We love local

Schibsted’s newspaper Aftonbladet is expanding its local journalism, beginning in Malmö in southern Sweden, in spite of previous failures in the field. But the right time may be now, mainly because of a new, scalable technique.

I was 16 years old when I for the first time walked into the editorial office of the local newspaper Folkbladet in Idrottsgatan in the town of Norrköping. I had got myself an internship at the paper that was to become one of my much-frequented places during high school. I forced my friends to appear in my own Youth spread every Tuesday. I interviewed them and their buddies about their first love, about being a lesbian in the small town of Valdemarsvik and about anorexia. My whole world was concluded on a two-page spread every week. Sometimes we hung around after work smoking in the basement waiting for the first printed copies. Yes, the printing machine was just two stairs down from the editorial office.

Local is near. It is journalism about bumps in the road, it is about the local football team and about bands playing in basements, letter to the editor and death announcements, but also investigative reporting about the petty wangling and greediness among local politicians.

More important than ever

Local is more important than ever for journalism. In the age of Trump, fake news, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, journalism is one of the few means at hand to rebuild trust, to get closer to the reader. Stockholm knows precious little about Malmö. People in Malmö know that. Here we need to shorten the distance between towns and City and perhaps sometimes between small town and town. It depends a bit on how far the technology can take us.

The campaign in Malmö consists of local voices, local front pages and reporters in place – all of it in order to give people in Malmö a better offer. But the editorial staff is also helped a lot by new tech, not least in the form of robots writing about traffic, real estate and local football.

Our ad offices are prepared to take on the American giants in the fight for the local money.

When I moved to Stockholm and a temporary summer job at Svenska Dagbladet I had been at several local newspaper branches. But the one that left the biggest mark in me was the sister paper of Folkbladet, called Östgöten where I worked when I was a student. As a young journalist with a “calling” I learnt that the journalism was depending on revenues even though the journalism must be independent I was there the day the last issue of Östgöten was published and had a funeral beer surrounded by men in tears. The paper had existed in Linköping since 1873 and Rolle in the reception knew half the people in town. Today Folkbladet has moved away from Idrottsgatan. It is nowadays owned by the competition, the paper NT, and the two groups of journalists share the canteen.

Local is expensive. It is not difficult to start a local paper. The difficulty is to assure that the costs aren’t growing too big. Still harder to make it profitable. But now there are three main reasons for Aftonbladet’s chances to succeed to be good: users want local content; technology makes the venture possible; there is money to collect.

Indeed, the fact that the users want the content is nothing new. During my whole life as a journalist, the readers have said that they were interested in local news. The question is how much they are prepared to pay for it. Local papers are putting vast resources into digital subscriptions giving readers access to the full content, a business model that is probably right for them because their users are accustomed to paying for the paper and it is hard for these local papers to finance their content with advertisements since they cannot really offer the digital reach.

Aftonbladet is recommending that one charges for journalism but there is still a group that is expecting free news and currently choose to get their updates elsewhere. The growing American giants are an apparent alternative, but this is where Aftonbladet has a role to play. Aftonbladet shall update Sweden and our business model (Freemium) is updating news for free online, while charging for the in-depth features. Our local offer means that our readers can easily, and without paying, access our local content. We are not building any separate app, we are not building a new brand. Instead, we ask our 3.9 million unique daily readers if they also want to have an update about what is happening in their community.

The technology can be used in every city

Technology is an important prerequisite for our campaign, but development has a high cost as well. Luckily, the highest costs arise in the beginning, because the same tech that has been built for our upstart town Malmö can be used for every place in Sweden and it takes only one day to implement. The same goes for our robots. They are already trained. We only have to connect more APIs for them to start writing about places like Kiruna, Uppsala and Västerås. Our campaign can only be worthwhile if it can be scaled up to other places.

Tech has also given us advantages in other fields. A new tag structure affects not only how we can trace and structure old articles for local use, it can also enable our drive to have more niche material. It also gives us new possibilities for automatic updating of articles.

Businesswise, the local ad market is big game. The local papers cannot any longer offer the advertisers enough reach, neither in print nor online. A digital enterprise such as Aftonbladet with its wide reach has reach to offer. So can Facebook and Google but we claim with vigor that we have a better contextual environment and that this will be increasingly important ahead. Furthermore, we already have 12 local advertising offices all around Sweden. They are prepared to take on the American giants in the fight for the local money. It is primarily in the towns, where we have established a local sales organization, that it is of interest for Aftonbladet to invest.

At the same time, we do not only see a traditional advertisement deal. We are hoping for a large part of the revenues to be converting deals where we send valuable traffic to other local companies and services. Here, we already work with Schibsted’s Growth Unit that is offering the users smart digital services. Through Aftonbladet the readers can receive relevant content together with local offers. So far, we have integrated Klart.se and Let’s deal. Next in line are Blocket job, Yepster and Mötesplatsen. If we can create a good content and a good user experience we believe that the chances – and we learn a lot during the journey.

Thanks’ to new tech, it has never before been so easy as now for a national paper to expand its local journalistic coverage. There has never been such strong demand from the market. And maybe it has never been this important to get closer to one’s readers. Knowing this, Aftonbladet is going in for local, starting in Malmö.

It was simply too important to not dare testing. Again.

Lotta Folcker
Managing Editor, Aftonbladet Labs
Years in Schibsted
My dream job as a child
Punk rocker and farmer