Disrupting the information ecosystem

Disrupting the information ecosystem

We’re living in a new reality, where economic inequalities, climate change, migration flows and technological disruptions are shaping the world. It’s also a time of strong men and of the rise of authoritarianism. We tend to talk and worry a lot about Donald Trump, but it’s not only him. There’s Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, and Putin in Russia. And many others.

And there’s a fundamental question I’ve been asking myself the last years: Where does all this rage come from? In my former job as Political Editor-­in-Chief at Aftonbladet I could feel the rising anger in a very concrete way, in my inbox and my social media feeds. Year by year, the level of hate and threats and aggression grew. I am an economist by education, and my instinct is to look for answers in the economy; disrupted labor markets, globalization, people being left behind. All of these factors are important. But as I traveled a lot in Eastern Europe last year, in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, the story still just didn’t add up. These are countries with high growth and low unemployment. Despite that, the rage, the explosive media and political climate was the same as in the US, the Philippines, Turkey and yes, in Sweden.

Something has gone wrong

The level and intensity of rage just does not seem proportionate to the underlying, observable changes in economy and culture, as historian Anne Applebaum put it when I interviewed her in Poland last fall. The X factor seems to be how today’s internet and social media are shaping our public discourse. I used to be a fan of Mark Zuckerberg. Or at least of the tools he built. But something has gone wrong.

The problem at the core of this is that the content that’s most misleading or conspiratorial is what’s generating the most engagement, and that’s what the algorithm is designed to respond to. The stronger you react to the content you see on Facebook or YouTube, the more likely you are to remain on the platform. And the longer you stay, the more money they make from your data. In this way, the tech giants’ business models create the economic incentives now driving outrage, disinformation and polarization.

Tech giants distort competition

In today’s world, the logic of the attention economy overlaps with political forces with the stated aim of undermining liberal democracy. This is disrupting the eco­system for information and challenging the ethos of journalism. But there is more to this story. The tech giants are also disrupting our economic structures. We see them growing data monopolies, using that advantage to distort competition. Google is pushing its own products with the power of its massive search engine. And Facebook is rolling out its own marketplace that the users cannot avoid. Their dominance is hurting jobs, innovation and our basic ideas of fairness and competition.

Change and pressure need to rise on many levels. From consumers, citizens and politicians. We need to understand how economics plays into this, the logic of the attention economy and the business models. Because at this point the sheer size and power of these companies are a threat to how we organize our societies. The good news is that the time is right and we see reactions.
Like from Margrete Vestager, the Danish EU competition commissioner. Or, as the Financial Times calls her, the “slayer of big tech”. Vestager has ruled that Apple needs to pay more taxes and has twice heavily fined Google for illegal behavior. GDPR and privacy is part of the backlash, as is the copyright vote in the EU. The world is slowly waking up and starting to realize what values are at stake.

Schibsted has a role to play

In the end this is about standing up for what we believe is important, and the truth is that companies like Schibsted can play a role in all of this. Schibsted has been careful in the past not to go all in on the platforms. We have kept the relationship with our readers and users in our own hands, to a large degree. We are small compared to the giants, but we are not owned by them – and we have a history with legacy. We are in the middle of this perfect storm in these pretty dramatic times and it’s a challenge, but honestly it’s also exciting and interesting.

Changing the voice of sports

Changing the voice of sports

In the fall of the year 2000 Aftonbladet revolutionized Swedish sports journalism, as the paper became the first in the country to publish a daily sports supplement. The recipe for success? How about pink paper, fake assignments, and social media?

The year 2000. What do we remember about it? Bill Clinton was the President of the United States of America, Playstation 2 was introduced and Britney Spears was on top of the singles list. Some things feel like yesterday, others like an eternity ago. Today it is hard to imagine what the media landscape and media habits looked like just after the turn of the millennium. When internet was something fairly new, social ­media did not even exist and smartphones could only be seen in sci-fi films. There was no place to watch television – ­except on the TV in the living room. All Swedes interested in sports surely have some sweet memories of the Olympic games in Sydney where Sweden won four gold medals; Swedish successes that were reported in the first sports daily, Sportbladet. Already back in the 90s there had been plans for an extended sports coverage at Aftonbladet, but the sports editor at the time, Lasse Östling, can still remember the frustration he felt as he was walking to work to fill a few sports pages.

A historic swedish victory

“I remember with horror when I went to the editorial office one evening after Sweden had beaten England at Råsunda Football Stadium in an important qualification fixture. Fredrik Ljungberg had just had his breakthrough, this was a historic Swedish victory and I had only six pages in total to work with, and all the ­other stuff was supposed to fit in there as well; horse trotting, ice hockey training matches and much more, whatever it was. I remember asking the editorial management how I was supposed to produce decent coverage of a victory that was the talk of the nation?

After some years, in the early 1990s, with poor attendance at sports events, Swedish audience numbers had begun to increase again. The appearance of commercial sports TV channels sparked a new interest. This was the time when the idea of starting a new daily Swedish sports paper was born. “There was a happy, party-like mood on the Swedish stands” Östling says. “The old men in the top management began to understand that we should have a product that was matching those interests and not just something that was dismissed to some silly pages far back in the evening paper.” In 1996 Aftonbladet had overtaken its fiercest rival Expressen in circulation figures. At its widest the gap was almost 100,000 copies a day, but in the late 1990s Expressen had begun to lose in and the editorial management felt that something had to be done. The decision was to put increased effort into covering sports. Fearing that the competitors might get wind of the new plan everything had to be done in secret.

“Instead of a couple of sport pages a day there was now going to be at least 16 pages.”

Aftonbladet started hiring new, young sports journalists but to avoid any unneccesary attention they were not assigned to the sports desk  –  Sportbladet did not yet exist – but to other desks at the paper. Some of the sports columnists-to-be were put to work for a month with the Sunday edition and not even those who worked at the sports desk at the time knew that they were going to move to Sportbladet.

The pink paper was a signal

Another move, which was made just a couple of months before the launch, was to start printing on pink paper resembling the respected Italian sports paper La Gazzetta dello Sport.
The pink color was a signal saying that the paper was going to take readers interested in sports seriously. Instead of a couple of sport pages a day there was now going to be at least 16 pages every day in a separate supplement. On May 8, 2000 Sportbladet was launched but the reception was cool among people in the trade. Many asked themselves how Aftonbladet was going to fill 16 sports pages (later to become 32) every day of the year. But fairly soon it turned out that the large space opened up for another type of sports journalism and a different kind of journalist. Over night there was suddenly room enough to tell stories rather than just report results and events on the pitch. Now the coverage was about the football culture in Moscow or what football in Bucharest meant for the Roma population of Romania.

“Sportbladet proved some things that few people had dared hope or think”, says the ­Sportbladet columnist Simon Bank, who has been with the paper since 1999. “First, that Sweden was large enough to have a daily sports paper. Second, that Sweden on top of that had enough curiosity to appreciate journalism and reporting, that is not only about the closest, most audience-catching topics. And be read and admired for it”, Bank says.

Thanks to this, not only was a new audience coming to the sports pages, but also a new brand of journalists. “Erik Niva and Johanna Frändén had perhaps been possible 30 years ago but they would not have been writing in the same style, about the same topics. Now they are among the best writers there are in Sweden, regardless of category”, Bank says. 18 years after the launch the pink sports ­pages are still there, just as the basic values of quality, curiosity and courage. But more and more energy is used for the digital traffic and there are plenty of challenges.

“It has been a fantastic journey and it’s still going on”, says the present editor of Sport­bladet Pontus Carlgren. “We develop and change all the time. Today we are not only producing a daily paper. We are working with social media, videos, podcasts and an IT development that can be absolutely decisive. The tone of presentation that was typical for Sportbladet still exists but can now also be heard clearly in all our social media. In our new organization we have three staff members working with social media. All three of them have a background as subeditors at the paper, and that is not a coincidence”, Pontus Carlgren says.

A pioneering spirit

Several of the profiles at Sportbladet have been awarded prizes for their journalism and much of the playfulness and pioneering spirit that distinguished Sportbladet 18 years ago still lives on, both in the editorial room and in the marketing department. In the spring of 2018 4,373 footballs were dumped all over Sergels Torg in the center of Stockholm as a reminder of the long, warm – and pink – World Cup summer that lay ahead.

Teaching robots how to write

Teaching robots how to write

Reporters at Aftonbladet have been producing articles for close to 188 years. Now comes one of the biggest revolutions in the history of Schibsted. From now on robots will write and offer readers hundreds of articles every day. Sweden’s biggest media house is increasing its service to readers with this latest technology.

A text robot will be producing content for the coverage of traffic and weather in addition to creating texts for the football coverage in the section Sportbladet. This project is carried out in cooperation with United Robots, which is leading in artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language generation (NLG) in producing publishable articles using large data sources.

The new service will work as a complement to the traditional journalistic work and will create content to an extent never reached before at Aftonbladet. The automated writing of texts means that there is no limit to how many texts can be produced in a day. Furthermore, the automatically written articles can mean more time for the paper’s reporters to concentrate on the biggest and most important stories as the robot deals with more mundane matters.

The first section to use the new technique will be the reporting on traffic and weather together with football pieces. The traffic robot will produce articles about situations and warnings from roads all over the country and report estimated delays that follow. Together with the texts, the robot will send a satellite picture highlighting trouble spots.

Taught by journalists

But how can the robot tell us what is happening on the roads of Sweden?

This is how it works:

  • An incident or a blockage occurs.
  • The state-run Swedish Transport Administration (Trafikverket) sends data to the robot containing facts such as type of incident, number of vehicles involved, GPS coordinates and at what time the road is estimated to be clear again.
  • The robot creates a text using the wording it has been “taught” by Afton­bladet journalists to sound as natural as possible. In order for the texts to be varied, the robot can describe the same incident in several different ways.
  • The text is filed to Aftonbladet and is automatically published on aftonbladet.se. When there is a major incident, a push notification can be automatically sent.

As for the weather reporting, the service is based on warnings issued by the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI). With the help of the robot service, Aftonbladet will be able to provide more content and a wider coverage. That means better opportunities to personalize products and, with geo positioning, increasing possibility of giving readers relevant information. The robot can also facilitate the work in the newsroom by issuing alerts drawing attention to major events such as accidents with several vehicles involved. Algorithms will analyze all the available data looking for deviations, connections and events that could lead to a wide coverage and alert the newsroom.

When the whistle blows

Text robots were used already in the spring of 2018 as Sportbladet increased the depth and width of its Premiere League reporting. Traditionally, the coverage in Sportbladet has consisted of live reporting from matches together with texts, mainly about the top teams. With the help of the robot, and with its global sports data source Sportradar, Sportbladet can now publish articles at the moment the referee blows the final whistle – from every game that has been played.

Together with TV highlights from Viasat and match facts from Sportbladet’s goal service, it gives the reader the chance to read about his or her team’s match instantly. “With all the deep data we have from major leagues such as Premiere League, the robot knows a lot about what has happened during the match”, says Sports Editor Pontus Carlgren. “That, together with the speed a robot offers, gives our coverage a new dimension.

Thanks to the possibility to subscribe to texts through the follow function on the site, supporters won’t miss a single article about their team”, Carlgren says, adding that “The fact that the robot produces texts that are finished at the final blow of the whistle,will give our knowledgeable reporters and columnists more time to work on thought-through articles and columns for the benefit of our readers.”