Egyptian blogger sentenced to four years prison
Swedish newspapers in slow decline

The online magic of Norway's tabloids deciphered

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.


I don't mean to detract from the online successes of these two tabloids by writing this, just to say that they do things differently, and this is key to their success.

Alright, I'll detract from the success. It's one thing to use a number of different sorts of means to market. It's another thing when those "means" start defining your content in ways you can't control.

I think one has to distinguish between serious and non-serious users. I've been attacked for being elitist for this notion, and I'm fine with that attack, because the notion explains a lot of what goes on in life. If you want people that aren't serious about anything to use your site, well, there will always be the potential for a sizable audience. And that audience will gladly stick around until the next fad comes.

Whether or not we should think of this sort of trend as the future of media is another question. I submit that it shouldn't even be considered worthy of thought, that's how vulgar the phenomenon is. You can sell stuff to them, sure. But if a market for serious news stems from them, or if they suddenly want to critique Dag Hammerskjold's work in the UN or his Haiku, such things aren't essential to their being there, but rather accidental.

I dunno. Your post, for me, seems to be hinting that the destruction of traditional media, as problematic as it was, is the destruction of all media, esp. if all user generated content is considered equal, and only important inasmuch as marketing can be done with it.

Your invitation to play LOST:

I hear you. See, that's what you occasionally get when you have a journalist blogging: the odd knee-jerk ass-covering statements like these:-) Suffice to say that I've seen more honest approaches to utilising user generated content.

I do think that there are models where relying more on user generated content can work pretty well, but MSM is testing and trying, failing and succeeding in a thousand different ways in this area at the moment, which is partly what makes these such fascinating times. Media companies are all desperately seeking the magic formula for succeeding in this brave new media world of ours, the model outlined above is but one of many competing models. This model might serve its purpose for a tabloid, but it's hardly transferable to what we used to call broadsheets, and I doubt that these tabloid online blogging communities are sustainable in the long run – as people get more advanced in blogging I suspect that many leave to set up blogs on independent blogging platforms like wordpress, typepad etc.

Remember what Jeff Jarvis was saying about the Guardian, and Comment Is Free?

I think that's a model that can work: there are some really educated, thoughtful people out there who make a lot of op-ed columnists look really bad. And the capacity for doing original research just using the Internet is enormous.

But I think those communities are forming organically, and one thing a really smart media company might want to do is seek them out, and induce them to work full-time for pay.

That brings up a more general question I wanted to ask you: It seems to me the concept of an employer actively looking for talent, scouting and recruiting as opposed to taking what comes in applications, is gone nowadays. Is it really gone, and if it is, what can I do to bring it back?

Yes, Comment is Free is excellent, and also suceeds in 'widening the debate' by bringing more voices into it. With the Internet and the blogosphere, media no longer monopolise the national debate, and have to find ways to join the big discussions going on elsewhere. How do they do this? Here's where all the different models come in, and you have to give them credit for trying - even if that means that they occasionally will be fail, as long as they keep trying, adjusting, and trying again. It's not an easy new reality to adjust to.

To your last question, about employers scouting for talent, I'm afraid my answer is as good as yours. I don't think that applications is the only route though, it's who you know, being at the right place at the right time etc. But it wouldn't hurt to send an email to publications you would like to write for alerting them to your work...

The comments to this entry are closed.