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By Thomas Baekdal - July 2022

We need to innovate the journalistic format + some words about data

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. 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 a number of good things for you. First we are going to talk about formats, then let's talk about data, and finally about why the public doesn't trust us to do climate reporting.

We need to innovate our formats

We have talked about this before. Only about 15% of the public thinks paying for news is relevant to them, which means that we have an untapped potential to capture the remaining 85% of the market.

I'm currently writing a series about how to fix this.

Last month, I wrote about how we need to change things if we want to capture the younger demographics. Then a couple of weeks ago, I challenged your perception, by asking: "What if a newspaper was something completely different?"

And then this week, I'm continuing along this line by focusing on the formats. One thing I keep hearing about publishers is that "people don't care about our websites, so we should just be on TikTok" ... in other words, our formats don't work.

Well, that's true if we just continue to do what we have always done, but there are many ways that we can make our own formats work. In my latest Plus article, I talk about why this is, and then I illustrate how we can change this by outlining 6 different scenarios.

So take a look at: "We need to innovate our formats"

Data is frustrating

As a media analyst, I see a ton of studies and surveys. Every week there are several new studies, and they are very interesting and insightful to read ... but they are also frustrating.

The main problem that I come across again and again is that the numbers don't match. Two separate studies might look at the same thing, but come to completely different numbers. Another example is that a study might compare a conversion channel, and not make it clear that those paths have very different lengths and steps. Or maybe you have studies where the source data just isn't good enough, or isn't taking into account the many other things that might have come before.

I want to give you an example of all of these things, not really to criticize any of these studies, but to remind you to look deeper at the data you see.

Let's start with two studies looking at the same thing.

One thing that has been studied over and over again is how many people turn to Facebook for news. We have seen many studies about this, and they are really inconsistent.

Take this study from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022, and let's look at the UK:

It found that 19% of the public turn to Facebook for news.

As it happens, another study recently came out from Ofcom, the "News Consumption in the UK: 2022", and they looked at the same thing... but here they found that 69% turn to Facebook for news.

Wait... what?!?

Obviously, something must be up, and I will explain what that is in a second, but you can see how risky it is to just look at a graph and make a conclusion based on it. Both graphs seemingly surveyed the same thing, but they are miles apart.

So, why is this happening? Well, there are two factors.

The most important is that they actually measure two completely different things. The Reuters Institute report measures the percentage of the public, whereas the Ofcom report only measures the percentage of those who said they use social media for news.

In other words, the actual number is about 34%. But even this doesn't match Reuters Institute's 19% ... so what else is wrong?

Well, there's the question:

Reuters Institute asked: "Which, if any, of the following have you used in the last week for news?", whereas Ofcom asked: "Thinking specifically about social media (on any device), which of the following do you use for news nowadays?"

This means that Reuters Institute is asking much more about the immediacy of news consumption, whereas Ofcom is not. So, does that explain the rest? Well, maybe.

But that's the thing. Think about what that actually means. It means that people are really not using Facebook that much for news.

We can see this also when we compare it on a more specific level. Ofcom illustrates it like this:

This is an interesting graph, except it is based on an even smaller sample. It is based on the % of people who use social media for news, as a % who use each channel, and then as a % of that.

Now, that's confusing, so let's recalibrate these numbers to instead just be a percentage of the full base (the public as a whole).

These are tiny numbers, which illustrate how news is not really a focus on the social channels. I mean, look at TikTok. Only 3% of the UK public have chosen to follow a newspaper there.

It's insignificant.

Facebook is slightly higher, but again here we see that it's not really because of us. About 19% just want to see what is trending, about 15%-17% just want to see what their friends are sharing. When it comes to following news organizations and/or journalists, this number drops to less than 10% of the total public (the full base).

Just think about this. In the media industry, we are totally obsessed with news on social media, but the public don't see it like that at all. There is a massive disconnect here.

Conversion paths are not the same

The next example that I want to show you is about conversion paths. Recently, Piano released the "Subscription Performance Benchmark Report 2022", and it's a very interesting study.

But, like all stories, we need to again be mindful about the data.

One example is this:

For many media companies, registration can be an important step towards paid conversion. While the conversion rate for anonymous visitors is just 0.22%, conversion rises to 9.88% for known users [registered users].
That's a dramatic 45X difference.

Wow, that's impressive!

Except, those are not the same thing. I mean, for an anonymous user to convert, that's just a single step, while converting a known user is two steps. First they have to register, and then they have to convert again.

We can do some simple math to calculate what that actually means.

If we take 10,000 visitors, with a 0.22% conversion rate, it means that, of the anonymous users, we ended up with 22 new subscribers. So, if we want to get the same amount of conversion, but now coming from people who have first registered, how many people need to register?

The answer is 220 (rounded).

This is certainly not impossible, and there are many benefits from doing this. Being able to turn an unknown audience into a known audience gives you a lot more tools to work with. But it's not 0.22% compared with 9.88%. You have to convert 10 times as many people to even get to this point.

And this is such a simple example, but it's important to keep in mind. And if you are a publisher who is already struggling to convert people, you might have just as big a problem getting people to register as you have to get them to convert.

So, always remember the steps involved.

Finally, let's talk about the last example. And this one is about how long it took before people converted.

How long have you known me?

This is another data point from the Piano report. It looked at how many days it took for people to convert, questioning the focus on loyal readers.

As they found, most people convert within the same day, whereas the other big group convert after more than 10 days.

Okay... well... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

As a media analyst, I can't use this data for anything because I know that this is one of the areas where analytics are generally really bad. This data is not accurate in any shape or form.

Let me explain why.

Think about someone subscribing to the New York Times. Ask yourself this: How long have they known about the New York Times before converting? A day? 10 days? ... heh... don't be silly. This person has known about the New York Times for years, probably even decades.

People don't go around never having heard about the New York Times, and then one day come across it... and then instantly think, Oh yeah, I'm going to subscribe to this.

So, the above graph is useless. It's an artifact of how inline analytics work (or don't work). Instead of capturing how long people have truly known about something, it merely captures from what point the analytics were able to track them. That's not even remotely the same thing.

When you think about 'time to conversion', don't do a graph like the one above. Instead, focus on what we call brand recognition. Hire a research company to do a survey where they ask the public "do you know [x]?" ... and then also have them do a study of your recent subscribers, asking them if they knew about you before they subscribed. Online analytics doesn't work for things like this. It's simply not accurate for that kind of analysis. Do a real world study instead.

Anyway, these were just three simple examples of how we can get fooled by the data. And it's not because the surveys tried to fool us. It's simply that the questions they defined don't mean what we think they mean.

The worst kind of climate coverage

Finally, I just want to quickly talk about climate coverage in relation to the heatwave last week, because it was clear that we have a problem. And the problem isn't just about what we did, but more what we didn't do.

Let me explain.

So, last week we had this crazy heatwave across Europe, but things have somewhat calmed down again (well, it's still really hot in southern Europe), and the way this was covered was ... uh... problematic.

Before the heatwave hit, most newspapers wrote about how the heatwave was coming, and one thing many did was to accompany the articles with happy pictures of people having a good time in the sun. You know, pictures of people enjoying an ice cream, relaxing in a beach chair, or having fun swimming. Then when the heatwave hit, we quickly changed that tone to be all about the disaster it really was.

Some newspapers even went much further than that. The Daily Mail went from calling people snowflakes for complaining about the heat, to total disaster mode ... all within 24 hours.

Of course, this was the Daily Mail, and as a media analyst, I have long given up on them. But the beach and ice cream pictures in other newspapers are kind of the same thing.

What this tells the public is that, as publishers, we don't get climate change. If we go from ice cream to OMG it's a disaster within 24 hours, we are very clearly telling the public that we don't have a clue what is going on.

But while this is a problem ... it's nowhere near the much bigger problem we saw afterwards. I was actively analyzing how we covered this heatwave, and the pattern I saw across so many newspapers was this:

Obviously, I'm simplifying the problem here, but before the heatwave, it was ice cream and beach pictures, during the heatwave it was all 'disaster', and after the heatwave it was ... nothing. We just stopped writing about it.

Obviously, not every newspaper did this. But I saw this pattern across so many newspapers in so many countries. For instance, here in my country, we have a national newspaper that has proclaimed themselves to be the 'leading climate newspaper'. It hasn't published a single article about climate change since the temperature started to drop a week ago.

Not a single article!

This is a really big problem, and it seriously undermines the value of journalism. When we do this, we are telling the public that we don't really care about climate change, that, to us, it's just another news story that we cover "when something happens", but outside of that, we are not invested in the topic.

When we act like this, we are basically telling the public that they would be better off just going somewhere else. Because we are not going to follow up on it, or try to do something about it. Climate change doesn't end just because the heatwave is over.

And yes, not every newspaper is like this. In fact, some are doing a very good job, but think about this. If we want to be valuable to the public, and if we want to convince more people to subscribe, we also need to demonstrate that we are willing to focus on the stories that matter to them.

We cannot just cover climate change 'like any other story' and then hope that people will pay for that. We have to excel at it.

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about climate coverage, I wrote a much more detailed Plus article about that last year called:

And don't forget the article about formats and journalism I mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter.

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 Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. 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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