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By Thomas Baekdal - June 2022

Helping publishers define innovation, confusing referendum coverage, and subscription rates

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free).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.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, I have a few really good focus areas for you to read about.

Helping publishers innovate: There is no moon

One of the big problems I often come across is just how confused everyone in the media is about innovation. We all want to innovate, and innovation is a constant topic both at internal meetings, and external conferences, but when it comes to day-to-day innovation, most publishers really struggle to define it.

In my latest Plus report, I focus on helping you do this. I talk about why innovation is not just about 'some tech', but is often more about the focus of the newsroom. And I will also talk about how innovation is never an activity in itself, but is instead a tool you use to accomplish something.

If that sounds useful to you, take a look at: Helping publishers innovate: There is no moon

A media analyst's perspective on referendum coverage

On June 1st, here in Denmark we had the "Referendum on Denmark's participation in the European cooperation on security and defense by abolishing the EU defense opt-out."

Essentially, back when Denmark joined the EU, we had a number of exceptions included in our membership, one of which was that we would not participate in the EU's shared security and defense activity. But now, because of what is happening in Ukraine (as well as other issues over the past decade), well... that exception has been questioned.

But I'm not going to talk about this specific election, nor the outcome. This is not a political newsletter, but a media newsletter. What I will talk about though is how I noticed a problem with the way it was being covered.

As a media analyst, I saw two very different types of coverage. One was extremely useful and helpful, whereas the other type was confusing and was actually harming the public's ability to choose what to vote for.

I found this to be a really big problem, and saw the effect of this in a number of studies that showed that the public was confused.

But let me explain what the differences were between these. First of all, let's talk about the things that were really useful.

All the major Danish news sites created articles that we call "explanatory journalism". These were articles like this one from TV2, or this other one from Politiken.

This was great. They helped the public by outlining all the major questions and elements, providing the public with a clear answer as to what impact different things had. And they were presented in such a way that it was very easy for people to just spend a bit of time looking through it and getting informed.

What was also useful was when the newspaper curated the positions of different political leaders. For instance, we saw a number of articles like "here is the argument from each political party" (or similar).

Again, this was very useful, although to a slightly lesser degree. The reason I don't give this form of coverage top marks is simply that many of these articles weren't fact checked. They merely repeated what the politicians said. Here in Denmark, this is much less of a problem than in many other countries, and probably something like 90% of it was fine. But the remaining 10% was misleading, and as the press, we didn't do anything to correct it, hold them to account for it, or even tell the readers that it wasn't accurate (within those articles).

Another thing I think could be improved was that most of the coverage was politically focused. Meaning, we asked "what are the politicians saying?". But a question like the future status of European defense, and our participation with it, that's not just a political question. It has an impact on a lot of things. So, I would have loved to have more articles curating opinions from other influential members of the public, whether that be business leaders, academics, or other non-political entities.

The Danish newspapers did occasionally write articles about this, but I generally feel that this is a real blindspot for the press as a whole. This is not just true for political events, but also for other topics, like climate change. In the press, we are often so dominantly focused on only the political side of it that we forget that climate change impacts all of us.

Aside from these minor issues both of these things were great. The explanatory articles, and the curated overviews, just brilliant journalism!

However, this was not the only thing we did as the press. The other thing we did was what I will now call the "day-to-day news coverage".

In the weeks leading up to this election, the Danish news sites published hundreds of articles each day, covering every single random thing that happened, or what someone said.

This bombardment of articles was terrible because at one moment you were told one thing, but then, two seconds later, there was another article that somehow managed to completely contradict it. And then a third, and a fourth ... and it just went on and on and on.

To put it simply, what I saw was the explanatory articles and the curated summaries helped the public get informed, whereas the intense bombardment of random news coverage confused the public to such an extent that I would actually say that it harmed the democratic process.

We created so many conflicting news reports that the public ended up not knowing what to think, or even who to trust.

In other words, this happened:

This of course, is not really a new thing. We have seen the same with Brexit, with the US election(s), and indeed with pretty much every election in any country. But what made this stand out was the referendum here in Denmark wasn't about the next parliament. It was instead about this question of whether Denmark should become an active participant and decision maker in security and defense of Europe (as a team), or whether we should remain outside of it. It was a very simple question.

And the explanatory articles did a wonderful job creating clarity around it, so that people would understand what they were actually voting for. Whereas the rest of the news coverage was just a total mess. It was like walking into a room with 1000 people all shouting at you each day.

As a media analyst, I think this is a massive problem. Obviously, it's not as black and white as I make it sound like. There are many nuances here that I'm simplifying. But when I looked at the 'doubters', I saw a general feeling that they didn't think the news was helping them.

I also saw people trying to turn to other sources, like friends, Google, or social media to try to make sense of it. And from a news perspective, that's just terrible.

The problem was that we (as the press) didn't stand out as the place to go. Instead, we were more like the place where people felt that there was just too much noise, and not enough clarity.

This is not a good baseline for building a long-term (paying) audience. It is vital for the future of the news industry that we make people feel that the best place to get informed in a clear and focused way is to go to the newspapers.

...and speaking of creating value:

How to undermine your subscription rate

Whenever you want to sell something, whether it be a pair of shoes, a movie ticket or a newspaper, you always need to put your best product in front of people.

In the physical world, we have always known how to do this. The movie theater would have interesting posters presenting the movie, the shoe store would have a window display, and the print newspaper had this:

One of the main problems online, however, is that many newspapers have lost this art. Sure, the front pages are still designed, and stories are still featured, but many days the front page just feels like a random feed of articles, constantly changing. We no longer have the high focus of 'this is the best we have for you today'.

I want to give you an example of this and how (I believe) this massively undercuts people's propensity to subscribe.

The example is from last Saturday where I was just casually looking at all the Danish news sites. And I came across this front page from this large national newspaper.

I mean... uhm... What is this?

The picture is clearly not from Denmark (it has a US flag in it), and the headline talks about "someone" stealing something and then being cheated by the crime boss. So... uh... why would I be interested in this? What is even the value of reading this article? As a reader, how does this do anything for me?

Anyway, because I'm a media analyst, I clicked on the article, but that didn't help me either. It just repeated the same headline, the same picture, but since it's a premium article, I wasn't able to read it.

Instead, the only extra information was this:

He is accused of being behind an extensive theft network. Now he has been arrested in a spectacular case of fraud in the million-dollar city of New York. His employees saw him as the road to a better life, but now they risk 25 years in prison.

This is completely hopeless in creating a propensity to subscribe. Just think about this for a second.

Imagine a person who is not yet a subscriber coming to this newspaper, seeing this headline, which talks about what appears to be some random crime in another country, and then asking them to pay between $345 (digital only) to $380 (digital + print).

I don't think anyone would ever do that because this article does not convey any sense of importance, relevance, or impact. And remember, this article dominated the front page. It was not just some small article next to 20 other articles. It was the top featured full-spread article for people to see.

Obviously, I don't have the internal conversion data for this newspaper, but I would be really surprised if this front page and this article managed to convert anyone.

And this is not a critique of the article or the journalist who wrote it. It might be a very good article, and it might be really relevant to readers in Denmark. But I have no idea because I'm not a subscriber to this newspaper, nor does the way this article was presented give me any indication if such value even exists.

This is just a simple example, but this is a problem I see all the time. As newspapers (and magazines), we have lost the art of putting our best and more valuable journalism in front of people. Instead, now we just have this 'feed' of random news that, for large parts of each day, is just completely useless at converting people.

Just think about how many times over the past month, the most prominent front page story would be like this. That is time lost where people likely aren't converting.

Imagine how big a difference it would make if non-subscribers were instead always presented with an article where the value to them was clear. What if every time you came to a newspaper, the top article wouldn't just be whatever random story you had, but instead something that was clearly relevant and useful to people? Something people would directly benefit from knowing? Something that had a clear impact for the reader?

How many extra conversions could you get from just this tiny change?

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about better defining the value you have to the public, take a look at:

And also, don't forget the article about innovation I mentioned in the beginning of this newsletter.

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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