A local news focus brought BT back from the brink
Starting in 2021, Bergens Tidende published a series of investigations on Rolls-Royce’s sale of Bergen Engines to a Russian holding company. The newspaper was awarded Norway’s most prestigious journalism award for the reports.

A local news focus brought BT back from the brink

In only six years, Bergens Tidende went from crisis to “digitally sustainable”. A clear local focus, live reporting and investigative journalism have made the readers happy.

Bergens Tidende’s business had been booming for decades. At its peak, the newspaper reached about 260,000 readers every day, with 100,000 copies in circulation. The paper, as it was said, “printed money”. But as the media crisis hit, the glory days soon vanished. By 2015, BT was facing the wall. The model wasn’t working.

Six years later, in December 2021, the tables had turned yet again. Øyulf Hjertenes, the director of Schibsted Kyst and Chairman of the Board at Bergens Tidende, declared BT to be “digitally sustainable”. He explains:

“If BT closed down the printed edition tomorrow, digital revenues from subscription and ads will uphold a strong newsroom. The paper will still be able to keep holding power to account in Bergen. Back in 2015, most people didn’t believe this would be possible,” Hjertenes says.

A local news focus brought BT back from the brink
The staff at Bergens Tidende celebrate a new record number of subscribers.

What made this comeback possible?

Back in 2015 subscriber numbers were dropping fast, and the economy was in a bad shape. Print revenues kept falling, and a digital business model mainly based on ads and pageviews were not producing sufficient results. Costs of NOK 50 million had to be cut. The printed Sunday edition was shut down and one out of five journalists had to leave. The financial forecasts were bleak and nowhere near digital sustainability.

Something had to change.

A clear and ambitious goal

The turnaround was enabled by a clear and ambitious goal: 50,000 digital subscribers in three years. In the BT newsroom, it became known as the “50k strategy”. It drastically changed BT’s way of working, priorities across the whole newsroom, consumer business and product and technology.

The strategy outlined new priorities for everyone and set up ten pillars for improvement. BT would prioritise live reporting and longform quality journalism – and do less of the “in-between”. There would be fewer stories, stronger focus on unique local reporting, while letting go of most generic national and international stories. BT wanted to bolster its position as the primary news destination in Bergen. The entire organisation was tailored towards being subscriber-centric.

Introduced new tools

In the coming years, new tools for live reporting, storytelling, data analytics, debate and reader involvement were introduced. Algorithms were implemented on the frontpage, and data and insight capabilities were introduced in the newsroom. Cross-functional work became the norm, performance numbers were posted front and centre at the offices, and staff started celebrating major shared milestones.

Live reporting became especially important. A specific improvement point identified in 2015 was to find better ways to convey brief, developing news to readers. The news feed “Trafikken direkte” (Traffic Direct) was established to meet the needs of the users for live traffic reporting.

Successful updates

Bergen is a city with a vulnerable infrastructure. One accident in the main road tunnel is enough to make half the population late for dinner. Instead of spreading a few short news items across the BT.no front page, these updates were gathered in one place, harnessing traffic data for added value. This has become BT’s best-selling digital product.

“We were quite early to use live news studios. In fact, the tool first developed here has now been adopted in several parts of Schibsted,” says Liv Okkenhaug, head of breaking news.
In addition to a manual newsfeed with information about accidents, rush traffic or cancelled trains, BT integrated several automated services, such as traffic data from authorities, web cameras and queue maps. Input from commuters is also important.

A willingness to pay

From the beginning, BT has constantly worked on developing its live studio format, setting up several such news feeds.

“Our journalists pride themselves on reporting rapidly and thoroughly on everything from major catastrophes to tunnel or road closures. Quick, precise information is the main goal.”

In Okkenhaug’s view, people are much more willing to pay for these live studios than commonly expected.

“This is about providing people something that is useful in their day-to-day lives. Finding out how long they can expect to be stuck in traffic, for instance. Whether you are a nurse on your way to work, or if you are a professional driver, our traffic studio is helpful.”

Constantly looking for next theme

According to Okkenhaug, the editorial staff is constantly looking for the next theme where readers could use a hub. In the summer of 2022, it was the transport chaos throughout Europe. In the autumn, the staggering energy prices.

For her, the point is to build a culture of innovation that puts the users’ needs first. Live reporting helped change BT’s game. By Christmas 2019, the number of digital subscribers had passed the number of print subscribers, bringing overall subscription numbers to an all-time high.

In 2020, Frøy Gudbrandsen became editor-in-chief and continued to position BT as the readers’ “guide”. She pushed for new digital formats, investigative journalism and new subscriber options.

The effort for investigative journalism paid off. One of the paper’s most acclaimed projects, are the award-winning stories about Bergen Engines. The series of almost 100 articles are described as almost a spy thriller. They focus on how oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin almost took over a Norwegian engine company of vital national security importance.

Setting a national agenda

“Our journalism resulted in big consequences. The sale of Bergen Engines was stopped, and the Norwe­gian government received strong criticism in Parliament,” says Eystein Røssum, BT’s head of investigative journalism.

According to him, BT is a self-aware and ambitious newsroom, and that it’s natural for them to set a national agenda.

“Investigative journalism is part of the cornerstone of the entire BT project and is integrated into all journalistic work. We put together teams according to the case we are working on. It’s something everyone is involved in, not limited to an “elite group” of privileged journalists,” says Røssum.

The bleak prospects of 2015 have been turned around to a solid economy while still providing award-winning journalism. The paper has 85,000 subscribers, a 37% increase since 2015.

A common understanding

Øyulf Hjertenes believes that a common understanding of the situation and clear strategies and priorities were crucial for the organisation’s turnaround.

“The journalists and editors in the BT newsroom have high ambitions, and they don’t look back. There is a willingness to let go of who we are, for what we might become, and with such a mentality there is basically no limit to what we can achieve,” says Hjertenes.

He believes this ambitious culture is the explanation behind why BT is punching above its weight both in investigative journalism and in product development.

In 2021, Bergens Tidende won the “Newspaper of the Year” prize in Norway. The jury was impressed by how BT over the past year had increased its efforts in innovative and investigative journalism, close to people’s everyday lives. The jury noted that BT clearly “plays with technology and challenges the way stories are told”, and that “readers get an impressive journalistic product that is both important and entertaining.”

This is Bergens Tidende

  • Bergens Tidende is Norway’s fourth largest newspaper, and the country’s largest news­paper outside Oslo with 226,000 daily readers and 83,000 subscribers.
  • It was founded in 1868.
  • BT was published in tabloid format from 2006.
  • Part of the Schibsted family of digital brands since 2009.
  • The paper was awarded the European Newspaper of the Year in the regional newspaper category by the European Newspapers Congress in 2011.
  • In 2021, Bergens Tidende won the ”Newspaper of the Year” prize in Norway.
Author Liv Skotheim

Liv Skotheim
Managing Editor, Bergens Tidende
Years in Schibsted: 17