How to get paid

What kind of journalism are the readers willing to pay for? At Svenska Dagbladet, this question has led to new priorities and ways of working. The answer has made it clear what news media should concentrate on: meeting readers’ demands and devoting ourselves to journalism.

Do you think that one cannot predict news journalism? Well, in September, 18 years will have passed since the terrorist attacks in the US, and just like before the media in Sweden, as well as in the rest of the world, will produce articles about 9/11. In a generally unpredictable news flow, editors are grateful to be able to plan something that won’t change, regardless of what else happens. But new possibilities of data analyses are merciless towards old editorial habits. So far, I have not seen one single piece, where the anniversary has been the gist of the story, that has actually been read by any significant number of people.

The same thing goes for what we in the newsroom call “Wikipedia pieces” i.e. articles that too closely resemble encyclopedia entries or something that government authorities might post on their websites. Under the category “Why not?” we count articles that often are a combination of a not very thought-through idea and a stressed subeditor. The result is lukewarm content lacking relevance for a majority of readers.

What would readers pay for?

All three of these categories have now been banned in the SvD newsroom. They may seem harmless but they occupy way too much ­resources and are literally in the way of the kind of journalistic work that engages readers. A bit more than three years ago we started the project SvD Premium – content only for subscribers. At the time we did not ask ourselves which parts of all our journalism that we were going to lock in. Instead we started at the other end: what content could be so relevant that the readers would be willing to pay for it? Judging from thousands of converting articles in different formats and in different topic areas, we could soon see a pattern. The common denominator was not topics but needs. A model with four fields took shape:

1: Content that is helping the reader understand the news flow

For media houses in the news category, this is fundamental. Without an astute journalism that is investigating, digging, guiding and analyzing the news flow, the whole model will collapse. This is a field that delivers a great number of articles and has many readers. The rate of conversion is rather low, as other media can present similar content, but the volume leads to a high share of new subscribers.

2: Content that is close to the readers in their daily life

This can best be described as journalism that the readers “need to know” and is useful in their day-to-day life. For example, it can be advice concerning people’s private finances and property deals or new findings in psychology, food or health. This field has many readers and a high rate of conversion.

3: Content that is helping the readers understand the world we live in

This is about our own takes, describing something about the wider world around us – where the society or parts of the population are going. For example, at SvD we have had a great success with in-depth reports on how Sweden would look in the year 2025 if the right-wing Sweden Democrats, or other political parties, were to decide. It could also be reports from worlds that most readers cannot reach, such as a piece from inside Mensa, the association that gathers people with a high IQ. The number of readers is often lower than in the other two fields, but the rate of conversion, among those who take an interest, is high because the material cannot be found elsewhere.

4: Content close to readers’ interests and identities

“Nice-to-know journalism”. It could be tips about films or books, restaurant reviews, language or history. Normally, this field does not convert very much, but it has a high proportion of logged-in reading and is therefore fundamental for preventing churn. Whenever we have good numbers – for both conversions and engagement – they often coincide with having filled all four fields with sharp and clear journalism in our core topics.

The insights we have gained along the way have, among other things, led to new jobs in the newsroom; editors responsible for different fields in the model, working across boundaries with every other department and in close cooperation with the data and analysis team. Furthermore, we have presented content we haven’t had before, signed on several external people and begun cooperating with other ­media, such as the American magazine The Atlantic, from which we publish, every month, a carefully selected in-depth story. The efforts have paid off. In the last three years, the number of new subscribers has become almost five times higher, the logged-in reading has gone up as has the conversion rate. As for our prioritized weekend in-depth pieces we have eliminated almost all of the articles that were being read by few and more than doubled the feature stories that engage a large number of subscribers. Both extremes are important to follow up – the editorship of the future is as much a question of editing out as it is of prioritizing.

Readers want to pay for quality

In the present transformation of the media business, the possibilities for working in a data informed way are a good help. The fact that the power now so manifestly has shifted to our actual employers, the readers, may make some people feel uncomfortable: where will it end if we give the readers what they want? Isn’t there a risk that we abandon the role of editors and become populistic? For my part, I am hopeful. We see how readers want to pay for quality. The technology and the way we report may change a lot in the time to come. As long as we focus on what makes us unique in the enormous flow of information, proper journalistic endeavor, the demand for what we do will prevail.