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By Thomas Baekdal - December 2016

The Populists Wins Because We Let Them Define The Narrative

There are so many articles being published about how to fix the future of newspapers in the age of fake news, populistic politicians, the rise of right-wing, racist and fascist movements, and all the other problems that we have.

But while that in itself is a very important topic, we are also kind of missing the point. Because even if we could solve those things, it still doesn't solve the problem that we think we have.

One example is the whole 'fake news on Facebook' discussion. Even if we could get rid of the obvious fake news sites, it still doesn't solve the problem that people don't trust the media.

So how do we actually fix this problem?

Well, let me give you an alternative solution that I see as being far more important to focus on. A solution that looks beyond just the narrow focus of the media, and instead looks at the macro trends that cause most of these problems:

Each one of these has a massive impact on publishers, and each one requires a very different editorial focus than what we see today.

This is critical, because the newspaper industry is really not winning the future right now. True, the Washington Post and New York Times are boasting about their remarkable increase in subscribers, but that's a heavily polarized audience. It's nice that they are growing, but that growth is actually another symptom of the problem.

So let's talk about this.

The age of entitlement: "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression"

The first problem is that we are living in what I would call 'the age of entitlement'.

Basically, we don't really have any big problems anymore. We live in incredibly good countries, and the few world conflicts that we do have are of minor importance to people's everyday lives.

As such, we have become incredibly privileged, and our sense of entitlement has grown to such epic proportions that the public is now focusing on increasingly minor issues to complain about.

Let me give you an example from my country (Denmark).

Denmark is one of the happiest nations on Earth, we are generally wealthy when measured per capita, and we have a very low unemployment rate at 4.1%, which has actually been going down for a long time.

On top of this, Denmark has one of the strongest welfare systems in the world. We have free healthcare, subsidized child care, one year of supported maternity leave, and we have free education. In fact, our education is not only free, the government will actually pay you about $800/month when you go to school (as an adult).

On top of this Denmark is the 2nd safest country to live in, with only Iceland being the safest country of all.

We have extremely varied access to goods and services, we are one of the most connected countries in the world, our environment is very good, and our living standard is at the very highest level.

In other words, we are incredibly privileged and don't really have any big problems to speak of.

So you would think that with all this wealth of living, our newspapers would be pretty great too and our politicians would be generally well respected?


Well, not exactly.

You see, in a recent YouGov study, Denmark was one of the four countries that listed 'immigrants' as the biggest problem, and not a day goes by when we don't hear about this from our populistic politicians and in the media.

So, do we have an immigration problem? No, of course not.

When we look at the statistics, it's pretty clear that immigrants pose no threat to our way of life in any way. In fact, everything tells us that immigrants are contributing more than they take. Immigrants, for instance, pay more in taxes than what they get back in benefits. They generally don't commit more crime, and immigrants on a per capita basis is actually more likely to start a new company and produce more jobs than the native population.

So why are we fighting over it? Well, the answer is that when people become privileged, they also become more intolerant towards those who haven't achieved the same level of success, which creates a superiority complex.

As I wrote: "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression" (source: unknown).

This, of course, is a massive problem, because it leads to a whole slew of much bigger forms of intolerance. Including racism, hate crimes, right-wing news sites ... and yes, fake news on Facebook (although much of that is merely scammers trying to make some easy money).

All of those are much worse than just people feeling entitled, but it's all part of the same problem.

For the media, this then becomes a losing battle, because we can't fight this and win. Imagine that a politician says this:

People coming from [this other country] are all criminals and rapists, and they are coming here to take our jobs

The first thing that happens is that they agree with the politicians because it feels like it's true, and it makes them feel better about themselves. "Those other people? They are probably not as good as us", they say.

Then we in the media go out and we start to fact-check this story. We find that these immigrants don't actually commit more crime than native born citizens, nor do they really take away any jobs when we look at the unemployment statistics.

So, it's a lie!

But here is the problem. When we then report this to the public, we are acting against people's feelings of entitlement and superiority. We are basically telling people that they are not that special.

This might be true, but that's not a very good feeling for the public to have. People like feeling entitled. They don't like being told 'you are not special'. And this is why we lose.

And more to the point it doesn't matter to people that what the politician is saying isn't true, because fundamentally, we don't really have a problem to begin with. People in the US, for instance, don't have a problem with people from Mexico, nor do they influence their lives in any real way. But it feels good to say that people from this place is better than people from that other place.

This is what is happening with immigration, and we are approaching it all wrong in the media.

Firstly, we are approaching this by making our core audience feel worse about themselves. That is a terrible strategy no matter what you try to do, and you will end up losing (which is exactly what is happening).

Secondly, we are talking about this issue as if it's actually a problem, but it's not. Immigration isn't a problem. It has zero influence on people's own lives. You could double the number of Mexicans living in the US, and it wouldn't change anything about the privilege or living standard of the average US citizen.

Do you think the people of Kentucky are really worried about Muslims and Mexicans? Less than 0.5% of the population there are Muslims, and yet it was one of the states where Trump won the most.

So it doesn't matter to people what we say in the media, because what we write about doesn't matter to begin with. It's irrelevant.

We are fighting the wrong problem here.

So what should we do about this? Do we just do nothing? Do we just exploit this phenomenon like with Breitbart News and Daily Mail, or can we actually do something to fix this?

The answer is two-fold.

Firstly, we need to focus on stories that are actually relevant, instead of on stories that aren't. For the people of Kentucky, focusing on what Trump said about Muslims has no relevance whatsoever, but there are plenty of real everyday concerns that are highly relevant that we never cover.

Secondly, instead of focusing the editorial on the type of fact-checking that makes people feel worse about themselves, we must change that focus to stories that bring others up, which is something we almost never do in the media.

We must focus on stories where we don't see foreigners as 'lesser people', but instead as people who contribute and add to the privilege that already exists. Take a country like Nigeria. It's the absolute hotspots for growth in the world today, but you never read about that in the press.

So we have to approach this in a very different way. Fact checking is important, but if we focus our editorial on stories that people don't really care about to begin with, no amount of fact-checking will change this.

The fall of democracy

The next problem, which is just as damaging for the future of media, is the problem with democracy itself ... and how we cover it. What I'm talking about here is how people are increasingly disinterested in politics, especially the younger generations.

It's a trend that has a profoundly negative impact on both politic itself (because it makes it much easier for populistic politicians to focus on feelings rather than actual topics), but also on newspapers.

Today, most newspapers are dominated by political coverage, but if people don't care about politics, why would they care about newspapers writing about it?

Just to give you an indication of how bad this is, here is the result of a recent YouGov study about people's satisfaction with democracy across Europe (note: the USA is on the same level as Romania):

And here is how people feel about reading about politics on social channels:

In an article over at The New York Times, we could find this graph showing that less than 50% of the young people born in the 80s think democracy is 'essential'.

This is absolutely scary. But also shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, because our definition of a democracy in the first place is completely idiotic and out of date.

The problem is that we define a democracy as having a majority of 50.1%. That's not a majority. That's 'half the population'.

This isn't a democracy. It's a mediocrity.

Worse than that, as our world becomes more and more divided, the idea of letting only half the population control 100% of the laws, is becoming increasingly problematic. And the helplessness that the public feels from that is what is making people say: screw this!

But it get much worse, because the way this whole thing works is completely out of date. It made perfect sense in the 1800s, but in today's ultra connected world, it's an absolute joke.

The first problem is with the voting system itself, which we saw all too clearly in the US and the UK during the latest elections. In the US, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote (now with close to 2.5 million votes more than Trump)... and yet, Trump won the election by 57%.

What craziness is that?

Mind you, this is not even nearly as bad as in the UK, where the winning party got only 37% of the popular vote, but secured 51% of the seats in parliament, which gave it 100% of the decision power.

The reason for this is that our election system was designed back when it took days or even weeks for people to meet. We didn't have TV, radio, national newspapers or the internet. The only thing we could do was to elect a single guy, on a horse, who would travel across the land, to sit in parliament/congress on your behalf.

So is it any surprise that people don't feel involved? Is it any surprise that especially young people who are all digitally connected look at this system and think it's the most idiotic thing ever?

But it gets worse.

Because another big problem is that while we call this a representative democracy, none of the politicians actually represent the voters. What we have instead is a voting system where we elect someone to do whatever they want for four years, during which we (the public) have no influence on any laws passed during that time.

Think about what happens when someone proposes a new law. The politicians who are then supposed to represent each local constituency don't travel back to their constituencies to ask what public actually want them to support. No, instead the politicians just make up their own mind, completely ignoring those they are supposed to represent.

Again, this system made perfect sense back in the 1800s where it it would take 4 weeks for a politician on horseback to travel back to, say, North Dakota. Back then it would have been completely impractical to involve the public, so we allowed politicians to have a level of self-determination.

But in today's digitally connected world with live video streaming on Facebook, this makes absolutely no sense. And for the younger generation, the idea of electing someone for four years as your 'representative' and then not be able to influence anything that happens during those year just insane.

Young people don't live in a disconnected world, but our political system is the most disconnected that we can have. And this is not just in the US. This is true in every country.

It's just out of date.

The result of all this is catastrophic. 40% of the US population didn't vote, but for the younger generation the percentage is much higher. And it's the same in other countries. In the UK, 65% of the young people didn't vote in the Brexit referendum, even though 75% of the young people wanted the UK to stay within the EU.

But it's not just the lack of involvement this influences. It's also how people feel about the whole thing. The approval rating for the political system is at the lowest point ever. And even for those who did vote (e.g. in the US election), 55% said that they were unhappy with the choices they had to choose from (up from 28%).

This is the reality today. Our democracies have generally failed, with the result that people are increasingly disengaged and disinterested in them.

When I say that people feel disengaged, I don't mean they don't talk about it. They do, as we clearly saw during Brexit and the latest election in the US. They share articles, they spread links, they get riled up about things and post angry tweets.

But since they have no involvement, they focus their helplessness on their feelings, rather than what is actually being said. This obviously is a big problem, but it's the perfect situation for populistic politicians and fake news sites to exploit. And the worse this gets, the more fake news we will get. And no amount of fact-checking will fix this, because the problem isn't really that the news is fake, but that the system is broken. Fact-checking doesn't solve that.

So, what do we do in the media, and how do we prevent this from dragging us down with it?

Well, first of all, that may already be too late. Here is the outcome of the latest election in relation to how the public felt about the political parties, the candidates and the press. And as you can see, the press is now more disliked than the politicians.

So, what do we do?

What do we do if people have had enough about this thing we call a democracy. If people generally hate politics and everything around it, and if people hate the press when they cover it (and the way they cover it)?

The answer is obvious. We stop focusing on it.

No seriously, if every single study is telling us that what we are doing is wrong, we need to stop doing it and find another way to do what we do.

And this links us to my final point.

Every newspaper has a 'politicians first' focus

The main problem we have today with newspapers is that they have completely forgotten how to focus on the public. Instead, almost every single story that is being covered is done so with a politicians first focus, instead of the public first approach.

What I mean is that no matter what journalists write about, your first instinct is always to interview a politician first, or to ask politicians what they want, or go to press events where politicians make some sort of statement.

But let me illustrate this problem in a more specific way, with this guy:

We all remember him. This is Ken Bone, the coal worker who was invited to ask Trump and Clinton a question during the 2nd Presidential Debate (at 1:24:45). And his story is the perfect example of just how crappy this politicians first focus really is.

The first problem was that we cared so little about what his question was because everyone started talking about his cute sweater (something he exploited in an extreme way, which just added to that problem).

That was a pretty embarrasing moment for the media, but let's ignore that and just focus on the question he asked.

This is what he said (my emphasis):

What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?

That's a pretty good question, so did the politician answer that? No, of course not. Both Trump and Clinton went on to blame China and giving some vague notions about blaming others and bringing back the coal industry.

But what about the press? Did we answer this question through our editorial focus? No, of course not. We were so focused on the mudslinging between Clinton and Trump that we didn't even consider what Ken Bone (the public) actually said.

So what did he say?

Well, you will notice that there are two parts to his question. One is about job loss, which is obvious because coal jobs are under pressure from so many different things (of which renewable energy is just one).

But the other is the part about being environmentally friendly. The reason why he asked this question is obvious once you look up the problems coal workers are facing, because one of the biggest concerns facing them is their health.

Try to look up coal 'miner health risks' on Google, and you will realize just how massive a problem this is. Coal workers don't like the pollution that they live in every single day. They don't like dying at an early age from respiratory diseases, a much higher risk of cancer and increased heart failures.

So what Ken Bone actually asked was this:

How can I save my health without losing my job?

This is a pretty significant question, and it's a window into the actual needs and concerns by that part of the public. But neither the politicians nor the press listened, or tried to focus on this problem in any meaningful way.

The media and politicians are so focused on each other that we are stuck inside this politicians first bubble. And the public is left standing on the outside, not being heard, not being invited to take part, disconnected and abandoned.

The result is that the public feels that both the politicians and the press are all a bunch of idiots. And this is why that every time the trust on politicians goes down, we go down with them.

You see the problem here?

As a media analyst, I look at these different things, and my only conclusion is that to save the future of newspapers, we need to stop focusing so much on politicians.

We need to change our focus and our narrative so that we are putting the public's needs at the center of our reporting.

If you want to cover health care, who cares what Trump is saying about it? Why don't you interview people in the healthcare industry itself? Why don't you focus your coverage on the companies who are trying to change things directly?

If there is a problem between insurance companies and the public, why not focus those stories directly on those two groups without spending all your time asking politicians what they think about it?

Why are you interviewing Donald Trump when you can interview Melinda and Bill Gates, scientists who are actually trying to solve the problem, entrepreneurs who are trying to disrupt the old markets, or the leaders of the World Bank who are trying to provide the right investments?

If you write stories about the problem in the coal industry, why are you interviewing politicians only to hear them blame everything on China, or the other political party. Why not instead be part of the solution by defining your editorial focus by first understanding what people are actually talking about, and then figuring out who it would be valuable to interview about it?

Mind you, this might involve focusing on how coal miners could be retrained for other things, in which your role is to cover stories that empowers them to make that choice.

Or if you want to talk about pollution, why not interview companies who drive real change, like what Robert Llewellyn did in this episode of Fully Charged:


This is how we win the future of newspapers. This is far more interesting than listening to a politician that people don't trust anyway.

But today, all we do is this:

Notice how not a single story here relates to the actual public or their needs. And the public hates us for it because it's all so pointless.

If we want to have a future we must change the narrative so that it's no longer the politicians who define the public opinion. They are our representatives, not the other way around.

We need to change this so that, in the future, it's the public who defines that narrative, with the help of the media ... even to the point of ignoring the politicians when they are not worth listening to.

"But, we can't do that", you say. But you can, and you must. People are shouting at us that they are sick and tired of being ignored, and having to live in a world where the press and the politicians live inside their own bubble.

Every single trend tells us that this is what we must do. Not just to save our own future as newspapers, but also to save the future of our democracy.


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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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