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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2021

Reality check for independent publishers, and how the culture of the press undermined climate action

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free).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 three interesting things for you ... or maybe more like one very interesting thing, and two very important things.

  1. Reality check: What it is really like to be an independent publisher
  2. How the culture of the press undermined climate action
  3. Do a relevancy test

Reality check: What it is really like to be an independent publisher

There is so much talk about independent publishing these days, which is great. But, a lot of this is centered around a small subset of very popular people who have been able to create a newsletter or a podcast and turn that into a gigantic success in no time at all.

This has created the perception that this is what independent publishing is like, but, of course, it isn't. In reality, being an independent publisher is hard. It takes a long time to grow, and, if you are not famous, you will face many obstacles, including some that force you to change your approach.

Don't get me wrong, being an independent publisher is also the best thing you can be. But we need to have a talk about what it's really like. This is the topic of this week's Plus article.

So take a look at: Reality check: What it is really like to be an independent publisher.

The culture of the press needs to change

For the second part of this newsletter, we need to have a serious talk about the culture of the press.

As many of you know, I have a kind of love/hate relationship with the press. I absolutely love journalism. I believe it's important, I think it vital for society, and I try everything I can to help make it as good as it can be ... and yet, I also hate the culture of the press.

Over the past many decades, the press has developed a culture that fundamentally undermines not just the integrity of journalism, but also the public.

I want to give you a very simple example, but I want to point out that this isn't an isolated problem with just a few newspapers. I see these problems across the media industry as a whole.

How the culture of the press undermined climate action

Most newspapers today believe in the importance of climate action. Many newspapers have even created dedicated climate change reporting groups (which is not the right way to do it, but it's much better than not doing it).

I also know that most journalists care about climate action. Journalists are smart people. They know what is going on, and they understand the importance of this. And yet, day after day, I see examples of reporting where newspapers are undermining climate action. And it's not just a few newspapers. I see this across the industry.

I want to give you a simple practical example of this, from something that happened in Denmark (where I live).

A festival decided to be climate focused

The context for this example is that one of the big music festivals, Northside, is reopening its doors in 2022 after having been shut down due to COVID for two years. This is obviously great news for everyone who has been waiting for this for so long.

But they also wanted to be more climate focused. As such, they have decided to do two things. First, everything bought and used should come from more renewable sources (great), and all the food served during the festival should be 'plant-based'. Okay... cool.

So, how do you think the press covered this? Well, let's take a look.

The first news site we are going to look at is DR (Denmark Radio). This is one of the largest news sites in Denmark, and it's comparable to the BBC.

It wrote a story where they had interviewed a boomer saying that she didn't want to go to the festival because of this.

The article does include comments from other people, one of them saying that she likes the idea (you know 'both sides'). But this doesn't excuse that this was presented in a very antagonistic way.

Also, in the article, we come across this headline:

This headline is bad for two reasons. First, it again presents this change as a negative. But, much worse, the phrasing "freedom of choice" is something that, as we all know, is actively used by right-wing anti-science groups. They are using it for climate denial, for anti-vaxxing, COVID denial, etc.

So presenting this story in this way helps these groups grow larger. As a newspaper, you are giving them fuel.

The next example is from TV2, another one of the largest news sites in Denmark. It also covered this story, and again with an antagonistic approach.

It asked:

Again, this line of questioning makes this sound like a bad thing, and it's urging the festival to drop their plans.

The next story was from Jyllands-Posten, another one of the largest national newspapers in Denmark. It wrote two stories.

The first story was a simple news report. It merely told what was happening from a completely neutral perspective. There were no interviews with angry people. It was just 'the news'.

This was fine.

But, this newspaper published the first story on their Facebook page, and instantly it created a debate. And the newspaper looked at this and then wrote this:

So while this newspaper started out in a good way, it has now joined all the others in presenting this in an antagonistic way.

But here is the thing. I'm a media analyst, so I ... you know... checked this. I went to the Facebook page of this newspaper, looked up the post about the first story, looked at the engagement data, and I found this:

Let me simplify this for you. If we take all these emotions that people expressed and turn them into a graph of 'good vs bad', we get this:

As you can see, 71% of the sentiments were in support of Northside doing this, 2% could be either, only 27% were against it.

So... this newspaper misled the public. They took this data, discarded all the positives, focused only on the negatives, and presented that to the public as if people on Facebook criticized this.

But maybe, you say, they are not reflecting on their own article. Maybe they are reflecting how people are reacting to the original announcement of the festival itself.

Well, okay, let's check that too. Here are the engagement numbers from the Northside Festival's posts announcing this change. Now a staggering 90% support this change.

But in the press, you get the exact opposite perception. In fact, their journalists called up the organizers and asked them to respond to all this criticism.

There is no criticism. The public overwhelmingly supports this!

This then brings us back to TV2, who published another article a few days later. And it's another antagonistic narrative.

But this article is even worse. In it they recognize that most people don't feel this way at all, but being completely unwilling to give up painting this story in a negative way, they find one person who is angry about it, and make him the focus.

As they say:

On Northside's Facebook page, they are praised for the green initiative, but there is also criticism of the festival.
One of the major criticisms is that the festival does not offer to refund tickets for those who do not want to participate after the new initiative.
One of the critics is Casper Vildbech. He has a ticket to Northside and he does not think the festival treats its customers properly.

Remember, this wasn't actually a problem until the press made it a problem. This whole thing is entirely fueled by the antagonism of the press. And again, the headline of the article misrepresents what the public as a whole feels about it. The public does not think this is 'too extreme'.

We then take a look at Politiken, again, another one of the largest newspapers in Denmark, and they did exactly the same as all the others, and posted this:

They even interviewed an expert, who said: "it can be difficult to take meat away".

This is all a lie. 90% of the public supports this. There is no difficulty. There is no nonsense. People are not furious.

These newspapers are misleading the public!!

And finally, we also take a look at the tabloids. There are two very big tabloid newspapers in Denmark. One of them doesn't have a search feature so I couldn't find if they had written about this, but the other one, BT, wrote three articles about this (with the same narrative).

And the last article was posted as an opinion piece by the Managing Editor, who wrote:

I mean, as a media analyst, I don't even know what to say to all of this. Somehow the entire collective of large news sites in Denmark have managed to put themselves into a distorted field that is so disconnected from reality that they are all doing this.

How does that happen? We are the press. This should not happen.

But more than that, think about the narrative here, and think about where this positions the press in the larger scheme of things.

Think about it like this.

We have two boxes. One is the box of denialism, where we find companies who want to continue to pollute, and people spewing rhetoric like Freedom of Choice as an excuse for not changing anything.

The other box represents climate action. And here we find the public (!!), festivals like Northside and other brands who want to help solve climate change, and people who understand the importance of change.

So here is my simple question to you: Which one of these two boxes would you place the newspapers in? Well, sadly, it's in the climate denial box. We are helping denialism. We are creating conflict and polarization where there is none.


And this is not isolated to just this one story. I see examples of this every single day from newspapers across the world. Almost everyone is doing this.

But remember what I said in the beginning. Newspapers generally believe in climate actions, and journalists do understand the importance of it.

So why is this happening? Well, I believe it's because of the culture of the adversarial press (which I have written about before). In the press there is a culture that journalism is about questioning and holding people to account (we attack things). But, somehow, we have distorted this so that now we do this all the time regardless of the outcome.

If someone is doing something bad, we attack them, if someone does something good, we attack it. If someone makes a change, we attack the change. If someone doesn't want to change, we attack them too. If people are having fun, we find those who don't, and we attack this.

Everything is attacked.

But as you can see above, this culture of journalism is incredibly bad. It misleads the public, it creates anger and antagonism, it polarizes, it undermines the integrity of journalism, and it hurts people's trust in news.

Just look at the two graphs I showed you above, one from the newspaper, and one from the festival. We can clearly see that readers of newspapers are more negative (10% negativity for the festival's FB page vs. 26% negativity for the newspaper's FB page).

So think about this in relation to the future of the press. Where does this lead? The press has disconnected from reality. They only see the world as a negative, they are no longer in touch with the sentiment of the public, nor their readers. And, on top of that, their actions undermine climate action.

Where does this lead? How will this impact your future subscription and churn rates? What does this do to the ability of the press to hold people to account for real problems?

As a media analyst, I think the answer is obvious. This culture needs to change.

Do a relevancy test

I often tell publishers to do a relevancy test. It's a very simple survey where you ask a sample of your readers to look at the first 25 headlines from your front page, and then ask them to categorize them into whether they were relevant or not.

Here is an example of what a response could look like (for just one person).

I rated the relevancy of the national newspapers in my country in relation to me, and the result is this: Keep in mind; one person is not a study. So, as a newspaper, you need to do this for maybe 1,000 of your readers.

There are many ways you can do this. You can do it as a study, where you ask 1,000 of your readers to participate. Or you could also build it into the rating system of your news site as a feature. Earlier, I wrote about how two students in Norway have created a news concept that has this exact feature.

(Note: If you do a survey, also consider segmenting it into groups of different days. The relevance of news can vary quite a lot during a week).

You can also define your own categories. But let me explain the ones I have defined above.

Of course, if you can't do a study like this, try doing it from a strategy perspective (which is what I usually do as a media analyst). For instance, do people really need to know about some random thing in some distant country about an isolated case of something bad that happened?

In other words, think about your readers on an individual level, and ask, would they really get anything valuable out of knowing this? ...or are you just wasting their time with random news?

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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