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By Thomas Baekdal - September 2019

Why news works better in some countries; Let's talk average news ... and more

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back. It's the end of summer (or winter for my friends in the southern hemisphere). In this edition of the newsletter, we are going to talk about the things that prevent publishers from getting subscribers.

We will talk about:

Why do publishers do better in some countries?

There is an interesting question that often comes up, which is "why do newspapers in one country work better than in another country?". Obviously, this is not an easy question to answer, but in my latest Plus article I run through some of the key differences that I have observed over the past many years.

Differences that, when you combine them, all help drive a different type of news reading culture, like what we see in Norway where subscription rates are much better. And I go into all aspects of publishing: external and internal; from the newsroom, to the business side; and even the user-experience problems that often cause a high level of drop-off.

So take a look at "Why do publishers do better in some countries?"

What is the average news reader?

One of the books I have been reading lately is by Matt Parker, who is a stand up mathematician (part comedian, part mathematician).

He has written the book Humble Pi, which is a collection of many of the maths and data errors that have inflicted our world over the years. And if you are a geek like me, it's quite an amusing book.

However, one of the stories caught my attention as a media analyst. He talked about how the US Air Force discovered that nobody is average.

To summarize, back in the 1950s when the US Air Force began to develop fighter jets, they needed to change the cockpit layout and the clothes of their pilots. During the Second World War, pilot uniforms were baggy and the cockpits were spacious, but this wouldn't work in the new, much more streamlined fighter jets.

And so they sent out a team of measurers to 14 different air force bases, measuring a total of 4,063 personnel, each being measured in 132 different ways.

The idea here was to then take all of these measurements, find the average (or more precisely the mean and the deviation from that mean) and then design the new cockpits and uniforms around that.

However, when they did this, they learned that while they could calculate the average, no pilots would fit into that. In other words, they discovered that no one is average.

This realization has dramatically changed the way the US Air Force approached design. Today, instead of designing for an average, which everyone has to try to fit into, modern fighter jets are designed around flexibility and modularity.

And this concept is not unique to the US Air Force. We see the same thing with things like Formula 1. Every race car is fitted to their individual drivers, with custom formed seats, and steering wheels that are individually designed for just that one driver.

You would never just install a standard seat and then try to get every racing driver to sit in that. That wouldn't create a very optimal working environment.

The reason I tell you this story is because it translates to what we do in the media. The traditional publications in particular are all designed around the print mentality, where you just create one package for a mass-market. Or, in other words, newspapers today are designed as being average news for average people.

But if you start to think about this, none of that makes sense. People don't have an average news need. No one is average, and every person has different needs, different topics that are more relevant to them, and so forth.

So, the question here is, why are we still designing average news? Especially since we can see that it leads to very low levels of relevance for the public.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why most publishers have so much trouble converting people. The news we bring just isn't very relevant for any one individual.

So, you ask, does this mean we should do personalization?

Well, not really. Personalization generally doesn't work for news because you're starting off with a non-focused product. Instead, we need to think about flexibility of how we can use news, and the modularity of it.

I want you to start thinking about the very concept of a newspaper. What if the news was not a bunch of random stories for everyone to read?

What would that look like?

Drive-by awfulness

I want to end this newsletter on a more serious note. I want to talk about a problem that we have with social channels and how we bring news to them.

Several months ago, I created an episode for my podcast about news avoidance and news fatigue. In it, I explained what I experienced when I tried not reading the news at all for an entire month (yes, I know, crazytalk :))

This experience changed the way I look at the news, but also the way I look at media consumption in general, and I have come to the conclusion that the way we consume media today is not healthy. The problem is that we are constantly on edge, because we never know when something bad will come our way.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

In the old days, before the internet, the public consumed media in very defined media moments, where the moment and focus of the media was aligned.

For instance, in the morning, you might look at the morning newspapers. This was a news moment, so you were expecting and mentally prepared to see something negative (because that is what newspapers often focus on).

But then later you might sit down with your favorite magazine, maybe it was a sailing magazine, and so you would have a focused moment around yachts, sailing and other such delightfulness.

Then in the evening, you would sit down to watch a movie or a TV show, and the type of movie you chose to watch defined what moment it was. So, if you sat down to watch Groundhog Day, you had a comedy moment, and if you instead decided to watch Alien, you had a horror moment. And both of them would be enjoyable, because you are mentally prepared for it. You knew that you were about to see a horror movie, so while it would be scary, you were not emotionally worried about it.

In other words, in the old days, we defined what type of moment we wanted to have in advance!

But in the digital world we have completely lost this concept, and Twitter is one of the worst examples. On Twitter, you never know what you are going to see next. One second you see a funny tweet from Kitten Academy, and the next you see a tweet about someone dying after their release from one of the US concentration camps for refugees.

This means that you have no control over your moment, which in turn means that you have to be constantly on edge because you never know how bad the next tweet might be. But it also keeps you in a constant outrage mode.

In fact, I just forced you to have this exact type of moment (and my apologies for doing that). Here you were just having a good time reading a newsletter, but then I forced the tweet above into your face.

How did that make you feel? Do you now feel more uneasy, more outraged, more on edge?

When you start thinking about this, it's terrible in every way,

Imagine if, at any time and regardless of what you were doing, someone could come up to you and scare you. How would that make you feel?

It's not a surprise that people feel the world is getting worse, even though it isn't. We have created a form of communication where constantly being on edge is the new normal.

And I worry what this is doing to us, to the public as a whole, to our democracies where people are increasingly voting based on outrage and fear, and to the way people interact with the world.

But, of course, Twitter isn't the only one doing this. In fact, most of the 'outrage tweets' that people see (like the one from CNN above) are media related.

And we also do this outside of social media. Here I'm thinking about notifications (screenshot from here).

Here we are doing the exact same thing as Twitter. People are just minding their own business, having fun, doing work, watching TV, exercising, playing with their kids ... but at any second, you might send them a notification that tells them something awful about the world.

This is why I call this drive-by awfulness. You are just having your own moment, and then ... BANG!! ... now you feel terrible and outraged about something you can't even do anything about.

It's just terrible, because it means that people are no longer reading the news within a defined moment of news learning. Instead, it has become an outrage machine, based on news snacking, that is emotionally and psychologically putting you constantly on edge.

As I said in the beginning, I became much more aware of this problem after my experiment with news fatigue and avoidance. Because this is what that trend is really all about.

When people choose to avoid the news, it's not because they don't care about it. It's because we have turned it into something that isn't useful. We are not giving people a defined moment of news value.

And I worry about this. I think we are losing one of the most important elements of news, and from a trend perspective, we are seeing an increasing number of people who choose to not subscribe to news at all because of it.

I want you to think about this. I want you to think about this as a publisher and how you design your news product. But also importantly, I want you to think about this personally.

How many times are you having your personal moments broken by drive-by awfulness? How many times do you feel outraged? How often do you feel on edge?

It's time for us to change this.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. 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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