I also talked much more about in my last newsletter. In this edition, we will talk about why it's important for journalists not to disconnect themselves from the news, but to bring their expertise into each story. I will also talk about how the future of media is hybrid:

What does it mean to be a professional journalist?

One thing that has come up repeatedly over the past several years is what role journalists should have in society. And this is especially relevant today where we see this trend of individual journalists starting their own thing (like a paid-for newsletter).

In my last newsletter, I talked about this new trend at length, but we need to define how to be a professional at something, as this is a vital part of building a new journalistic product.

So, here is my question. What defines a professional? Well, usually we can define this in three ways.

The first way is to define it as a product of a person's education. For instance, someone who is a qualified doctor, engineer, lawyer or someone who has gone to journalism school might be considered a professional.

The second way to look at it is to think about their place of work. For instance, a professional race driver is different from an amateur race driver. Why? Well, because the professional race driver works for a full-time racing team, whereas the amateur is just someone who is doing it as a hobby.

Hmm... okay.

But think about this from the perspective of the public. How does the public define a professional?

Think about it like this. Imagine that you need to build an extension to your home, and so you call up a professional builder to help you. The reason you do this is because you want to access their skills (which amateurs don't have).

First, you hire a professional builder to help guide you. You hire them for their expertise, their know-how, their understanding of how to build things, which materials to use, requirements, and more.

Secondly, you hire a professional builder for the quality of their work. Because they are a professional, you expect the work to be of a higher standard, to be more efficient, to have no flaws, and overall to be at a much greater quality.

This is how the public defines professionalism. It's much less about whether you have the right education or if you work for a certain company. It's about how well you can guide people and the quality of the work you actually do.

So, here is my question: What does it mean to be a professional journalist?

You see the problem is that, in journalism, we often only focus on the first two, but as a culture, we discard the third. So, we claim to be professionals because we have the right education (well, some of you have, I never went to journalism school), and you call yourself a journalist because you work for a traditional media company.

But what about the third one?

Let me give you two examples. In my recent article about the mistakes we make when we cover polls, I gave the example of the Independent and how they covered Brexit.

On the day before the Brexit referendum, they wrote this:

The Leave campaign has taken the lead by a single percentage point in the final poll by the Opinium firm to be released before the EU referendum.
Opinium, which was the most accurate pollster at the 2015 general election, said the race was "too close to call" on account of the survey.

And then on the very next day, on election day, they posted this:

The final polls ahead of Britain's historic referendum decision have pointed to a Remain victory.
An online Populus poll, the last conducted before voting began, gave Remain a 10-point lead, 55 to 45, its strongest performance in days.
Election forecasting experts said that for Leave to win now, it would represent an even bigger polling error than was seen ahead of 2015 or 1992 General Elections.

You see the problem here? Here we have two news stories, but instead of using any of the expertise, insights, and knowledge about how the polls have varied over the past six months, the journalist 'just reported' whatever it was they saw that day.

They forgot to be professional. In fact, as a culture, they disconnected themselves from the news in such a way that professional insight was never included in the journalistic approach. In other words, in their focus on 'not getting involved in the story', they become amateurs.

This style of journalism is of such a low quality that it could be done by any random person in the street. If you had stopped some random person, and just showed them these polls and asked "What do you think this means", they would have said the same thing as this newspaper.

And we see this so many times.

Take the COVID-19 coverage. Almost all newspapers have covered this extensively for the past six months. They have covered it from a health perspective, political perspective, local business perspective, and from the public's perspective.

As such, journalists should now be the foremost experts in COVID-19. You should have a deep knowledge of the patterns, how it works, the cause and effect, and the shortcomings. Right?

I mean, who else has more knowledge and experience than journalists? The virologists obviously know more about viruses in general, but they don't have the much wider insight that we have in the media.

So what do we do in the media? Yep... we use none of this.

Here is an example. Over the past six months, the number of infected people has varied from day to day, and often depending on the day of the week, the number would drop only to go back up a few days later. This is a known thing that has happened since the very start.

And yet, in September, I still saw newspapers write things like this after seeing a drop for just one day:

Another newspaper wrote this:

You may argue that this is technically true since the numbers did go down compared to the day before. But it's misleading to report the data this way because, as a journalist, we know that the data fluctuates every day.

This is just like the polls above. We are so focused on what has just happened that we completely forgot to think.

We are behaving like amateurs!

As a media analyst, I don't understand this. How can someone who has spent the past six months covering a story still have no idea about how the data fluctuates?

Why would you do this?

More than that, I know of no other profession where people would behave this way. A doctor learns from his experience, a race driver gets better after every race, engineers know more after every job, and teachers understand their students better, and have learned how to teach them better.

But in journalism, I see newspapers publish stories, week after week, as if you have no knowledge at all about any of the things you write about. And these are just two examples.

In journalism, we have created a culture that makes us look like amateurs. We are doing it because we want to 'separate ourselves from the story' and 'remain a neutral party'. But this is just stupid.

So I ask you again. What does it mean to be a professional journalist? And more importantly, what does the public expect from one?

This question is now more important than ever. The big newspapers can get away with this because they have so much scale that these mistakes are drowned out by the sheer volume of articles they publish every day.

But the trend we see today is that more and more individual journalists are building their own thing.

Imagine that you are a single journalist, and you have the idea to start a new paid-for newsletter.

So, in the first edition of the newsletter, you tell the public that "the polls are showing that Party A is in the lead, so this means they are likely to win!" ... but the very next day, in your second edition of your newsletter, you write: "The polls today say that Party B will win, and with a sizable lead."

If you did this, absolutely nobody would subscribe to you. Because, why would they? Why would you subscribe to a newsletter where the journalist seemingly has no idea what they are writing about? Where is the value in that?

So, my advice to you is to change this culture. Being a professional journalist means doing more than just reporting whatever the news is right now. It's about using your experience, your insights, and expertise to bring people news that is more reliable, more consistent, and more knowledgeable.

It's about showing your readers that you truly understand the topics you cover, and all the nuances involved, and you use that to give people information that they can trust.

Mind you, don't confuse this with bias or opinion. Those have nothing to do with this. In fact, it's the amateurs who are biased and are merely expressing their personal opinions because they have nothing else to offer.

But, you ... you are a professional journalist. So bring that with you when you cover things. This will be vital for your future success.

Linus Tech Tips revenue model

Speaking of success, Linus Tech Tips, one of the largest and most successful tech channels on YouTube recently posted a video illustrating their revenue sources.

Linus Media Group was started by Linus Sebastian back in 2007, and since then, it has grown to become a massive media business.

They now operate several channels, each with quite a staggering amount of views.

This in itself is pretty impressive. But what is more impressive is how diverse their revenue stream is. Here is the breakdown for 2020:

As you can see, even though their business is to create videos for YouTube, YouTube advertising only makes up 26% of their revenue. Meanwhile, affiliate revenue makes an even smaller share, at just 11% (combined), whereas merchandise makes up 15%.

But the two big revenue sources are direct sponsorships, making up 41% of the total.

What's also interesting is how the YouTube revenue is now more than just advertising. Sure, advertising makes a huge share of the total, but YouTube Premium and YouTube transactions (like when people pay the channel directly) are both growing.

His full video goes into this in much greater detail, but this is something we can learn from, regardless of whether you are a traditional publisher or a journalist wanting to start your own thing.

Diversifying your revenue stream is really important, although it's not always easy. But also remember, Linus Media Group is 13 years old, and a key reason they can do this is because they built up their 'brand' momentum over all these years.

Nobody can do this from day one, but don't focus on just one revenue source.

(BTW: This is also why I'm not a fan of Substack. They are locking you into a single revenue model, but I wrote more about that in my last newsletter.)

The future is hybrid

Finally, in my discussions about independent journalism over the recent months, I even talked about how I am not worried about the news deserts (places where the only remaining local newspaper is closing) because independent journalists are taking its place.

But it is important to remember that the future is not going to be one thing or the other. Instead, the media market is being split into several new markets, each is defined by how interested people are in specific topics of news.

We have the market for general mass-market interest news, where we see big national newspapers like the New York Times and many others, almost all of which are now seeing booming subscription levels.

Secondly, we have what we might call the automated news market, where for example, robot journalists automatically cover every single instance of something. This is happening in Sweden, where robots are now covering every instance of real estate deals.

Thirdly, we have trade publishing, where niche publications are doing really well covering very specific businesses.

Fourthly, we have independent journalists, creating highly specific community based news.

And finally, we have the enthusiast publishers, who will tell you the news about something ultra specific that you might care about.

What's important is that all of these are currently booming. Sure, advertising is not doing so well, but apart from that, all of these markets are doing better and better.

What is not working are all the publishers who don't fit into any of these categories. But think about what is happening here. We are seeing a new hybrid market where people will pay for whatever they are interested in, and what they pay for is defined by how specific that interest is.

So, ask yourself, which one of these five categories are you in? ...and if you can't answer that, ask yourself what would you need to change to be able to do so.

Defining your focus this way will also define your future.

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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