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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2018

Episode 007: Let's talk about innovation

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In this episode, we are going to talk about three things.

First we will talk a little bit about podcasting itself. A lot of people have asked me about my experience with this, and I just wanted to very quickly answer some of these questions.

Then we are going to talk about innovation for publishers. Or more specifically, why publishers are so bad at it. There is a secret to doing innovation the right way, and I'm going to tell you what that is.

And finally, I'm going to do a little bit of a follow-up to my latest Plus article about why print audiences don't translate to digital the way we think. I wrote a much longer Plus article about this, but every time I talk about it, people start to argue that print was worth much more than what I suggest.

I'm going to tell you why this isn't the case, because we really need to get away from this mindset that digital isn't worth anything. It's not helping anything, and there is a much better way to think about this.

So, put on a good pair of walking shoes, and your best pair of headphones, and just go out for a walk while listening ... and let's get started.


The trend and process of podcasting

I have a plan to either write or maybe record a much longer episode just about podcasting, but I feel I need to do a lot more experimenting first. But I have learned a few things about podcasting that I think are worth sharing now.

Before I get into that, there has been a lot of talk about the future of podcasting on 'media Twitter', and people have very mixed opinions about it.

Let me tell you how I look at this.

From a trend perspective, I'm seeing a very strong future for podcasting, where podcasting will become a very important element in your portfolio of things that you do.

As we all know, there is no single model for media anymore, and the most successful publishers are those that have multiple revenue streams, multiple formats, and multiple focus areas, so that you can give people the best experience for the best moments.

Podcasting is one of those moments, just as email newsletters is another such moment. But there are many others.

What's important to understand is that podcasting is never really going to be your primary source of revenue, unless you do something that's specifically focused around voice.

So, I often hear publishers say that their podcasting didn't work because they couldn't 'scale it enough', but that's not the point. Podcasts exist in the same form of media as newsletters, and you don't just create one big newsletter for everything. You create more specific niche newsletters that have a much higher value for a more defined audience.

It's the same with podcasts. Except in a few cases, the role of a podcast is not to be a generalized mass-market distribution platform. Instead, its role is to be a form of seriously high value content that your most loyal audience will love.

As such, the revenue potential for a podcast isn't really to drive most of the revenue itself. Instead, it's to drive reader satisfaction and to help you become a much more valuable publisher as a whole.

So, from a trend perspective, I'm seeing a very promising future for podcasts, especially since people now have more and more moments where they just want to listen to something.

But it's not a trend that will drive traffic. It's a trend that will drive value.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you shouldn't try to get more people to listen to you. We all need to do that all the time, but don't try to turn your podcast into a traffic driver. That's not going to work, and if that's your goal you are going to be very disappointed about the outcome.

It's the same with this podcast. Obviously, I would love to have a million listeners, but I'm not trying to do that. The purpose of this podcast is to be a form of extra value to my Plus subscribers.

When I first launched this podcast, I talked about this great plan I had for what I wanted to do, but it very quickly turned out that it simply wasn't practical.

I basically have three challenges.

First of all, my focus is on analysis, which means I'm not just standing in front of a microphone and then telling you what I think. Everything I talk about is planned and analyzed. For instance, this podcast took me two days just to plan and analyze before I even started recording it.

This sounds crazy when you listen to it, but think about what I just told you about the trend for podcasting. This is not just my opinion about it. I have spent a lot of time looking at trends, what people are saying, what the public is doing, in order to come to that conclusion.

So, it only took me a few minutes to explain, and I did it very quickly, but I spent a day just analyzing it. And this is true for everything that I do.

Secondly, I have a lot of technical problems with my podcast, specifically around noise. My home is just the worst place for podcasting, because there are cars, planes, helicopters, washing machines, ventilation systems, dogs outside, that just constantly get in the way of a good recording.

For instance, as I'm recording this, I had to stop because a big black helicopter decided to just hover over my part of the city for about an hour ... and the microphone picked it up.

Finally, as you may have noticed, I'm a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes to a fault. I'm spending way too much time with details that people probably never even notice.

Let me give you an example. I have been experimenting with sound isolation to get as clear a recording as possible, and it's fascinating just how big a difference this makes.

Here are three recordings, all recorded in my home office, but with different levels of sound isolation.

All of these are the pure sound, but I did do a little bit of editing in removing mouth clicks and de-plosives (like when you say 'ph' too close to the microphone).

First, here is what my voice sounds like if I just record without any sound isolation at all (well, except for a few acoustic panels that don't really do much).

Okay, so how did this sound to you? It probably sounded okay. And to most people this would be fine for a podcast. But you probably also noticed the echo that was in my room, the reverb as it is called.

I could try to edit this out in post, but it's never really that perfect.

So, what I do is that I take 14 cm foam blocks, which are actually just seat cushions from my couch, and I place those on either side of where I'm recording.

The result is this:

This sounds a lot better. Without all that reverb, my voice becomes much crisper, but also, it sounds much closer to you.

But we can take this a step further. If I also put foam blocks on top of the other blocks, so that I create a kind of cave, we can almost completely remove all those unwanted echos.

And here is what this sounds like:

BTW: Here is what that looks like:

It's astonishing how big a difference it makes. Again, here is before:

And here is after:

Now, I also went a step further and tried putting the blanket from my bed on top of all of this as well, so that I was completely cocooned on all sides.

The result of that, however, is a voice that sounds a bit 'dead'. It doesn't have any play in it.

But here is what that sounds like.

I find all of this to be really fascinating, but it really makes an astonishing difference to the quality of your voice.

It's like photography. If someone asks you what the best advice is for taking great photos, the answer isn't really to get a better camera. Instead, the quality of your photos is all about the light.

If you have really good lighting, you can use any smartphone, even an old one, to take astonishingly good photos.

It's the same thing with podcasting. You don't need a super-expensive microphone, because the real quality comes from the sound isolation and the post processing. By investing in some sound blankets and some acoustic panels ... or like I do, use your couch cushions, you can dramatically change the quality.

The other thing you want to invest in is some type of noise editing app. You can do a lot of this in Adobe Audition, but there are also many other tools out there that can do a much better job at this.

I personally use an app called iZotope RX 6. It's expensive, but it really makes it easy to remove unwanted clicks, hums, background noise, and many other things.

But, the problem, of course, is that it takes time to do all of this, and you might argue that I'm being way too finicky about it. And you are probably right.

But here is the thing. Once you start doing this, there is no turning back. I actually tried taking a lot of shortcuts in my previous episode, where I just tried to quickly fix all the problems in post ... but the result was terrible. And that's why I put a lot of time into this.

Of course, this also means that I have a bit of a problem with scheduling. I was hoping that I could do a podcast every week, but it's simply not possible with all the other things I'm doing.

As you know, I write 25 Plus reports per year, each being 30-40 pages long. I write a number of free articles for people who aren't subscribers. I also have a newsletter, and I write an article for a Swedish business magazine every month. I have this podcast, and then... on top of all this, I sometimes also do consulting as a media analyst, where I mostly do strategic reviews or trend analysis about things that my clients are planning to do.

The result is that I don't know when my next podcast is going to come out. I'm trying to do a podcast after each Plus report, which means that I'm aiming for about 20 or so episodes per year, but I don't set a specific deadline.

Anyway, this was a bit of insight into my workflow around this podcast, I hope it answered some of the questions people have been asking. As I said, I plan to do an episode or an article in the future where I go into much more detail about podcasting.

Now, let's change the topic and talk about innovation.


The secret to innovation

Over the past couple of months, I have had several discussions with people in and around the media industry about things that related to innovation, or more specifically, the lack thereof.

Most recently, I had a somewhat lengthy debate with a journalist from the New York Times who was writing an article about Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, and what the New York Times asked was whether Craig was responsible for the demise of US newspapers.

The article is already out, and if you happen to have seen it, you will know that I very strongly said that Craig is not responsible at all.

I have already written a lengthy article where I go into the details about what is really happening to US newspapers, and I will link to that in the show notes.

But let's talk about innovation and why Craigslist wasn't responsible for the demise of the classified market in the US.

So, as you know, in the good old days, the way you could buy and sell used goods were extremely limiting and quite expensive.

In the small town where I grew up, there were basically only two ways of doing this. One way was to advertise in the local newspaper, where you could buy a classified ad. This was quite expensive, not just because of the ad itself, but also because if you wanted to do anything extra, like adding a picture or emphasizing some text, you would have to pay even more.

The other way was that, in many different places around the town, there were notice boards put where people could place a piece of paper with whatever it was that they wanted to sell. For instance, the local sports club had a notice board outside the stadium, the local supermarket had a notice board in the entryway to the store, the local sailing club had a notice board for its members and so on.

The problem, of course, with all of these, was that they were incredibly limiting. They were limited in scope, in time, and other things.

So, during the 80s and 90s, as technology started to advance, people wanted something better, and all around the world different people came up with more efficient solutions.

In my country, for instance, this happened 10 years before Craigslist, when a race car driver and a business person realized that they could offer people a much cheaper form of classified ads by creating a print newspaper just about that. In fact, they realized that they could afford to make it free, because they didn't have to worry about the cost of journalism.

You still had to buy the physical paper for about half a dollar, but the ads themselves were free.

And not surprisingly, this completely changed the market for classified ads, because here you could advertise in a national newspaper (with no journalism), for free, whereas before you had to spend a lot of money and you were limited to only a local newspaper.

That made a big difference, and they quickly took over this market.

So... what did the newspapers do about this obvious trend that was happening very clearly all around them?

Well, as we all know, the answer was nothing. Or rather, they started complaining and pointing fingers, and generally being moody about the whole thing. But the newspaper industry itself didn't do anything to capture this shift in the market.

The reason why was obvious, it was because the local newspaper industry was culturally prevented from innovating.

So why was that?

Well... first of all, since classified advertising was such a good revenue stream, they had no desire to change it. In fact, any form of change was seen as a threat.

This was a critical factor, because this is the secret element of all types of innovation. You can't just innovate at random. Innovation happens when you have a desire to change something.

For instance, Apple and Google are currently doing a lot of fascinating things around health. For example, Google's health AI is now capable of identifying breast cancer at a much earlier stage and at a 99% success rate.

This is astonishing, because it means that Google is now better at identifying breast cancer than any doctor or hospital.

But the reason why Google has been able to innovate this way, is because they want things to change, and they have a clear idea about what they wanted to do.

And this is the key to innovation. Innovation is not something you do by having a meeting where you tell people to innovate. Instead, innovation happens because you want something to change, and because you know what you want things to change into.

The problem with newspapers is that they don't think this way. In the 1990s, even when their very profitable classified market was shifting to other platforms, they still didn't think about change, or what the public wanted, or how to create a better product.

They just wanted things to stay as they were. So... there was no innovation, because they didn't have the culture or the mindset. They never wanted things to change.

The sad thing about this is that this is still true today. This is still how most publishers think about their markets. While we have seen some changes in relation to how people are paying for news, which is wonderful, nothing has actually changed from an editorial or a product perspective. Newspapers are still defining themselves exactly the way they have always done.

And, the problem again is that there is generally no desire in the industry to change things. At best, publishers are only talking about optimizing things, which is the opposite of changing things. Because when you merely optimize, you are only trying to improve what you are already doing. You not trying to change it.

So, even today, the media industry are still completely failing to innovate.

What we see instead is what I would call 'pretending to innovate'. The way this works is that you go to conferences, without any clear idea about what you want, and then you see someone talking about VR and you say "Oh yes, let's make an article in VR."

But this is not innovation. This is just playing around with tech. True innovation, the type of innovation that really makes a difference, is when you desire a change. But that's not what is happening here.

And this is a cultural problem.

But there is also another problem.

The problem, for instance, with classified advertising was that local newspapers never considered it to be their primary focus. It was always secondary to the newsroom.

None of the journalists, none of the editors, and often not even the Editor in Chief, ever considered classified ads as anything else than something that just existed to pay for their journalism.

As such, the people in charge of classified advertising weren't really in charge at all. They had no say in the future strategy of the newspaper.

As far as I remember, the person in charge of classified ads for the newspaper in my local town was the receptionist who answered the phone when people called to place an ad.

She would write down what people wanted, and then hand it off to some layout person who just put it into their standard template.

I mean, just think about this.

The people who worked with classified advertising, every day, had no interest or focus to try to innovate how it worked.

None.

And the combination of these two things, of how publishers didn't want to change, and how the people working with classifieds were separated from the real focus, was what caused the newspapers to lose this market.

We can't blame this on anyone else. This was 100% our own mistake. We, in the media industry, failed to listen to the market, or to even have an interest in something that defined so much of our revenue.

So, if we want to change this, we need to do two things.

First of all, publishers need to stop thinking about their revenue streams as 'secondary' to their newsroom. That's not going to work.

What the internet did was to eliminate the barrier to entry, which means that all the new startups are winning because they define their focus as the primary thing everyone is focusing on.

If you as a publisher try to compete with that, by doing it as a secondary extra, disconnected from your real focus ... you are gonna lose that market.

The world that we live in today only has primary markets.

Secondly, there needs to be a culture shift, where change becomes the thing that everyone wants to happen.

Take a company like Amazon. Every single employee, from the lowest ranks (well, except for the warehouse workers) to the highest executives come to work every day with the mindset that they want to change things. They know that the more they change, the more money they will make.

This is a mindset media companies need to have.

I want to give you an example, but it's hard for me to do this in a generalized way, so, I'm going to use my go-to example for this.

Let's look at a fitness publisher.

Today, fitness publishers define themselves around publishing articles, but that's not really what people want.

If someone wants to lose weight, their goal isn't to read articles about "7 things that some celebrity is doing"... that's not what they want. They want to... you know... lose weight.

So the trick to innovating is to define this as your goal. Put up a big screen in the middle of your office where you count the number of readers that you have directly helped to lose weight, and how efficiently you achieved that... and then tell everyone from the journalists, to the business people, to make that number go up.

This way, you make everyone focused on finding ways to make that happen. Suddenly, everyone is innovating.

And this is the secret to innovation.

Anyway, enough about innovation, let's talk about another problem that we often see in the media. A problem about print vs digital.


You cannot compare time spent on print with digital

About a week ago, I published a Plus article where I talked about why print audiences don't translate to digital, but I also talked about why print wasn't as valuable as what people think.

So... I knew when I posted it that it was just a matter of time before someone would point out that I was wrong.

And this was exactly what happened. The day after I published this Plus article, a person pointed out to me that print was way better than digital because we could just look at eye-track studies.

This person pointed towards a study that said that ads in printed newspapers are seen by 78% of the audience for 1.7 seconds, whereas in digital, ads are only seen by 18% of the audience for 0.9 seconds.

This does make it sound like print was way better, but it's also the wrong way to look at this. So, let me explain why.

I want to tell you a story. It's a story about a small town in the age before the internet.

This small town was a nice place, but being small and local, it only had one bakery. Not only that, but this bakery was also only making one type of bread, and every day, everyone from this town would come to the bakery to pick up their daily bread.

There was nothing wrong with the bread as such, but since it had to appeal to everyone, it was also a kind of bread that you would make for a mass-market.

For years, this worked great. The local bakery made a lot of money, and people were generally happy with them.

But then one day, this new thing called the internet came to town. Suddenly, everyone discovered that there were hundreds of bakeries in other places, and many would happily deliver their bread to your door every morning. Not only that, but all those other bakeries were offering many different types of bread.

If you wanted some dark bread? Sure, no problem. What about carrot bread? Here are 100 different kinds. Want a special type of bread that works great for sandwiches? Absolutely, we have all the options that you could possibly want.

When the people saw this they became ecstatic. This was amazing. Look at all these choices. So, the next morning, instead of going to the bakery to buy the 'mass-market' bread that they always bought, they started trying out new kinds of bread. Not only that, but they also started buying many different kinds of bread for different times of the day.

Why limit yourself to only one type of bread, when you can have many?

This, of course, was a disaster for the local bakery. Practically overnight, they went from having massive success to being almost ignored.

Of course, the local bakery didn't like this trend at all, so they started complaining. They started saying: "Hey what about us? Think about all the good things we have done for this town. Don't you want to support your local bakery?"

And people would say: "You know, yes, we do appreciate what you did for us, and we do like to support you... but, the bread you make is just not that exciting anymore. You are still just making this one type of bread."

The local bakery, of course, wasn't listening, and instead went on the offensive. They did a study where they looked at 'time spent'.

They found that, in the past, when the internet didn't exist, people spent almost 40 minutes per day eating just their standard type of bread, whereas today, because people are buying 10 different types of bread, the time spent is down to only 4 minutes per bread. "Surely", they say, "the old standard was better, because look how much more time and money you spent on it."

Right?

Well, no... because that is the wrong way to look at it. The only reason why people spent so much time on the old mass-market bread was because they had no other choice. It was not because it was better. It was because it was there.

Today, people love having choices.

They love the idea that they can buy different types of bread, even though it means that the time they spend with each is less.

So, no... the old world was not better because we spent more time on it. It was actually worse, and now that we have unlimited choices, we can see exactly what the value really was.

And just like that, the old bakery had to close. They never realized that the choices of bread that were now available to people was exactly what people wanted.

Now... this is a bit of a sad story, and as you have probably guessed, this story isn't about bread or bakeries at all. It's about local newspapers.

The local newspapers were like the bakery store. Every day you would only make one type of newspaper, designed to appeal to everyone without really doing anything too specific. And because you had a monopoly on the market, everyone was spending time just with you.

But then when the internet came along, and people suddenly had so many other things to choose from, people started choosing other and more specific things.

In other words, now that we have choice in the market, we suddenly see what the real value of print is.

And you can't just then point to a study saying that people used to spend more time with print than what they today spend on any individual publication, because you are not measuring value, you are measuring the impact of having a monopoly.

Now that people have a choice, we can clearly see that people are choosing other things. And they are not just choosing one thing. No... they like having the choice to choose many different things for different moments.

The reality here is that print wasn't more valuable than digital. Sure, the industry made a lot more money from it, but that was because of the monopoly you had. It was not because it was a better product.

Obviously, there are plenty of problems with the digital world as well, but every single time I see someone doing a study on print vs digital, and then concluding that print was more valuable because people spent more time on it, they are fundamentally missing what is really going on.

You are acting like the bakery. You don't want to realize that only giving people one type of bread that everyone is then forced to spend all their time with, isn't better than giving people the choice of many different types of bread where people are only spending a little bit of time on each.

The simple reality is that you need to look at it as a whole. And, in the past, people spent about 40 minutes per day reading the news, whereas today young people spend 4.9 hours online.

Time spent is up in a really big way. But instead of spending it all on one newspaper, people are now choosing different things.

And until publishers realize this and get out of this 'print was better' mindset, you are not going to be able to create a choice that people want to pick.

It's time for you to become a new type of publisher, just as it was time for the local bakery to do something different.


And with this, we come to the end of this podcast. We have touched on some somber and uncomfortable topics, but it's time to move on.

In the next podcast we are not going to talk print anymore but focus on the future of media. But, until then, have a wonderful time.


 

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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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