Business

A paper of war heroes

Few readers of Verdens Gang are proud to admit their loyalty. But VG knows how to take on a challenge and turn it into a success.

Perhaps it’s true that VG is not loved. Most people in any case are reluctant to declare their love. Some of them hate the newspaper, some fear it, but most read it. And no one, absolutely no one, is indifferent to it. VG is the newspaper that united Norway. No other newspaper has bound the country together in the same way. Big words – but at VG, we talk and write with capital letters. Therefore: without VG, the distance between the power and the people would be greater.

Summer of 1945. Some of the journalists still wore their military uniforms when they began working at the new newspaper at Akersgata 34. In the weeks before, the printers had gone all over Oslo reassembling parts that the Germans had removed from Tidens Tegn’s rotary press during the war. On June 23, the first edition of Verdens Gang hit the street. The front page headline was “What the occupation cost us”. The article was illustrated with a picture of the hated green cheques that the German occupation authorities had used to empty the Central bank. Despite warnings the editors insisted on placing a thick red line across the illustration, creating a sort of “stop” sign. This graphic device caused major problems for the printer. But the newspaper came out – with the red slash across the front page.

“While others sat on the fence, VG jumped off”

Already, VG employees were displaying an attitude that would come to typify the newspaper and make it a success. At VG we don’t take “no” for an answer. Constraints are there to overcome. Pushing the limits of the possible – and the imaginable – is in the organisation’s DNA. This attitude has produced results in the form of journalism, ethics, profitability and, in recent years, technology.

The Newspaper of war heroes

VG is the newspaper of war heroes. It was Norway’s resistance forces, the boys in the woods, who founded VG after the country’s liberation, in 1945. Decades later it would become the most popular paper in the country. The founders wanted to publish a newspaper built upon the ideals they had fought for during the long years of war: freedom and independence. VG would be independent of political parties and financial interests. It was to be a paper of the people, embodying Norway’s national feeling. But first and foremost, VG became a newspaper with faith in the future.

What the World War II resistance fighters hoped for was “a new breed of newspaper”. Just what they meant by those words is hard to say, but one possible interpretation is that they wanted a newspaper that not only represented something new at the time but that would keep changing with the country and the people. That’s what it became, anyway. ­Today’s employees, like those ­before them, have met challenges with curiosity and fighting spirit, embraced change and encouraged creativity and innovation to flourish.

VG has kept the promise of “the boys in the woods” and created “a new breed of newspaper”. Without this attribute, the newspaper most likely would not exist today. What has defined VG most is the ability to take actions that fundamentally change the status quo. VG has not always been the first to notice paradigm shifts, but it has almost always been the first to act. While others sat on the fence, VG jumped off.

The first and most significant decision in VG’s history was no doubt the commitment to independence made in 1945. Unlike many newspapers, VG had no party affiliation. It did not survive on the alms of the state or of special interest organisations. It was free in the truest sense of the word. VG belonged to no one – but its readers. VG’s independent course was crucial to its ability, decades later, to become “the paper of the people”. It fought for no single cause or ideology. The editors struck out in all directions, but first and foremost upwards – against power, on behalf of the Norwegian people.

Creativity let loose

VG’s biggest and most important transformation came in 1963. It was a turning point, and VG’s journalism thrived in the new format. Lunacy and gravitas went hand in hand, from cover to cover. The layout was bolder than that of the competition. The editors gave free rein to creativity. The headlines became more brazen, the language more precise, the story angles tougher. The tabloids were looked down on. They were light on their feet and keener to entertain than to set the agenda, it was said. VG couldn’t care less.

After Schibsted rescued the newspaper in 1966, circulation grew year by year. In 1981 VG became the country’s largest newspaper. Certainly, the most important year for VG – at least for its own future – was 1995. That’s when VG Nett was launched. While many newspapers believed that news would be distributed on cellulose for generations to come, the people running VG understood that a new age had begun. They bet on it, even though it hurt. That gave VG a head start into the digital era.

The same tabloid approach that had made the print newspaper skyrocket turned VG Nett into the country’s largest website. Its spicy mix of hard news, sports, entertainment, politicians and celebrities wrinkled the noses of the intellectual elite. But what did that really accomplish? To be important you need to have a broad impact. VG’s persona is down-to-earth and direct. The key to success is understanding social currents and lifting the problems of ordinary folks onto the politicians’ table.

For most VG readers, the print edition was their number two newspaper. First they ­devoured Aftenposten, Adresseavisen or their local newspaper, and then – for a different view of the world and the news – they went to the kiosk and bought VG. Norway’s largest newspaper was a supplement. In the digital age, VG is number one. For more than two million Norwegians the day begins and ends with VG. Every day almost half the Norwegian population check in to read exposés, get the latest news or be entertained. So it’s not on paper but online that VG has united Norway into one kingdom.

VG is now facing a new revolution. Print newspapers will soon be history. Desktop reading is falling, and the mobile phone is taking over. Text is no longer the preferred language. Vibrant images and sound are. And the changes are happening faster than before. Artificial intelligence could fundamentally alter the craft we now call journalism.

Never again, they said

VG’s history shows that it is capable of adapting to this change, too. Yes, it will be a challenge, but it’s possible. When the boys in the woods founded the newspaper, they did so in the ruins of a political wave that took millions of lives. Never again, they said. VG was supposed to “build bridges over antagonisms in society”. At its best, this newspaper does just that.

Compared with other countries, Norway has few antagonisms. There is little to separate the politicians in parliament from the people who voted them in. We have no nobility or cultural elite floating high above the rest of us. People converse and understand each other rather well. We trust each other, speak the same language and have the same frames of reference. An important reason is that we have a public realm that’s common to all. All Norwegians – or almost all of them – read the same newspaper.

An award-winning newspaper

1. In 2017 VG received several awards for its journalism. It was appointed the two most prestigious national awards at the yearly Norwegian Media Prize-gala – the digital site of the year and the paper of the year.

2. A story exposing illegal use of forced belt within the mental health care system was the winner at the yearly conference for investigative journalism, Skup.

3. The Lawyer and the Torpedo won the Scoop category at Schibsted Journalism Award and was appointed best digital story at the Media Prize event. It revealed the shocking story of a lawyer ordering a murder to protect his client.

NAME: Gard Steiro

TITLE: Editor-in-Chief of Verdens Gang

YEARS IN SCHIBSTED: 17

I LOOK FORWARD TO: The fact that journalism will merge even more with tech and develop into the better. We haven't seen the most impressive scoop yet