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By Thomas Baekdal - November 2021

Paywall strategies that are 'known to work'. And COP26 is over. Now the real journalism begins

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free).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

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, I have something really exciting for you. I have published the first of many articles in my new series "known to work", and another exciting thing is the next step for climate journalism (more about that below).

Known to work: Designing the paywall and journalistic focus

I'm starting a new long-term series called "known to work". The purpose of this series is to focus on elements that we know will work, based on real data, real examples, and real experiences.

As a media analyst, I spend an enormous amount of time looking at data, reports, and studies about the media industry, and while most of my focus is on future strategies and trends, at some point the data (from multiple sources) starts to show a predictable pattern and becomes a 'known'.

One example of this is with paywalls (premium, metered, and other models). A decade ago, all of this was new and nobody really understood how to do this. But today we do. We have some very clear data about how you should design a paywall, and the importance of adapting the journalistic focus to it.

In my first article in the series, I explain what we now know to work around paywalls. But this isn't the only article. In future articles, I will look at what we know to work about getting people to pay, about churn management and mitigation, pricing, customer lifetime strategies, and additional revenue models.

So, I hope you are as excited about this new series as I am. But take a look at:

COP26 is over. Now the real journalism begins

The past week was excellent from a journalistic perspective. We saw so many really good articles about COP26 and climate change in general, and it's exciting to see real progress.

We can all argue that things could have been even better, but there is no question that this is the best step forward that we have taken so far.

However, from a journalistic perspective, COP26 was not really the story. It was just the run-up to the work that now needs to be done. As I wrote on Twitter:

COP26 was the first step (well, actually the 28th step... but who's counting). Now the real work begins ... and for us in the media, now we need to expand this way outside of politics. Ask the brands what they will do. Ask the public. Find solutions, find the progress.

In other words, the real value of journalism is yet to be made. Now is the time where we demonstrate to the world the importance and the usefulness of the press ... or not.

I'm reminded of a tweet posted by Karl Mathiesen, the Senior climate correspondent from Politico Europe. He was commenting on the fact that many people say that the press is rarely focusing on climate change, and so he posted this:

I commented on this, saying:

The question isn't whether it's on the front page during COP26 (obviously it is), but if we will continue to put it on the front page once COP26 is over.

In other words. Nobody is surprised that we covered COP26 extensively. This was a big event where all the heads of state were gathered in the same place. Naturally, we, as the press, swarmed to cover this event.

But what are you going to do now? Are you just going to wait to see what the politicians will do next ... and then wait some more until we reach 2030 where you can then report whether we managed to reach the goal or not?

Or, are you going to help? Are you tracking this progress? Do you project it into the future, and keep the focus to help reach that goal within the deadline? Or even excel in pushing us to progress even faster?

Of course, any time I say things like this, people start to talk about 'bias'. "Oh no," they say. "We can't do that, because that would help the government."

But there is no bias here. We are not talking about some parti-political thing. We are talking about climate change. Either we reach the goal ... or society fails. This is not about politics. It's not about political parties. This is about the role of journalism in relation to society itself.

Think about the next generation. The people who will be your age in 2041. How will they remember us? How will they think back to what we did in the 2020s?

Will they remember us for our great journalism that really made a difference and helped push us forward to a solution to climate change? ...or will they remember us as getting in the way, not really caring, and for our both-sides journalism that fuelled climate change, obstructionism and polarization?

Or worse, will they not remember us at all? Will they think back to journalism of the 2020s and say: "Uh... I don't remember the press doing anything for us"?

In the press, we often say that journalism is vital for society, and we even go as far as to say that we should be supported and subsidized by the public. Well, that saying is now being tested. Are we important or are we just noise?

2030 is the first deadline. We have to accomplish so much before that, and we have to start right now.

So, how do we do that?

Bring the focus away from politics

One of the very persistent problems we see is that, any time we cover things from a political perspective, we undermine things. Politics is important, and it is vital that we hold the politicians to account to ensure that actions are taken. But, climate change cannot be politically driven.

I want to show a graph that illustrates why.

Below is a graph from the US comparing coal and renewable energy consumption (excluding nuclear) of the past 70 years. Notice how this graph changed in 2007. Coal dropped and is continuing to drop, while renewables have been steadily increasing.

But then think about what happened during 2017-2021. Back then, the US had a president who called climate change a hoax and implemented policies against it, including to remove the US from the Paris Climate agreement, and who supported the coal industry.

But... look at the graph. The market and public didn't care. Right? They moved away from coal and brought in renewables instead.

This graph clearly illustrates that the focus that we often hear in the press that only the politicians can change things is wrong. Climate change is not solely a political decision. The market, the manufacturers, the brands, and the public have much more power.

And this is important going forward. We, as journalists, now need to shift our focus towards these groups. If we want real change before 2030, we need to put our focus on them. What steps are the brands taking? What obstacles are they facing? What excuses do we let them get away with?

For the public it's about consumption, but it's also about how things impact people personally. Climate change often feels like something abstract and disconnected. I mean, what the heck does 1.5 degrees mean? Oh... the weather gets slightly worse, and a few places might get flooded? But most people don't even live near those places, so why care?

But this is not what climate change is. Climate change is about the hundreds of other things that negatively impact our lives ... and, worse, the many more negative things that also happen if you don't act in time.

I wrote more about this in my article: "Climate change is a news story that requires a very different type of journalism".

It's our job as journalists to connect this story to the public. We can't just talk about what this means politically. That's not where the story is.

We have to show the way

The second very important thing is that climate action will only happen if the public trusts us. So we need to step up our game. We need to show that climate change isn't just another random news story, and we need to stop doing many of the things that undermines that trust.

I want to give you two examples of this.

The first example is from YouGov. They asked the public what they thought the UK politicians were most interested in? Did they just talk about climate change because it gave them a positive image (aka just for PR), or did they do it because they actually wanted to tackle climate change?

The result was shocking ... although not surprising.

For both the Conservatives and Labour, the vast majority of the public had no trust that either party really cared. They saw this as politicians only doing things to help themselves. The only exception, and the only party that people actually trusted was the Green Party.

I'm not surprised by any of this, but this is a shockingly low level of trust.

Again, this illustrates that we cannot just cover this politically. If we report about climate as "here is what the Conservatives said, and here is Labour saying something else" ... we do not change or even fix this problem. We are part of it.

But more importantly, what does the public think about the press?

I was reminded of this last week when I saw this click-bait headline on the front page of a large newspaper:

What sentiment is this creating? What message does this send to their readers?

More specifically, imagine that YouGov did the same study, but about the press. Imagine if they went out to ask the public this:

What do you think the result would be? ... especially after seeing click-bait headlines and other traffic optimization tactics.

You see the problem? The more we use these tactics, the more we undermine our own climate journalism ... and if that happens, we will not be able to meet the deadline in 2030.

It's the same about the other aspects of climate coverage. If we go out and start to question brands about what steps they are taking, and if we start to hold brands to account when they don't ... Well, then we have to do it as well.

Sadly we have a very poor history when it comes to things like this. The standards that we claim to hold others to are almost never met within the media industry itself. And it has always been like this.

Back in the 1970s, when cigarette ads were banned, the media was fighting to keep them running alongside the tobacco lobbyists. Why? Well, because it made us money.

Just look at what we did back in the 1970s during a time when US politicians acted to stop the public from smoking.

At midnight next January 1st, all television and radio commercials for cigarettes will go off the air for good. Their removal by that time is mandatory under federal law. This ban is the principal result of the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which was passed by both houses of Congress last spring for the purpose of protecting smokers from being exposed, over public airwaves, to advertisements for a product that the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service has announced to be hazardous to health. The act is an extraordinary piece of legislation. It was passed in spite of massive pressure that had been brought to bear against it, and against the regulation of cigarette advertising generally, by the tobacco industry, the broadcasting industry, and their lobbyists and political allies. This was a combination that for years had proved itself invincible against a counterforce of scientists and public-health and public-interest advocates who, armed with formidable statistics on the damage to health and life caused by cigarette smoking, had sought to protect consumers by requiring all cigarette advertising to provide adequate warnings of these dangers.

Today, we have the same problem with climate change.

Will you continue to run ads from fossil fuel companies? Will you continue to allow car companies to run ads for petrol cars? Will you say, like we did in the 1970s, that it's okay to run these ads because "we need the money"...?

And if you do, can you really claim that your journalism is serious about climate coverage, while also claiming that "your business side is separated from your newsroom"? And would any of your readers accept that excuse?

Well, we already know the answer to this because we can see what is happening right now. I'm reminded of this tweet by a friend of mine, Ana Milicevic.

I noped [sic] out of this morning's Daily episode on how sushi spread across the world because the lead-in ad was ExxonMobil & their supposed carbon capture tech. Very Philip Morris would like to warn you about lung cancer vibes. 😬

We are going to see a lot more of this.

Of course, whenever I talk about this, people tell me "Sadly most of journalism isn't in good enough financial shape to walk away from sufficiently large ad buys."

This is true. But this was also true in the 1970s when we didn't want to give up tobacco ads, which back then provided the broadcasting industry with $217 million in ad revenue.

But it's also not a valid excuse. As an industry, we don't get to make money in a bad way just because we need it, especially not if we want to claim that journalism is important for society.

This money is gone no matter what. The only choice you have is whether you try to milk it for as long as possible, undermining your journalism and your relationship with your audience along the way.

Or, you can stop doing this type of advertising now, and show the world that journalism is more than just random news and optimizing for traffic. And some newspapers have already taken the first steps to do this, like the Guardian and a few others.

This is now the future. COP26 was not the real story. It's what happens now that matters.

Want to know more?

If you found this interesting, I have many more articles and reports about climate coverage and the press.

In a previous newsletter, I talked about how the culture of an adversarial press often undermines climate coverage simply because we turn everything into a problem ... even when people try to do something good.

And back in July, I wrote about how climate coverage requires a very different approach to journalism. It's not just another news story, and it can't be covered as such.

You can read much more about that here:

And, in last week's newsletter, I illustrated why discussing climate change is no longer the right focus. The public already knows.

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/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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