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By Thomas Baekdal - March 2016

There Is More To Life Than News and Opinions

I got an email the other day that asked me to take part in a survey about 'Journalism in 2016'. I was happy to do so, because we need as much data about this as we can get.

But as I started reading the questions, I got increasingly frustrated because they illustrated a journalistic narrowness that is exactly the reason why traditional media companies have so much trouble understanding the digital natives.

The first problem was that many of the questions created a distinction between bloggers and other forms of journalists. Seriously? It's 2016, and you are still focusing on this?

This is not a discussion you should have. It's irrelevant because the actual transformation has nothing to do with the format but is everything to do with what behavior/need/outcome we target.

Just stop it.

The next problematic question was a simple one. They asked: "In which country are you based?"

This sounds like a simple question, but take my publication. I physically live in Denmark, but 97.3% of my subscribers and 98.1% of my traffic come from outside of my own country.

It's completely irrelevant where I live. In fact, as an analyst, I hesitate to even answer this question because it might skew the data when compared to other data points.

But, more importantly, while my situation might be extreme, we see the same with all the digital natives. Look at all the famous YouTubers. Do you think they care what country they happen to live in?

No, of course not.

Then they asked "What kind of media do you primarily work for?" And the options included things like dailies, magazines, online, radio, TV, blog, etc.

Those are all formats.

This is why old media fails. They still think our world is defined by formats. It's not. It's defined by needs and moments. It's an irrelevant question that doesn't help you succeed in the future of media.

Then they asked "What type of device do you most frequently use to look for story ideas?" And here the options were mobile, tablet or desktop, and I could choose one.

Seriously?

My primary device is whatever device is most useful for any given moment. If I'm sitting in at my desk in front of my ultra-wide 29" screen, the answer is obviously going to be desktop. If I'm sitting on my couch, it might be my tablet or my phone. And if I'm somewhere else, the answer is likely to be my phone.

Stop asking me choose a device. We have become device agnostic, so this question should not be even asked. It's irrelevant and a distraction.

Then we had a series of questions that linked to journalistic elitism, like asking if: "A journalist has to be officially educated in journalism".

This is, again, a bad question. I know a lot of truly skilled and awesome journalists. People who do very good work. I also know several journalists who basically spend their entire day rephrasing press releases, optimizing headlines, or repurposing news stories they find on other publications. All of these have been officially educated in journalism (or some are part of a journalistic association).

Meanwhile, I also know a ton of people who are doing exactly the same work but who didn't go to journalism school. They too produce really good, well researched, and objective news stories.

Mind you, I like journalism schools. They give you a set of skills that is very helpful later in life. But it's not what defines you. This also links back to the question about bloggers. Stop labeling who people are and start looking at what people do.

Then we had the question of "Who will be paying for your services/salary in 5 years' time?" The options were things like publishers, brands, subscriptions, micro-payments, crowdfunding... or philanthropy.

The first problem is that you could only choose one answer, but we all know that diversifying your income stream is the key to future media success.

Secondly, philanthropy? Seriously? It's probably because they have been looking at how Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post that they think this way, but this is not philanthropy. Jeff is laser focused on making sure WaPo is financially sound.

Stop wasting your time thinking that some rich dude or dudess will just give you money without you having to earn it.

It's such a distraction.

Finally, we come to the question that really ticked me off. They asked:

"It is important to be careful not to add my own voice, so that the story remains objective?"

This is a ridiculous question because objectivity and a journalistic voice aren't opposite. It's more than possible to both have a voice and to be objective at the same time. In fact, we have a word for this. It's called 'analysis'.

There is a hugely destructive culture in the traditional world of journalism that analysis doesn't exist. Look at the menu line on pretty much every newspaper. You have news reports divided up into sections (crime, politics, finance) and then you have the section called 'opinion'.

I cannot recall ever seeing a newspaper that had a section called 'analysis'. It's like that concept doesn't even exist.

If you live in a world where you choice is either to just 'bring the news' or 'state an opinion', I can understand why so many journalists think objectivity equals not adding your own voice.

But wait a minute, you say. Traditional newspapers publish a lot of stories that are based on analysis of the news. They do that every day.

Not really. You see, when a traditional journalist thinks he or she is doing analysis, what they are actually doing is interviewing someone about the story. And usually this involves asking several people 'what they think'.

That's not analysis. That's just more opinions. More to the fact, the journalist is still not playing a part in the story. He or she is still just a faceless entity hidden by a tiny byline that nobody sees.

Want to see what real analysis is about?

Real analysis is stories like this one from Felix Salmon about how a study from Oxfam is using misleading wealth statistics. Try comparing his article to this traditional 'news report' from IBT.

Which one do you think is the most valuable?

You see what's happening here? Asking: "It is important to be careful not to add my own voice, so that the story remains objective?" is the wrong question to ask.

It's based on the traditional way of doing journalism in which you are merely the bringers of information, which in turn is a product of how publishers of the past defined their roles as connecting people with the news. It's based on the idea that without the newspapers, people wouldn't have any information (scarcity of news).

This isn't the world we live in anymore. We now have an abundance of news, which means that the old role of news of just bringing you more news is increasingly irrelevant.

Today we need a different type of journalist. We don't need more news, because we already have too much of it. And we don't need newspapers to give voice to pundits, because they have ample ways to get themselves heard via our social channels (and sharing).

What we do need instead is a new type of journalist who can enlighten, explain, inform us about the news. And to do that, each journalist absolutely needs to 'add their voices'. Not in the form of an opinion, but in the form of real analysis by someone who knows what he or she is talking about.

More to the point, we have an increasing problem with the public being misinformed about the world around them (more on that in a coming article).

This is a fairly new concept. In the past, the public was largely uninformed, so your role was to inform them. But today, people are largely misinformed. That is, they already have information... it's just not the right information.

This, for instance, is what is happening with the story about the misleading wealth data. The traditional media, with their focus on just reporting the news and covering people's opinions, is actually part of this problem. Sure, they try to do as good a job as they can, but when they are merely covering what the politicians say, we end up not with an informed public but a misinformed public. People choose to read only what they want to read.

The solution to this is to position the future role of the journalists to be the voices (not opinions) of enlightenment. To be the people we turn to when we want to understand the story, rather than just hear the news.

Today this isn't happening. In fact, today, the opposite is happening. People's trust in news is getting less and less exactly because they don't have an objective voice.

As such, we need say that "It is important to add my own voice to make sure the story is objective!"

This is what Felix Salmon did, and what many other journalists working for digital native publications do. And it's what you should do as well.

 
 
 

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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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