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By Thomas Baekdal - October 2017

I Dream of a Newspaper Without Politics

One of the reasons I became a media analyst is because I love the media (although it might not always seem that way when I write about the bad parts). But being a media analyst can be exceptionally frustrating, because I often see publishers doing things that go directly against the long-term trends.

When I see a newspaper intentionally mislead their readers with their headlines; post stories before they have any idea whether something is news or not; when they start to promote pundit opinion over facts; when I see media companies start to place auto-playing videos with sound; or when they add seriously bad content recommendation sites to their pages; all of these things just make me cringe.

We all know that the only reason these things are happening is because of the financial reality of news, and from a trend perspective, it's like watching the entire industry collectively shoot themselves in the foot.

Today, however, I'm going to illustrate another concern of mine that specifically applies to national newspapers, and mostly those in the US. It's not unique to the US, but the problem is much stronger there than in most other countries.

The problem is with their focus on politics.

I'm going to start by showing you a little comparison of how much has changed in the media between September 25, 2013 (when Obama was president) and September 25, 2017.

Note: The only reason for that specific date is because that was when I took these screenshots. There is nothing special about this day.

What I have done with the screenshots below, is that I have removed all the ads, as well as the stories linked to political coverage,leaving only the non-political stories. And in 2013, this was how the Washington Post looked:

As you can see, even without any of the political stories, there are still plenty of things to see. Obviously, there are always day-to-day nuances, but what you see here is a good all-round newspaper.

Of course, with good, I don't necessarily mean financially sound. This was just a month before Jeff Bezos took over, and back then the Washington Post wasn't doing very well.

But now we fast forward to 2017, and we see this:

Notice how the entire front page of the Washington Post is now almost entirely blank. All those blank spots are political news coverage, and it has completely taken over WaPo.

Mind you, I'm not saying political stories aren't important. In fact, because of the absolute mess that has defined the US political system for quite a while, this news might be more important than ever.

But think about what this does to the WaPo brand, and why people read it. People are no longer subscribing to them because they are a newspaper. They come because of the political madness.

In many ways, what we see here is that the role of a national newspaper is shifting away from being a generalized package of news to become a kind of political niche vertical.

I would venture as far to say that the Washington Post today has more in common with Politico than the traditional definition of a newspaper. And I'm seeing the same thing with many other national newspapers.

And from a financial perspective, it seems to work (at least right now). The latest figure I saw from the Washington Post was that it has now reached 1 million paid digital subscribers, which is just wonderful.

But, also, this whole thing makes me anxious. So, let's talk about some of the potential problems this creates.

A little bit of everything

If you have been following me, you would know I have often spoken out against the concept of publishers just doing 'a little bit of everything'. The reason being is that, one of the strongest trends we see in the digital world, is that the old mass-market concept doesn't really work online.

This has a big impact on newspapers.

The most obvious impact is people are no longer reading newspapers as a package. Instead it's a product we interact with using a much more specific focus (like reading about politics or specific hard news topics).

In other words, the newspapers are unwillingly turning into niche verticals.

In the past, newspapers were like this:

Whereas today, most of those topics have moved on to other sites that, with specialization, can offer the reader a much better experience.

The result of this is a different reality for newspapers, where the relationship between the advertisers, the articles, and the audience changes.

For instance, this has a big impact on advertising. In the past, advertising in a newspaper made sense, because people were reading it as a package. But today, people are looking for specific news.

For instance, people might turn to a newspaper specifically to read about the mass-shooting in Las Vegas. But combining that with advertising creates a big problem.

Here, for instance, is an ad for Jeep on top of an article about the mass-shooting. This is not what you would call brand-safe advertising. And it's definitely not a good environment for Jeep to advertise something as a "celebration event".

Think about all the controversy there has been around problematic content on YouTube. From a brand perspective, this is just as bad.

Suddenly, newspapers are no longer these mass-market packages, but have become a niche vertical for hard and unpleasant news or politics... and that isn't a very good platform for brands.

This is the new reality that publishers haven't yet realized, and it's going to have a massive impact on the future of news. And when we consider this trend in relation to the extremely heavy focus on politics seen in the Washington Post, imagine what this trend will do to them?

Some newspapers are saying that their digital advertising is growing. And while that may be true right now, this doesn't change the trend.

The more newspapers focus on hard news, the less attractive a platform they will be for advertisers.

Of course, creating a more atomized newspaper is also exactly what drives more subscriptions. Because, online, the worst thing you can offer people is randomness. If all you do is to say, "here is a bit of everything with no real focus or reason", nobody is going to subscribe to that.

So, newspapers like the Washington Post are currently doing well, becoming much more narrow in their appeal. And the same is true for many other newspapers.

But the challenge here is to make sure that this new 'niche' that you ask people to pay for is future proof. Is this a model that will continue to work 10 years from now?

And this is where I get really worried about newspapers like the Washington Post.

The reason is that, as the Washington Post becomes more and more politically focused, it's also losing its ability to make money from anything else. This means that it's relying entirely on the US political scene staying as messy as it is today.

But ask yourself this:

Imagine that over the next fours years, the public in the US reach a point where they just had enough, and they start to vote for people who are willing to break with party lines to actually get things done. They vote for someone who isn't a complete idiot.

Imagine that US politics starts to become more like what we see in Canada. In other words, imagine if US politics starts working again, while also getting boring (because it will suddenly lack this daily reality TV style outrage that we see today).

Where will a newspaper like the Washington Post be then?

Over the past year, much of WaPo's growth is the result of a very specific and narrow focus, which has taken over its coverage, and which is all fueled by a very specific problem in Washington.

So what will the Washington Post do if that problem is solved?

It can't go back to being the newspaper it used to be, because even four years ago, that didn't work.

You see the problem?

Is the growth in subscriptions due to the success of a long-term hard news model? Or is it due to a (hopefully) short-term situation in Washington?

The non-public media

Another much bigger problem is that the world is splitting into two very different types of media. One is a type of media that is written for the public, the other is this weird type of politically-focused coverage where it's like the public isn't even a factor.

I was recently asked during an interview whether I, as a media analyst, believe that newspapers today are doing a good job 'keeping those in power to account'.

My answer was: Yes... and no.

Obviously, newspapers like the Washington Post are doing a great job checking, questioning, and generally keeping tabs on US politics in Washington, and the same can be said about other newspapers like the New York Times or The Guardian.

So, in that respect, yes, they are holding those in power to account.

The problem, however, is that we are not really defining this the right way, because what does holding someone to account really mean? Does that just mean that we ask questions, and fact check what someone said? Or is it also about what they represent?

Let me give you an example. If I go to the Washington Post (as I was writing this), I see these two stories at the top of the page:

Both raise important concerns about problems in Washington, but notice that none of these stories have any real relevance to the public's everyday lives. This is political coverage for the sake of political coverage.

If you are just a normal person, these stories have no relevance other than that they make you outraged about politics. And this is a problem.

Lessig recently wrote a review of Hillary Clinton's latest book, where he makes a very important point. He wrote:

This fact that Americans desperately wanted reform is the single most denied fact of DC insiders in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Yet right in the middle of the 2016 campaign, the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland found Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) more dissatisfied with their government than at any time in polling history. Overwhelmingly, whether Democrat or Republican, Americans believe their government does not represent them. Overwhelmingly, whether Democrat or Republican, they believe it represents special interests rather than the general public. Overwhelmingly, they believed their "representative democracy" was corrupt because it did not represent at least them. And yet the campaign did nothing fundamental to address this fundamental fact about us.

This is not just true in the US, but something we see everywhere. We see it in the UK, we see it in France, and many other places. The result is a growing divide between the political narrative, and the public narrative. It's like those things have become separate forms of communication.

And in the media, we see the same problem. Most political coverage today feels like it wasn't written for the public at all, because it has no relevance to them.

The political stories create outrage and a lot of 'engagement', but they are not 'written for me'. The only people who these articles are really useful for are the other politicians.

It's political-first editorial focus.

And what I see from a trend perspective, is that the world of media is being split in two.

One part is the political-first focused media. Here we have the politicians, the increasingly politically focused national newspapers (like the Washington Post), but this is also where we see all the fake news sites, and all the political social activity.

Then, separate from that, is the public-first focused media. Here we find the local newspapers, the magazines, the blogs, the YouTube creators, all the normal social activity, etc.

And what we see is that these two worlds of media are moving further and further apart. Political news today is so disconnected from the public that people no longer feel involved. Instead, the public read these political stories as if they are standing on the other side of a chasm yelling at the politicians.

And the political-first focused media isn't helping with that. It only gives people more to yell about.

This has proven to be a great driver of subscription revenue, but it's not a very good trend and it only works as long as the political situation is in chaos.

But most of all, think about what this means for 'holding those in power to account'. To do that as a newspaper isn't only about asking questions or fact checking what politicians say or do. It's much more about bridging this divide that exists between the public and the politicians.

It's the role of the press to make sure that the politicians are truly representing the public, and if that is not the case, to focus on the public first, so that all future political discussions are based on the public's real concerns or needs.

This is what's missing from most political coverage today. Many stories don't involve the public at all, or only focus on them later. And too many stories deal with politics as if it's a separate reality where only the needs, wishes, and scandals within the political establishment matter.

In other words, we are covering politics for the sake of politicians.

Hence, if you ask me if I think the media today is doing a good job holding those in power to account, my answer is... no. Not because journalists aren't asking questions or covering problems, but because we are forgetting to be public-first. We are forgetting to cover these stories in a way that makes them publically relevant.

We are creating outrage rather than relevance.

So, a while back I tweeted this:

I dream of a newspaper that isn't covering politics, but still covers the challenges in our society.

I dream of a world where newspaper editors would actively choose to not cover topics that are political populism.

I also dream of a world where editors, when faced with political populism, would question why something is discussed, and demand real data!

I'm not saying you should do this. As a media analyst, I'm stuck with the dilemma that focusing on political outrage has kind of 'saved' many newspapers. But my reason for suggesting this is to get you to think.

Imagine what would happen if you did this? Imagine if you instructed your journalists that they couldn't interview a politician for a story, nor could they base a story on something that had started from a political perspective.

At first this may sound silly, but you quickly realize how much more interesting this would be.

For instance, take something like healthcare in the US. If you couldn't write articles based on what the politicians are doing (or not doing), who would you talk with instead?

Well, you would reach out to doctors and the hospitals and hear about their needs and concerns. You reach out to insurance agencies to hear about their challenges. You would take a much more critical look at the pharmaceutical companies. But most of all, you would start to do a journalistic analysis of what the public actually wants, needs, and struggles with.

All of this is missing from today's coverage.

Over the past several months, we have seen thousands of articles about the sheer incompetence of the politicians to represent those who elected them. At the same time, much more important stories such as why the healthcare costs in the US are 8 times higher than anywhere else have barely been covered.

Because the media is so political-first focused, they have only covered what the politicians were talking about in a way that is extremely hard for readers to relate to.

Sure, people can relate to losing their medical coverage, but the coverage is not focused in a way that makes the reader a part of that discussion.

So, imagine how different, but also how much more valuable your coverage would be if you couldn't cover this from a political-first focus.

One thing you would also realize is that you can't just 'report' a story. A problem with a political-first focus is that it places the responsibility for action on the politicians.

This is not a good thing, because ultimately, politicians don't actually have that much impact.

Think about climate change. Here we see a very clear picture that the real change isn't happening because of politics. Instead, the US is currently getting greener because it's what the public wants, combined with a positive market impact.

The reason why the coal industry is in decline isn't because of the politicians, it's because we have found other and better ways to do things.

But, again, in the newspapers, you don't really cover this. Instead, almost every article about climate change is about what politicians are saying about it.

At the moment this creates outrage and traffic, but it doesn't really have any impact. And even when the politicians do have an impact, it's usually not coming from the top.

If you want to learn about the real impact of climate change (both positive and negative), don't go to Washington. Go to California or Massachusetts. They are the ones doing something about it.

Or think about things like maternity leave. Why are you listening to politicians in Washington, who talk about this as if the public don't exist, when you can go to Rhode Island to see what they have actually already done and how that has changed things?

But most importantly, focus on things that actually matter. In my country, both the press and the politicians have just spent a week discussing whether burkas should be outlawed or not... despite the fact that even optimistic estimates put the total number of people in Denmark wearing burkas to around 200 people.

Sure, having this discussion created outrage, it polarized the public (which drove even more traffic), and the politicians got a lot of airtime (which they loved).

But think about what actually happened here. You spent a week discussing a problem that has no real impact because, as a journalist, you had a political-first editorial focus.

You see the problem here?

We are defining 'holding those in power to account' in the wrong way. We think it's about focusing on what those in power do (the political-first focus), while it's actually about making sure those in power represent the real world (the public-first focus).

Right now you can make more money focusing on politicians and the outrage that creates. But, from a long-term trend perspective, it's not a very good model.

So... I dream of a newspaper that isn't covering politics.


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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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