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By Thomas Baekdal - January 2023

A media analyst's New Year's Resolutions for publishers

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Happy New Year everyone and welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Well, we are already a week into the new year, and I was asked, what things would I suggest publishers change in 2023?

That was a great question, so let's talk about that, as well as my latest Plus report.

How to fix people's perception that climate news is not useful?

The first new Plus article of 2023 is about climate coverage. There was a study that came out from Reuters Institute, and, not surprisingly, it shows that there is a growing trend around people just not wanting to read the news about it.

This is a really big problem because climate change is one of those news stories that we simply cannot ignore. It impacts everything, from the products you buy, the prices of those products, the choices you make, as well as a lot of societal factors, like crazy weather, heatwaves and cold waves, which lead to crop failure and the list goes on and on.

For something as important and relevant as this, why do so many turn away from the news about it? Well, in my latest Plus article, I go over the factors that cause this, and help guide you to define a better way to cover this.

So take a look at: "How to fix people's perception that climate news is not useful?"

How much coverage do we have?

Speaking of climate change coverage, one of my followers, Stefan Paulus from Azernis, recently shared a study he had done about climate coverage in Germany. He had looked at the volume and promotion of climate articles across a number of German publishers, and the data is fascinating:

Here is the summary.

As you can see, only about 2% of the articles are climate related, but more interesting is the share of 'lead articles' (those featured at the top of the front pages).

Here is another summary of the number of articles across all the publications.

As well as the number of lead articles for each given day, across all the publications.

As a media analyst, I'm not surprised by any of this data, but it is fascinating to see it being measured and presented.

I will argue that climate is being massively under-exposed, considering how important the topic is. But, since I don't have the data for what else they covered in the same period, I can't really dive too deeply into this. This may be a project for another day.

New Year's resolutions for publishers

As mentioned, I was asked what things I thought publishers should focus on changing in 2023, and so, let's do a New Year's resolution for publishers. What should publishers aim to fix in the year ahead?

Resolution #1: Align what you say and what you do!

Let's start on a serious note. One of the fundamental problems that undermine everything we do is how people don't perceive journalism as something that can be relied upon, and a big reason for that is how inconsistent most publishers are.

This inconsistency permeates almost everything we do, from our business side, to our journalism.

Let me give you an example. The New York Times has written many articles about the problem with forced arbitration, and in the process held many companies to account for it.

These are just a very small sample of the many articles they have written about it:

But, the New York Times also recently updated their own terms of use ... and guess what they did. Yep, they added forced arbitration into their terms.

This illustrates a problem we have seen many times before. Newspapers, generally speaking, don't care about their own journalism. Because, if they did, they would never do this. You would never go out and tell people "those companies are the worst because they do this" ... and do it yourself.

And, this is one example, but it happens everywhere. It's the same with privacy. Just a few days ago, one of the big newspapers in my country published an investigative journalism report about tracking, where a journalist had mapped out just how much he was being tracked, and what the data was. It was a good article.

But, to read that article, the newspaper wanted you to "accept all tracking", sending your browser data to the very type of companies that the article warned you about.

We also see it with dark patterns, where publishers are some of the worst online. We see subscription shenanigans, from pricing models specifically intended to fool people, to cancellations that, in some countries, are illegal (like forcing people to call to cancel). And there are so many other examples.

And for each one of these problems, we see how the journalists write about it, and hold others to account for it, but then you do it too on the business side.

It's just so stupid, and it undermines our standing in society. Every single time we do something like this, we tell the public that we cannot be trusted, but more so, we put ourselves into the category of companies who we as journalists expose as horrible businesses.

You don't want people to have that association with you as a publisher.

But, here is the problem. This isn't just happening on the business side. It's also happening in the newsroom.

I talked about this problem in my Plus article mentioned above, where I used the example of hybrid-electric car coverage. Many newspapers have covered the lie that is hybrid-electrics.

As you may know, the numbers the car companies give you are massively inaccurate, and studies have shown that hybrid-electrics are between 60-75% less fuel efficient (and thus more polluting) than claimed.

So, as journalists, we publish articles exposing this lie. But... then the next day, you publish a car review of a hybrid-electric car, telling people that it's wonderful.

Just think about this. One day you tell people about the lie, and the next day you write something else, completely ignoring your own journalism.

It's exactly the same as with the business team. You are not listening to your own journalism, and this inconsistency makes newspapers feel like something you can't connect with or trust.

So, my first New Year's resolution is to stop doing this. Listen to your own journalism. If you cover something that is bad, use that information to define how to cover or do everything else.

Resolution #2: Don't label facts as an opinion

The second resolution is about opinion articles. I have talked about this before, but, as a media analyst, I consider the focus on opinion to be the biggest mistake we ever made. Today, when you visit most newspapers, the journalism and opinion have been mixed to such an extent that, as a reader, you have no idea what to trust.

It has undermined our entire industry.

But there is one thing that makes it even worse, and that is when we label a fact as an opinion.

The reason why this happens is because of how newspapers are internally organized. As you know, the opinion section is managed by a separate team, disconnected from the newsroom. And so every story coming out of that department, regardless of what is in it, or who made it, is then labeled an opinion.

This is incredibly stupid because think about the result of this. You can have a real expert, like a scientist, presenting fact-checked and very real measured data ... and then publish that as an opinion, next to an article by someone who is just writing whatever popped into his head ... also published as an opinion.

These things are not equal. A fact-check is not an opinion, and should not be put into the same category as articles from people who are just saying whatever.

Let me give you a simple example of this. Over at YouTube, the New York Times has posted a video fact-checking some of the corporate lies about the climate.

The video is really good. The journalists behind this did a very good job, and it's full of facts. But, as you can see, it's labeled "opinion".

This completely undermines their journalism, and it gives climate skeptics an excuse for not listening to it. In fact, it polarized the public because suddenly, based on whether you personally believe in this or not, you can just choose whether to listen to the facts presented, or just think about it as an opinion to be dismissed.

But again, the reason why it's labeled this way is because it was made by an internal department at the New York Times called "NYT opinion". They are exposing their internal organization structure to their readers.

This is something every brand knows never to do. You don't categorize something by which department made it. You categorize it by what it is.

This is also true for the newsroom. So many times we see articles covering someone just expressing an opinion in the same place as fact-based journalism. It's the same problem. But now, instead of labeling a fact as an opinion, you are labeling an opinion as a fact.

Please, publishers, don't do this.

Label opinion as an opinion, and label fact-checks as facts. It doesn't matter who made the article, whether it's your opinion department, your journalists, or an outside source. Label the articles for what they are.

This is my second New Year's Resolution to you. The way publishers do this today is just wrong.

Resolution #3: Don't tell people they should subscribe because journalism is important. Prove it

The third New Year's resolution is about your subscription strategy. Over the past decade, many newspapers have focused their subscription strategy on simply telling people that they should pay because journalism, as a concept, is important for society.

And, it kind of works. For many publishers, this focus was what helped them get their subscriptions going, and some publishers have even been saved because of it.

However, what I see today is that we have reached the limit of this, meaning that most publishers have already reached the limit of how many people they can convert using this argument ... and that number is about 10% of your potential audience.

So, in 2023, I want you to change this narrative. Instead of telling your reader to subscribe because your journalism is important, prove it to people. And not as an abstract. In very real and personally useful, interesting, and relevant ways.

This is my third New Year's resolution to you. Change your subscription narrative.

Resolution #4: Build publisher centric models

My fourth resolution is about the overall trend we see in the market around tech companies having growth problems. As you may know, more than 130,000 tech workers have lost their jobs last year.

When something like this happens, there is always a reevaluation of costs and time, and for newspapers and magazines, this is likely to cause us to be 'left out' ... in fact, it's already happening.

This means that 2023 is going to be a pivotal year in terms of publishers building channels more directly, or as an industry.

Remember, the reason why publishing jumped on Facebook 10 years ago was because it was growing like mad. And this growth made it an interesting partner, because even if it performed poorly, it was still a ton of traffic that just kept going up and up.

But now that the tech companies are no longer growing, there is very little reason why anything you do this year on social channels will actually make much difference.

So, my fourth resolution for you is to use this year to build something new, more directly, and from a publisher perspective.

Resolution #5: Have fun again

My final resolution to you is ... to have fun again.

Okay, this sounded weird, but one of the big problems we created for ourselves, over the past decade, was that optimizing for traffic, affiliate revenue, SEO, and social referrals made us publish things that we didn't really care about.

I'm talking about thousands of articles that were merely published to optimize that traffic flow. From shopping articles where journalists had just spent five minutes looking at Amazon's top 10 most sold products in a specific category, or the news articles that were merely published to reach a quota, or the listicles that we often see in magazines.

None of these types of articles were ever that good, but magazines and newspapers published them because it drove traffic.

But now, the trend is that the source that creates that traffic no longer works that well, and the damage this has caused to publishers is immense. It has turned so many publishers into just another place for random noise.

So, my fifth resolution for you in 2023 is to change that strategy and focus on making journalism fun again. Do something you love. Do something that you know is useful. Show that you care, and spend the time making it good.

But, most of all, do this in such a way that your audience will feel the same way. This is the key to getting us through 2023, not just as people, but also as publishers, with businesses wanting to grow.

Note: Coming up (in a week or so) is an article I'm working on talking about the future of print.

Want to know more?

Since 2023 is starting off with people being very careful about their money, take a look at:

Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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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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