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By Thomas Baekdal - December 2020

What I learned after 10 years as a media analyst

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free).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 newsletter. Today is a very special day because it is the 10-year anniversary of Baekdal Plus and my career as a professional media analyst.

So, in this special edition newsletter, I want to talk about how it all started, what I learned over the past ten years, what mistakes I made, and kind of reflect on the state of the media.

But first, let's go back to 2010...

The aftermath of a financial crisis

Baekdal Plus was started in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The media industry was in a shambles, everything was chaos, and none of the traditional publishers really knew what to do about it.

Meanwhile, my own career had come to a kind of cross-roads. My old job had reached a dead end. The company I worked for at the time had been sold to one of those investment companies, who then put it into crippling debt to pay their own investors back, and then plan to sell the company off in pieces. The result was that we went from a future-looking company, to something which was just barely surviving.

At the time, I was in charge of digital media, and I had spent ten years building that up, but once the company got sold, the new temporary management didn't really care about that. It got increasingly difficult for me to do my job, and one day, my boss told me to "stop focusing so much on digital, and instead dedicate more of my time on print".

So here I was, someone who had been working with digital media since 1997, now being told that digital wasn't important.

For me personally, it had the effect that I crashed in a really bad way from stress. I don't just mean that I was feeling overworked. I mean actual stress. The kind of stress where your body starts producing cortisol and adrenaline to keep you going. The kind of stress where you would feel physically ill every day when you got home from work, and the kind of stress where, one day after yet another meeting, I completely blacked out and lost consciousness, as my body shut down to protect itself.

However, in the middle of all this, I also had a hobby that I was doing in the evenings and during the weekends. This hobby was building Baekdal.com.

I had registered the domain in 1999, and for the first five years it was just my personal portfolio site. But then, in 2004, I decided to become a publisher and turned Baekdal.com into an online magazine.

At first, my editorial strategy was pretty bad. It was basically just me publishing whatever I felt like that day, and there was no direction, no focus, just random articles for random people.

But as time progressed, I got more and more focused on the media. In 2010, I had reached one million visitors per month, and the articles I published looked like this:

As you can see, it was still a very mixed bag. There was some tech news, some design news, but you also see the beginning of what became Baekdal Plus, with much more in-depth articles about media trends and media business models.

This was where I was back then. My old job was killing me but Baekdal.com was booming, so the choice for what to do in the future seemed clear. However, there was a really big problem.

Baekdal.com was, at the time, monetized via advertising, but, even with a million visitors per month, I was making very little money. There was no way I could turn this into a business without some drastic changes.

So I looked at this, trying to figure out how to make this work. First I looked at advertising, and I realized that I needed to get about 6-10 times as much traffic to be able to make a living from it, which seemed impossible to do.

And at the same time, the trend for publishers looked like this, so betting on advertising seemed like a terrible idea.

I decided to do something crazy. I would double-down on the much more in-depth media focused articles I had started writing, put them behind a paywall, and monetize my site that way. I was thinking that, with a million visitors, if I could just convert 1% of them, I could easily make this work.

And so, on December 10, 2010, I launched Baekdal Plus. It was a very soft launch. I just cleaned the site up a bit, added PayPal as a payment method, and put my media articles behind the paywall. And then I just waited for what would surely be a gigantic amount of money to pour in.

Right?!?!?

Well... no. Things didn't work out this way at all.

After three months of launching Baekdal Plus I only had 29 subscribers. That's a 0.003% conversion rate.

So here I was. I had left my old job, my body was still hammered with stress, I had started a new company, and, after three months, my monthly revenue was only $172/month.

That was terrible. ... in fact, it was worse than terrible.

So, what went wrong, you ask?

Well, what went wrong was that I had misjudged who my audience really was. Remember, this was what my site looked like back then. This mix of articles.

Sure, I had started writing media analysis, and sure, some of my one million visitors were reading those articles (and seemed to like them too), but as it turned out, almost none of them were from the media industry. They were just random people from outside the media industry reading about it out of a casual interest, but they weren't really interested in these articles, and they definitely wouldn't pay to read them.

Keep in mind also that this was back in 2010, during a time where everyone would call you an idiot if you tried to charge for content online. (BTW: You will see what I mean if you look at this article over at NiemanLab of editors talking about the New York Times paywall).

I was in shock. This was my future, and it was just falling apart.

I wasn't really in any financial trouble. I had saved up about a full year's salary, so I could afford to not make any money for a year. But if I didn't find a way to fix this, I would just burn through that ... and then I would have nothing.

So, I looked at Baekdal.com, and I looked at what worked and what didn't. What worked (kind of) was the random articles, because that was bringing in a million visitors. But what didn't work were my in-depth media analysis, for which I only had 29 subscribers.

And so, like any sensible person, I decided to give up on the parts that worked, and instead focus even more on the parts that didn't work. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Wait... what?!?!

Most of my friends and family thought I had gone mad and urged me to give up my plans "before I lost all my money". Other friends were trying to help me by telling me how to maximize my ad revenue for my random audience. They told me to take down the paywall, put my articles on Facebook, do affiliate advertising next to the design articles, and other things that were common at the time for most 'bloggers'.

But I ignored them. Again, I looked at the trends, and when I looked 5 to 10 years into the future, having a random site for random people didn't seem to work. So, instead, I decided to take my one million monthly visitors and just throw them out the window. I got rid of my design articles and all the other noise. And I instead made Baekdal Plus (and my 29 subscribers) my primary focus.

To make this work I had to build up an entirely new audience, from scratch. Specifically, I had to become known in the media industry, and I had to do it in such a way that media executives would pay to read what I wrote.

I had one big advantage, though.

The advantage was the financial crisis. I know most publishers don't think about it this way, but the financial crisis created the perfect opportunity to help publishers. The media industry was in a terrible shape, and at conferences, media executives were all talking about how to survive this new digital future. Take a look at this agenda from an INMA conference in 2009, or this presentation from de Persgroep.

Everyone was scrambling to understand this new world of digital media, and the media needed help now more than ever because the confusion was almost total. But I had 13 years of experience, not only with publishing digitally, but also with digital transformations.

Granted, my experience came from outside the media industry, but this was exactly what all these publishers needed. They needed someone to come from outside the media world to help them understand it all ... and this was what Baekdal Plus was (and is) all about.

So, I knew I had the right model, but I just didn't have the right audience, and I had no reputation or network within the media industry. I had to build up all that from scratch.

This took a very long time to do. For the next few years, I was bleeding money, and I very nearly went bankrupt. I had spent all my savings. But after three years, I finally became cash flow positive.

I also started getting known in the media industry. Publishers started contacting me to help them. These projects came in all shapes and sizes. Some were just meetings, others were 1-2 hour presentations, but most of them were writing strategy reviews or media trend reports related to that specific publisher. Most of these reports are in the 30-40 page range, some were shorter, but a few of them have been massive behemoths up to 200 pages in length. I was even asked to write a full book for a client at one point.

And so, I no longer have a million visitors per month, but today, Baekdal Plus is profitable, and it's growing a few percentage points each year. I recently looked up how much I have published on Baekdal Plus, and it's now more than 2 million words over 10,000+ pages.

So, the past ten years have been quite an adventure... but also insanely stressful and frustrating when things didn't go well.

Learning what it means to be media

The past ten years have also been an incredible learning experience. In fact, as a media analyst, learning is something that never stops. You have to constantly learn new things to stay relevant.

However, there are a few things I learned over the years that really changed my approach and view of the media.

The first thing is that people's behavior is almost always the most important element, and the motivation for that behavior defines how the media works.

I have focused on behavior almost from the very start, but back in 2010, I did it in a much more simplistic way. To give you a good example, back in 2010, I was talking about the future of ebooks where I said they would overtake the printed book (which turned out to be wrong).

The reason was that I was looking at graphs like the one below (from Amazon), which at the time, clearly showed us that people were shifting to digital. I believed that we would likely see a decline in printed books once people got used to using an iPad or a Kindle.

I mean, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable prediction at the time.

However, what I forgot to consider was the motivation for reading a book. People don't read a book because they wanted to be online or be digital. Instead, people usually read a book as a way to disconnect and relax.

And so what actually happened was this:

Yes, there was a decline, but as the digital world started to overwhelm people, they started to come back to the printed book because it gave them a way to disconnect from it all.

This is the difference between just looking at behavior in the data and looking at the motivation for why people want to do something. But it also explains why other formats have been growing too. Think about audiobooks or podcasts. They have been growing at an amazing rate over the past many years.

Why is that? Is it because of the format?

No, not really. The reason why people love audiobooks and podcasts is because it gives people a way to listen to a book while doing other things. So, you can listen while you go shopping, while exercising, cooking, cleaning, or while commuting (back when we didn't have a pandemic). In other words, the motivation is to be able to do those things in those moments. This is what defined this trend. It's not really that it's audio.

So a key thing I have learned is for publishers to design for that deeper behavior, the format comes after.

It's the same thing with news. We can look at the data and it will tell us that a huge amount of people are predominantly getting their daily news via social channels. So, what does that mean? Does that mean that this is what people want? No, not really.

Think about what behavior people have when getting news via social channels. They are not having a 'news moment'. They are just going to Facebook because they are having a break and feeling a bit bored, and then they are skimming through their newsfeed. At some point, they come across a random news article, which is usually about something that is creating outrage because that's what Facebook's algorithm will show more of.

This is not a news moment. You are not actually consuming news.

This was the same thing I noticed when I studied the effect of news fatigue (more about that here).

And so when I see studies today giving some data about what people are doing, I have learned that the data itself (while useful to know) is not what defines what really matters.

Another thing I have learned over the past ten years are the many intricacies of the press ... in both good and bad ways. When I started Baekdal Plus, I knew very little about actual journalism. So, I had to learn about that.

This has changed my view on journalism in many ways. For one thing, I have an even stronger commitment to the role of journalism today than in 2010. I believe journalism is essential for society and I have seen so many incredible forms of journalism. I have seen the rise of solution and entrepreneurial journalism, and I have seen the power of community journalism

But I have also experienced the problems. The many places where the traditional style of reporting is directly causing harm to the public, misleading our understanding of the world, and many other problems.

I wrote about just one example of this when I talked about Black Lives Matter news coverage earlier this year. Or look at COVID-19 coverage. While there have been many good articles, as the press, we have also confused things with our 'both sides' focus to such an extent that we are helping the virus continue to spread.

I have seen how we in the press have massively polarized the public, delayed climate action with endless debates with climate deniers, and I have seen how we have helped right-wing fanatics gain fame by providing them with endless exposure.

But most of all, I have seen how our style of journalism has overburdened the public to such an extent that it leaves them in a state of fear and shock. This has led to the rise of news fatigue and news avoidance; a problem that seems to be getting worse every day.

I didn't know about any of these things when I started Baekdal Plus in 2010, but after ten years, I have learned that these are perhaps the most important of all in defining the future of news.

What never changed?

When I started writing this article about a month ago, I asked my friends on Twitter if there was a question I should include? I got a few questions (and I am planning separate articles about some of these), but there was particularly one I want to include here:

It was:

What has stubbornly not changed in 10 years that you wished would surely have changed by now?

Obviously, there are a lot of things that I wish we could change faster in the media industry, but there are specifically three things, where not only do I wish we could change them, but where I also don't understand why it hasn't happened yet.

The first thing is advertising. I find it astonishing that the media industry is still using an advertising model from the mid-1990s. What I'm talking about are the banner ads.

Here are some from the Independent, but we see this from almost every newspaper. Why are we still using them?

Banner ads (or programmatic display ads as the industry like to pretend they are called) are the worst thing ever. They have, by far, the worst performance of any ad format in the world, everyone hates them, and most people are completely blind to them.

On top of this, the ad tech market is massively hurting the media industry. We have all these different layers of ad tech, most of which are not needed and just exist to take a cut of the money, there is an endless amount of ad fraud, and we do not even know where about 14% of the revenue goes. It just disappears into the void.

Then we have the problems with privacy, which the public does not want, which our own journalists are exposing on a weekly basis, with third-party personal profiling. A problem that has caused the EU to introduce laws to try to stop it, which we as publishers have implemented with reader-hostile GDPR warnings where we are literally trying to trick our readers into getting tracked.

I mean... what?!?!? Why are we doing this?

When I started Baekdal Plus in 2010, we saw the collapse of banner ads. So back then, we needed to find a new and better way to generate ad revenue. But instead, most publishers have done nothing, while a few of the big companies have set up their programmatic display advertising units, basically doing exactly the same as before.

In the media, we have taken a model that was already out of date in 2010, and that everyone wanted us to change (including the media industry itself), and then over the past decade, we have turned it into something that is even worse.

I don't understand this.

The second thing I wish had changed more in the past ten years is the focus on audience engagement. This is actually an area that has changed a lot. Many publishers now have audience engagement teams, and some of them have even embedded them directly into their newsrooms.

This is good, but we are still so far from where we should be.

The problem I have with the way publishers talk about audience engagement is that it's still considered a separate function, and often delegated to a separate team. This is not how you do audience engagement at all.

As I mentioned earlier, I came to the media world from the outside, and started my career in the fashion industry, and here, the way we thought about customer engagement was integrated into everything you do, at every level.

What I mean is that, at a fashion company, every person is acting to create the best experience for the customer. The designers are trying to come up with something the customers like the look of, the constructors are trying to make it fit perfectly, have the right materials, so that the experience and ease of using the clothes is as good as possible. The buying team is trying to source the best quality and price to make something people can afford to buy, the marketing team is obviously trying to appeal to the public, the retail and web shop teams are trying to make the buying of the product as perfect as possible, and the shipping team will make the shipping and return experience as great as possible.

Every single person at a fashion company is a part of the customer/audience engagement.

But in the media industry, I rarely see this. Instead, only a very small team has this specific job, while everyone else seems to not even consider the audience at all.

The problem here is that, in the media industry, we have developed a culture that listening to our audiences or trying to solve the needs of our readers is a bad thing. Over the past ten years, I have lost count of how many times I have had journalists or editors tell me that audience engagement should not influence the newsroom because, "It would lead us to produce low quality news."

No, people. This is fundamentally not true. The public does not want bad news. The public wants good news. In fact, if you look at the trends around news fatigue and news avoidance, you will see that the cause of this is overwhelmingly that people wish we were doing a much better job as journalists.

So, if you think that listening to the public means you will be forced to produce worse news, you are not doing it right. And after ten years of Baekdal Plus, I wish this culture in the press had changed much more than it has.

Finally, the last thing I wish had changed more is the media's unwillingness to invent new media products and challenge what journalism is all about.

When newspapers were first invented, every one of them was started by entrepreneurs trying to solve the problem of helping people get informed. Today, this problem has not only been solved, but now we have the opposite problem. People are so over-informed that we are burning people out with the news.

Let me tell you something crazy. Between February and November (in 2020), the 11 largest news sites in the US had a combined total of 47,130 mentions of Trump on their front pages.

Think about how crazy that is. Is this really what the public needs or wants? Is this really the best news product we can make?

It's the same thing when we look at magazines. What actual problem are you solving, what need are you fulfilling for your readers? If you want to be an entrepreneurial journalist, would you do any of this?

I'm reminded here of a recent study from Reuter's Institute. It asked the public whether they thought the COVID-19 situation had been made better or worse by how we covered it in the media. Only 7% responded that it had improved.

So, there is a 93% potential in the market for coming up with a better approach and a better form of media. The world is screaming for the next generation of entrepreneurial journalists.

The next 10 years

This was a look back at the first decade of Baekdal Plus. It has been an incredible journey.

There have been extremely bad days filled with stress, frustration, and even anger ... days where I was ready to give it all up to become a sheep-herder in Northern Scotland just to get away from it all. But there have also been days that have been so amazing that I had to pinch myself to check if I weren't dreaming.

The next ten years are going to be exciting as well. We are moving into a very different future than what we had in 2010. Back then it was about the transformation from print to digital, but the next ten years will be about the transformation of journalism itself.

This is a much more difficult problem to solve, but... as I have tried to do for the past ten years, I will do whatever I can to prepare you for the year 2030.

Thank you so much to everyone who has been with me so far. I hope I can live up to your expectations for the next ten years as well.

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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