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By Thomas Baekdal - September 2022

Trusted newspapers lose trust when optimizing for traffic

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free).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 two exciting things for you. First, we are going to talk about how the problems we face over the next six months will actually help publishers who innovate, and secondly, we need to talk again about clickbait headlines.

The trends currently favor media innovation

There is both a troubling and a fascinating thing happening at the moment. The fascinating thing is that many of the trends we currently see are in favor of the media. Unlike in the past where most trends pointed away from the media, we now see many trends that point people towards the media.

That's very good but... the bad thing is that we also have a world in crisis, with massive inflation, an energy crisis, and key parts of our media consumption are under gigantic pressure, with low trust, news avoidance, and many other problems.

So how do we make sense of this? Well, we look at what people really want, and what they want is something better. And because of the energy crisis, that level of 'better' has to come quickly.

In my latest Plus article, I talk about these trends, and how we as publishers need to act so that the public chooses us instead of cutting us to save money.

So take a look at: The trends currently favor media innovation

Trusted newspapers need to be careful that they don't lose that image when optimizing their traffic

Something happened about three weeks ago that illustrates that clickbait headlines have a detrimental effect on what kind of audience you have. I will tell you what happened and why it's such a problem.

But before we get to that, we need to talk about trust vs traffic.

One of the dilemmas that every newspaper faces is that it is well known that the publishers who usually get the most traffic are also the publishers who are the least trusted.

We have seen this in countless studies, and the exception to this seems to be national broadcasters.

Let me give you a simple example of this. Let's look at the UK as an example.

Here is a graph listing how much people trust each of the major news brands in the UK. At the top is the BBC, followed by many others like the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, etc. ... and at the very bottom, are the tabloids like Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, and The Sun.

However, if we look at the traffic, we see another picture. Again, the BBC is at the top (as the exception because it's a national broadcaster), but then right underneath are The Sun, Mirror, and (Daily) Mail Online.

It's like the trust graph has been turned upside down. The publishers who command the least amount of trust are also the publishers who get the most amount of traffic.

As a media analyst, I find this so frustrating to see. Trust and traffic should not be polar opposite, but I'm also not surprised by it.

What the tabloids are doing is what we call low-intent news consumption. The articles are designed to be snacked upon, to be reacted to, and just basically be something that people look at whenever they have a quick break.

The trusted newspapers, however, are designed for a macro-moment, where people are more focused on learning about the news. This more focused form of news consumption creates a higher level of trust, but the volume of traffic is not as high.

In other words, we see this:

But this is where we are faced with our dilemma, because what happens if a trusted newspaper feels the need to get more traffic? Well, what we often see (very frustratingly) is that they start to copy some of the tactics used by the tabloids. In other words, they add more opinions to get people to react more, they create quick-hit news articles, and of course, they start to employ more clickbait type headlines.

And, in terms of traffic, this works. All of these tactics are driving more views, and in the beginning, it's even increasing your number of subscribers since the increased volume of exposure creates more potential for conversions, even though the conversion rate is often falling.

But, of course, in doing this, your value to your existing readers starts to drop because, essentially, your value and focus has shifted away from the highly trusted form of news, and into something that more closely resembles the tabloids:

And, in the beginning, everything seems fine, but as this continues, your existing subscribers start to churn. They don't like what you have become. They don't appreciate this form of news, and it certainly wasn't what they subscribed to in the first place.

And this exact pattern that I just described came to light in the most public way I have ever seen a few weeks ago. (Please note, the example I will show you is from Politiken, but this isn't just about them, this is a general problem I see across many newspapers. The purpose here is not to point fingers, but to illustrate a problem.)

Back in August, a reader of the Danish newspaper Politiken got so angry at their use of clickbait articles, that he decided to write them a letter, which the newspaper then ... heh ... published at the top of the front page.

Here is that article:

Yes, they really posted this headline at the top of the front page. I don't know what the editors were thinking. Maybe they thought they were being 'transparent'. But this is a really effective way to shoot yourself in the foot.

Imagine if a web shop had done this. Imagine if a customer from H&M was really annoyed by the quality of their products, and wrote them an email about it. And then imagine that H&M posted that customer review on their front page for all to see.

But this is not the worst part. Because the article was now posted on the front page, it very quickly got a ton of traffic, which made it the 'most read article', and that also meant it got featured in the most read snippet box ... and then people started commenting.

Now, I want to point out that Politiken had actually posted this as a premium article, so only subscribers were able to read and comment on it. But that just makes it worse, because the comments were completely agreeing with the reader.

Here is a sample of them:

Katrine Christiani - Totally agree with the writer. Canceled my subscription for the same reason.
Soren Jensen - Totally agree with the writer. I am also considering changing newspapers.
Marianne Sonntag - Totally agree. Twisted headlines. You only get the point (if there is one) if you bother to read 3/4 of the article. Is it worth it I often ask myself?
Henrik Munk Nielsen - Agreed. It eventually reminds a lot of EB and BT, which are pure clickbait. [Note: EB and BT are the two largest tabloids in Denmark]
Soren Ladegaard - Completely agree. I have resumed my subscription to Zetland and if they can cover my need for news, I am also done with being a paying subscriber to Politiken.
Bjarne Fich - Unfortunately, I very much agree with the writer. I've grown so tired of clickbait that I consistently bypass them. Especially articles where the actual person being written about is not specified but replaced with e.g. "famous singer" or "goalkeeper" - and yes, this also applies in the obituaries. I subscribed to Politiken so that I did not have to go through all the clickbaits.
Kenneth Graakjær - This is exactly the reason I canceled my subscription earlier this month. Sober and otherwise excellent articles hidden behind a wall of sensational headlines that mostly serve the purpose of killing the motivation to find out what they are about.
Ole Worregård - I 100% share the writer's experiences - and there are actually quite a few online articles on that I do NOT read for the same reason. Have read Politiken in print and online for decades. Online, in the last six months I have moved to news from DR, TV2 and Information instead - which do not quite have the same hopeless clickbait as Politiken. I wonder if there is an adult present at Poltiken who reads along in this thread - AND DOES SOMETHING ABOUT IT?! Unfortunately, I doubt it (it's just about money, after all).
Louise Lund - Totally agree! But Politiken is not even the worst. Other Danish media work so hard with withheld information that you often have to go down to the third section of the main text to find out what the story is about.
Journalism has lost to data showing that people click on articles with withheld information. The computer nerds just forget that people who pay for a subscription don't want to waste their time and be treated like idiots at the same time.

There were many more comments, 91 of them to be exact (at the time I write this), and pretty much all of them are some variation of what you see above. Subscribers expressing huge displeasure with where this newspaper is heading.

So the question is, what did they do about it? I mean, when the feedback and the data is this clear that what you are doing undermines your audience, what did they do?

Well, for starters they removed the article from the top spot of the front within about an hour of posting, and delegated it much further down the page, before it eventually was forgotten in the archives. Meaning that the comments you saw above are mostly from that one hour of exposure, indicating that if they left it there, there would be many, many more.

It's possible that this was done automatically as new articles were posted, but I doubt that since it was removed from the 'featured' spot while it was still the most read article on the site. My guess instead is that one of the editors realized the damage it was causing.

But, this doesn't answer our question because removing the article from the front page is not 'doing something'. So what did they actually do?

Well, sadly... nothing.

As far as I can tell, nothing has changed. The editors never responded to their readers (as far as I can tell), and when I did an analysis of the headlines from the week before and from the week two weeks after this, I can see no difference at all.

In fact, let me show you. I looked at the front pages over a 7-day period both before and after this event, where I looked at and classified the top 25 placed articles on each day. I separated them into three categories based on how well they inform the reader of what the article is about.

So, how did they perform? Well, here is what it looked like before ... and after. In other words, nothing has changed.

But also look at the numbers here. About 2/3 of the headlines have some element of clickbait, and so it's not surprising that so many of their existing readers who were used to reading a newspaper with a different style now revolt against this.

They didn't subscribe to something that felt like reading a tabloid newspaper. The reason they subscribed was to get good journalism.

And, again, this isn't just about this one newspaper. As you can see in the comments above, people point to other newspapers doing the same thing.

As a media analyst, what frustrates me is how newspapers are reacting to this. When you analyze something like this, it is very clear that there is a problem, and that problem is causing reader displeasure, increasing churn for long-term subscribers, but worst of all, it's changing these newspapers ... turning them into tabloid wannabees, where the value of journalism and trust is many times lower.

Again, what is happening right now across the industry, is this...

... and this is not a good future for journalism.

I hope this example gave you something to think about. And I hope that at least some newspapers will actively avoid making this mistake. But I also know that some are probably asking: "But, hey Thomas, how do we grow our traffic then?"

And my answer is, "I don't know". If your question is how you can get the same level of traffic as the tabloids, while at the same time not using any of the low-intent traffic tactics they use? ... I don't know how you can do that. In fact, I don't think it's even possible to achieve that unless you are one of the public broadcasters (like the BBC), or that you completely dominate the market like what we see in the US with the New York Times.

But, if you are not either of those things, I simply don't know. But it is also part of my point. If you want to be a trusted newspaper, traffic is not the goal you should aim for in the first place. It's the wrong metric.

Instead, you should aim for getting the most subscribers, with the longest possible subscription duration ... aka life-time subscription value. This should be your goal for the future.

But most of all, we need to stop comparing the tabloids to the trusted newspapers. These are two separate markets with different types of intent and focus areas. It doesn't matter how many views the tabloids are getting because they are not the same market.

Tabloids are in the market for low-intent news, while other newspapers are in the market for high-intent news. It's not the same.

Want to know more?

If you haven't seen them already, don't miss out on the 'known to work' series, where I talk about the things we know work for publishers.

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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