Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today we are going to talk about two things. First, I have another article about the publisher funnel. And secondly, we need to talk about trust in the news (again).
In last week's Plus report, I wrote about how news avoidance is part of a much bigger problem, and in that report, I mentioned this model.
This is the publisher funnel, and what makes it special is that it's bi-directional, meaning there are elements that will help move people up the funnel, just as there are elements that will turn people away from you. And, in the world of publishing, this constant push/pull is how we define conversions.
Now, in the previous article, I wrote about this from the perspective of news avoidance, and so I glanced over a lot of nuances about this model. Today, I have a new article that talks solely about this model.
So take a look at: "A conversion that (never) ends. Mapping publisher funnels".
We have talked about the problem with trust in the news so many times in the past. In fact, this has been an ongoing topic for as long as I can remember. I wrote the first article about trust in the news more than a decade ago.
You would think with this as a focus for so long, the media industry would do more about it. And yet, we see the opposite. As Reuters Institute put it:
Trust in news is declining, and is lowest in the United States. On average, 42% of people said they trust most news most of the time; that figure has fallen in almost half the countries in the report and risen in seven.
Large numbers of people see the media as subject to undue political influence, and only a small minority believe most news organizations put what's best for society ahead of their own commercial interest.
We see this in so many different studies, here is another one from PEW. And, the problem isn't just that many people say that they don't trust the news. It's also that their trust has become very polarized, with people saying that they trust some news sources while distrusting others.
This is not really surprising considering everything that has happened in the past decade, and as publishers, we have really not done a good job trying to avoid this outcome. Think about, for instance, how much opinion is now dominating many newspapers, not in editorial, but also in how we are reporting about things. On top of this, so many people are pointing at social media, and sure that's a problem as well, but it's also a distraction.
The real problem right now is that we have not managed to distinguish ourselves when it comes to trust. I mean, think about it. If the people start to trust the politicians less, they should trust us more ... right?
No seriously, since we are the ones who are holding the politicians to account, when the public starts to trust them less, they should turn to us for trustworthy information instead.
But, this is not what is happening. Instead, the scary thing we see is that as trust declines in society as a whole, it also declines with the press. In fact, we are constantly at the near bottom of the scale.
This means that the public does not feel that we are any different from the politicians. Instead the public see the politicians and the press as part of the same side of the coin.
This is not good.
So, how can we fix this?
Well, as a media analyst, I believe that one of the main problems with trust is that we haven't really defined it. When people say that they don't trust the news, I see many journalists and editors who think that means that what people don't trust is what we are reporting about.
But, if that was how we define trust, we wouldn't have this big problem. Instead, I believe that the true problem around trust is far bigger than this. So, let's really define trust.
Let me list the many ways people can feel distrust towards something (like the news). It can be because:
You see what I mean? I believe that the problem we face around trust is based on the combined effect of all of these at the same time.
So, think about what this means. Let's start at the top.
If our readers say that they don't trust what people are saying, then we have a societal problem. And this is indeed what we see today. When looking at the situation in so many countries, the public has become far more skeptical as a whole.
As the press, however, our role is then to address this, but when we look at how people respond, we see this result:
Not only are there some pretty big differences for different age groups, but think about what people are saying here. People don't trust what you are saying, but they are also saying that they don't trust how we are reporting about it. In other words, the public does not think we are doing a good enough job as journalists.
Part of the problem is the next step, that "people don't trust our focus". Mind you, when I talk about focus here, I don't mean bias. Sure, there are many people who also feel that we are biased, but when I talk about focus, I really mean how good we are at having an accurate focus.
Climate change coverage is a perfect example of this, and in fact, let me show you a story.
Here is a headline about the Climate Act here in Denmark, and we are telling the public that the blue block is split on the topic.
However, when we actually look at this, the two parties in the blue block who didn't vote for the agreement have 8 parliamentary seats. The rest of the blue block has 76 parliamentary seats.
So the blue block wasn't split at all. 90% of them voted for the climate act, but our focus in the press was on finding the conflict. And it's examples like this that cause people not to trust our focus.
This also brings us to the next element, which is that our readers don't trust you to fact check things accurately. Again, there are so many examples of this. Just think about the recent story about a missile hitting Poland.
In terms of fact-checking, so many newspapers didn't live up to their role. We reported things as facts before any of the information had been verified. We were interviewing experts who basically just came up with conspiracy theories. I mean, how can people trust us when we do this?
Then we have relevance.
When people say that they don't trust you to be relevant to them, it's a failure of value. People might trust the news itself, but they just don't feel like that focus has any meaning to them.
So, you might report about something that happened somewhere, but people can't connect with it. There is nothing with that focus that people need.
Also we have the problem when people say that "I don't trust you to represent people like me". This is another problem we see quite often. Take immigrants. Most of them don't trust the news to represent them. They feel that our reporting is massively skewed and that the way they are being depicted in the press is very different from reality.
In the US, we see the same thing with Black people. The press' depiction of Blacks often doesn't represent reality.
But this is also a problem about anything else. If you are a farmer, you might think the press doesn't understand the topics. If you are a scientist, you are probably annoyed about how many times a new science study is misrepresented. The list goes on and on.
Which leads us to the people who say that they don't trust you to care about things.
This, again, is a factor that has a lot of nuance to it, but one of the key problems here is the 'both-sides' journalism. When something happens in the world, we go out and tell the public: Here are two people who are saying the complete opposite of each other, but we are not going to pick sides ... What we are essentially doing is telling our readers that we don't care.
We are doing this:
One person says it's raining, another person says it's not. But ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Of course, it's not about picking sides either. It's about telling our readers that we care about them so we are going to put in the work and effort to figure out what is true and what is not.
And this leads us to "I don't trust you with my time". Again, this has many aspects to it, but if you create a newspaper where people feel like you are wasting their time, either because of your focus, or because of tactics like clickbait and other low-end traffic tricks, you are undermining people's trust in you.
It's that simple.
And finally, we have the "I don't trust you with my mental health".
This is something we now hear a lot when it comes to news fatigue and news avoidance, but people have had enough, and they want a newspaper that can help them be informed, but also do it in such a way that they don't end up like a depressed wreck every time they see the news.
One of the worst examples of this was a few weeks ago where one of the largest newspapers in my country decided to put an auto-playing video of someone being run down by a car right in the middle of the front page.
So, without warning, the readers were just being forced into becoming eye-witnesses of a terrible event. I don't know what the editors were thinking, but doing something like that drives people away from the news. You are creating an environment where the public doesn't know if you are going to put a disturbing and triggering video in their face.
You don't want to go to places like that, and we see this being one of the top three reasons why people just avoid news entirely. People don't feel that you can be trusted to respect their mental health.
So, think about all of this. All of these factors combined is what erodes trust in the news. It's not just that people say they don't "trust the news", it's far more about what they are doing with it.
This is what we need to change.
Remember the article about churn above, and then take a look at these:
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).
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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."
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