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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - March 2019

Episode 010: Covering the Elections From the Perspective of a Media Analyst

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The next US election is coming up. Well, it's about 20 months away, but as you have probably noticed, the 'election cycle' has already started. And, as we all know, the way we cover elections is not the best it could be.

So, in this article (which you can also listen to as a podcast), I will do something special. I'm going to talk about some of the higher-end strategies and concerns that we should consider as publishers. More specifically, I'm going to imagine that I am a wealthy philanthropist (which I'm not) and I have just decided to publish a new newspaper with the aim of covering the election. And the question is then, how would I, as a media analyst, put that together? How different would that be from what we see today?

Sounds fun? Well, let's get to it.

Some quick notes

Before we start, there are a few quick things I want to mention.

First of all, I am a media analyst. What this means is that it's my job to help the media do better. Sometimes by helping you see a better future, but also by using constructive criticism and pointing out when we do something wrong.

What I am not is a political analyst. It's not my job to analyze the politics or try to fix our politicians. Also, I'm not a tech reporter. Many people in the industry have come to believe that the tech channels are causing a lot of the problems. And yes, there are problems on these channels (although to a much lesser degree than what most seem to think). But again, my focus is not to fix the tech channels.

Please keep this in mind as you read this. If you start to think "Oh, but this is the politicians' fault", you might be right, but this article is not about what other people do. It's about what we can do in the media.

Finally, I will be using the US election and Brexit as examples, but obviously everything here also applies to any other election coverage in any other country.

Anyway, enough about the quick notes. Let's get on and rethink how to cover an election.

Organizing a newspaper

One of the fundamental problems with newspapers is how they are defining their focus areas, or rather, how they are not defining them.

Whenever you go to a newspaper, you are usually presented with generalized topics like these: World, U.S., Politics, Business, Opinion, Tech, Science, Sports, Arts, and Video. And when it's election time, they add another section called 'Election'.

This might all sound very normal if you are a traditional newspaper, but think about what this is. When you define your coverage around topics like World, U.S., or Politics, you are not defining any specific focus. Instead, you've just put up a box that you can put your random articles into.

This has a really big effect on how we cover the news. Because, it means that your focus is just on reporting things that happen, but you do not have a clear focus around why. This means most of the journalism we see today is just a reaction to things. In other words, we wait for the politicians to do or to say something, and then we report it to our readers.

Again, this sounds like a very reasonable approach, but consider it in relation to relevancy.

For instance, think about the last US presidential election. Imagine that you are a mother of two teenage children in, say, Minneapolis, and then you go to the news and all you see are stories about one candidate raving about immigrants and that another candidate had a personal email server ... how useful would that be? Would any of those stories have any relevance or impact on this person's life? Would it change anything, either for better or worse for this person? Would it solve some of the issues she is having with planning for the future of her kids? Or does it help her achieve her own future dreams?

The answer to all of these is no.

So why are we reporting these stories? The answer is that our focus was to merely cover 'politics', and those specific issues were what the politicians had been talking about the day before. In other words, we end up being defined by what the politicians are doing, and we lose the relevance that we are supposed to provide to our readers.

This is bad, because it disconnects us from our readers.

One way we see this is with young people. Across the world, young people are showing a general disinterest in politics because they don't feel that any of the issues discussed have any relevance or meaning either to themselves or the future as a whole.

We saw this very clearly both in relation to the US election, but also very much in relation to the UK Brexit referendum. What the politicians were talking about, and subsequently what we then covered in the press simply weren't relevant

Take the US as an example. What do young people worry about? Well, they worry about their future, specifically whether they can afford it because of rising student debt, the housing crisis, the future prospects of the job market, health care, and also macro problems like the future of the environment.

Okay.... So, during the last election, what did we cover in the press?

Well, none of that. Instead, we spent all our time focusing on whatever nonsense the politicians were saying. The result was that young people didn't feel there was any way that they could engage with the election, neither in relation to the politicians, or to the press.

In other words, we lost our relevance to our readers because we focused so much on what the politicians were doing that we forgot to listen to what our readers needed.

So, how do we fix this?

Well, the first step is to change the core problem, which is that we went into the election without any focus, which then caused us to just cover all these random things.

And the way to do this is to identify what is important before we start to do any reporting. With this I mean that, before the start of the election season (meaning, right now), I would do a very comprehensive study about what issues the public is actually facing in their lives. I'm not talking about the things they tweet about (which is just the latest outrage), but the actual issues that they face.

And keep in mind, when I say 'study', I don't just mean that you bring all your editors into a meeting room one day, and put up a big whiteboard, and then have a 'brainstorming session'. That's not studying. That's wasting everyone's time.

I'm talking about actually studying this, doing interviews, surveys, looking up the data, having data analysts run the numbers, and bringing in industry experts to help you understand why something is so complex.

Secondly, I would also do a comprehensive study that looks at the societal trends. Where are things going? What happens if we become more global? What are the macro changes in the economic landscape? Where is trade heading? What about jobs? Where are the schools heading? What about the climate?

With the result of these studies in hand, I would then do a future projections study for each identified issue, in order to identify where this will be, or should be, two election seasons into the future (in the US that is 8 years, in other countries it might be 10).

The reason I want to project this into a second election season is because we don't want to end up focusing on issues that could be limited to party politics. We want to focus on issues that are so important that they have a lasting effect.

With these studies, I now have a pretty good idea about what the public (and by extension your readers) actually worry about.

So, now we need to segment and rank this. Specifically, what we want is to achieve three things.

First, we want to get a sense of how big an issue really is so that we can dedicate the necessary resources to it.

Second, we want to identify the urgency of each issue, as well as which issues have no urgency at all.

Third, we also want to identify the issues that do not have any relevance at all, despite how much the politicians want them to.

This then gives us our new focus. We have studied what people actually need. We have verified it against real data and real analysis. We identified how it fits into the macro trends for society as a whole, and then projected where this will (or should) go in 8-10 years. And we have ranked each issue in terms of importance, relevancy, and urgency.

So, now we rearrange everything else around this. This focus now becomes our new editorial strategy, and everything from how we organize the newsroom, to how we cover stories, to who we interview and why, will be based on this.

Let's talk about these one by one.

Hiring new people

We need to put together the team of people that will cover the election. Obviously, we need a bunch of highly talented and skilled journalists and editors, but we also want to bring in some people from outside the industry. And, as you might know, many newspapers do this already today.

However, the news industry has a completely distorted idea about how to do this. And the most perfect illustration is to look at what CNN recently did.

As you may have heard, CNN decided to hire Sarah Isgur, the former spokesperson for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was a part of the Trump Administration, as a political editor.

Yeah... what the heck were they thinking? Granted, after the outrage CNN received from the industry, she has now been demoted to a lesser role. But this is something we see quite a lot. Many news organizations are hiring, interviewing, or bringing in political pundits to help with their election coverage.

So, Brian Stelter, CNN chief media correspondent, then tried to explain the reason behind Sarah's appointment. Brian is a great person, I don't mean any disrespect, but what he said was this:

[...] Love it or hate it, political insiders have been joining newsrooms for decades. The more viewpoints represented in newsrooms, the better.

This kind of makes sense, but also doesn't. I mean, as a newsroom you want to have as many different viewpoints as possible, but the problem is that this is not what CNN will get from this.

The problem in the media industry is that, whenever we talk about different viewpoints, we always end up just inviting the same type of political pundits over and over again.

In other words, you were talking about politics, and now you are just talking even more about it. Nothing new is added. If we actually want to get different viewpoints, we would need to bring in entirely different people. Like teachers, doctors, civil engineers, etc.

Think about it like this. If one of the key issues that the public worry about is education, a political pundit would not help our newsroom understand or convey that in any way. All they are doing is to... well... be a pundit, which is entirely useless. What we need instead is to bring in someone who actually understands the complexities of education, and who can help us identify when the politicians are saying something useful and when they are not.

So this is what I would do.

I would not hire political pundits like CNN is doing, because that doesn't solve anything, nor does it actually give us any viewpoints that we didn't already have. Instead, I would put together an election team of journalists, editors, and people from outside the world of politics.

I want people who know how to keep the focus on the issue, not people who are just getting high on the political infighting.

So, this is step one.

The newsroom

The second step is to reorganize the newsroom around the issues we identified earlier. So instead of having political reporters, we will now have reporters dedicated to each of these issues.

This means that their job is no longer to report what is happening in politics, but to explore how these issues can be solved. And their job is to do this every single day throughout the entire election season.

In other words, I would not have any journalist at my newspaper with the title of political reporter. Each team of journalists would be dedicated to covering a single issue every day for the entire election.

The purpose of this is to do two things.

First of all, it is to make sure that the newsroom stays on point.

I have talked about this before in relation to YouTubers. A YouTuber instinctively knows that the only way to stay relevant and have an impact is to pick a focus and stick with it. This is why every successful YouTube channel has a very narrow focus.

In comparison, when traditional publishers start to use YouTube, they are always doing it the old way by uploading a ton of videos with a completely random focus. And when they do this, we can very clearly see that this simply doesn't work, nor does it have any form of impact.

I want to change this so that nobody ends up just producing random content. I want to force a focus.

I also want to prevent newspapers from moving away from important stories.

This is a massive problem today across the industry. Whenever something important needs to be discussed, the media has the attention span of a gnat.

Just think about the latest mass shooting in the US. Every single newspaper covered it extensively immediately after it happened, but then after a week we completely forgot about it, and we were back to reporting about how the White House were serving cheese burgers to a sports team.

So, I want to reorganize the newsroom in such a way that this would never happen. I want to put journalists and editors into groups focusing on each important issue, and with that force everyone to stay on topic and keep looking throughout the election.

The front page

The next change is the focus of the front page, because this is really the most important page that we have.

For many years, publishers forgot about the importance of the front page because we all became so intoxicated by Facebook and Snapchat, but the 'direct' nature of the front page defines our more valuable audience. And, as a publisher, we should spend far more time optimizing for that behavior.

What we want people to do is to make a choice as to where they can get the best information possible, and that choice should be you. People say to themselves that, whenever they feel like getting real news, they are going to come directly to you.

Right?

But there is a problem. Today's front pages are ... well ... the worst thing possible. They are total crap.

The front pages have all the same problems I explained above, it's just a place of random content. There is zero focus; the headlines often mislead you to get you to click; it has a mix of opinion and facts. But, worst of all, most of the content is low-intent throw-away news articles. And, on top of that, if you are looking for anything specific, it's pretty impossible to find.

And this causes the crappiest consumption model possible, because it encourages people to just snack on news without ever really thinking or connecting with it.

So, just like I would completely redefine the newsroom, I would also completely change the role of the front page.

I would throw out all the low-intent snacking and the focus on just giving people a random 'portal' of links. This is not the 2000s anymore. If I wanted a portal of random links, I would still be using Yahoo.

Instead, I would design the front page more like a newsletter. I don't mean in terms of the visual style, but in terms of structure.

The purpose of a newsletter is to very efficiently allow people to get highly-informative insights into the core focus areas, and then to give a way to explore further with more in-depth links.

That's what a front page should be. It should be designed and ranked around the issues that we know people worry about, and give people an extremely efficient way to get the summary of the news around each one, with ways to go more in-depth and to explore the details if people want to.

I'm reminded here of the wonderful newsletters over at Axios. Imagine you took their concept, and you made that even more efficient. This is the kind of front page that I would love to have.

Okay, we have talked about the organizational elements, now let's talk about the changes in how we do journalism.

When to give attention ... and when not to

The first change we need to talk about in journalism is how wrong we all are about attention.

In the newspaper industry we have always believed that the way we keep those in power to account and protect democracy was to cover when people did something bad. In other words, we focus on telling the public when people do bad things.

This still kind of works in the local sense and when it comes to dealing with companies or industries. For instance, if we uncover that a business executive is doing something bad, the attention that we put upon it is often the catalyst that makes the brand change it. And, sometimes, it also results in getting the executive to apologize and even resign.

But something catastrophic has happened in recent years, where bad people have realized that if they continue to be bad, they can turn their negative exposure into a win.

We see this in many different forms.

For instance, last year a white nationalist and organizer of the whole gamergate harassment thing was 'exposed' in the press, and we wrote a lot of negative reports about him. But instead of backing down and apologizing, he just doubled up on his views ... and the result was that his fan base grew by a massive amount, he was invited to come and speak at universities under the excuse of 'free speech', he was awarded book deals and more.

So, the model around attention is completely broke. When we exposed the world to all the bad things he was doing, he became even stronger.

It's the same with people like Gwyneth Paltrow and her company Goop, which is known for selling some pretty crappy products. This has been exposed multiple times in the press, but all that has done is to help her earn even more money and to be invited to a never-ending list of interviews.

Again, same problem.

But the worst part is with our politicians, who have now realized the same thing. When they are caught telling a lie, instead of apologizing, they just double down on it, which grows their base and ... well... look who is now the president of the USA.

Granted, it might very well be that if we keep up the pressure to expose when people lie, eventually it will have an effect. But what we can very clearly see is that, in the short-term, it only makes them stronger.

And the problem is that an election is a very short-term thing, even for a lengthy election season like what we see in the US.

The simple reality is that, as newspapers, we end up causing the exact problem that we are supposed to fix. Instead of keeping those in power to account, we actually help them cause harm by giving them all this exposure and attention.

So, if I was running a newspaper, I would turn this on its head. Instead of trying to expose bad people by giving them attention, I would take the attention away from them.

What I mean is that, if you know that a politician is lying to your readers, don't cover it, don't give them air time, don't even fact-check it. Instead, just switch your focus to the opposing candidate.

In other words, I would teach politicians that if they lie to us or if they refuse to provide proof or data for their statements, they don't get to be in the newspaper.

But what if the opposing candidate is lying too? What do we do then?

Well, then you don't give them any attention either. If the politicians cannot stop lying, then none of them deserve to be heard, in which case, we need to take the discussion out of politics and into society itself. Meaning that we will instead focus our attention on discussing the issues directly with the public, with business leaders, and other important people outside the world of politics.

Remember, our politicians are supposed to be the public's representatives. And if politicians can't do that, then we need to go back to 'the course' ... meaning the public.

Granted, doing journalism this way feels wrong, because we are trained to think that the best way to keep those in power to account is to expose what they do. But today we know that this doesn't work. So, as journalists, we must change our approach to this.

This leads us to fact-checking.

Fact-checking

Is it important for newspapers to fact-check things? The short answer is yes. It's fantastically important.

But, we know that some forms of fact-checking simply don't work. Specifically the type of fact-checking that takes place after people have already been misled.

The problem we have today, especially around politics, is that many people behave more like part of a cult than as an informed member of the public. And one of the things that characterizes a cult is that the end justifies the means, even if that means lying to people to get there.

For instance, many people in the UK were happy to believe in a lie about the EU if it meant they could get Brexit. And no amount of fact-checking could change that, because the lie was helping them get what they wanted.

This is bad, but in the media we often make this problem worse.

I mentioned a recent example of this in my latest newsletter. Here I illustrated this problem with a tweet from Bloomberg that said this:

Bloomberg is just reporting what someone said, and it's true that he said these exact words ... but the words themselves weren't true.

So, after being called out about this, Bloomberg decided to fact-check this statement and five hours later tweeted this:

But this doesn't work. The damage has already been done. People have already made up their minds, and the cult-like behavior has set in place.

So we need to adopt an entirely different approach to fact-checking. Specifically we need to fact-check something before people hear the lie.

You might argue that this would require some kind of time-machine, but it doesn't. While we obviously don't know what a politician specifically might say, we have a pretty good idea about what they are going to focus on overall. And what we can do is to spend far more time predicting what needs to be fact-checked, and then cover that extensively before it becomes a talking point with the politicians.

At first, this sounds like an impossible thing to do, but I will challenge you to sit down one afternoon and just write down all the talking points that you think the politicians are likely to lie about next week. You would be surprised by how easy it is to create a list of topics and how accurate your predictions end up being.

Politicians are not that complicated.

So, I would tell my newsroom to be future focused. Think about what is likely going to happen next week, and then focus the coverage on preparing our readers for it this week. This way, people will have become informed before someone else tries to lie to them.

It will never be perfect, but it would make a real difference to ensuring an informed public.

Politics is not a sport

Finally, the last big thing is a problem that we all know about, and that we all agree that we shouldn't do but that every single newspaper keeps doing anyway ... and it is that we always report about elections as if it was a sport.

This is just one of the most stupid things that we can possibly do, but it's like everyone has been hypnotized to do it.

Seriously, stop doing this!

I will talk about two things that may help you put this into an even bigger perspective.

First, let's talk about democracy.

The fundamental principle of a democracy is to govern through consensus. In other words, whenever we want to do something, we have a vote, and then whatever outcome reaches consensus is what ends up becoming law.

Right?

Well, the problem is this is not how our democracies work today. Instead, we have this weird system where we instead define something as a win when it has reached the least amount of consensus.

I'm talking about the 50/50 vote.

If we were to draw a diagram where we would map out the point where we had achieved the most amount of consensus, where would that be?

For instance, if we had two choices ... A or B, the most amount of consensus would be if we could get everyone to agree on just one choice, that would be where we had 100% consensus.

Of course, this is not very realistic. We could never get everyone to agree on the same thing. So instead, imagine the point where we would have the least amount of consensus, where would that be?

The answer is (of course) the point where the public would be completely split between A and B. In other words, if we have an election and it ends up being 50/50 (or nearly so), we would have reached the point where most people were unable to agree on anything.

This is sadly what our world of democracy is like today. We have completely messed up this concept of a democracy, because every election ends up the same way, where the public is pretty much as divided as they can possibly be.

Just stop and think about this for a moment. This is insane.

And then in the media we make this worse by covering politics like a sport. Because, when we do this, we further polarize the public, and we make people believe winning is what happens when one party gains the majority of the votes, despite the fact that it also means that the public has been completely split in two.

That's not a win. That's the point where we all lost.

But there's another even more important point to this, and that is the difference between a zero sum game and a positive sum game.

The YouTube channel, Kurzgesagt, posted a great video about this last year, but let me very quickly summarize it.

 

In a zero sum world, we assume that everything around us is limited, and thus the only way that one side can succeed is if all the other sides lose. This is, for instance, a typical mindset in traditional businesses. Many people think that the only way that Samsung can gain even more market share is for Apple to lose some of theirs.

And this mentality is what drives a lot of the 'sport-like' coverage that we see. It's one against the other.

However, the real world doesn't work like this, because we actually live in a positive sum world. In a positive sum world, the momentum of one company, combined with the momentum of another company will together increase the size of the total market, allowing both sides to win at the same time.

We see this very clearly in the smartphone market. Apple became one of the richest companies in the world, and Samsung did the same thing. Yes, they are competing, but together we now have a much bigger market than we would have had if only one of them had won.

This is something journalists need to understand. And if I was running a newspaper, I would put together a training seminar for every journalist and every editor to teach them about the difference between a zero sum game and a positive sum game. And I would instruct every journalist to write articles from a positive sum game perspective.

What this means is that, if two political parties are arguing about something, and only one of them comes out as 'the winner', then I would not allow my journalists to classify that as a win, because by having only half the country achieve something means that we all lost.

However, if two political parties are arguing and then they end up finding a solution that benefits us all, then I would report that as a real win.

Think about how important this change in mindset really is. During the budget discussion and the US shut down, we saw how damaging it really is for the country when we aim for a zero sum game. And when Trump conceded, every newspaper in the US wrote that he had lost:

Think about what we are actually doing here. We are telling Trump that unless he can make Pelosi lose, we are going to write very negative articles about him, calling him a loser.

So what do you think Trump is going to do the next time? Do you think he will be more agreeable and more willing to find a shared solution? Or do you think he will become even more aggressive in trying to make Pelosi lose?

We, in the media, are a big part of why this problem exists. It's our style of journalism that encourages our democracy to be this broken.

We often say that we are the protectors of democracy, but we are not. In many ways, we are part of the problem.

So, if I was running a newspaper, this would be one of the critical elements that would be changed from the very first day. I would not allow any of my journalists or editors to cover politics like a sport.

And this includes how we do interviews, investigative reporting, and everything else.

Many more things, but it's time to end

I could go on and talk about many other things that I would change, but this is already a long article.

What I tried to do here is to give you the macro changes that I would implement if I could.

We started out flipping the entire model of a newspaper upside down, by first listening to the public and identifying what they really worry about, before we even started thinking about the journalism.

We then changed how an election team was chosen and put together.

We redefined how the newsroom is focused, so that we would never lose track of what we are supposed to cover and why.

We redefined the front page to focus even more on building up a long-term relationship with our readers, as opposed to just having people snacking on random articles.

We changed the mindset and the journalistic approach to giving attention, and directed it towards the channels that would always provide people with the most useful information.

We changed the way we think about fact-checking, and focused it on thinking ahead instead of reacting to what had already happened.

And finally, we banned the zero sum mindset that is crippling our society, and trained and directed our newsroom to encourage people to build a new world together.

One thing I have not talked about is the business model or the monetization, but I think you can see the potential for this yourself.

A newspaper like this would be far more accessible for brands, and more brand safe. It would be a place that brands would like to advertise because we are actually helping the world and building communities.

People would likely also be more willing to subscribe. It would probably not be as massive as newspapers like the New York Times, but it would likely do a lot better than most other newspapers.

But even more interesting, because we are organized around the issues we identified at the start, it opens up the potential to create niche offerings around each of them, and make them even more valuable.

This means that people wouldn't necessarily need to buy the entire newspaper, they could just subscribe to the issues they care about the most.

We could then use the same thing for a lot of other things, like creating far more valuable and targeted newsletters, podcasts, or targeted news services ... again centered on each of these issues.

Keep in mind, I do not have any illusions that I could fix the newspaper industry as a whole, nor that most newspapers will ever really change. And I absolutely do not think I would be able to change how politics works. But that's not the point of this article either. I'm not trying to save the world here. All I'm trying to do is to help you.

And, even though I have been very hard on the media industry in this article, I hope the things I talked about have energized you to make some changes of your own. Because, if I could just help you, then that would be a success in itself.

So... what will you change?

 
 
 

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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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