VG, Norway's biggest tabloid, has found the 'magic' recipe for online success, wrote Editors Weblog this week, following two very favourable articles in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune on Schibsted, its publisher. Neither of those articles explained what exactly this recipe consists of, however, apart from the fact that Schibsted recognised the need to adapt to the digital revolution earlier than many other media companies.
In fact, Norway is in a unique position in that both its top tabloids, VG and Dagbladet, make very handsome profits online, and Dagbladet online has more readers than its paper version has buyers. How come?
First of all, blogging. No, VG and Dagbladet haven't invented the magic formula for blogging journalists or editors. When I looked at the blogs written by VG's own staff for an Op-Ed recently, I found that even though VG has found a good blogging tone, they had measly 2 – 31 inbound links for the last 180 days, so could hardly be said to be part of any bigger conversation. Neither were the blogs registered to be recognised as blogs by Technorati.
But maybe that is beside the point, because where both VG and Dagbladet have succeeded on the blogging front, in true Norwegian egilitarian fashion, is to empower their readers to blog. Both have blogging platforms as integral parts of their newspapers sites where readers are encouraged to set up blogs. These blogging 'communities' are further encouraged by competitions to write 'blog post(s)' of the week with prizes such as mobile phones etc.
The readers' blogs, together with social networks, dating services, diet clubs etc, all contribute to the online papers' impressive number of unique visitors. So when we talk about these numbers, we should talk about users or visitors rather than readers. I'm not aware of any figures that tell us how many of Dagbladet and VG's 1,8 - 2 million unique weekly users go to the respective sites to write on their own blogs, read someone elses, publish a picture of their boobs, chat up a suitable young chick, check how they're doing with their diet – and how many actually read the news (update: see figures at the bottom of the post).
I don't mean to detract from the online successes of these two tabloids, just to say that they do things differently, and this is key to their success. As the article in International Herald Tribune pointed out:
"Schibsted has managed to avoid one of the biggest problems plaguing print publications elsewhere: Because many visitors to newspaper Web sites arrive there simply by following links from search engines, they depart as quickly as they arrive. So advertisers choose instead to spend their money with Google, where consumer eyeballs linger."
Both these Norwegian tabloids have found a way to make those 'eyeballs linger', and they have done so by making a number of different reader-driven communities part and parcel of their news sites. The thinking behind this was neatly summarized in a talk by Espen Hansen, VG Multimedia's managing editor, last year (do check out the full transcript from Julian Matthews, but note that it is close to a year old so numbers may not be up-to-date):
In VG we don’t think about it as “Internet vs paper.” This is not the big difference. We think about it as going from “telling the readers” to “creating arenas where people can come with their content, communities”. We think from “deciding what they should read” to “making content available when it is convenient for them.” From “delivering our content”, to “creating content with the readers.” Everyone seems to understand this except us (newspapers). Search engines, aggregators and communities are the biggest websites. Where are the newspapers? No English newspapers are on the Top 10 worldwide. In Norway, No 1 and No 2 are newspapers. VG is the largest Norwegian newspaper, the largest website and largest mobile site.
Update 27/2 (NB: all links in this section are in Norwegian): According to a survey from TNS Gallup for 2006, 1,1 million Norwegians (28,4%) read their news on VG online daily, 809,000 (20,6%) get their daily news from Dagbladet online (the sample was 29,917, above 12 years-old). Looking at unique users, VG online (the whole site) could track 900,000 on 12/2/2007, Dagbladet online 635,000. Another poll by Questback, from September 2006, found that 76% of Dagbladet's online users read the news there daily.
If we try to look at daily unique visitors (UV) to the news sections, the numbers are not directly comparable because VG online divides this into home affairs and foreign news, while Dagbladet doesn't, but Dagbladet news online claims to have on average 200,000 UV daily, while VG online had 323,571 (weekdays+Saturdays+Sundays/7) to its home affairs news section in the last four weeks. Traffic figures to the blog sections of these sites were not available, but for social network sites Blink (Dagbladet) and Nettby (VG), the numbers are roughly 46,000 UV daily to Blink, 10,000 UV daily to Nettby. And we could go on and on, but the conclusion seems to be that readership figures for both these tabloids are very good, while perhaps the different (user-driven) sub sites contribute to people spending more time on the sites, and may even create a stronger sense of community.