The destructive power of negativity was the topic that wowed the crowd at the INMA European News Media Conference in Monaco recently. The second most popular topic was a simple sales lesson from another, often-troubled sector about how to make more money.

Few would have picked these two presentations in advance as the most likely to get the hall rocking at the conference in Monaco, but the delegates’ survey afterwards leaves no doubt. 

The curse of negativity was an unexpected powerhouse from Ulrik Haagerup, executive director of news at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR).

Ulrik Haagerup, executive director of news at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, says the media's focus on negative news turns off its potential audience.
Ulrik Haagerup, executive director of news at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, says the media's focus on negative news turns off its potential audience.

His thesis is that an unrelenting diet of media negativity news has turned off audiences and has given rise to populism. This in turn further alienates mass media from its masses and helps break its business model.

Haagerup argues that negative content is a core contributor to news media’s struggle for relevance. Its consequences are far reaching. It is bad for business; it is bad for public debate; it is bad for democracy. 

If it bleeds, it leads, as the newsroom saying goes about news priorities. He amusingly pulled apart examples of TV news bulletins, Web sites, and front pages dripping with negativity and devoid of counterpoint.

His headline argument isn’t new, but his prescription is. It’s been long argued that Pulitzer Prizes skew journalistic effort towards the prize-worthy and block news companies from effectively connecting with audience needs.

Haagerup’s arguments are nuanced and backed by years of observation. The big, ever-present negative stories are important but need to be packaged as part of a constructive media mix.

We’re not talking about adding more cute stories before the weather. We’re talking about investing journalistic time and effort in positive narratives. A good story doesn’t have to be a bad story, and he has many cases to prove it. The public transportation company, for example, that is brilliantly run and seriously impresses its users instead of the one that always fails. 

Haagerup is a rockstar orator and his skill has been put to good use at the Danish broadcaster, where he has put constructive news into action. He has had to break the deeply engrained culture of seeing every story through the lens of crooks, victims, drama, and extreme conflict.

The results at DR are in and ratings and respect have taken off. He has now put down his passion into a book, Constructive News, which is being translated across the languages as this is a diagnosis that knows no boundaries. 

The book doubles as a handbook, too, for developing what’s next in engaging content.

The other top-rater at the INMA European conference, according to delegates, came from a guy you’ve never heard of, talking about an industry that the media often laughs at. 

Christian Popp is director of revenue management strategy and development at Lufthansa, the German-based airline and aviation services group.

His tips focused on business practises that we have in common and was surprisingly relevant: Get your customer segmentation right and you’ll grow your revenues if you run tight control of your inventory. 

Firstly, create an accurate segmentation of consumers and trade clients, based on their willingness to pay. 

Knowing how consumers respond is key to being able to maximise the dollars you earn while you offer a range of prices (and all without losing yield). The model needs to be sophisticated enough to recognise one customer will belong to different segments in different buying moments. 

Secondly, he argues, be willing to rationally constrain capacity. 

For us this is about the amount of advertising we offer (although it could be about capping the number of cheap corporate subscriptions). Publishers have done this historically by limiting the advertising in printed editions, but we lost the discipline when it came to the endless Web.

Some of us re-learnt it when tablet editions came along and some are re-applying it to mobile — especially those publishers that have embraced the premium programmatic serving of ads. 

The revival of airline businesses this century owes a lot to the introduction of automated revenue management. Publishers in North America typically use these systems these days, too — for both subscriptions and digital advertising — but its use is not widespread in other markets. And those who do it for digital advertising are less likely to have extended it to their other platforms or complex bundles. 

Popp’s lessons, above all, are a reminder that looking at other sectors’ challenges is always informative and frequently instructive. Oh, and he also gave the audience some good advice about when not to book an airline ticket.

HNA's Jessica Berger calls WhatsApp "the most beautiful feedback community in the world."
HNA's Jessica Berger calls WhatsApp "the most beautiful feedback community in the world."

Finally, here’s a quick personal list of things which caught my attention at INMA Europe: 

  • WhatsApp has helped HNA in Kassel in central Germany create what its head of social media, Jessica Berger, calls the most beautiful feedback community in the world.
  • Groupe La Dépêche du Midi in France has done a fresh version of a media equity investment scheme and its head of innovation, Magali Roy, argues it can work well in a smaller, regional setting. The publisher gets equity; the digital start-up gets sophisticated marketing and media support to accelerate growth in their home market.
  • MittMedia has a tech stack to die for. Chief Tech Officer Anders Härén took us inside the creation of a home-made system, which serves instant articles, avoids ad blocking by publishing ads through its editorial servers, and sets itself up to offer programmatic, nano-segmented editorial in the future.
  • Axel Springer’s Fussball Bild experiment is interesting because it’s print and it’s Springer (which doesn’t do much print any more). Bild’s managing director, Frank Mahlberg, shared details of the trial of a new national sport masthead. Its trial is off to a solid start. It might turn into how you’d start a newspaper if you had the chance to start again. 
  • Le Monde in Paris was early out of the blocks with Big Data and its online marketing boss, Milena Koralczyk, presented its evolution into one of the more sophisticated examples of how to succeed by mixing first and third party data. Le Monde’s story has become a gold standard of data-in-action at a news media company. 
  • MinuteBuzz, a video start-up from France that is winning a big slice of Millennials, is making the switch to distributing its material solely on other people’s social platforms. No need to own its own any more, according to CEO and Co-Founder Laure Lefevre. 
  • Neue Zürcher Zeiting in Switzerland is rewriting a classic. One of the oldest, continuously published brands in the world (and most traditional), it is now run by an ex-GroupOn guy (Veit Dengler) and its NZZ news division is led by an ex-McKinsey media practise guy (Steven Neubauer). What’s unfolding in Zurich looks like it could become a text-book modernisation and automation of processes, yet with the strong focus on growing audience and revenues that is often missing.  
  • Liked the analytical tool that a crew of ex-Guardian executives in London have built at Kaleida Networks. It received first round founding from Google’s Digital News Initiative and co-founder Matt McAlister explained how it helps news managers manage the news. It analyses every story published or broadcast anywhere, shows how each is developing across other platforms and helps predict how the story will run. 
  • Always interested to see progress at Sanoma in Finland. This is a revolutionary mobile-first company. While continuing to shake up the mobile user experience, they’ve added three new product features. Updating a reader on stories while they’ve been away from their logged-in device, offering them a recap if they haven’t visited for a few days, and showing live local news around each user. On the commercial side, Sanoma continues to make big improvements to the ease with which clients can buy its innovative ad bundles.

A great collection of ideas, as we have come to expect from the innovators in Europe who continue to lead much of the media revolution. The fun part of the Mensa puzzle comes next: working out how to adapt this experience for our own markets.