....the unlikely bedfellows you get when online traffic is the new mammon, and national media organisations want to be your new (hyper)local news provider.
Ideology no obstacle
This brave new media world of ours creates the strangest bedfellows, a recent example being the sales negotiations between Mecom's Norwegian arm, Edda Media, and Dagsavisen. The very fact that this left-leaning newspaper with strong ties to the Labour Union – whose editorial writers have labelled Mecom-boss David Montgomery a predatory capitalist – was even considering a takeover approach from Mecom raised many eyebrows.
Trying to find the similarities between David Montgomery and George Soros
But Dagavisen was in need of a rich benefactor, and seemed more than willing to consider that Montgomey might be their knight in shining armour, their George Soros if you like, while Edda Media, made up of local and regional papers, is in need of a national online traffic engine, and don't seem to have been able to get anywhere with Dagbladet, a more obvious candidate for that role (Dagsavisen is a bit like The Independent if you imagine it as a regional newspaper catering for Greater London, in which case we might, to be generous, call it 'a regional newspaper with national penetration').
Big is beneficial, small is sad
Now, in the end these negotiations were abandoned, but Carsten Bleness, Dagsavisen's editor-in-chief, put it all into context in this thought provoking op-ed (in Norwegian), where he said he thought the real cause for concern in today's media landscape was not Mecom, but the fact that so few see growth opportunities for independent newspapers, adding: "I'm not so sure Mecom and Edda Media constitute the biggest threat to media diversity [in this country]. While the debate rages about Montgomery's entry on the Norwegian area, Schibsted continues to strengthen its very dominant position."
The backdrop is this merger Schibsted is trying to forge between its broadsheet-turned-tabloid-format, Aftenposten, and three of Norway's biggest regional papers. It would create great synergies online in terms of traffic and content sharing, and many fear it will give Schibsted a stranglehold on the nation's advertisement markets by offering advertisers the best national and regional exposure (the merger is still awaiting regulatory approval). It would also exacerbate Schibsted's dominant position as an online news provider: the company already owns Norway's most-, fourth most- and ninth most visited websites (VG, Finn, Aftenposten), which is why the country's prime minister has proposed a law to limit media ownership online.
When online traffic is God
Now, you may fault me for focusing so much on ownership when writing about online journalism, but let's face it: the ownership structure and advertisement revenues make up the framework that enables news organisations to invest in journalism and innovation.
And traffic, it seems, is the key for successful online ventures – you may think smart advertisers would jump at the opportunities the web offers to target niche audiences, but there's not a lot of evidence of that happening in this county yet (part of the explanation is probably that a narrow niche in the UK or US may still make up 200,000+ readers, in a small country like Norway, with its 4,6m inhabitants, that niche may be more akin to 200 or 2000 readers).
What happens when everyone wants a piece of the local market?
In the current environment, you get challenging scenarios such as the one an editor of a small independent local newspaper described to me for this article: "When many national newspapers now are working hard to make regional editions of their news sites, small independent newspapers will have to fight harder for advertisement revenue. In most local districts it's not the local newspaper who has most online readers, but VG or Dagbladet [the country's two biggest tabloids]. This also means that small newspapers will face a major challenge in trying to convert their newsrooms to multimedia [to compete with nationals players]"
Trying to challenge strength of national players like Vg.no has also created other unlikely bedfellows, such as A-pressen and TV2 (admittedly the Labour Union owns about half of each news organisation, but the ideologies of the two - the former a left-leaning local and regional newspaper group, the latter the country's first commercial TV channel, are quite at odds). In either case, their new 'partnership', mostly centred around sharing local, regional and national content and the 'hyperlocal' search engine, derdubor.no (whereyoulive), which promises advertisers the ability to target ads down to specific postcodes, seems like yet another effort to get a piece of the 'lucrative' local markets.
David vs. Goliath
The obvious parallel here is BBC's much debated plans to roll out a range of 'hyperlocal sites': it's great for news organisations to be able to give added value to their readers/viewers/listeners by offering hyperlocal content, but, simply put, small independent titles fear they're being put at disadvantage when competing with big guys with deep pockets.
For many of the small news organisations it seems like a classic David vs Goliath scenario, and their fears are exacerbated by what I guess you could call 'uneven distribution of multimedia skills': it's easier both to attract journalists with multimedia skills, and to provide training in multimedia, if you're a big, well-to-do newspaper, or part of a well-heeled chain of newspapers.
Room for small independent start-ups to make more than a dime?
Now, of course, I'm not saying that independent online start-ups have no chance, one would think that they do with today's technology, but there's no sign of someone using this to its full advantage in Norway as of yet. You may also feel that these fears I describe here are overstated, or that these desperate marriages are ill-founded: I'm just trying to describe the current fears and hopes, but I'd love to hear you perspectives on this in the comment section....