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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - February 2016

Publishing in a Digital Native World

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One of the biggest challenges that we have when explaining how publishers will be affected by the future of media is understanding how the roles have changed. The way we described the media in the past has very little to do with how we will describe media in the future.

I had this very problem just last week. I was writing an article about distribution in a digital native world, in which I was trying to explain how traditional newspapers or magazines should focus on channels such as Facebook. But after having written about 11 pages, I decided to delete.

The reason was that I was coming up with workarounds that didn't fit into the future, rather than focusing on what the future is actually like. And this is a problem we all have, all the time.

Old media is no longer in tune with how digital media works. The way we group old media no longer matches how people behave digitally. The formats that we know no longer fit the models.

In fact, the phrase 'digital media' is wrong. There is no digital media. It's a ridiculous definition, defined to separate it from print media. In other words, digital media is a phrase that we use to relate something to the old world. It's not a phrase that we can use to relate anything to the new world.

So, in this article, I'm going tear down the definitions of the old world, in order for you to realize what the new world of media is actually like.

Format agnostic

The first thing we have to realize is that it's format agnostic by default. The old concept of having newspapers centered around text, magazines mostly formatted around images, radio formatted around voice, and TV formatted around video makes no sense online.

Take a look at your Facebook stream and you will see a mix of every format possible. When people share something, they don't think of this as text, images or something else. They just share it.

Granted, images and videos work better than a pure text post because they are better at capturing people's attention, but that doesn't define the format.

But when we look at most traditional media companies, they are all format first. Not only are the publications defined by a format, the way they are designed is format first, the people they employ are format first, the organizational silos are format first, the decision making process is format first.

Everything with old media is format first.

So... what do you do as a magazine when you realize that a new article series would work much better as a YouTube series? Or what do you do as a broadcaster when you realize that people are consuming your content during breaks, via sharing? That doesn't fit the TV format.

You see the problem?

What most publishers do is try to keep their format mindset by adding other formats as 'extras'. We see this all the time. You go to a newspaper who have written a car review for their lifestyle section, and at the top of the article there is a slideshow with maybe three pictures.

Think about how crappy that is.

The result is the least interesting form of publishing in the world. It made sense back in the old world where print newspaper limited the focus and space, but in the digital world, articles like that are at the very bottom of the kind of content you can bring.

But an even bigger problem is that many traditional publishers are focusing on the format of being a package of content.

As a package, your main focus is not on each individual article, but on the mass of the articles combined. Each article feels more like content marketing than real journalism. You are not writing it because you wanted it to be good, you are writing it to meet a quota of how much content you should publish each day.

The result is absolutely terrible and a big part of why old media is becoming insignificant.

Let me give you an example from one newspaper, which will remain nameless since this applies to the industry as a whole.

This newspaper had created a content partnership with a tech magazine in order to bring an article for wireless speakers, and it looked like this:

The first mistake they made was the partnership itself. Partnerships make a ton of sense if they are based around influential people, as an ongoing series, where your publication becomes the primary destination.

But to have partnerships where you are merely cross-posting articles means you are just dividing the traffic. Think about how social media works. People don't care where a link points to. They just react to the content. If you are merely cross-posting you are not doing anything special. You are part of the gray mass of content published for no particular reason.

The result is obviously not going to be that good. The original article (in the magazine) achieved two shares on Facebook (after four days), while the identical cross-posted article in the newspaper received... zero shares.

Yes, zero, zilch, nothing, nada!

What's the point of this? Why are so many legacy media companies doing cross-posting content partnerships that produce almost no traffic and social shares? Why have you created an editorial strategy based on producing more noise for a world already filled with it?

You're just wasting everyone's time.

But let's get back the article. You will notice that it starts out with a headline, a short subheader, and a picture. You obviously have a headline, but it doesn't actually add anything. It's just there for the sake of the layout.

Then we have the article itself, which is merely a 150 word quick intro to the basic concept, of which almost all is merely paraphrased from the press release. The journalist makes no determination as to the value or the usefulness of the products, but has merely added a quote from the 'distributor' and some quick factual information.

This is then followed by a quick list of the products mentioned. Each product is described in the most shallow way possible. One description reads:

Your own tower with integrated subwoofer and a CD player, a USB slot and FM radio. Price $725

That's it. You could not describe this product in any fewer terms.

This entire thing screams that they just couldn't give a shit about the article. It was merely written to meet a quota in order to fit into a package of random content. It's so crappy that they couldn't even be bothered to include an image for all the speakers they wrote about.

The article contains six products, but only shows two big images and one tiny 'summary picture' where you can't really see anything.

The problem is the same as what we see throughout the world of old media. You are so focused on the format of the package as a whole that the value of each article is non-existent.

Think about the reader who happens to be interested in buying a wireless speaker. This article does nothing for such a person. It contains no useful information. It doesn't show the pictures. It doesn't give any real indication of the style or size. It doesn't tell us anything about how it sounds.

Then the old newspapers and magazines are asking 'Why isn't our content working on Facebook? How can we be better at distributing content in a social world?' They are apparently thinking that the problem here isn't with the article itself, but with some kind of strange digital tactic they haven't optimized for yet.

That's not the reason. The real reason is that the content sucks! If the article had been worth reading, maybe it would have gotten more than zero shares!


So, let's talk about how the digital native approaches the same challenge.

Digital natives are doing everything differently

First of all, digital natives know that the only way to be successful online is to build up so much momentum that you free yourself from the abundance that is everywhere. As such, they also know that the only way to do this is to be original, personal, and distinctive.

No digital native would ever engage in content partnerships where you are merely repeating the same thing that people can find anywhere else. They would never just paraphrase a press release, nor would they just focus on the facts without also adding their own reactions, insights or opinions into the mix.

Secondly, digital natives don't define the format first either. They look at what they are focusing on, and then they match that to the best format for that editorial purpose.

With wireless speakers, which are a type of product that we value based on their design and sound, we need to choose a format that can deliver both.

The answer is obvious.

This has to be done with video. It makes no sense to 'write' an article about something that people value based on visuals and sounds. It definitely doesn't make any sense to write an article where you are not even adding all the pictures (like the newspaper did). That gives the reader neither.

So... video it is.

But how do you create that video? Do you make it quick and shallow because you think millennials have low attention spans (as many in old media keep saying)?

No, of course not. What you actually do is this:


This is from a YouTube channel called Unbox Therapy, which currently has about 3.7 million subscribers. And this video alone has 1.1 million views.

Compare that to the article I mentioned before from the old newspaper. It's like night and day. They are not even in the same universe.

So why does this work? It's obvious really. Lewis Hilsenteger (the guy behind it) is mixing all the right elements.

Lewis Hilsenteger did real journalism the way it should always have been done, while the actual journalists didn't.

You know how many traditional journalists keep talking about how to appeal to millennials and then they post some shallow crap that nobody cares about? Lewis is heavily appealing to actual millennials by being valuable.

This is why old media fails.

But there are two more important factors at play here.

Not random

The first factor is that digital natives all succeed because they have very a specific purpose and editorial focus. They do one thing really well, and nothing else.

If they want to do a second thing, they will create a separate channel for that, as opposed to trying to add it to their first channel.

In comparison, the newspaper I mentioned before has a lifestyle section which currently includes articles about camper vans, Windows 10, speakers, makeup, a VR startup, theme parks, airplanes, small houses, mobile app, parties, weight loss, breast cancer, hotels, posters, cars, and rush hour traffic problems. And this is just what their section page looks like as I'm writing this, and this is only for their lifestyle section which is a very small part of the newspaper as a whole.

It's completely random, targeting nobody in particular, with articles in which you have no connection with any of the journalists. It's content created solely to fit a random package for an undefined mass market.

We all understand why this is. In the old days when news was a scarce resource and people could only afford to subscribe to a single morning newspaper, the media was forced to focus on creating a single package with a little bit of everything.

I have talked about this many times before, but it's such an important point. It's this randomness that kills you. It's not Facebook, the millennials, or whatever else you might blame it on.

The reason old media is becoming irrelevant is because it doesn't have any relevance to begin with.

Obviously, this is worse for newspapers than magazines. Newspapers have no focus whatsoever, while magazines are usually defined around a single topic.

For instance, you might have a magazine called 'Home and Garden'. That's still a pretty wide topic, which is made even wider when they then focus on optimizing for shallow social tactics and start to do quick slideshows and listicles.

But even here you see how damaging the randomness is. Look at the seriously popular bloggers and instagrammers. They have one very specific style or topic they focus on, which they then mix with their personal passion and energy.

As a result, we often see that one blogger/instagrammer has more traffic than an entire magazine with a full staff and a huge budget. One person is beating traditional media. And they do so because they are not random.

Look also at every single successful YouTuber. All of them are beating traditional media in terms of views, and all of them do so while only focusing on one thing. We have YouTube Let's Players who only focus on strategy games and others that only focus on the latest FIFA, Minecraft or Sims game.

And if you think it's only about kids having fun, think again. Think about all the food channels, or the DIY channels. Or if you want to take thing up another level, look at SmarterEveryDay or Periodic Videos.

Think about how crazy that is.

Periodic videos is a channel about the periodic elements, which is what you learned in school while being bored out of your skull. But, on YouTube, they have managed to turn this into a channel with 750,000+ subscribers and a view count of 100,000 to 250,000 views per video. It's presented by mostly older people, professors and teachers. And yet, it has a fairly big share of younger viewers.

This is the kind of content that all the social media gurus will tell you will never work, but it does work, and often much better than anything those social gurus do.

It works because it's valuable. It works because it focused and targeted. It works because it's presented by passionate people, who have the insight, expertise and geekiness to make you care.

You feel the excitement.

Can you imagine a traditional publisher doing this? Can you imagine a journalist doing this?

No, of course not. Because the definition of a traditional journalist is to be a disconnected, neutral, and indifferent person who is merely there to 'report' and 'interview' others. Journalists are traditionally trained to be nobodies. To be invisible behind tiny bylines, and to never have any real passion or insight about the topics they are covering.

It's so bad that when a journalist actually has something to say, the newspaper will usually ask another journalist to interview him or her instead of having that journalist write directly to their audience.

Not big

Another very important factor, and one that has a huge impact on the organizational side of media is that most digital natives are based on tiny companies. Not tiny in terms of profit, but tiny in terms of organization.

Let me ask you this. If you are a traditional publisher and you want to launch a new magazine, how many people would you need?

The answer obviously varies, but most would start out with maybe 25 people. You would have a bunch of journalists, followed by editors and the editor in chief. These then need to be supported by some layout people. Then we have the business side with sales people, finance people, and other administrative staff.

And all of this is just to get off the ground. Of course, with this many people, you need a big office. Everyone needs a work computer, you need medical coverage and insurance... and the list goes and on.

The result being that you need millions in revenue from day one just to cover the cost, and the only way to do that is to launch big, which means offering a ton of discounts on top of a silly number of marketing campaigns to get the word out.

And even if you manage to pull that off, you are still facing a hugely risky future because all your traffic is 'rented' instead of having been 'earned'. You have not built up any momentum, so without continuing focus on attracting new visitors each month, your traffic numbers are likely to drop rapidly after launch.

We see this all the time.

You know how many people digital natives need to launch something new? The answer is... one person, working virtually (no office space), using low cost digital tools.

This basically means that they only need to reach about $30,000/year to break even, and from that point it's only getting better.

It's an entirely different way of thinking of things. In many ways it reminds us of the mom and pop stores where a small group of people made something worthwhile. Stores where you had a personal investment in your work, and where your connections to your market made all the difference.

This is now also what's happening in the new world of media. Because we are all so tightly connected online, the old concept of big corporations works against you. It made sense back in the old days where limitations of distribution meant every business had to turn to distributors and third-party stores to sell their products. But on the internet with ecommerce and direct communication, the distributed way of thinking makes you feel disconnected from your market.

Lewis Hilsenteger from Unbox Therapy is saying the same thing. He started out just being a single person, but has now been joined by AJ. But in an interview with Tech Insider, he explains not only how he got to where he is today, but also how important it is to stay small. As he says:

I'm reluctant to expand to this large group of individuals for fear that you might take your finger off the pulse.

We see this with every successful digital native. They don't create big companies, because doing that prevents them from connecting with people on this highly important personal level.

There are exceptions, of course. We have seen sites like TheVerge, which started out big from the start, and many others. But when we compare success per person, sites like TheVerge don't even come close the individual creators.

We see the same with bloggers, podcasters.

So how do digital natives grow big if they don't focus on creating big companies? It's simple. They use the concept of the internet. On the internet you grow big by networking.

One of the latest examples is PewDiePie's latest network called Revelmode:


This is a network where a group of very popular YouTubers have joined together. But instead of becoming employees of a company, each maintains their individuality, their own channels, their own businesses, but can now expand that by working together.

We call this the network effect.

This the complete opposite of how traditional media companies are run. Traditional media companies are defined by the company itself, and each journalist and editor is an easily replaceable resource. If a journalist decides to do something else, it doesn't matter. You will just hire someone else.

There is no individuality, no personal connection, no nothing. Old businesses are defined around the business itself, rather than the people in it.

We see the same when it comes to what financials determine success. Old businesses are valued based on their revenue first and their profits second. Sure, every publisher wants profit, but growth is not defined by it.

Digital natives, however, define their financial success based on their individual profit. They don't care that the company as a whole made millions in revenue and had 20% growth if it means each person only managed to get paid $30,000/year. They don't care that the company as whole managed to grow if they themselves didn't also benefit from it.

This is a key element of the new world of media. The old world was defined by mass-market and huge companies. Think Walmart, Ford, Coca Cola, New York Times etc. Each company is huge, and has a ton of employees. The New York Times, for instance, has 1,000+ journalists. But try naming just ten of these. You can't because you never really connect with them, and the stories they write aren't helping them achieve personal success.

Now look at YouTube creators. Here you have 1,000 individual creators who each are extremely well known to the point of being celebrities. Every single thing they do contributes to their personal profit, which means they are far more engaged and personally connected to the content they make. This personal connection and passion is exactly what makes their content stand out and worth watching/reading.

We see the same thing when we look at how digital natives and traditional journalists use social media. Digital natives use social channels as if they were born with it, constantly communicating and connecting and are intensely focused on building up momentum and excitement about their work. Traditional journalists, on the other hand, have the feel of just being workers for a big company. There is no excitement, no passion, no 'OMG this story is awesome' kind of feel.

This is why they fail.

We also see this when traditional journalists recommend how to be successful. They will talk about how important it is to get in on different stories. A journalist who has written stories about many different topics is seen as more successful than a journalist who just writes about one.

This, again, is the opposite of how digital natives define success. Digital natives define their success by how much they achieve around a single topic. A YouTube yoga teacher, for instance, defines her success based how much momentum and subscribers she can build up around that one channel.

Traditional journalists, however, define their success based on how unfocused they can be. They are deliberately trying to prevent themselves from building up momentum. As soon as a traditional journalist starts to get traction within a certain topic, he will try to shift his focus to something else.

Again, this is why they fail.

We now live in a world of abundance, which means that we don't need more randomness, but this exactly what traditional journalists are creating. You are trying to expand into more topics rather than build up momentum for something that matters.

Think about why people connect with you, and you see why digital natives are winning.

The right moment

Another huge change and source of constant cultural conflicts between the old and the new of media is what moment we are designing for.

Old media has always been designed for just a single moment, the same way as it has always only been designed for a single format.

With traditional media, that single moment is the lean-back behavior of just flipping through a package of content. With old TV it means a cable TV package where you sit down with your remote and flip through all the channels until you find something interesting. It's the same with newspapers and magazines where you sit down and just flip through the pages.

Common for all forms of traditional media is that it's a behavior that forces each individual article into a secondary role. People don't really choose what articles to read, because they are just letting things flow past them. They have very low intent.

As such, the traditional media culture is very single minded in how things are supposed to be done, and this shows when they try to understand the new world of media. The way traditional media is approaching new media is to identify a single behavior, being social media+mobile, and then they think that this is the only option.

Social media, of course, is very different from print media.

Think about the behavior we have when we use social media channels. The first big change is when we are doing it. Mobile phones and social media channels are things that we use continually throughout the day whenever we have a break.

Unlike with traditional media where we choose to sit down to flip through something, we do not really make a decision to use social channels. We just do it when we are not doing something else.

This is great in terms of traffic because we have a silly number of these micro moments every day, but think about what that does to our intent and focus. It's non-existent. It's even worse than the lack of intent we had with print.

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with this behavior. We all need breaks, and using our 'break time' to connect with people is a great thing to do. We discover new things, have fun, get quick news, and generally stay on top of a constantly evolving world.

It's great.

The problem is that because old media is fixed on just a single format, they now see social and mobile as the only form publishing possible in the digital world.

But this obviously isn't true. You can't seriously believe that snack-like content that people consume only when they are on a break is going to be the future of media. That's not what's happening.

The real future of publishing is that our world has now opened up and atomized into many different forms of publishing, each one matching different behaviors, at different moments, linked to different needs and intents.

Yes, one of these moments is the low-intent micro moment, where we have quick snack-like content optimized for social consumption that people come across mostly by chance. But it's only one of them.

We also have many other moments. Some moments are like what you are doing right now. Reading this article isn't a micro moment with low intent. It's a macro moment based on a need to learn about the future of media.

But the problem here is that each of these different moments has very different characteristics. Some moments are great at driving random traffic. Other moments are great for driving influence. We have moments that help us relax after a long day. We have moments that are defined by looking for specific information, and moments defined by a deliberate choice of what we want to consume.

And look at the YouTube creators. Not a single one of them really matches the behavior that see on Facebook, because they are not about random people with low intent. They make content for many of the other moments.

We also see this with all the new digital native verticals. A good example is Skift, which is quickly becoming one of the premium travel verticals for that industry. It's brilliant in almost every way.

But then go to their Facebook page and you will find that they have almost zero engagement (and you often see the same with YouTubers).

Is this a problem? Does this mean they have failed?

No, of course not.

It only means that high-value and high-intent content like what Skift is focusing on doesn't match the moment where people are on a break and just want to check up on 'whatever'. They are not designed for the Facebook moment. They are designed for a different moment.


Granted, Facebook is big and Buzzfeed is huge. That's amazing and it's a perfect example of how you can you be successful on Facebook.

But think about Periodic Videos which I mentioned before. It's huge on YouTube, but their Facebook page has almost no engagement. Again, that's not because they are failing. It's because they are not aiming for an audience on a break.

Could you do something to optimize for that? Sure... but the question is, would that be a good idea, or would it destroy the brand that has made it successful in the first place?

There is a huge difference between reaching people via social tactics when they are bored, and reaching people when they are not.

This also has a huge impact on how things can be monetized. Optimizing for Facebook means you get a ton of low-intent traffic. This is great for mostly random exposure based advertising. It's not that good at creating conversions, at influencing people, or to take things a step further. For that you need other channels.

When we look at Skift, for instance, we see an entirely different form of monetization. Here, they don't have the traffic potential to sell exposure based advertising, but it's perfect for brands that want to do more value based advertising... or what we call lead-generation.

It's the same with subscriptions. You can't do subscriptions if you focus your editorial strategy on quick social moments on mobiles when people are having a break. That's not a moment where you can build up that much needed momentum and value that would make people convert.

This is what we have to realize about the future of media. It's not a single format that is replacing the formats of the past. There is no 'one digital' way. The real future is the exact opposite of this in that we are now living in a world with multiple formats, multiple behaviors, and multiple models.

And it's up to us, as publishers, to stop being format first and fix ourselves into a single mindset. We need to look at what we are most passionate about and then match that to the right behavior that fits that moment.

Some of those moments are perfect for Facebook optimized traffic, and some are not. And when we look at all the hugely successful digital natives, most of them do much better outside of Facebook than on it.

In fact, most digital natives think of Facebook traffic as a form of marketing, rather than as a form of distribution.

We have to stop thinking that social traffic at scale is the only way to do digital. It's not and thousands of individual digital natives are illustrating it every single day.

Design for the right moment, whatever that might be.


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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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