We need to have a very serious talk about something. It's about how to be a friend to the people around you, which relates directly to the media industry.
I want you to imagine that you have a really good friend. Someone that you truly care about, someone who is smart, talented, caring, and loving. A friend that you can count on and be proud to introduce to other people.
In other words, the best friend possible.
Except... for some strange reason, this friend sometimes decides to lie to you, or to do a really crappy job ... or in some other way violate your friendship.
99% of the time, this friend is the best friend you could have, but then suddenly, without any reason for doing so, this friend thinks it's funny to tell you a lie. Or if you ask them to do something, 99% of the time, they will do the best job in the world and you would happily recommend them to others, but then 1% of the time, they do a job that you would be embarrassed to be associated with.
So... is this person still your friend?
The answer, of course, is no. Even though this friend is the best friend ever (99% of the time), because they are violating your friendship that 1%, you simply can't rely on them. That 1% destroys everything...and this is what I see with the media industry every single day.
Last week I tweeted this:
Every single morning when I check the news, I come across examples of respectable newspapers directly lying to their readers. This morning, I saw a story where they had staged a photo to make the story more dramatic. This is a cultural problem that we need to stop.
This is what it means to be a friend that you can't trust or rely on. It doesn't matter that 99% of the time you are actually doing a good job, if I don't know when you are going to do something awful.
And mind you, I'm not talking about the bad newspapers here. We all know that there are media sites who directly profit from outrage and (partisan) deception. Those are not the newspapers I am talking about here. I'm talking about the 'good' newspapers, the respectable newspapers, the newspapers you think you can trust.
Let me give one example from the largest news site in my country (headlines translated via Google Translate).
A couple of days ago they posted this:
Well, that's interesting. But then a few days later, the same news site posted this:
Okay... so that was a lie. But there is much more to it.
First of all, the first article focused on 'weight loss' and 'healthy intestines', whereas the second article only focuses on the 'intestines' part.
So... does that mean that you will still lose weight if you cut gluten? Well, no. Because, when you actually look at the study, the weight loss was less than 1 KG. So, if you are hoping that you can lose weight by doing this, that's not going to work.
So both of these focus areas were reported in a wrong and misleading way.
But this is not the only problem. Also notice how they presented this 'correction'.
They wrote "The media misunderstands", and "wrote several media the other day".
I'm sorry, why are you suddenly talking about yourself in the third person? Why didn't you write: "We misunderstood:"?
In the article, they then double-down on this 'not our fault' style of excuses, by writing this:
So, here they are saying "other newspapers did it too" and "oh, besides, we weren't the ones who wrote it".
The lack of responsibility here is astonishing.
Here is a simple fact. You are 100% responsible for any article that you publish to your readers. If that article turns out to be wrong, then you were the ones who should have done a better job to begin with. You should have checked that it was accurate before publishing, and it doesn't matter if a thousand other newspapers did the same thing, or if the original article was written by someone else.
You are responsible, nobody else... just you!
But I see this every single day. In the media, I come across examples of this, and every day, the collective reaction from the media is ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It's the same with every other part of the newspaper. One big problem we see today is how newspapers deal with editorial and opinions. We see how newspapers have hired people who they know aren't publishing trustworthy information, which they then call 'fostering a debate'.
And when the readers then point out that these opinion pieces are untrustworthy, the only thing the newspaper does to fix this is to defend why they are doing it, saying that the editorials are separate from the newsroom.
You are knowingly and willingly misleading your readers, and refusing to take any responsibility for that.
This has to stop!
Think back to my story about the friend, and think about what we are seeing in the media every single day. True, 99% of journalism might be good, but if that 1% isn't... how can I trust you?
Keep in mind, we all make mistakes from time to time, but it's how we deal with them that matters. The media industry is trying to pretend that it isn't such a big deal. They point fingers at others, and basically just laugh at it.
Now think about this in terms of business goals.
In many of my articles, I talk about momentum and lifetime value, and how important it is to build momentum in order to get people to subscribe.
So, imagine that you have a person who is almost at the point where you have built up enough momentum to get them to subscribe. What do you think happens when they see articles like the gluten ones above?
Yep... all that momentum disappears. It's just gone!
You just lost that conversion, and now you have to start all over again.
Also think about churn.
Imagine you manage to get someone to subscribe, but then when you make a mistake like this, your defense is to say that other newspapers did it too without apologizing to your readers.
Think about what message that sends. Not only do you tell your readers that you aren't valuable, but you are also saying that you are not unique because you are doing what everyone else is doing.
So why should people renew their subscription?
This is just so frustrating. As a media analyst, this problem is one of the biggest challenges that I come across when trying to help publishers stand out, to be valuable and unique, to be trustworthy and... to be your friend.
And this is a cultural problem that just needs to change.
So... how do we do this?
Well, we need to do three things.
First of all, this change must come from the top. What I mean is that this is something that the executives of a newspaper need to decide to change.
For instance, one of the things I often see is that the journalists write a good article, but then the editors slap on a misleading headline that basically tells you the opposite.
The journalists can't fix this. This has to come from the very top. It should be an integrated part of the mission of the newspaper.
Secondly, the media needs to start taking responsibility for its actions. While brands are far from perfect, have you noticed how most brands react to wrong doings?
When they are caught making a mistake, they immediately go out and say:
We are sorry we made a mistake, and here is what direct steps we have and are taking to make sure it never happens again.
Okay, granted, not all brands react this way, but most do ... especially if they are caught doing something they shouldn't have. And this is how crisis management works.
Ask any crisis manager, and they will tell you that the only effective way to manage a crisis is to:
The problem is that, in the media industry, we rarely do this. Instead, we often pretend that this misleading story or this misleading headline is just how things are supposed to be. Many times we don't even acknowledge that a misleading headline is misleading.
I very often see examples of readers calling out misleading headlines or stories by the press. But instead of apologizing, editors just double-down on it.
Take the Weather Channel. Back in September they were caught staging a photo shoot where the journalist pretended that the storm they were covering was much worse than it was... which was clear to see for everyone when two people in the background just casually walked by in their shorts.
So, how did the Weather Channel respond to this? Did they own up to it? Did they apologize for what was very clearly a lie? Did George Callard, the president of the Weather Channel go on TV to tell you how sorry they were, and what steps he has put in place so that this never happens again?
No... of course not. Instead, they just doubled-down on the lie by saying:
It's important to note that the two individuals in the background are walking on concrete, and Mike Seidel is trying to maintain his footing on wet grass, after reporting on-air until 1:00 a.m. ET this morning and is undoubtedly exhausted.
They lied about the lie.
Can you imagine how bad this would be if any brand had done this? Can you imagine if Coca-Cola had lied to their customers and this was how they responded?
The problem is that this is normal in the media industry, but it's so incredibly damaging to the relationship with our readers.
You need to take responsibility.
This also extends to outside sources. In the article mentioned above, the excuse used by the newspaper was that it was written by a news agency.
Okay... so what have they done about this? Of all the newspapers who published this story, how many of them have called up the CEO of the news agency to demand that they never do this again? To ask for a refund for the money they paid on this story ... or threaten to stop buying future stories if they don't do something to fix this?
Well, I don't know the answer, but my guess is that not a single newspaper has done that.
And what about other things, like using Facebook? Every single day we see very negative stories about how Facebook is bad... but how many newspapers have decided to stop posting to Facebook?
Or what about privacy? We constantly see stories of how tech companies are violating people's privacy, but newspapers are based on business models where giving away people's personal data to 200 outside tracking companies is normal.
You see the problem here.
What you say and what you do are not aligned.
This leads us to the final point, which is that to change this culture, you must adopt a culture of shame.
I'm inspired here by a post I came across by the always wonderful Avinash Kaushik. He wrote:
Shame is an undervalued attribute.
Shame ensures treating users with decency is more important than Conversion Rate.
Shame ensures you don't blind opt-in users into your email lists.
Shame ensures your marketing does not make promises your business can't keep.
Reward shame (the type that ensures decency by your business, keeps grubby short term non-user-centric scummy practices at bay).
I just love this.
Obviously, we should never get to the point where we feel shame because, if that happens, we already failed. But being mindful of the risk of shame is a very important attribute that keeps honest people honest.
And the main reason we keep seeing publishers post misleading articles, why they keep adding misleading headlines, and why they don't apologize when they make a mistake is because... they don't feel ashamed about it.
We need to add the attribute of shame into the core culture of media, because it's the only way we can fix this.
As a media analyst, I constantly see the potential and the opportunities of the market we have today. I see how the future is actually looking much brighter than ever before. And I see how the public needs media now more than ever.
But I also see how the public cannot distinguish between what is good and what isn't. I see how media companies are constantly doing things that make them look like every other media company. I see how they are squandering all the momentum they could have built up. I see massive problems with conversion and churn rates for things that shouldn't be a problem.
I also see trust surveys where journalists are ranked at almost the same level as politicians and lobbyists, and among used car and insurance sales people.
But most of all, I see a disconnect between the mentality within the media industry and the mentality outside of it, and how they don't align.
We could create a much better world of media today, but until we fix this problem, we will never be a true friend to the people who value us the most.
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