Happy New Year!
It's 2021, we have a vaccine, life is returning to normal (or will be), and it's the start of a new fresh year. So it's the perfect time to sit down and define the New Year's resolution for the media industry in 2021.
Yes, instead of doing a "this is what we predict will happen in 2021", we are instead going to do a "this is what we should make happen in 2021".
So what is the most important New Year's resolution for 2021? Well, there is one thing that is more important than anything else, and that is diversity.
Diversity (or lack thereof) has been a hot topic in the media industry for years, and we have already seen great progress particularly in the traditional media industry. However, we are nowhere near where we should be, and even worse, we seem to be 'starting over' in the non-traditional media industries.
I'm particularly thinking about what we have seen in the areas of podcasts and premium newsletters. Here, it's like the past 10 years of diversity focus has only just started, and we are making the same mistakes all over again.
But let me explain what I mean.
Diversity is, by far, the most important thing we need to focus on in the media industry. It's important for three reasons.
The most important reason is that it's just the right thing to do. Creating a more inclusive media that isn't defined by the intrinsic biases of a certain race or gender is vital to the 'health' of our future society. Think about all the problems we have in this world, and then think about how often this is caused by a lack of diversity and inclusion.
And as the fourth estate, diversity should be a core element of our industry because how else can we hold people to account if we do not understand the world we live in?
This leads us to the second element, which is 'understanding'.
Imagine if you have a newsroom where every journalist and editor is a white man. Even if they were the best men in the world, and they were trying their hardest to cover news from a diverse point of view, they still wouldn't be able to do a good job.
The problem is that if you are not diverse, you will never have the understanding that you need. It's not about your skill as a journalist. It's about your lack of perspective for things that you never experience yourself.
For instance, I have lost count of how many times I have seen white men argue that publishers should just "hire the best person for the job", which, strangely, always seems to be a man in their point of view. But the best person for the job is someone who can do things that you can't. Someone who can bring new perspectives, new understanding, new skills, and new ideas to the table.
We have seen this clearly with the event market. Remember how, a few years ago, it was quite common to have all-male panels and speakers at media events?
What happened then was, as an industry, we collectively decided this was not acceptable anymore. This lack of diversity was harming our industry, and so every event organizer dedicated themselves to fixing this. And today, media events have been transformed into something much better.
Because of this dedication to diversity, media conferences today are more valuable than ever before. By including a more diverse speaker line-up, we expanded the topics we cover, the ideas brought forwards, the studies analyzed, and the case-studies profiled. Suddenly, it was no longer just about what other white men were doing in their media companies. It was an entirely new world.
This simple change has helped the media industry innovate in more ways than ever before ...which leads me to the third point, which is the market.
In the past, many people (ahem... men) strongly believed that women didn't want new things. For instance, I remember a discussion I once had with a male executive who strongly believed that women only wanted to read gossip magazines, and that there was simply no market for anything else.
And this has been a common problem across media industries. For instance, in Hollywood, movie studio executives didn't believe that women would want to watch any of the big production superhero movies.
But then, after decades of pressure, they finally made Wonder Woman, and it was a staggering success. In the first week alone, it reached $103 million in box office revenue, already making it the 13th highest grossing superhero movie. But then in the weeks after that, Wonder Woman started to overtake everyone else because the excitement just didn't die down.
Later came Captain Marvel, which did even better. And then we had Black Panther, which again was seen in Hollywood as the type of movie that wouldn't do well, this time because the heroes were black. But it did. It dominated.
We have seen the same thing in the gaming industry. Exactly the same assumptions. Gaming was for boys, and the only time women were involved was to look good.
But take a game like Tomb Raider with Lara Croft. In the early days, this was a game created by men for boys. Lara Croft looked ... well... see for yourself below. But then, in 2013, they relaunched the game with a new focus, a new look, and a new female-empowered storyline. Lara Croft was no longer a character for boys, but was a character in her own right. And the game sold 11 million titles, making it the best sold game in the entire franchise.
After this, the gaming industry realized how powerful this was, and we started seeing many more games with female protagonists. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and many others ... and they have all performed amazingly.
But this isn't about movies or games, this is about everything. And we see exactly the same effect in the media industry. Publishers who not only focus on diversity but also have a diverse newsroom generally perform better. They are more relevant to the public, they are better at covering important stories, they have an easier time getting subscribers (and getting them to stick around for longer).
The bottom line is that diversity is the key!
However, diversity in media is facing a really big problem ... and that problem exists in the world of independent media.
Over the past several years, and particularly in 2020, we saw this amazing trend of independent publishers. In 2018 and 2019, we saw it with podcasts, but then in 2020, thanks to Substack, we saw it with premium newsletters. Suddenly, a lot of individual journalists either quit or were forced out of their jobs at traditional media houses, and instead decided to go alone. And many of them have performed quite well.
The problem is that this new market is incredibly male dominated. It's almost like every white man with an opinion now has a podcast or a newsletter, and the result is not good.
So we have the same old issue. Because of this lack of diversity, everyone is doing the same thing, and it's the men who get all the exposure.
Why? It's like we haven't learned anything.
Why are we seeing this new market emerging with all the same problems? Where are the new ideas? The new ways of thinking about things? The different ways to solve a problem for people?
And the problem isn't just that more men are doing this, it's also that they are the ones who are being covered in the press. Look at how the press has covered independent media, Substackers and podcasters over the past six months. The coverage has been almost entirely dominated by a few celebrity men, making it sound like what they are doing is the only thing that works.
I tweeted about this a while back:
I'm getting somewhat tired of the 'celebrities on Substack' focus. As a media analyst, I don't think this trend in any way will be defined by them. It's like saying that Will Smith's YouTube channel defines how YouTube will work for creators.
So we need to fix this, and this is the most important New Year's Resolution of 2021. So, how do we fix this? To change the level of diversity, you need to fix your 'inputs'.
I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Esther Kezia Thorpe over at the Media Voices Podcast. We were discussing how difficult it was to speed up diversification, and she made an important point. She said:
"I used to get really frustrated about this. With many traditional publishers, their junior workforce was super diverse, but senior management was all white men. But then someone pointed out to me that the junior workforce feeds the exec workforce, so give it a decade, and senior management will look very different. It's starting to happen at the mid levels already".
She is perfectly right about this. In order to fix the problems with diversity in the future, you need to make sure that the new things you do now are diverse by default. If you do that, time is on your side, and it will help you fix the problems in the future.
But this is why we have such a big problem with the independent press. When we look at the market for podcasts and newsletters, it's starting out being even more male-dominated than the old world.
Our pipeline into this market is already broken. And we cannot wait a decade for this to gradually change, and then another decade for it to fix itself.
So, we all need to super-charge this change, and we need to do this now. The good thing is that we already know how because we have done it before with events. There are four things we need to do right now.
The first thing we need to do is to commit ourselves to fixing the problem. This means we recognize that this is an unacceptable situation, and we make the promise to fix this.
Again, think about how we solved this with events. A few years ago, speakers, the audience, and event organizers simply made the decision that unless a conference had a diverse line-up, they simply wouldn't participate ... and we did this collectively as an industry all at the same time.
This shared push acted as a catalyst, and within just a few months, things had changed.
We now need to do the same with the media. For instance, think about your coverage. If you are a media or business site talking about this new market, make the editorial decision to do this from a diverse perspective. Put in the effort to not just report what famous white men are doing, but make it a requirement to have a wider focus.
Also, don't 'lead' the story with men. You are not diverse if your main character is always a man.
In the cases where you only have white men to choose from, consider not covering them. Again, this is the same as what we did with events. If you found that you could only get white male speakers, the solution wasn't then to 'just hold the event anyway', the solution was to decide not to do the event at all.
Because, once you commit yourself to this way of thinking, you find a way, and you will discover that diversity is not as difficult as you think it is.
The second thing we need to focus on is representation. This is something we have seen thousands of times in the past. How people see something dramatically changes the way people think about it.
I want to give you an example. The graph below illustrates women's participation in medical science, law, physical science, and computer science. As you can see, over the past 50 years, we are getting very close to 50% (full diversification).
However, when it came to computer science, things went horribly wrong. You see, back in the mid 1980s, the computer world changed to be something only boys played with. Before this time, computers had no gender focus, but after 1985, it became far more male-dominated, even to the point where girls were actively discouraged to even interact with them.
The result was a disaster for the participation of women in computer science, and the damage persists to this day.
It's the same thing that I now worry about in the world of independent media. If you look at stories about podcasters and paid newsletters and you mostly see white men, we create an environment where women, people of color, etc. don't feel welcome.
The way we fix this is by changing this environment. We need to highlight and promote non-male and non-white publishers to show the world that anyone is welcome and that anyone can do this.
Another thing we need to do is focus much more on providing the tools people need, and to address their concerns.
Every time I have talked about this over the past many years, there has always been three obstacles that seem incredibly hard to overcome, and those obstacles are:
These concerns exist for both men and women, but when we look at the number of people who created a new podcast or paid-for newsletter, men do it at a much higher rate.
So, this is something we need to find a way to address. It links back to what I said before about representation and demonstrating how things can be done.
Which leads to the final point, which is...
One of the greatest obstacles to diversity isn't to get more women to do something, but to get men to stop acting like pricks.
Let me give you an example. When I turned Baekdal Plus into a paid-for premium site in 2010, my only concern was about what articles to write. I was never even once concerned about doing it alone, exposing myself to the world, nor did I ever feel that doing so would be a risk to me personally.
However, every single woman I have ever talked to about creating something new has expressed these concerns. They don't feel safe just starting a company alone, they worry and very often face harassment (almost entirely by men), their personal safety is at risk, some of them have even received death threats. But more than that, just publishing something as a woman seems to attract a much more antagonistic or sexist response.
None of these problems are created by women. These problems are created entirely by men, and therefore it's also our problem as men to solve. We need to step up and put a stop to this culture.
Another problem we create as men is the 'environment'. When we (men) get together, we often act in a way that is not very pleasant or productive. Think about the tone of voice that exists when you are in an all-male meeting. Even when everyone is just doing their best, it has very 'male' tones in the way people interact. This creates an environment that is very unpleasant to be in if you are not also a man.
And, as a media analyst, I see this effect on the media. There are so many areas of media where the tone and behavior is just creating an unfriendly environment, and this dramatically lowers participation for others.
Again, this is a problem that men have created, and therefore it's also ours to solve. We need to focus on what we can change.
I propose a 'push'.
If you are a media focused site, or a journalist covering media, make it a point to participate in this change during January. Make the commitment I mentioned above, and then spend time now in January to see what you can do to help. Investigate stories to better understand the situation, provide tips, guides, and training. And more so, write stories about amazing women and people of color to illustrate what can be done.
Just like we did with events, show the world that having a diverse line-up of stories is not an oddity, but something that is normal and way better than what we have now.
I will personally dedicate Baekdal Plus towards this goal in January, and more articles are coming about this. Of course, this focus doesn't end after January, but let's turn January into a catalyst for change.
And one more thing. While I am focusing on the new world of independent publishers, this also applies to traditional publishers. One thing new publishers do is to create new ideas, explore new models, and find new ways to engage an audience. In other words, what happens in this world directly reflects on the level of innovation we are going to see in the rest of the media world in the future.
Many of these new independent publishers may not work at a traditional newspaper, but they are showing you the way forward. So it's just as much in your interest to push this forward and to make sure you are as diverse as possible.
This is something that directly affects all of us. So let's do something about it.
This is our New Year's Resolution for 2021.
Last year I wrote three plus reports about independent publishing.
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