How to get paid

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.

Let the algorithm do the job

Let the algorithm do the job

How do you rate a traffic incident in Stockholm on a 1 to 5-scale? At SvD an algorithm is running the news, and tech is a way to secure the future of journalism.

The venue is the Austin Convention Center during the world’s greatest media conference, South by Soutwest (SXSW). On the stage in the largest conference hall, the Editor in chief of The New Times, Dean Baquet, is being interviewed by the paper’s media columnist, Jim Rutenberg. The theme is journalism after the election of Donald Trump; a president who calls both The New York Times and other serious media brands “fake news” and journalists “enemies of the people”. The answer from The New York Times is to hire more investigative reporters, more digital spearheads to be able to develop the journalism further.

“We are preparing for the story of our generation. The election of Donald Trump as president is a bigger news story that 9/11,” Dean Baquet says, adding: “The next two years will be a historic ­moment in the life of news organizations.”

The editor of the most influential news organization in the world says that the United States need more and better independent journalism. Not less. However, it is not only the case in the USA that journalism is under pressure. In countries close to Scandinavia – Poland, Hungary, Russia – media are more or less controlled by the state. Independence was swept away a long time ago and the published material is risible, ingratiating propaganda.

Banning the media

In September 2018 there will be a general ­election in Sweden. The rightist party The ­Sweden Democrats, one of the largest in the country according to opinion polls, has on several occasions banned media from their press meetings.

In one country after another forces are growing that, like Donald Trump, have the idea to question and undermine the credibility of the media, with the aim to strengthen their own power base. The question is how one, as the editor of an old established newspaper brand, can navigate in a reality that is, on the one hand, demanding more resources and initiatives and, on the other, demanding profitability. Initiatives to strengthen the trust of the readers and profitability to be able to make necessary investments. The answer is spelled “technology”.

“The answer is spelled technology”

Let’s go back in time, two years. The venue is no longer the Austin Convention Center but the editorial offices of Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in central Stockholm. A group of journalists are seated around a table, writing on small Post-It notes. The question they are asking themselves is this “What is a particular piece of news worth on a scale from 1–5? It may not be so hard to compare and evaluate a traffic incident without casualties to a terror attack in the center of Stockholm. But all those other things that happen, the news in the middle, where shall we put them on a scale?

In the spring of 2015 this was precisely what the editorial staff of SvD were discussing. We tested different news scenarios. Stock market down 4 percent (news value 3.5), the Prime Minister proposes more CCTV cameras in central Stockholm (news value 4.0). A Strindberg play opens at the Royal Theatre (2.5). These news ratings, combined with a time marker, how long we think the piece will draw interest and be relevant to the readers, are the very basic data in the algorithm that from now is going to steer our new front page. It was self-evident that it is journalism and the editors that, also in the future, are going to influence how news are evaluated on our front page.

We want to build for the future

At the same time we wanted to simplify our editorial processes and get rid of unnecessary time-consuming elements, to create space for journalistic ventures. To put it simply, we wanted to build for the future, both in technical and journalistic terms. No longer were journalists obliged to move headlines up and down on the front page. The focus was going to be placed on better content, sharper headlines, creative visual solutions and distribution of content. But above all simplicity.

Schibsted Media Platform, Schibsted’s own content management system, is built for online publishing with text tools, video, picture search and external monitoring, all in one view. As a journalist you learn to use the tool in just a few hours, which facilitates a lot in the digital transformation of the editorial staff. But let’s not become too technical. The whole point of working with algorithms and data in a newsroom is precisely so that the journalists don’t have to think about technical matters. In the last two years we have conducted a series of tests and adjustments without the editorial staff having had a clue about it. A/B tests, personalization of content to specific segments of readers, automated newsletters that are managed by algorithms, just to mention a few.

And we know that in the future, we will be testing still more things that can increase readers’ engagement and loyalty. For example; not showing certain articles that you have already read, show more premium content to loyal readers who we think can be converted to digital subscribers.

Newsrooms must be data-driven

Our vision is to take care of every visitor, giving the best news experience and at the same time supporting the business targets of SvD. And we will never be able to do that if we keep on working in the old fashion, because no editorial staff can manually deliver thousands of individual news experiences every minute, every day. In order to compete seriously with a digitalized media world, newsrooms must become more data-driven, daring to leave part of the job to the algorithms.

Two years later we can study the result. The alternated, simplified processes in the editorial rooms have led to more time for investigative quality journalism. In this period we have been awarded more journalistic prizes than ever before in the paper’s 132-year history. “The Golden Shovel”, “Revelation of the Year”, “Story­teller of the Year”, to mention a few.

And when Dean Baquet appeared at SXSW, Svenska Dagbladet and Schibstedt presented the business results for the year 2016. It showed a strong growth in digital subscriptions and digital advertizing. Altogether this produced the second best result in the paper’s history – a growth in results that runs parallel with our endeavors in journalism and technology.

Fill it with facts

Fill it with facts

Irrefutable facts, context and depth – this is how media of today should meet the ongoing challenges. This is how we can move opinions and insights and keep exposing abuse of power, injustices and lies.

The afternoon in the newsroom at the newspaper VG had been typically quiet on this somewhat slow day in July. I arrived at my work as News Editor around 1.30 pm and now, an hour or so later, we still did not have one single thing going that would make even the most excited reader raise an eyebrow. The only good thing was that Bruce Springsteen was in town.

But then: Well into the evening, the paper received a tip saying that Norway’s most famous drug criminal had escaped while having a birthday dinner in a hotel in the chain Relais & Châteaux. He had been granted leave from the prison to celebrate his 33rd birthday. With him was a 24-year-old prison guard whose task it was to make sure he did not run away. A social worker, who had visited him regularly in prison, was also invited to the dinner.

“Journalism delivers the heaviest punches when it has precise facts”

I was new to VG and to the position as News Editor, having been there for only three months, but this evening was to become decisive for my understanding of what it is that brings power to journalism.
Immediately we sent reporters to the place from which he had escaped. The prison that he was confined to was in the same town, about 50 kilometers south of Oslo. I kept in close contact with our people on the ground. Speaking with the reporter who had been at the hotel I asked: “Do you have a copy of the check?” “No, I didn’t think of that, but I believe I can get it.” An hour later a copy of the check came ticking out of the fax machine. This happened in 1988 and in those days the fax was the Hope diamond of the information technology.

I had a quick look at the check and felt instinctively that it was going to have an effect on Norwegian crime policies. I have worked in journalism for 37 years. Still, those moments when I immediately feel that this specific piece of news will have political consequences, or make life better for at least some people, are markers for the buzzing feeling of the power of journalism. And the knowledge that you have been unusually lucky in your choice of occupation.

No one carried a smartphone

The jailed narcotics smuggler obviously had expensive habits. He relished in duck breast, red wine, “marquise au chocolat” with strawberry sauce, Dry Martini and ­exquisite whisky in the Relais & Châteaux restaurant, before he asked to be excused and left for the bathroom. He did not come back. To grant a leave to a rough drug criminal and letting him spend a lot of money on fine food, in a place where most law-abiding citizens couldn’t afford to eat, would always create a stir, but it was the exposure of the actual check, payed by the prison employee, that really ignited the debate: Duck breast, expensive wine, Dry Martini and whisky!

“The role of journalism is to expose what others want to hide”

For me, the publishing of the check became the symbol of the fact that journalism delivers the heaviest punches when it has precise facts. When a revelation resounds with the readers it can mean that laws are changed, the political debate takes a new course or obvious faults are corrected. Without the readers’ acceptance, even the biggest of headlines can become an empty gesture rather than a solid punch.

The role of journalism is basically to expose what others want to hide, and to stimulate debate, to inform and to entertain. Different media are catering to different aspects of these elements with their output.

At the time when the drug smuggler enjoyed his duck’s breast there was no such thing as the digital motorway. No one carried a smartphone in their pocket and no one had been given the tools to bring the conversation into the public domain through social media. Digitalization has now made information limitless both geographically and in volume. Does this put new demands on how journalism is presented in order to keep its punch?

I for one think that the answer is a resounding YES. But the increasingly frequent technological shifts mean we are facing huge challenges. In a media landscape where we have moved from a scarcity of information to being burdened by the glut of it, journalism can be sorted into three categories: continuous, context and depth. I am among those who believe that speed in news is a special quality. I have never understood those who claim that the speed in news distribution, that the digitalization has made possible, is in itself a threat to quality.

Information overload

One of the most epic dramas of the previous century was the duel between Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott concerning who reached the South Pole first. On December 14th 1911, Amundsen could triumphantly place the Norwegian flag on the polar spot. Scott perished.

Aftenposten broke the news on its entire front page. It was the greatest scoop ever in the paper’s history. When? On March 8th 1912. In the history of mankind this was just a blink of an eye ago.
The speed of news today works best when it is reinforcing the punch of journalism. In the same way, the unlimited space that comes with digitalization has given us the chance to tell stories with a depth, highlight different aspects of an issue and the opportunity for readers to study the basic material in an unprecedented way. Digitalization has given us the chance to convey a new journalistic force both in the fast news and in-depth stories

A big challenge in keeping up the journalistic strength is to provide a manageable context for the published material. The general reader is suffering from “information overload.” Media is available everywhere, all the time. Content, formats and distribution channels are constantly fragmented. That makes it increasingly important to explain why it is necessary to know something about this particular subject, and to do it in a way that is neither convoluted nor distancing. We should have a focused presentation of matters that everybody ought to know something about, combined with a far more specialized delivery of special-interest stories. Communication from one to everybody has been the model of mass media. It should gradually develop into one-to-one.

Today anyone can be his or her own broadcaster. The inherent mechanisms in social media, that reinforce exaggerated views and plainly false information, are undermining the credibility of the media using an aggressive and polarizing rhetoric. Propaganda, manifestly aimed at influencing people’s opinions with a one-sided presentation of information, are passed on in the news stream in the same form and with the same expression as the most meticulous revelation.

This topography means that if journalism should have a true strength it has to present irrefutable facts in a matter-of-fact and impartial manner. We are inundated by quick-witted sentences, but I am becoming more and more convinced that it is precise facts that can move opinions. My good friend for many years as editor-in-chief of Aftonbladet and now Director of Programs at Swedish Public Service TV, Jan Helin, has put it this way: “If one was given the chance to wish for a new trend in journalism, it would be that we became able to make stars out of journalists who are opinion-resistant and who, with a passion for facts, manage to tell stories in an exciting and matter-of-fact way.”

At its best, journalism contributes to a functioning democracy by diminishing the gap between what the citizens know and what they need to know about the world around them.

The more efficient we are in exposing the squandering of resources and abuse of power, in giving a voice to the silent, in highlighting the circumstances for the weakest, the better the democracy can become. And that is precisely why the autocrats constantly are attacking the media: the aim of journalism to expose abuse of power, injustices and lies. Therein lies the Power of Journalism.

Therein lies the justification of claiming that journalism is a pillar in any civilized society. Therein lies the fundament to herald journalism as a central part of the democratic infrastructure. But every autocrat has a binary view of the world. You are either a supporter or an enemy. There is never a shade of gray – let alone 50.

That is why it is a part of the morning ritual of the Twitter President to brand us as, “The enemy of the people”, as the standard bearers of falsehood. The best answer must be irrefutable facts, the only things that can, over time, move opinions and insight, inspired by journalism.

In an era where information is increasingly gathered from social media, it is necessary to underline that those platforms do not have any general ambition to consider the varying quality of the information. Here is a quote from Adam Mosseri, VP of Newsfeed, at Facebook: “We don’t favor specific kinds of sources – or ideas. Our aim is to deliver the types of stories we’ve gotten feedback that an individual person wants to see. We do this not only because we believe it’s the right thing but also because it’s good for our business.”

So, in the Facebook world, propaganda, lies and the best journalism has the same value. For the media, this must mean an enhanced effort to make the readers more capable of differentiating between information and propaganda. That will demand an increased awareness of the value of words, a broad fact-base and a tireless focus on reporting irrefutable facts.

As any journalist would know, her most fundamental obligation is to the truth. Truth not understood like a law of science, but as verifiable facts presented in a meaningful context, with the aim to facilitate debate and eventually reach good decisions.

Likes can not be the only criteria

With such a professional ethos, it’s utterly disturbing that the chosen term to characterize the climate for public discourse these days is “post-truth”. According to the Oxford Dictionary it is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

To paraphrase the legendary Joseph Pulitzer: The need for the noble profession of journalism, with an unequaled importance for its influence upon the minds and morals of the people, is better urgent than ever.

To uphold our ability to fulfil this honorable goal we must be aware of the importance of breadth and depth in our reporting, and consciously expose stories which are evaluated also by other criteria than popularity and likes. We must expose reality more than reality shows.

And we must be even more aware of the need to report precisely, wonderfully worded by the late journalist and author Gabriel Garcia Márquez: In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.