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How to transition from legacy media culture to the digital world

The short answer? Be agile and well-managed. Here’s how.

Of course, I don’t have all the answers. Not by far. But this month’s report by Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism on the efforts and failings of newspapers to grow their digital businesses had me thinking about some insights I’ve had while working for Schibsted-owned

"It’s not a revenue problem, it’s a culture problem," Matthew Ingram and others concluded from reading the Pew report. Incidentally, cultural inertia – and the explanations for its presence or absence – has always fascinated me (see e.g. previous posts here, here, here and here).

So it was with great fascination I went from writing about Verdens Gang (VG), a media company much acclaimed for its innovative approach and profitable digital operations, as a media journalist,  to writing for it about a year and a half ago.

It is, as Frédéric Filloux argued last week, easy to lecture on how to solve the cultural challenges of legacy media from afar (though it could just as well be argued that you easily can become so entrenched in this legacy culture you struggle to see it from the outside).

And while it is true that I’ve co-founded and been the driving force behind building up Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) and a few other start-ups and projects,  I’m not going to claim any major management experience –especially not when it comes to legacy media (where I have zero).

However, I’m a keen observer, have a special interest in organisational culture and have worked for a wide range of different media companies over the last decade+

What’s especially struck me about is how the company combines a well-run, professional organisation with a structure that allows it to mimic some of the key features of small, nimbler start-ups.

A few key characteristics:

  • Short way from idea to execution
  • Programmers in the newsroom
    This is one reason why that way from idea to execution can be short. Also, the company has few walls between IT and the newsroom. In particular, has a designer and a journalist-programmer who are 100% dedicated to news related innovation, they’re not just on loan when IT doesn’t need them, and they each have that 20 per cent innovation time Google is famous for baked into their job descriptions.
  • Helping readers help each other
    One of the best examples of the value of having programmers in the newsroom was during the ash cloud crisis, when someone had the genius idea for the Hitchhiker’s Central  - and it only took 6-7 hours to program and get up and running. The site certainly saved my day, and that of contributing editor Colin Meek, as I explained in a blog post at the time. I’m particularly fond of this notion of VG using its position as Norway’s most read news site to design solutions to help readers help each other (there are numerous other examples) as a form of service journalism (as described in this column).
  • Speed
    Some of the most successful of the company’s editorial innovations are made on the basis of the idea that you have to move fast, it doesn’t have to be perfect – just get it out there, then improve as you go along.
  • A Goolesque-attitude to trying out new things
  • Kill things before they die a slow and painful death
    It goes with the territory: Trying sometimes means failing, and even a massive success can have a limited time span and may need to be abandoned before it becomes a liability. Social network Nettby is a good example. At one stage it was by far the biggest social network in Norway, and it was profitable (as I described in this post for, but it was eventually eclipsed by Facebook – and killed off towards the end of 2010.
  • A willingness to cannibalise your own products.
    Okay, I read this, in a very interesting American report on Schibsted which is quite old by now, but it rings true and is still worth reading. How will this be affected when VG now is merging its print and online operations? I don’t know, but there’s lots of food for thought in that report.  
  • Good management,  good routines (on everything from press ethics to payment) and  clear leadership.

The last bullet point is especially important.

If you’re a two-three person start-up it’s easy to play by ear, be flexible etc – too much structure might even get in the way. But on the road to success most start-ups reach a stage where they need to get those routines in place in order to operate efficiently. In some respects, it’s the price of success.

And in a big organisation good routines make all the difference – in a creative one, it frees you up to be creative.

I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, but I’ve seen it in so many (media) companies:

A well-run organisation facilitates a good, consistently creative and innovative work environment in ways a badly run one, or one where management is absent or erratic, simply cannot match. The contribution of good PAs, accountants, administrators are highly undervalued, and clear leadership makes a huge difference,

I think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is relevant here as well: just as it’s easier for an individual who’s very existence is not constantly under threat, who’s got all his or her basic needs covered, to be creative and innovative, it’s easier to be so if you don’t constantly worry about getting paid on time, what to expect of the management next or whether or not you have a job tomorrow.

At a news:rewired-event in January 2009 professor and head of journalism at City University, George Brock, said that his title shouldn’t be professor of journalism, but professor of chaos history.

Most journalists have become very adapt at living with daily (news and production) chaos, but dealing with it creatively becomes easier when you don’t have to deal with it at management level too. I’ve previously put together some musings on how this affects innovation here.

Now, in the above, I’ve mostly described my impressions of how deals with editorial innovation. I have no direct experiences of how this works on the commercial side of the business, but my impression is that the culture is much the same in that department too.

The big question is how this culture will fare when the company’s print and digital operations now are merged.  I don’t know enough  of that process to answer, but given all of the above I think it has decent chances of surviving intact.

I may of course be a bit biased here, and none of those things I describe take away the very real management challenges that Filloux describe in his post on newspaper culture.

But I do think that what I describe show that there are ways, even for a very old newspaper such as VG, to break away from the legacy culture - although I have no illusions about it being easy.  Also, there are bound to be other newspaper organisations combining some or most of the above, VG just happens to be a company I’ve been privileged to gain more insight into.

Update 30.03.2012:'s Lucas Weldeghebriel explained more in detail how the news site has created an organisational structure to facilitate editorial innovation at a recent NONA-meeting. Read the headlines from his talk here (in Norwegian).

Seriously, I need a job

The bad thing about changing deeply set habits and patterns of reactions? It may make you realise how unsustainable your lifestyle  has been.

In 2011, I chose one of the hardest new year resolutions ever – to change deeply set  patterns of behaviour and reactions – and for the most part I succeeded.

I can’t begin to tell you what a monumentous achievement that was, and how hard it was to get there.

The only problem is, it made me realise how totally unsustainable my life has been for the last 18 years or so.

See, in all those years I never had a permanent job.

I’ve either been working as a freelancer, temp or been on short term contracts.

In the UK, at the start of my career, I somehow made it work, even though I was temping in London inner city school and taking shifts in the local pub to make ends meet.

But in Norway the tax burden is just too crazy. If I was to pay both tax and all the insurances to come close to equalling the benefits a salaried worker takes for granted , I’d be left with 40 per cent of my earnings. That’s 60% tax and insurance on a modest salary – which is insane.  But just as bad is how you end up working around the clock all the time and feeling guilty whenever you take even just a day off.

The short an easy answer to why I’ve put up with this for so long is that I love my work.

I love my work to the extent that I often used to forget about such things as sleeping or eating, keeping regular business hour and not working around the clock. Sometimes I’ve even forgotten to agree any kind of payment terms before I’ve taken on an assignment – not the best starting point for a freelancer.

The more complex answer, one I’m more reluctant to admit publicly and only recently realised was an important factor, is that I’ve become much too good at living in a state of constant emergency and war, which brings me back to how I’ve changed those deeply set habits and patterns of reaction.

If I’m totally honest with myself, until a year or two back, my life has pretty much been a constant state of emergency since I was told that my life might be over after a serious hit-and-run accident at 17.

Those were of course not the doctors’ exact words, but they told me I might have sustained very serious injuries which, had their worst case scenarios played out, my life as I had envisioned it would indeed have been over. 

As it was, I refused to accept those worst case scenarios, and set about proving to myself and the world around me that the doctors were wrong – bending, breaking or overstepping most real and perceived limitations in the process.

As most people around me feared the doctors were right it felt like I was caught in this giant, existential battle: It was me against the world, and in the process I became a master of abusing myself for the greater purpose.

«You have a mind that decides where it wants to go, and then you have this immense willpower which pushes your body where your mind wants to go no matter the consequences,» a wise woman told me when I was 20.

Doesn’t sound like the most sustainable kind of lifestyle, does it?

Well, I burned out at 20 – and got to know myself and my limitations a whole lot better in the process.

Keeping those painful lessons in mind, in my new incarnation I became a master of balancing at the edge – at least looking after myself well enough to never burn out like that again.

And over the years I accomplished a lot with that strategy.

Much too much to mention here, although it was never enough  to defeat the irrational fear that whenever I didn’t live up to my own superhuman expectations, such as working 24/7 seven days a week, it was because the doctors were right (even though they said they would know within three years of the accident if their worst predictions were warranted, and I’ve taken every measure to disprove it myself).

But for roughly the last year and a half I’ve had a really good and steady client who’s provided me with a more stable income than I’ve ever had (and great work for top-notch, super professional editors).

That has also rewarded me with the peace and room to contemplate my life so far, even though – weirdly enough - getting off that path of constant worrying and getting used to regular pay was hard at first and took some getting used to.

Of all things, this process reminds me of something Dr John Marks told me when I was doing a piece on the so-called «Liverpool project», which involved prescribing heroin to drug addicts.

He talked about how addicts, when no longer governed by the constant worry of where to get their next fix, finally had time to look themselves in the mirror and reflect over what they had done with their lives.

Now, I don’t want to get into the debate about prescribing heroin or providing drugs substitution therapy here, it’s a complex one, but, for me, regular pay has been like Dr Mark’s described.

It was a bit like, without the constant worry about finding enough work to pay my bills hanging over me, I finally had time to look in the mirror and see how totally unsustainable my life was.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I’ve realised that my lifestyle was unsustainable for many years, but regular pay gave me room to do something about it – to put what I’ve dubbed “project sustainable living” into practice:

I’ve worked really hard to give myself semi-regular business hours, get enough sleep, eat regularly, take regular breaks, exercise regularly, schedule time for down time and spare time, and all the other things normal people do.

I’ve put in pretty substantial effort to take unnecessary stress out of my daily schedule, get out of the constant flight or fright mode and, in short: take better care of myself.

To other people who take such things for granted, this might seem insane or just weird, but for me not constantly putting work before everything else has been a damn hard, and steep, learning curve.

If you’re used to living in a constant state of emergency, normality doesn’t come easy, nor, regardless of how you live your life, does changing deeply set patterns of reactions.

But it is very rewarding, not at least because taking better care of myself has made me a lot more effective. This year I’ve even been able to ease my reliance on stress crutches such as caffeine, even go without for days and weeks.

The downside is I feel I just can’t go on with my freelancing ways, not for even a day more.

Of course, I still do some work on and off for clients as I do have bills to pay.

I still love my work, that hasn’t changed in any way.

But I really struggle to find the energy for pitching as it feels like I’m just perpetuating the lifestyle I know I need to leave behind by doing so.

In short, I need that permanent job - preferably tomorrow.

Oh, and my LinkedIn profile is here (and until that permanent job comes along, I still take on freelance work).

For the record, I am of course applying and interviewing for jobs as well, loads of them, but I have great faith in the internet's ability to connect me with opportunities and people I might not otherwise have come across.

The Icelandic soap opera continues

 In December 2008, angry protesters branded both Geir Haarde, Iceland’s then prime minister, and David  Oddsson, then head of the country’s central bank, as «Iceland’s bin Laden» - blaming them in equal parts for the country’s complete financial meltdown (see my photos below).

Now, the former could face criminal charges for the global financial meltdown, while the latter is one of two joint editors of Iceland’s newspaper of record, Morgunbladid.

How surreal is that?

According to The Daily Mail earlier this week:

Pall Hreinsson, the supreme court judge appointed to head the Special Investigation Commission that issued a government-commissioned report detailing the litany of mistakes made in the lead-up to the bank meltdown, singled out seven former officials including Mr Haarde and central bank chief David Oddsson for particular criticism.

No other officials besides Mr Haarde were referred for prosecution to the court.

Now, I was just going to dip into this story briefly.

I was fascinated by how things had turned out when I read the news about Haarde this week since I covered the Icelandic freesheet market extensively from 2006 – 2009/10 (media cross ownership being a particularly colourful story in the country, closely linked to the financial meltdown), and reported extensively from the dire situation in Icelandic media following the financial meltdown.  

But the twists and turns of this story are just too incredible.





I noticed that Olafur Stephensen, who was editor of Morgunbladid, considered to be the newspaper closest the conservative Independence party which Haarde and Oddsson both represent, had now become editor of Frettabladid. That is, Frettabladid the legendary freesheet so closely linked to Baugur. Just how close those links once were becomes obvious for all when reading this story on why Frettabladid’s former editor, Jon Kaldal, was fired.

For the record, I should say that I conducted long interviews with both Kaldal, then editor of Frettabladid, and Stephensen, then editor of Morgunbladid, when I was in Reykjavik working on my story on the crisis in Icelandic media in December 2008.

Both cast an interesting light on the many events leading up to the crisis.

At the time, Stephensen had not received his monthly salary and could only pray someone would rescue Morgunbladid so his salary would be paid before Christmas. 

But it is perhaps no wonder that the country’s newspaper economy, with its close links to major companies and banks, was struggling at the time seeing that the entire country was on the verge of financial collapse. 

(Media cross interests and cross ownership on Iceland was so extensive at the time that it still makes my head spin, but an Icelandic tabloid editor I spoke to explained it in clear terms thus: ” You know, the sugar daddy behind DV and Fréttablaðið was Baugur, but the sugar daddy behind Morgunbladid was Björgólfur Guðmundsson? … Now everyone is on his or her own because our sugar daddies are dead” )

According to Gylfi Magnússon, a University of Iceland economist who gave witness to the Landsdómur trial of former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde on Friday, the Central Bank of Iceland effectively went bankrupt in October 2008 when its board decided to loan Kaupþing Bank EUR 500 million in an effort to save the latter.

He explained that although the Central Bank said at the time that the loan represented only a fifth of its foreign capital reserves, in reality most of that money was not readily accessible.

Gylfi was drafted in to the minority government from February 2009, after Geir Haarde resigned, as an un-elected expert commerce and trade minister (Icenews has more on this latter story)

Okay, I’ll stop there. I could easily see myself moving temporarily to Reykjavik to write a book on all this, but I expect those books already have or are being written.

Schibsted looks to Apple for new payment solution

If paying would be as easy as across various devices as with iTunes, would readers feel more inclined to pay for editorial content and classifieds?

Apple has introduced a new standard for paying for content, which makes most other payment solutions look unnecessarily complicated in comparison.

The media’s dream of making a fortune on the back of that, on devices such as iPhone and iPad, has not turned out to quite as quick and easy to implement as many hoped, but what if media could emulate Apple’s pay-with-a-click revolution with their own similar solutions?

These days Schibsted, according to, is rolling out an Apple-inspired payment solution, named SPiD, for all its many digital platforms. SPiD will be set up to remember you if, say you first log in on Schibsted’s Norwegian tabloid VG to read something and then go to Schibsted’s classifieds site to advertise something for sale.

In January, Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet became the first Schibsted-paper to start using the service, VG is to start using it this month and the company’s other media houses and classified sites are due to follow.

- The idea is that it will work as simply as iTunes with a «click here» to pay, Sverre  Munck, Schibsted’s executive vice president of strategy and international editorial, told Kampanje.

That sounds good to me.

Apple’s «pay-with-a-click» has certainly made me buy quite a bit of stuff, mostly eBooks via Kindle, I might not have otherwise bought. It’s now much easier to buy a book than a chocolate on a whim, not entirely a good thing for a booklover such as myself (or at least not for my budget).

But the price and content for sale must be right. Schibsted has had success with the paid-for section of, Aftonbladet Pluss though, and I think its pricing strategy for e.g. the tablet edition of VG has been pretty spot on too. They’ve kept the price low (about £5 a month) and not been tempted to bundle it with print as several other Norwegian media companies have.

Maybe it’s a different picture for families, but I can’t see the point of subscribing to both the iPad and print editions, as I only read the latter properly during weekends. But then again, I might also be biased (for the record: Schibsted-owned VG has been my main client for the last year and a half).