There was an interesting discussion on Twitter the other day about whether publishers should pay their sources. And when I say 'interesting', I mean a lot of antagonized mudslinging.
But, from the perspective of media trends, the topic illustrated a number of fascinating things about how the world of media has changed.
It all started with this tweet from tech/culture reporter Taylor Lorenz from The Daily Beast.
This initial tweet then sparked a very emotional discussion with journalists basically telling YouTubers that they were idiots.
And it got really bad when Taylor, later that day, tweeted an example. She wrote this:
As you can see, at this point it's no longer about getting paid or not. Now it's suddenly about a journalist attacking someone who is an extremist, and the result was that the alt-right community got in on it, and from this point it all went down the drain.
By the end of the day, Taylor had received both rape and death threats, and basically had become a target of an alt-right campaign.
This, of course, is completely unacceptable. Nobody should be facing harassment like this regardless of what they tweeted, but it also distorted the discussion in ways that make this whole thing rather pointless.
So let's take a step back and talk about this as a concept instead. Let's ignore these specific tweets and just talk about the role of media in relation to YouTubers.
First, let's talk about the negative press.
One of the really big problems that exists today between journalists and YouTubers is that the former is often only looking at the bad side of things.
For instance, throughout 2017, many major newspaper focused their attention on finding obscure examples of extremism on YouTube, trying to turn this into a much bigger scandal than what it really is.
Let me give an example of this. Here is a quote from one of many articles about YouTube and Facebook from 2017:
Facebook has admitted that it found about $100,000 in ad spending from June 2015 to May 2017 on the platform connected to inauthentic accounts that likely operated out of Russia. Google too faced loads of backlash after brands realized their advertising was appearing alongside racist and extremist videos on YouTube and other sites, thereby marking them as supporters of hate.
The problem here is twofold.
First, this narrative does not in any way represent reality. While the story is technically true, when you report that someone spent $100,000 on fake news ads on Facebook, this accounts for 0.000015% of Facebook's total revenue.
Basically, this is like going into a big supermarket in a very big mall and then you discover one package of pasta that is past its sell-by date. Is that acceptable? No, of course not. But it also doesn't represent what the supermarket is about.
It's the same thing on YouTube. YouTubers are incredibly angry at the traditional journalism industry because of how we have misrepresented what is really going on with YouTube.
If you read the stories in the traditional press, you are led to assume that YouTube is a site similar to 4Chan, with its massive alt-right community and hate speech. But YouTube is nothing like this.
Sure, you can always find examples of hate speech or racism on YouTube, but you really have to look for it. Normal people almost never see it.
The result of this is that the media has been damaging the perception of ordinary YouTubers, through no fault of most YouTubers. And YouTube has then in turn made some serious errors in the way it tried to fix the problem, which has resulted in blocking content that should never have been blocked.
One example of this is EnterElysium. He is a Let's Player who produces very family-friendly and brand-safe videos. Like this one:
But in 2017, this happened to him:
Yep, some of his videos were demonetized (temporarily) because of these new algorithms.
Mind you, YouTubers very much blame YouTube for this, because the algorithms they made to fix the problem with extremist content are incredibly flawed in every way possible.
Instead of focusing on the context, they seem to be focusing on just catching individual words. So, in this case, maybe it's being blocked because his video is about flying a WWII bomber ... but nobody knows, because YouTube is also completely failing at telling people why something is blocked.
But YouTubers also blame the traditional media, because you created this problem to begin with.
Don't get me wrong, extremism has no place on YouTube and YouTube should do a better job of getting rid of it. But the press took this into a completely unreasonable space, where it turned what was essentially a minor problem into a year-long negative press campaign about YouTube as a whole.
The result of this was the worst thing I have ever seen as a media analyst. I saw otherwise great YouTubers, who have done nothing, go down with depression. I have heard stories about people trying to commit suicide because of how they 'lost' their happiness of creating YouTube videos.
And generally speaking, the joy of being a YouTuber took a very serious hit. In 2015, people loved waking up in the morning to create new and exciting videos. But, in 2017, we in the media turned that into a living hell.
We did that! Journalists, editors, and traditional media publishers.
As a media analyst, I understand why traditional journalists act the way they do. And in some ways, it's good that journalists are fighting extremists.
But what's happening here is that we are creating a lot of collateral damage that we have no right to cause.
Think of it like a war. If the US Air Force started bombing civilians we would instantly condemn such actions and demand it to be stopped.
But this is what traditional media has been doing all year. In order to focus on the very tiny part of YouTube that is about extremism, you have been bombing YouTube as a whole ... causing massive harm to everyone.
Want an example?
Recently a YouTuber did something really idiotic, which was obviously something we needed to talk about. But 'the media' instead talked about it like this:
Instead of focusing on the actual problem, New York Magazine extrapolated this to be about YouTube as a whole.
This is not an acceptable way of reporting this story.
Remember MTV's Jackass? It was just as stupid, but you wouldn't start to report that every TV channel was like this. Nor would you report that TV advertising wasn't 'brand-safe'.
And because of this, it's no surprise that YouTubers are really, really angry at both YouTube and traditional journalists. You have turned their lives into a living hell.
The second problem is that most of the stories about YouTube are massively flawed.
For instance, we have seen many articles about how an extremist with 250,000 views is being 'monetized by YouTube' with loads of money.
Almost every single one of these stories is wrong in deeply fundamental ways. First of all, the amount that journalists think YouTubers are paid per view is massively inaccurate. I wrote about this almost a year ago, but I still see this problem with almost every single article about YouTube today.
For instance, the Guardian wrote:
The ads help fund payments to the people who post the videos, with every 1,000 clicks worth about ~£6. Experts estimate this could have been worth ~£250,000 to extremists.
The problem here is that this is just not true. And reporting this harms good YouTubers in two fundamental ways.
First of all, it harms them in the same way as before, in that they become collateral damage in yet another negative press story, diminishing all the good things they are doing.
Secondly, it directly hurts their ability to monetize and to get people to support them.
One of the most important elements of monetizing yourself on YouTube is to be 'the little guy'. When a YouTuber says, "Hit the like button, subscribe and support me on Patreon," the effect of that is much stronger when people know that they are struggling than if they are already a rich person.
So when we in the press present people with these heavily inflated figures, people start to think that YouTubers make a lot more money than they really do.
For instance, EnterElysium, who I mentioned earlier, has a total of about 75 million views since he started. And according to The Guardian's calculations, this would mean he would have earned $450,000 from YouTube, which would be a pretty good paycheck, even if you stretch that out over a couple of years.
So, has he earned $450,000 from YouTube?
No, of course not. In fact, YouTube is earning him so little money that if it wasn't for Patreon and Twitch, he wouldn't be a YouTuber today.
So, when a YouTuber doesn't want to use their time being a source in a journalist's article, don't blame YouTubers for that.
The traditional media industry (and YouTube's flawed algorithm) created this problem, not the YouTubers. So, obviously, they are not going to help journalists make this even worse.
Now, if you are a journalist and you read this, you might disagree with me (in fact, many journalists have in the past). But this is not about what you think, or what I think.
As a journalist you might think that you are fighting the good fight against the extremists and the 'evil tech companies'. But you are doing it in a way that is causing direct harm to people who just want to spend their time creating something wonderful.
So, whether you agree with this or not, the problem is on us (the media). We need to stop causing collateral damage through our journalism.
If someone spends $100,000 on extremist ads (0.000015% of the total), that certainly should be stopped, but it doesn't mean we can blame everyone for it. You don't start to blame every person driving a car just because one person ran someone over.
We need to be much more nuanced in our reporting.
This problem is on us to solve.
The second part of this is the question of whether publishers should pay their sources, and almost universally, journalists agree that even saying something like this would be sacrilege.
As Taylor also tweeted:
On the surface of things, this seems like a very sensible thing to say. Because why would newspapers pay their sources when you are giving people exposure?
But the whole premise of this is flawed.
The problem we see with traditional media is that we live a bubble. For anyone inside this bubble, we have one set of assumptions and rules, but for anyone outside it, we have another.
Let me give you an example.
If a newspaper writes a story about something health related and they reach out to a doctor for an 'expert opinion', they don't expect to pay that doctor for her time ... even though they are not actually promoting her since the story isn't about that one person.
But let me give another example. Imagine that the New York Times wanted to write a story about something health related that is happening in Los Angeles, but they don't have the insight needed to write the story. So the New York Times reaches out to a journalist from the LA Times who has already worked on this story, to contribute to it.
Should the New York Times then pay the LA Times journalist for his time?
I don't know what you think about this, but my perspective on this is obviously the New York Times should pay the LA Times journalist, because journalists should not work for newspapers for free.
Or to put it in another way, here is an altered version of Taylor's original tweet, where I have replaced 'YouTubers' with 'journalists':
What do you think about it now? Do you still agree with Taylor that journalist shouldn't be paid?
You see the problem here?
So, the question now is, what is a YouTuber? Is a YouTuber a third party (like a doctor), or is a YouTuber a publisher and a journalist?
For instance, this is a YouTuber:
So if The Daily Beast wanted to write a story about renewable energy and they invited Robert Llewellyn to provide some insights for that article, should they pay him?
Here is another example, a YouTuber who creates awesome DIY videos.
Now imagine that Better Homes and Gardens wanted to write an article about things similar to this, and they wanted to bring in David as part of that story.
Should they pay him?
I mean, from a journalistic perspective, there is no difference between what David is doing on YouTube and what journalists from Better Homes and Gardens are doing on their site.
It's the same job and the same job function. So, why should only one get paid?
The reality of this is that YouTubers are journalists. There is no difference between them. YouTubers might be focusing on a different topic than you, but the job is the same. A YouTuber is a publisher, running a media company, publishing content, where both the people and the stories have to make money.
So, the question of whether you should pay a YouTuber (or anyone else) is suddenly more complicated, because today we live in a world where everyone can be a journalist.
Suddenly the real question is instead about the focus of the story and the return on investment of the time people put into it.
Let's talk about the focus first.
Imagine that a journalist was invited to take part in a podcast, should that journalist be paid?
Well, the answer depends on the scope. If it's just a one-off thing, then I would say no.
But if the podcast is more of a regular thing, where, for instance, you are part of several podcasts over the year, the value of that changes. Now you would expect to be paid for the value that you contribute to their overall revenue.
There is also a difference in what the podcast is about. For instance, over at TWiT, they have an excellent podcast called Triangulation, where they interview brilliant people. For instance, here is one with Walt Mossberg:
In this case, where the focus of the podcast is entirely about Walt as a person, he is obviously not getting paid for it, nor would anyone expect that he should.
But what if the podcast was actually about Microsoft, and Walt was intead invited as 'an expert' to provide his expertise and journalistic insight to the show? Now, in many cases, you would expect him to be paid. Because now he is working, rather than being promoted.
It's the same for YouTubers. Is your reason to interview a YouTuber to make the story about them, or are you asking them to 'work' for you to provide their insight to your story?
The other factor is time.
One of the things that many journalists struggle to understand is that the power of exposure in the press is nowhere near what it used to be.
In the past, being part of a story in the press could define your future, and it was incredibly powerful, but in today's world of super abundance, press exposure means almost nothing.
I wrote about this in my article about the now famous burger emoji tweet. Here I detailed just how much exposure I got (8.5 million views), but how this had pretty much no effect. My subscription rate, for instance, is the same as it has always been, and I have detected no lasting growth in traffic.
Here is another story from Lucy Bellwood, a graphic designer, who in 2013 and 2017 detailed just how little effect the press exposure had for her.
As she wrote:
October 21st, 2017: Here's where things get interesting. Boing Boing, a website that receives about 10 million pageviews a month, features the illustration in a blog post, pointing specifically to the letterpress prints.
The author makes sure to link to both the letterpress prints and the print-on-demand version of the image featured on INPRNT, since the letterpress run is limited and likely to sell out. (Dear Lord, may all bloggers be as fabulous and diligent as the staff at Boing Boing. Amen.)
October 23rd, 2017: My Modern Met picks the story up from Boing Boing. They have 2.3 million Facebook fans.
October 25th, 2017: Pat, the head honcho at my store with Buyolympia, emails to tell me there's been a run on the letterpress prints and they've sold out and do I have any more. I do not. We get some print-on-demand editions up in his shop as well, since I'm trying to migrate all my operations over there anyway.
October 27th, 2017: Atlas Obscura (985k Facebook fans) picks up the story from My Modern Met. The next day George Takei posts about it. He has 10 million followers on Facebook, give or take a couple hundred thousand. The post gets 16 thousand reactions and five thousand comments. Many of my friends tell me I am now famous.
October 21st-31st, 2017: 23 prints of various sizes sell on INPRNT after all the press, netting me $191.50. FINALLY, that Famous Person Money I've heard so much about.
This is now the reality of our world. Exposure by itself is almost worthless.
This is important because it tells you a lot about the value of people's time. Many journalists think that just being interviewed is valuable by itself, but today this often not the case.
Let me give you a simple example. Back in 2016, I was asked by Tinius Trust (who owns Schibsted) to take part in their 'annual report' about journalism along with amazing people like Alan Rusbridger, Jeff Jarvis, Emily Bell, and many others.
It was certainly an honor to be a part of this, because it's a really good report from an important company. But in terms of growth, for me, it didn't actually do much.
In other words, the exposure that this report provided to me as a person had very little effect on my business as a media analyst. In fact, if you look at this in terms of time and you put 'spending time writing the article for Tinius Trust' on one side, and 'spending the same time writing another Plus article for this site' on another, the Plus article would generate more growth.
This is how the world works today.
Because exposure is everywhere, it's generally more beneficial to drive exposure directly through your own channel than to be exposed through someone else's channel.
The result of this is that even though I was very happy to be a part of this report, it was also a 'cost' to me in terms of time. I could use this time in other ways that would make me more money and give me more growth.
Because of this, I asked them to pay me for the time I spent writing my contribution to this report.
Some people might look at this and think that I'm insane. Why would I ask for money for something that gives me exposure and PR? But you only say this if you assume that this PR and exposure is worth a lot of money.
So let me turn that question around. I'm a media analyst, I help publishers with their future strategies. Tinius Trust wanted me to provide them with strategic analysis about the future of media in the form of an article.
Why shouldn't I get paid for that?
It's the same story with YouTubers.
Let me give you a simple example. Peter McKinnon is a YouTuber I have mentioned many times because he is doing something amazing with his channel (he reached a million subscribers in just 9 months by creating high-value quality content).
So ask yourself this: Which of these three choices would provide Peter McKinnon the most exposure and growth?
I think you already know where I'm going with this.
To a YouTuber, the growth potential (the return of investment of what to spend their time on) is many times higher when they are spending that on doing something directly than if they are being interviewed by a journalist for The Daily Beast (or any other newspaper).
This is the new reality.
And the reason that YouTubers are increasingly demanding to get paid is the result of all these things. YouTubers don't see journalists as helping them grow. The focus and the audience profile is all wrong, the exposure is almost meaningless, and they could grow much more effectively by using their time and attention with other activities.
So, I don't have any problem with a YouTuber asking for money to contribute to an article. Spending time with 'the press' is costing them time they could have used in better ways on other things.
This is not just true for YouTubers vs traditional media, this is also YouTubers vs every other channel.
Another example of this was when YouTube created its annual YouTube Rewind video. This is a video that is massively promoted by YouTube and, as such, gains an incredible number of views. As I'm writing this, the 2017 edition has 181 million views.
That's a lot!
So you might think that when a YouTuber is invited to be featured in this video, they would just love the PR opportunity this creates.
But instead, we see things like this:
I would urge you to watch this video. It's 32 minutes long; Emma can be a bit confrontational, but she is one of those YouTubers who really does understand the power of PR and press coverage.
And she is saying: Next year, even if I'm invited, I will not take part in a video that will get 181 million views ... unless I'm paid.
And you know what? She is right.
The YouTube Rewind video was one of the worst things I have seen all year on YouTube. It was shallow (hey, let's have people throw slime at each other while playing with fidget spinners), it didn't focus on any of the amazing things YouTube creators actually do, and the YouTubers weren't 'promoted' in a way that would gain any new subscribers to their own channels.
So when Emma now says 'no' or demands to get paid for her time, it's not because she doesn't understand the power of PR. It's because she does.
It's the same with YouTubers and journalists. If your story isn't giving the YouTuber value in return at a higher rate than what she can get from doing other things, then being interviewed by the press is a 'cost'.
And YouTubers, like every other publisher, don't like losing money (or, in this case, time).
If you are a journalist, you probably don't like to hear this and you might disagree with it. But this is how YouTubers think.
You should look at YouTubers as publishers, just like The Daily Beast is a publisher. And no publisher gives their time to another publisher for free.
In the future, if you want a journalist to give you their time for free, you should offer them a better form of influence in return, because you are essentially asking another journalist to contribute to your story.
Mind you, this isn't just true for YouTubers. We see exactly the same trend when it comes to brands. The main reason that more and more of the digital ad revenue is going to other channels is because those other channels create far better exposure.
In traditional media we have negative focused stories mixed with low-effect banner ads. Ads that work so poorly that only a tiny fraction of a percent even clicks on them.
Meanwhile, Samsung recently partnered with Casey Neistat to create an amazing winter wonderland for poor kids (with 6.7 million views).
So, ask yourself, which of these two channels provides the best exposure and PR for brands?
It's obvious, right?
This is now the trend that we see everywhere ... and the problem is not the YouTubers. They are the ones who have figured it out.
And until traditional publishers, editors and journalists realize this too, you are going to continue to have people turn you down for interviews, or asking you to pay for their time ... just as brands will continue to shift more and more of their ad budgets to other channels.
This is the new reality of media.
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."
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