“I’m very particular about what information I pull in and what I leave out. I think that is one of the most absolutely critical things that people need to do.”
– Thomas Baekdal
About Thomas Baekdal
Thomas is the founder and publisher of Baekdal Media and a leading media analyst. He is the author of books including The Shift, about the news industry’s transition from print to digital, and advises leading publishers about the evolution of the media industry.
What you will learn
- Media analysis requires vast information to understand media and related areas. (00:53)
- Efficient information management is crucial for media analysts, and building a tool can help manage information influx. (02:00)
- Why Thomas built his tool to manage information overload as a media analyst. (05:01)
- A computer science degree is essential for media analysts to handle complex and varied data. (08:31)
- Accessing raw data is crucial for deeper understanding and analysis of patterns and inconsistencies. (09:48)
- Transforming complex data into practical actions is a significant challenge for media analysts. (16:01)
- News importance fades quickly, leading to JOMO and news avoidance for better mental state. (18:05)
- Setting up social media filters can manage an individual’s mental space and reduce information overload. (21:27)
- Diversity in sources, including gender and expertise, is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of issues. (25:02)
- Aggressively selecting sources and maintaining a manageable number of sources is necessary for effective media analysis. (27:45)
Thomas Baekdal: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Ross: You’ve been working, analyzing the media industry for a very long time now looking at the future of media.
Thomas: I started professionally doing this in 2010. It’s been 13 years. But, I worked 10 years before that as a digital media manager for one of the largest fashion companies in my country. That was on the other side of the media, but it was still media. Basically, I’ve been doing this since the year 2000.
Ross: You’re, of course, working in a very rapidly moving landscape following the evolution of media and there’s plenty to follow.
Ross: But the nature of your choice, you are deeply involved in information and making sense of the world. I’d like to hear a little bit more about the history of your relationship with information.
Thomas: It’s a funny thing because what I do as a media analyst is I try to do all the work that publishers don’t have time for basically, to try to figure out what is happening around the media and around… well, basically, whatever thing, and that requires a tremendous amount of information. You notice as well with your work that if you want to see what’s ahead in the future, you can’t just look at a few studies, you have to be in information all the time on all of it so you can get a bigger picture of it. I spent all my… every day just looking at reports and studies and data and all kinds of things. It can be quite daunting sometimes. Well, it’s fun also.
Ross: I’d love to dig into some of the details. I’m sure there’s not a typical day, but what’s your inflammation day look like? How do you start? What do you look at? Do you have any patterns or structures and what do you spend time on? And where do you look? What does your information day look like?
Thomas: Well, first of all, there is no day that’s the same, it depends on what I’m working on. But one of the things that I have changed for myself because of trying to manage things is I built a tool. I have a tool that is built by myself where I gather all my main sources. That’s all my podcasts or my newsletters, all the reports that I know are coming in. Also, other sources like websites where I know that they’re publishing things I need to know about, for instance, INMA, the news organization; they publish a lot of blog posts. My resource to get us all that up automatically, I have a script, that is waiting every 10 minutes that is looking for if there is something new. What I do when I want to look into things is I start there, I’ve simply built a tool trying to make sense of things.
What this tool is doing—it’s sites are just having all these different sources in one place is and it has a note-taking tool right beside it. If I see a new report, for instance, I can go through it and read it. Then I can take screenshots or take quotes and put them into my note-taking tool right next to it. When I’m working on something, when I’m trying to figure out what is happening, what the trends are, what the things are, that’s what I’m looking at. Then the following days, if I’m working on a specific project for a publisher, or if I’m writing an article, I use that tool to go in and look at what notes I’ve written about things.
In the note-taking tool, I have a search feature. I can say I want to look at what did I write about the subscriptions, for instance, and it will show me a list of the notes with reference to which document was a newsletter and which report it was from. That clearly gives me a very quick, but also very efficient way for me to get that information and organize it if you feel. Then, of course, we have… I mean, when we get into the really very specific, that’s just hard work. I will spend hours, days, maybe even weeks, just looking at things. If I have a question I don’t really know something about, I will just spend tons and tons of time trying to find things and there are no simple ways to do that. It’s Google, it’s all my auto sources, it’s some of the sites that I maybe know, maybe they have some data about it. It’s a mix of everything, but my research tool is my starting point. That has been critical to my information management.
Ross: That’s really interesting. There are many, many tools out there to do parts of what you’ve done. Why have you made the choice to develop your own?
Thomas: Two reasons. First thing is that I happen to know how to code. I learned that back in the 90s. Every single time I’ve looked at one of those standard tools, they are all very impressive, but they don’t necessarily do exactly what I needed to do. In order to optimize it for me, I built this tool so that I could get it to do just what I wanted. I mean, one critical element of it is how it’s doing things automatically. I don’t have to add anything to it. Well, I can add it manually if I want to, but for 99% of it, it is being imported automatically with some scripts and some code and some things.
That really saves some time because the problem is if you have one of the standard tools, not only do you have to use them to figure out what you want, but you also have to spend an enormous amount of time bringing the data in and every single day, I get what 30-40 newsletters alone. If I had to manually put them into a note-taking tool, I also figure out what it was, I will never get that done. Here, I have it into the tool. It is searchable. I can add notes to it if I want to. I just decided to create a tool that for me just was super optimized to the way I work. That was what I found to be the most important thing.
Ross: Fascinating. Have you ever considered putting this out to market?
Thomas: Well, I’ve been asked by several people about it. The problem is it’s not designed for it. It’s designed for me. One of the things I’ve also done, not related to this, but I’ve also built my own site. My site, when people visit that and all the things that are on that, all the code for that is built around, built that too, including the backend system, including the database and the CMS and all that. When I built this resource tool, it’s just built on top of that. Basically, the resource tool took one day to build. It was that quick, but it was only that quick because I built it on top of the system I already have. I can’t sell it without complete reengineering it. People have asked me about it. But yes, I have no plans for it.
Ross: That’s fascinating. It goes to the point that for so much of our lives, we adapt ourselves to technology. It’s nice to be able to say this is what I do, this is what I want to do, in your case to have the capabilities to create the technology to do that.
Ross: I’ve had many conversations with people who say I like Notion, or I like Obsidian, and I’m going to choose which one is the best one. But it doesn’t have these features, so they’re adapting themselves to the tools.
Thomas: Yes. But I will always say that today, it’s almost necessary to all to be able to do a lot of things because when I do my analysis, for instance, if I want to do some data analysis, I could open Excel and do something but sometimes it’s just easier if I have a really large data set to just build a script for it, and do the analysis that way. It has become just part of the way I work that I have the data in front of me and the report in front of me and if I want to do something, instead of trying to do it the hard way, I can just write some code for it. That makes it efficient once you can do it.
It’s an important thing. The future analysts, I will always say they need a computer science degree because it is so much about how we are able to work with the information we have. The problem is it’s not just data, it’s not just a simple database; most of the data we have is completely chaotic. We have to figure out a way to somehow manipulate that in ways that isn’t just something you can do with Excel. Coding is one way to do it.
I want to clarify here, I don’t just code everything. I have this specific tool and it’s really helping me but 90% of my time, I do the same thing as everyone else is that I look over the text and the reports and those things manually and I try to figure things out. Most graphs and data we get is probably in a PDF file, and we can’t even convert it to data. It’s rather hopeless to work with it as a script.
Ross: Yes, it’s not that difficult to suck in a lot of text and build some structure around it. But one of the interesting points here is that you are pulling it all together at once so there’s a lot of data, a lot of information, as opposed to being very selective about what you incorporate.
Thomas: Another thing that’s also very important is that when it comes to the information that I use, I always try to get the data. One example we recently had is the Reuters Institute, the digital media report, they produce it every year. It’s really great. You go to the website, you will see all the graphs and everything is really amazing. But I went out to Reuters and I said, could you give me the data? And they sent me the data. So I have something like, I think it’s 22 gigabytes of data from Reuters.
I have the ability now to go behind the reports and to look at okay, the thing about all these reports is that they’re picking the things they want to focus on and Reuters is doing a really good job of it. But very often, you want to look behind it and you want to see, okay, what was the question actually when they asked it, and what was the data that they didn’t include? That may also show some kind of pattern so a lot of the time when I try to figure out how to do things for information is simply to get back to that raw source.
It’s the same thing we should talk about, some kind of political analysis. I don’t do that that much. But if I do, I want the raw polls, I don’t want what’s in the newspapers, that’s useless. I want the raw polls, I want to be able to see what they actually asked, and I want to see how they defined it. That is much more helpful.
Ross: Absolutely. It’s fantastic that Reuters has been good enough to share the data with you. In other cases, you can look for the data source and find it yourself.
Ross: Increasingly, the sharing of data behind the charts is extraordinarily valuable. What are the interesting things that you read in reports, you mentioned that several times, significant information sources. I read reports too, probably not to the same depth as you. What’s amazing is that not many people read reports, because they’re so long. I’d love to hear what’s your process of reading and distilling and digesting and taking what is useful from a good report.
Thomas: Well, it depends a lot on the report. If we were talking about the Reuters Institute report, I’ve spent weeks just looking at that. I probably get a report every day on average, and most of them are about something either very specific or something in an area that I probably can’t use. In those cases, I’m just like everyone else, just glancing over it. I’m not really reading the text in full, I’m just finding the graphs and I’m seeing if there’s something interesting, and if there’s not, I’m moving on. But I would be out of time in no time if I tried to read every single report in there.
But every single time when we come across something where we see, okay, this is really interesting. Like, for instance, how we’ve seen in the media industry, we have this thing called a stop rate. A stop rate is how effective newspapers are at stopping people and asking them to pay. What we found across multiple reports now is that the stop rate is a very strong indicator of how successful newspapers are at converting people into subscribers. Once we started seeing that pattern, that was when I really dug in, and then I read, I go into the report totally, fully read everything to see if I can see something. Then we find other reports and other things.
I did the same thing with news avoidance, another big topic I’ve been focusing on. News avoidance, there are so many reports about it, but they are incredibly inconsistent. To understand what happens with them, you have to dig in to see what are the differences between why is this data saying that it’s 70%? Why is this data saying it’s 40%? And why is this data saying it’s only 15%? You can’t just look at a graph and say, okay, all these different numbers, they don’t add up, you have to go in and figure out what was the reason for this massive difference. Often it’s how they ask the question or the circumstances, all these different things.
Ross: This goes to the point of sense-making, you’re seeing a lot of information, you’re seeing a lot of depth to that information, and your role, of course, is to make sense of that to be able to see the patterns, to be able to pick out what are the directions, what’s meaningful in the evolution of the media landscape. How do you do that? How do you pull all of that into something which is truly at the level of sense-making, or building this model of the bigger picture?
Thomas: Yes, I wish I could say I have some really smart system for that, but I don’t. What I’m basically doing is the same thing that AIs are now doing today. We hear about AIs all the time. What the AIs are doing is they’re just gathering your information. Then through that information as a whole, we start to see a direction and it’s that direction I then cling on to and try to figure out. Take news avoidance, for instance, and news fatigue. I could directly point you to Reuters Institute, and they have a really good report about it. But that’s not the only one.
What I do is I look at all these different reports. The numbers can be all over the place, but there’s usually some kind of pattern, and there’s usually some kind of direction and some kind of momentum in all of them. What I then do is I say, Okay, on the whole, this is the direction things are moving in so that is what I need to focus on and look into more or talk about or write about other things. What I also do, when I get to a point where I don’t really know how to make sense of it is I try to turn it into some kind of action. News avoidance is a really good example of that.
The first article I wrote about news avoidance was back in 2010, so I’ve been talking about this for ages. But I really started looking at it in 2019. What I found back then, was that all these different reports were so inconsistent, I couldn’t really get a sense of it. Instead, I decided to do an experiment. The experiment was that even though I’m a media analyst, I cut myself off from news entirely for months, completely, totally, entirely.I could see the reports, I could see what people who have been answering and people were saying, but I couldn’t see why. By doing that experiment, trying to get the feel for it, suddenly, I discovered a lot of things.
With news avoidance, what I discovered was that it is astonishing how bad news is for you. That is painful for me to say, as a media analyst, because it’s my industry. But once you cut yourself off so completely as I did, you realize that 99.9% of the news you see all the time is completely meaningless. It has no value for you, and it’s just filling up your life. That was a real eye-opener. One of the things I did with that experiment also, because I’m an analyst, I don’t just do the experiment, and then forget about it. I had a system, again, we talked about, there was a bit of coding, but I built a script that automatically took a screenshot of all the newspapers I usually follow. Every single day for that month, it took a screenshot of the front pages. I didn’t look at it at all. But after a month, I went back to it. I started looking at it. My idea was that I will write down all the articles that I had missed that were really important for me to know. What happened was I didn’t write anything down. That actually came as a shock to me.
When I moved into it, my assumption was that I had missed something really important. But it was the opposite that all the news even the thing that was important, there was a terrorist attack and kind of thing, but if you read about it a month later, it’s over. Right? You can’t use it for anything, you can’t do anything with it. That really defined what this trend meant for me. That’s basically what I do. I look at a report and everything and if I don’t understand it completely, I try to do something, try to figure out what it means.
Ross: That’s absolutely fabulous. This goes exactly to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s quote, which is something like “Spend time reading last week’s newspapers so you realize there’s no real point to anything that you read”.
Thomas: Yes. But you’ll see just today. I don’t know if you’ve read the news this morning. But today, we had Biden going out and saying that the three balloons they shot down in the US over last week were not Chinese, and they were not surveillance. They were probably just private balloons by someone. We have had a week, if not more, of news coverage about these balloons, only to now realize that there was basically no story.
It’s astonishing when you think about how much time have you spent over the past week looking at these things, reading about these stories, and filling up your brain and your life with this kind of information. Always realize you can’t use them for anything. It’s completely meaningless.
Ross: This goes to our human propensities. We do want the novel, we do want to keep on top of the latest. I think it’s hard to transcend that and that’s part of what we need to work on to transcend our propensities for lots of information, which is not necessarily serving us. I think it’s great that you’re doing this kind of experiment to find this out properly for yourself.
Thomas: Exactly. We have a word for it, it’s FOMO, the fear of missing out. In my article about news avoidance back in 2019, I wrote that what I realized after doing that is that we have a new word, and that’s JOMO, the joy of missing out. That’s really what changed things because before, I’m a media analyst so I’m a news junkie. It’s my profession. But it was astonishing, not just in terms of how much it was filling up my life, but also how it felt, in terms of my mental health. I would wake up in the morning, and the news is so negative, so I will always have this negative mood, every single time I finished reading the news. But when you cut yourself off the news for a month, you suddenly don’t wake up being annoyed. That was, I mean, wow. That was a big, big thing to realize.
It has changed. One of the reasons why I have to organize my information this way today is because I’ve realized that just having a constantly flowing information, filling up your life, is not beneficial for you, it’s much more useful for you not just in terms of getting information and being informed, but also in terms of your mental state, to have that information organized in a way that makes more sense.
It’s the same thing about social media, because the way everyone uses social media is you just have this constant feed, and it just flows your way. But one of the things I wrote about a couple of years ago, was that the most important thing people should do on social media is to set up filters. Every single topic that starts to dominate your awareness in ways you can’t use it, needs to be filtered out. That’s not about creating a filter bubble or anything like that. That’s simply about managing how much of any specific topic that starts to fill up your life.
On Twitter, I don’t use actually use Twitter in a while, I have had enough of about Musk, so I dropped Twitter. But on Twitter, I had 200 filters. Obviously, there were things like Trump, that kind of thing where you’re just totally bombarded with it every single day. But every single time you have a topic where you really can’t use the information for anything, it’s just filling up your mental space, I created a filter for it, even if it was something that was basically useful or something that’s interesting, something that didn’t bother me. But if it was dominating me so that I couldn’t focus on other things, I filtered it out.
I want to say… this is very important. When you filter something out on social media, it doesn’t mean it goes away, some people think that, but if, for instance, I filter out Trump, but I probably still see a post about Trump every single day, the difference is that without the filter, I would see it 20 times through a day.
Ross: I’d like to pull back to the big picture, I’m sure you already have some insights on this. What would be, from your experience and your analysis, the most important things that people can do to manage the onslaught, to make sense of things? In addition to what you’ve already talked about, what are the recommendations you would make for people to thrive, to do well, in this world of unlimited information?
Thomas: I have a personal history around this. The history is that I totally and completely collapsed with stress, many years ago. I actually got to a point where I had to change my life, otherwise, I couldn’t get back. What I did back then out of necessity was that I really spent some time thinking about what is important for me, for my health, for my work, for my focus, for all these different things. What I’ve done since then, is that I have been exceptionally aggressive about that.
This is about everything. It’s about when I read the news, it’s about which sources I pick out. If there’s a source that is not useful, it goes away. I’m very particular about what I pull in and what I leave out. I think that is one of the most absolutely critical things that people need to do. The other thing, to put it in the other perspective, is also to have a wider view. One of the things I did a couple of years ago was that I realized that on my Twitter profile, again, I don’t use Twitter anymore, but back then, something like I can’t remember the number anymore but something like 80% of my information was male-dominated, so it came from men about men, all kinds of things.
I sat down and very specifically created a new kind of following, the people I follow, so that it had a better mix. One thing was the gender difference. It was astonishing the difference that makes because suddenly we men, might sound very fancy, but we have a very same way of thinking. Once you really start to bring in a more diverse gender profile, you start to see things that you’re just wow, I didn’t even know this was a problem.
The other thing I also did was that I started looking at more specific sources outside my field of expertise. I’m a media analyst. I’ve been focused on media, and I follow a lot of media people. But I decided to go out and figure out okay, in other areas that influenced the world, about your health, or automotive or other things, how can I follow people in that space that can tell me about patterns and things that are happening that I might not see in the media. The media, generally, I love the media, when I’m a bit critical about it, it’s not because I don’t love it. But the media is itself always in the filter bubble. The media is not very good at changing and thinking about new things and seeing new directions.
It’s really important for me as a media analyst to see all these other things from other people. That’s something I spend a lot of time making sure that I have that kind of information coming into me, and also that it is diverse. I want to say one more thing about diverse, when I say diverse, I mean valuable diverse sources. In the media, when they talk about diverse sources, it means taking the most horrible people, and some not-so-horrible people and mixing them together. That’s not useful. We can use that information for anything.
Ross: That’s a great distinction. I’d say the bigger point here is just to be conscious. What am I actually doing? Is this useful to me? Maybe I need some other sources. Let’s mix this up. Let’s make this work. I think that the meta advice you’re giving is the conscious of what you’re doing and try different things, and see what’s most helpful.
Thomas: Yes, exactly. Seriously, just be extremely aggressive about what you pick and what you don’t pick. Twitter is a good example again. I don’t use it so it’s actually a horrible example. But back then, I only had about 400 things I followed, 400 people or companies or things. Even when I changed my focus and tried to get in more women, tried to get in more other sources, I kept that number at 400. I removed a lot of men I used to follow because they didn’t really add that value I wondered from them. Then I brought in these new sources, but I didn’t increase my total volume. Because if you do that, you just end up being overloaded. I think it’s really important that people be very mindful about how much they bring in and where they bring it in from. I’m not some kind of Guru or expert in this. It’s a constant struggle for me also. I think those two things are really important.
Ross: I think that’s fantastic advice. That’s a great way to end up. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Thomas, it has been fascinating. We really could talk for a lot longer. We’ll try to get you on another time. Thanks so much.
Thomas: Yes, no problem.