Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, I have a couple of interesting stories for you. I have a new Plus article about how publishers can create better bundles, and then I would like to have a discussion about media facilitated stories.
There has been a lot of talk about bundles over the years, and we often hear people say that we would be better off if we just had a 'Netflix of news' model. However, long-term readers of Baekdal Plus know that I advise against that. The Netflix of news model fundamentally doesn't work, and it's highly likely to cause you to lose your revenue potential, rather than gain more sales.
However, this is not the only way we can talk about bundles, and there are several ways of using bundling as a subscription tool, within a publication or the same publishing group to create a form of focus and upsell.
This all sounds very fancy, but in my latest Plus article, I talk about what this model is, how that differs from the bad models, and why this can be an extremely useful tool for growing subscriptions.
So take a look at: In-depth media analysis: What should we do with media bundles?
As a media analyst, I have the advantage of time. Unlike journalists working in a newsroom, or editors scrambling to get a story covered, as a media analyst, I don't have that day-to-day deadline of getting the story out as fast as possible.
This gives me the power to be able to analyze how stories form over time, to identify patterns, and problems that this might cause. This, of course, is not unique to me. Everyone who works with media analysis does this.
Doing this work is both wonderful and frustrating. Sometimes we see stories where the focus of the press is incredibly positive, and massively instrumental in fixing a problem and making things better. That type of journalism is absolutely wonderful, especially when I also see publishers combining this with solution journalism.
However, it doesn't always work like this, and a big problem we face today is when we in the media create a scandal out of nothing, causing conflict, or polarization where there was none before.
I want to show you an example of what I'm talking about here:
So this story starts in 2017, where someone on a dark corner of the internet decided to cook a chicken in some kind of medicine. This, of course, was silly, and not very safe (you should never do that), but it also didn't really get much attention. It was a joke, a scam, a stunt.
Anyway, this was quickly forgotten, until in 2022 where, apparently, someone came across this old post and decided to make a new video doing the same recipe and then uploading it to TikTok.
Now, from this point things went kind of crazy, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, came across this video, got really outraged by it, and issued a lengthy press release, named "A Recipe for Danger: Social Media Challenges Involving Medicines", warning people against doing this.
As soon as they did this, we in the press went bananas, and suddenly this story was everywhere. So many newspapers started covering this bad "TikTok trend" that was spreading online.
There was just one big problem with all of this, which was that ... there was no trend. No seriously!
The original post didn't really get much attention because despite what some people seem to think, the general public does not visit the dark corners of the internet. Most don't even know where to look, and the only time they have heard of it is when we are writing about it in the press.
So, the original story did not create a trend.
Neither did the new post on TikTok. In fact, when BuzzFeed looked into this, they found that before the FDA press release, there had only been five searches for it, but following all the press coverage, there were suddenly 7,000.
As they wrote:
There were only five searches for NyQuil chicken content on the app [TikTok] on Sept. 14, one day before the FDA posted its statement. By Sept. 21, there were 1,400 times as many searches on the topic, with around 7,000 searches recorded.
But, here is the thing, we can't even blame this on the FDA, because nobody saw that either. The general public is not spending their time visiting the FDA website to read whatever press release they have put out. The public doesn't do that. And so, the press release didn't actually do anything either.
But, do you know who read those press releases? We did... the press!
As journalists and editors, we are the ones who are visiting the FDA website to see whatever press releases there are. So ... as much as it pains me to say this, the only ones responsible for the spread of this thing is us.
It was not a social media trend. It was not a TikTok trend. Instead, it was a press trend. If we hadn't written about it, almost nobody would ever have heard about it.
This, of course, is just one of many examples. I could give you hundreds more because it happens very often. I see examples of this every single week, sometimes even every single day.
Here in my country, for instance, we have had several episodes now where a political candidate massively gained more supporters following our focus on them in the press.
It's really shocking to see. When you look at what their trajectory was before we started covering them, they were gaining almost no voters, and generally had a bad time convincing people to support them. But then they did something bad, and we went bananas over them in the press, and a week later, they suddenly have a massive following.
This is a common pattern.
But, perhaps the scariest example of this is what happened in the US with Trump. Back in 2015, Trump was just having some kind of narcissistic joke. He did not believe that he could become president, but he loved getting attention.
Meanwhile, there were several other Republican candidates also trying to get elected, so what did we do as the press?
Well, here is a graph that should be familiar to you comparing the media value each candidate got from the coverage we did about them, put together by the New York Times.
I mean, look at how insane this is. In the press we talk about being balanced and neutral. This is neither of those things. We gave Trump so much exposure that he didn't need any kind of advertising of his own. We gave him the election.
And this isn't about Trump vs Clinton. We gave Trump so much attention that it completely drowned out all the other republican candidates too. And look at where this has gotten us. In the US, they no longer have a Republican Party, today, it's better described as the Trump Party.
The frustrating thing about this is that we know this. Every single editor and every journalist knows that we did this. We have the data, we saw the patterns, and we can directly draw a line between that and the outcome that exists today.
It's scary as hell...
But, this isn't about the US, or politics, because, we are doing this with many different stories, from 'trends on TikTok, that aren't actually a trend until we write about it', to anti-immigrant or anti-asian movements, which again, started to grow following our reporting about the topics, to crime, where our media coverage goes bananas because a politician wants to talk about that, even though the actual crime levels have not changed.
Again, as a media analyst, I have the luxury of time, and I don't have any of the day-to-day pressure of trying to operate a newsroom but it doesn't change the fact that this is a significant problem with our focus in the press across so many different countries.
So what should we do about it? Well, the solution is simple. Check the data before you decide if a story should be published. Check it for accuracy, for proportionality, for public usefulness, etc.
This is what BuzzFeed did. When the FDA press release came out, BuzzFeed contacted TikTok to ask them: "Hey, the FDA says this is a trend. How many people are actually looking for this?"
And TikTok responded: "Well, we looked at the data, and yesterday, five people had searched for it".
Five people out of about 1 billion active users. That's 0.0000005% of the people on TikTok that day. And so, there is no story. There is no trend. There is nothing here to write about.
So... you just don't cover it.
But wait, I hear some of you say. The FDA put out that press release. Isn't it our duty to tell people about this? We have to cover that!
No, we don't. We really do not have to cover it.
This is what we as the press need to learn. We need to stop covering stories just because they are there. We can see so clearly that doing this harms the public and creates the very trends that we warn people about. It's our reporting that is making it happen.
So, don't cover it. Just ignore it. Pretend that it never happened, because indeed, with 0.0000005%, it never really did happen. Just move on.
It's the same thing with politicians. Right now we are covering politicians from the "loudest person in the room"-syndrome. But we know that type of news reporting is making things worse. So, don't do it.
And I get it. This feels so wrong. It goes against everything journalism has been about for more than 100 years. But look at the data. Look at the patterns. Look at the outcome ... We need to stop doing this.
And mind you, I'm not just saying this for the sake of the public. This is also about the press itself. When we look at things like trust in news, news avoidance, and the falling levels of news consumption, we see that the public doesn't appreciate this either. So focusing more on the data, and using it to determine what and when to cover something is an important element in fixing this problem as well.
Speaking of things we need to change. If you haven't read it yet, two weeks ago I wrote about how the trends currently favor the press. So also take a look at:
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).
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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