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By Thomas Baekdal - February 2022

What paywall models work, and for what? And are we still informing people?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free).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, I have a few exciting things for you. First, we need to talk about paid-for media. Then we are going to talk about whether news is actually informing people, and finally, a story about the steps I had to take to make my servers carbon neutral.


Known to work: What paywall models work, and for what?

I have started a series called 'known to work', where I talk about concepts, trends, and strategies that we have enough data and real world examples for, and now we are going to talk about paid-for media.

The first article was published back in November, where I talked about how publishers should set their metered paywall, and how the newsroom focus relates to that. But that article opened up many questions about how we actually define paid-for media.

Many people think about paid-for media as a paywall. And yes, it can be a paywall, but paid-for media is really about any type of strategy focusing on getting people to pay in one form or another.

So, in this second article, I have written an update on the different ways we can define a paid-for strategy. So take a look at: Known to work: What paywall models work, and for what?


Do you feel informed?

As a media person, you probably think the question in the headline above is silly because, as newspapers, we publish hundreds of news stories every day.

But the question I ask is not really about whether we (as media people) feel informed, but whether the public does. What happens when people come to a newspaper today? I would argue that, today, people don't feel informed.

I want you to think about something. Back in the old days of print, the newspapers provided a daily package of news from the day before. And as we flipped through the pages, we got a very good and focused summary of the most important stories.

In fact, we ranked the importance of those stories based on where they were published. The articles at the front of the paper, and at the front of each section were the more important topics.

This was great because it meant that every day we got this very good overall picture of the world around us.

But now think about the digital world. How does a modern newspaper site work? Well, in theory we do the same thing, but the speed of it has just massively accelerated.

I want to give you an example of something I noticed many times during this pandemic. Here in Denmark, the authorities release the latest COVID data at exactly 2pm each day. And this is fine if you then check the news at 2:05pm because then you will see a top headline about it on the front page.

But what happens if you don't have time to check the news at exactly 2pm? What if you instead wait until after work, like, say, you only check the news at 7pm? That's only five hours later, what does the front page look like then?

Well... below is a full-page screenshot of one of the largest news sites in my country, taken at 7pm, where I blanked out every story that wasn't about COVID. It's 98.6% blank.

But also notice how far down the page the stories are, and how tiny they are.

Think about what this means. At 2pm, there was a big COVID story at the top of the page, but only five hours later, they were reduced to ... well... nothing, and something else has taken their place.

The result is that if someone decided to only check the news once they get home from work, or the next morning... it's nearly impossible to find out whatever happened with the pandemic.

And this, of course, is not just about COVID. We do this to every story. We report about things the moment they happen, but then, just a few hours later, they are gone.

Here is another example.

Handball is a very popular sport in Europe, and on the night before I wrote this newsletter, we had a really big match as part of the European Championship. But, I didn't have time to watch it, nor did I read the news that evening.

Instead, I read the news first thing the next morning (around 6:30), and these were the stories on the front page.

I mean... whut? Did they lose? It kind of sounds like they did, but the newspaper doesn't directly say. In fact, the most prominent story isn't even about the game as such. It's an article where the sports commentator is grading the performance of players. So, it's a follow-up article to the follow-up of the game.

So, I check the news first thing in the morning... and I just don't feel informed. In comparison, if I had checked the news at 8pm (right after the match), then I would be told that we lost the game.

Here is a screenshot of what that looked like:

This is a really big problem because it undermines the value of news. We never had this problem with the morning print newspapers because it was designed to give people a summary of the day before. So if there was a sports match the evening before, the morning newspaper would say: "Spain defeated Denmark by four goals!" right on the front page.

But in the digital world, we have turned news into just another endless stream of stories, and unless you happen to check the news exactly when something happens, you will have a really hard time trying to figure out what was actually going on.

I also came across this problem back in 2019 when I did my analysis and experiment around news fatigue. What I did was that I cut myself off from the news for a month, taking a screen shot each day of the front pages, and then a month later, I went to all these screenshots to read about what I had missed.

What I discovered was that basically none of the stories had any significance or value. A month later, it just didn't matter, and the stories were written in such a way that it wasn't informative either. It was just glimpses of random news of whatever had happened the moment the screenshot was taken.

I think this is a really big problem. I don't have any data or studies to support my assumption, but I think this contributes to why so many people don't want to pay for news.

The best analogy I can give is to imagine that a friend is saying they are reading a good book. And so you ask: "Oh... what is it about?" ... and then they just send you this.

As the snake slid swiftly past him, Harry could have sworn a low, hissing voice said, "Brazil, here I come. . . . Thanksss, amigo."
The keeper of the reptile house was in shock.
But the glass," he kept saying, "where did the glass go?

And so, I look at this and say: "Uh... whut? What is this?" ... and they say: "This is where I am in the book!"

This is what we are doing with news online. We are not informing our audience about the news. We are just giving people a glimpse of the story as we work our way through it. Worse than that, we have created a world where the lifespan of a news story is so short that it barely lasts a few hours.

We need to change this trend. This is not good for us, nor is it good for the public.


Renewable publishing

Finally, some news from me. Baekdal Plus is now hosted on a carbon neutral platform powered by renewable energy (well, kind of).

I talked about this back in December, where I wrote about the importance of publishers to 'lead the way'. We can't just write about climate change, we also have to be climate conscious and show that we are prepared to do what we preach. If we are to hold others to account for their climate impact, then we have to be sure we are doing even better.

As such, I said that I would make Baekdal Media carbon neutral in 2022, and my servers were an obvious place to start, since server farms are a huge contributor to our total energy consumption.

So the first thing I did was to contact Rackspace (where my old server was hosted), and I simply asked them to give me an estimate of the CO₂ impact of my servers. They replied that they couldn't do that on a server level, so ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Then I asked them to detail their overall climate plans, and after a bit of back and forth (it really felt like I was the first one to ever ask them that question), they sent me a document that said they aimed to be carbon neutral in 2045.

I mean, sure, that's five years before the 2050 deadline set by the UN, but ... it's really not good enough. I'm not going to wait 23 years for this.

So then my journey started to find another hosting platform, and this very quickly became a game of frustration and false promises. There are many hosting companies who now claim to be carbon neutral, but almost all of them are based on carbon offsetting.

There are good and bad forms of carbon offsetting, of course, but also a market filled with scams, false data, double-counting, and it's almost always used by rich western companies to just pay some money without actually doing anything to minimize their own impact.

Let me give you a simple example that I came across in my studies. In South America, some farmers would first buy a plot of forest land, cut down all the trees, sell the lumber, and then get wealthy European companies to pay them to replant the land ... claiming they are carbon offsetting.

I mean... Come on!

Another example I came across a lot was false definitions of the impact of tree planting. For instance, one hosting company promised carbon neutral hosting by planting the number of trees needed to offset how much CO₂ the servers created.

The calculation was that one tree captures one ton of CO₂, so if the server creates 4 ton, it means that they would plant 4 trees.

Here is the problem with this calculation. One tree does not capture one ton of CO₂ per year. Instead, a mature tree only captures 48 pounds per year ... a mature tree. And since trees are not mature when they are planted, it takes them many years before they even get to that level. In fact, It's estimated that it takes 100 years before an average tree absorbs one ton of CO₂.

So, if a hosting company plants 4 trees in 2022, because your servers are emitting 4 tons of CO₂, you are basically doing nothing. A newly planted tree is only going to remove a few grams of CO₂. And by 2050, well, by then it might have matured, but then it's only removing 48 pounds per tree per year.

So, any company who is offering you to be carbon neutral in 2022 because they are planting a tree is lying. That's not how it works, and it's not going to solve the problem we face in time.

Don't get me wrong. Planting more trees is important, and we should plant more all the time. In fact, last year, I donated to plant 100 trees, which will eventually have an effect. But we just can't use it as an argument for what we are doing right now.

Instead, I found a hosting company that is carbon neutral because of what it is actually using. They are doing four things.

First of all, they are powered by renewable energy:

Secondly, they have taken steps to reduce their energy footprint.

They are focused on their other activities as well.

And finally, they are also carbon offsetting.

Again, tree planting is still problematic here (although they have planted quite a lot of trees), but what interested me more were the other areas they are funding. This includes funding of solar, wind, and hydro power plants in India, Indonesia, Taiwan, and other countries. This is important because, unlike trees, these other areas of focus have a real effect right now.

If we can help reduce the use of coal power in India, then that's a real-world effect.

So, this is now the new hosting platform for Baekdal Plus. And here is an extra tidbit for you. When I started this project, I expected it to be more expensive, and I was prepared to pay more money to have a green hosting platform.

However, it turned out to be much cheaper. In fact, it is five times cheaper than the old server that I had at Rackspace.

It just goes to show that it is possible to do the right thing now, and it's not the price that is preventing it.

Obviously, this is only the first step. My servers are the single biggest CO₂ contributor for my company, but I still need to figure out what to do about the other things ... and also how to calculate it.

I don't really travel anymore, nor do I own a car, so the CO₂ emissions from that are already zero. So, what's left are all the little things that are hard to define.

Anyway, I hope this story was interesting and maybe it has inspired you to go on the same journey.

One of the most important elements of fixing the climate is consumer demand. When I canceled my servers at Rackspace, I told them that I did it because they couldn't provide a green hosting solution within a reasonable time. And if more people start to do this, companies around the world will realize that being green is a competitive necessity, and that change will boost our climate recovery.

If companies start saying: "we can't buy our electricity from the coal plants because then our customers won't use our products", that's going to accelerate this transition more than anything.

Obviously, Baekdal Plus is just a tiny company, and by itself has basically zero impact. But that's not the point. The point is that together we create a change in demand.


Want to know more?

Don't forget to check out the paywall report in my new 'known to work' series, where we explore strategies that we have clear evidence for.

And also, I wrote an analysis of what trends to focus on in 2022:


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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