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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2021

Publisher standards. Tons of studies. And let's define your competitors

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free).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. I don't have a Plus article for you this week, but I do have two other things (well three).

  1. Let's talk about how publishers should be thinking about their competitors.
  2. Let's talk about the standard of the press.
  3. A huge list of media studies.

Who are your competitors?

In the traditional media industry, there has always been a huge focus on competitors. What are they doing? What are the best practices? Etc. And publishers ask me if I can tell them what their competitors are doing.

Mind you, I do not provide competitor analysis to publishers. There are multiple reasons why this is, but mainly it's because it would be a breach of confidence. When I do strategy reviews for publishers, I'm often granted data about how they are performing, their audience studies, and future plans. Some publishers have even granted me access to their internal analytics and dashboards as part of my analysis (for the duration of the project).

Obviously, information like this is highly confidential and, as such, I am bound by non-disclosure agreements and contracts. And this is important. I would not be able to do this work without this level of confidentiality.

So, if a publisher asks me to do a competitor analysis, my answer is always: "Sorry, I cannot tell you that." (And I say this regardless if I have worked with that specific competitor or not ... it's just a matter of principle).

However there is also another reason which is that it's the wrong question. In the media world, your true competitors are almost never the companies you think.

Let me explain.

In the old days, your competitors were other companies within the same industry as yours.

Take a TV station like ABC. Who are their competitors? Well, you'd probably mention other TV stations like NBC or CBS.

It was the same thing for a magazine. The competitors to a fashion magazine were other fashion magazines. The competitors to car magazines were other car magazines. And it was the same thing for national newspapers. Your competitors were other national newspapers.

However, none of this is true today.

If you look at ABC today and you ask who their biggest competitors are, what would you say? Well, you would probably mention streaming channels like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime etc. ... not to mention YouTube and Twitch.

But even that isn't wide enough, because another big competitor is the entire market for computer games. To put things into perspective, the average gamer today spends 8 hours and 27 minutes playing games per week (compared to 23 hours watching TV). But these are averages. Some specific segments, especially with the younger demographics, spend more time playing games than watching TV.

So the true competitors to TV stations are all the other channels that provide people with entertainment.

We see the same thing with magazines, but here we see it in a somewhat different way.

Take something like a photography magazine. Today your competitors aren't the other magazines. It's the photographers.

In the past, magazines were the middleman between great photographers, their tips, their skills, and their stories. But today, photographers are just doing all that directly. They are skipping the magazines, and the public loves it. Why follow a magazine that writes about photographers, when you can just subscribe to the photographer directly?

In other words, today your biggest competitor is yourself. It's your lack of being the expert that prevents you from being relevant to your audience. If all you do is talk about other people, then people are just going to follow them instead.

But there is also another element, and this is the 'service element'.

I have talked about this many times before. Take something like a fitness magazine. In the past fitness magazines and gyms were two very separate things. You would read about fitness in the magazine, and then you would do the training at the gym.

But, we all know this is no longer how things work. Today, you are the gym. As a magazine, you cannot just write about fitness anymore. You have to be the one who provides the training too. And not just as a separate focus area. This is now your primary focus and the main driver of subscribers.

We also see the same thing in food magazines. Today, your competitors are not other magazines, instead it's the chefs on YouTube who connect with people directly, combined with platforms like NYT Cooking that have turned recipe sites into a service.

And we see this for car magazines. Here the new world of car buying/selling and comparison sites are dominating growth, while traditional car magazines are struggling to make a difference.

And with newspapers? Well, here things get even more complicated.

Let's talk about local newspapers first. In the old days, you didn't have competitors (unless there was more than one local newspaper in a city). The reason was that you were geographically separated from local newspapers in neighboring cities.

But today it doesn't work like this.

Again, this is something I have talked about for years. But the challenge local newspapers face is that the definition of 'local' has changed. In the old days it was defined by geographic boundaries. But today, it's defined by people's interests.

I illustrated it like this back in 2015.

To put this into perspective, let's do a simple relevancy test.

Here is how we do that. Go to your local newspapers and count how many articles there are on the front page. Then count how many of these articles were actually relevant to you. Meaning, articles that in some way specifically helped you as an individual.

In my case, of the first 30 articles on the front page, only five of them were relevant ... but they weren't super-relevant. They were just kind-of relevant.

So, 17% relevancy.

Now, that's not necessarily that bad a number, but I think we can agree that it's still a very low number.

In comparison, if I turn to YouTube, where I have specifically chosen to follow a number of channels that I find interesting, I instead have an 87% relevancy rate.

Similarly, if I go to Instagram, I have an 80% relevancy rate, and if I turn to Facebook, I have a 23% relevancy rate (yes, Facebook is really not performing well, but it is still higher than my local newspaper).

So, the problem that local newspapers face is the way you define relevance, being a product of a geographic boundary, is suboptimal compared to the ability for people to follow things directly online. In other words, the biggest competitor for a local newspaper isn't other local newspapers, or even national newspapers, but 'choice'.

For national newspapers, we have a different problem. There isn't really an outside competitor to national newspapers because their focus is pretty unique. We do see some new media companies creating new types of newspapers with a more minimal and high-value focus, like The Correspondent and Zetland, which have proven to be very good models for people who are tired of the drama of news. But, on the whole, traditional newspapers are still largely the same.

Instead, we see something else. In my country, we see an increasing problem with news avoidance, and we see people say that they are "just getting news from Facebook". (I wrote much more about this in "Publishers need to get news off Facebook").

So, is Facebook a competitor to national newspapers?

Well, no. Not really. Instead, the problem is indifference. When people say that they get news from Facebook, what they are really saying is that they don't care about news, and are just getting it 'by accident' when they go to Facebook to see what their family and friends are up to. This is also why news on Facebook is only about 4% of the newsfeed.

This means that the biggest competitor to national newspapers is news avoidance. That is what they are fighting.

So, you see, every time publishers start to talk about "what are my competitors doing?" ... that's kind of the wrong question. Your competitors are not the other publishers in your market. It's all these other things.

My role is to talk about the press

For my second post today, I want to repeat something that I also posted on Twitter, and it was a response to people trying to tell me that Facebook is bad.

The backstory of all of this is that, over the past two weeks, I have posted several tweets as well as a newsletter, where I expressed my concern about how the press was covering the latest Facebook scandal (or several of them).

The result of this was that quite a lot of people have replied, written DMs, and even sent emails to me, trying to explain to me why Facebook is bad. But it kind of misses the point, so I posted this the other day:

I'm a media analyst, so I talk about the media. And all of my tweets and articles related to Facebook have that focus - I'm not actually talking about Facebook at all. Instead, I'm talking about how we as the press cover Facebook and how that reflects on us if we compare it to our problems.

There are four things I have focused on.

1. The narrative that, if people 'feel bad' on social channels, it needs to be regulated. Well, if you believe that, the press will have a really hard time once those laws go into effect because we make people feel even worse.

2. The lack of realization that the biggest problem on social media is about things that we, the press, get most of our traffic from. So if we tell Facebook to stop it, the press will get less traffic. As has happened many times already (and the press is surprised every time).

3. Fact-checking. I have spoken out against news reports that clearly cherry-picked data from the Facebook report, attributed the worst elements to the bad data, and dismissed the same data if it showed anything good.

This is not okay. We are journalists, not lobbyists.

4. I have tried to bring people some perspective and correct some widespread misplaced assumptions that flourish within the media. For instance, many studies show that Facebook does not create filter bubbles or that they are not the main source of spreading misinformation.

So thank you, for trying to convince me that Facebook is bad. But that's not the point of any of my writings. My role is to try to help the media industry be better.

My main point is simply this. If we, as the press, hold someone else to account, the least we can do is to have a higher standard ourselves.

If we tell the world that Facebook violated people's privacy, then, as the press, we shouldn't do it either (but we do).

If we tell the world that it's unacceptable that people feel suicidal on Instagram, then we as the press should look at how news impacts people and make sure that we don't cause the same harm (but we do).

If we tell the world that profit over people is unacceptable on Facebook, then as the press, we should make sure that we are not trying to drive traffic to outrage-type articles, with click-bait style headlines (but we do).

If we tell the world that Facebook spreads misinformation, then we must make sure that we don't cause the same problem through our news reports (but we do).

This is all I'm saying. I only want one thing. I want the press to be better than the companies we write about. I want us to have a higher standard, and I want journalism to show the way forward.

Right now, according to tons of studies, we are not there yet.

I was also reminded of this a few days ago when Joseph Lichterman posted this:

I mean... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Finally, many people ask about these studies I constantly talk about. Do I have some links? And, yes I do. My friends over at the Reuters Institute have done a tremendous job putting some of these together:

As for the mental health impact of news, I covered that in my last newsletter.

And, of course, there are many more studies. For instance, "Journalism Research News" is putting together a list of studies every now and then. It's amazing, but it's not categorized so it takes more work to find something specific. For instance, here is journalism research from September 2021, with 138 papers ... (yeah, it's a lot ;)).

These are the kinds of things I look at.

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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