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Mecom, Schibsted and Giske debate the role of media ownership in a changing media landscape

Put Trond Giske, Norway's culture minister, on a panel with two media companies he has accused of threatening local democracy - Mecom, represented by David Montgomery, and Schibsted, represented by Birger Magnus - and you get a very interesting discussion indeed (so interesting that this post is way longer than what I usually allow myself to publish here).

It was Thursday evening when Montgomery ventured into the lion's den, as Kampanje so aptly described it, to attend a debate for The Editors' Association in Oslo on what media owners want to achieve with their ownership; what editors, the public and the authorities can expect of media owners etc. He was joined on the speaker's panel by Trond Giske, who frequently has stated his preference for Norwegian media owners, as well as apprehension about what Mecom's regime will mean for former Orkla Media, and Birger Magnus from Schibsted, whose efforts to merge its national daily Aftenposten with Norway's top regional papers also has prompted Giske to voice great concern about media diversity and local democracy.

The last person on the panel of speakers was Erik Nord from A-pressen, but he didn't have much to say apart from how he thought his company was doing a good job. In any case, it was a wildly gesticulating Giske, sprawled on his chair, and a much more restrained and proper, yet eloquent, Montgomery, who came to dominate the debate under the chandeliers in Hotel Bristol's old and distinguished meeting room.

Giske admits his law on editorial freedom won't change anything

Regular readers of this blog will remember how Giske's recent proposal to establish the rights and duties of the editor by law to protect editors from meddling proprietors has been widely criticised for not accomplishing much. This Thursday evening Giske candidly admitted that his critics were right:

"Some people say incorporating this in the law won't change anything and they're right, but it's important to put this law in place at a time when it [the rights and duties of the editor] is widely accepted and practiced. I'm not concerned so much about [future] political pressures, but more worried about the economical pressures."

Of course, when Giske unveiled this law proposal, he cited a dramatic change in the nature of the country's media ownership as one of the triggers for introducing it, a 'dramatic change' it was difficult not to interpret as Mecom's controversial acquisition of Orkla Media.

To this, Montgomery replied: "I think it would be a very sad day if a government has to legislate on editorial freedom, this should be maintained by the industry itself and not have to be superimposed by a government."

Giske to Monty: actions speak louder than words

That is, of course, a somewhat 'foreign' way to think in a country with such as great tradition for legislating all things great and small as Norway. Giske has previously hinted at how the Government may introduce new media laws and e.g. withdraw the state subsidies Mecom newspapers receive, if Montgomery were to default on his 'civic responsibilities', and, true to form, Giske restated some of his fears and 'expectations':

'We have never had so many big dramatic changes in the Norwegian media landscape in such a short space of time as we had last year. This creates a certain amount of uncertainty: how will the new owners conduct their business? Montgomery is saying many nice things, but we will have to wait and see – actions speak louder than words. The Government sees media as more than just business, that's why we have special VAT rules, state subsidies etc. That's also why we expect a lot from the industry.'

"Ownership is interesting word in itself," said Montgomery, subtly shifting the focus of the discussion in that ever so British way which frequently will have Norwegians talk of Brits as full of balderdash. He went on: 'We can only describe ourselves as custodians for our shareholders... but the real newspaper owners are the local communities. Ownership has moved on in history, we have to demonstrate leadership in these difficult times for newspapers. Newspapers won't survive and thrive if they don't change. Owners have to lead through that process.

'These are the most exciting times for editors, journalists and people working in the media ever. Today the individual journalist can communicate directly with the audience by many more channels than before. To think of ourselves only as a newspaper business is not sufficient. We think of ourselves as a content company with a 24/7 news operation and 24/7 communication with the audience. Editors have much more challenging and stimulating jobs than ever before. Our philosophy is local management and local editors. Only they can serve local communities.'

Schibsted: worries about foreign ownership are understandable, but why this fuss over how many per cent we own in Media Norway?

Schibsted's efforts to forge a merger that will dwarf just about any player in the Norwegian newspaper market have been the cause of much debate recently, and Giske has expressed his usual worries about diversity and local democracy. Predictably, Birger Magnus thought we should be much more worried about foreign owners, such as Montgomery, than about the dominant market position this merger will put Schibsted in if it is not blocked:

"I understand the worries when we have a new owner that's not from Norway and don't know our traditions, but I have more difficulties understanding this whole debate around Schibsted's stake in Media Norway being 30, 40 or 50 per cent."

An interesting insight into how Schibsted views the media debate. Even more interesting in light of how the company's CEO, Kjell Aamot, expressed his frustration with Norwegian media coverage on Friday: "One of the most frustrating things for me is to get all this praise when I meet media investors abroad, but only lots of critique at home. In that respect it's good to be abroad for a few days."

Schibsted: Google is the big bad guy. Syndication means you have to reduce staff in a clever way

So a foreign owner is a threat to Norwegian media for Schibsted, who has a massive presence in a number of foreign markets such as Spain, France etc. (But then, Norwegians have always been self-proclaimed world champions, in media ownership as in so many other things). Google is another one: 'Google is a very serious challenge to media' said Magnus. 'Strong Norwegian newspaper - who are actually producing, not just copying news – is the best guarantee against this'.

At this point, the eminent chair of the debate, Eva Bratholm, asked Magnus if not Media Norway would mean much greater reliance on syndication, and if that wouldn't mean reduced staffing and a situation where you had one journalist only to cover each subject across many titles. "You have to do that, but you have to do it in a clever way," said Magnus.

Giske said he was concerned about diversity, and the impact of syndication on staffing level.

"As an industry we should stick up for ourselves more as content providers. Diversity grows with the launch of new titles," said Montgomery and cited newswires as an example of how syndication had been with us for a long time. He added: 'but we have to have distinctive newspapers on a local level as life is local.'

Montgomery was then challenged on Mecom's business model: 'Yes, we are a business, we have to give returns to our shareholders, which we should remember are pension funds who handle our pensions, yours and mine, but papers don't succeed without creativity as core. This is more true now than ever before. In the days of licensed monopolies newspapers were a license to print money, that's not so anymore.'

Giske said he is giving Montgomery the benefit of the doubt, that must be why he expresses so many doubts whenever he talks about Montgomery and Mecom.

Montgomery has faith in the future of newspapers

As a final point, the members of the panel was asked about their concerns for the future:

Giske said: " We have more change of ownership than any time before, coinciding with a huge technological change. I am worried that we get more entertainment and less infotainment." Magnus said his main concern was the ability to build newspaper houses able to deal with the future, and, in an obvious sidekick to Nord, he said he was worried about how there was no other country where one company held such a dominant position in the cable market as Telenor, the partly privatised former state monopolist who holds a majority stake in A-pressen. Nord's perspective on future challenges: ' we want to develop our current position further.'

"If you had seen what I saw today visiting the management of Edda Media, and recently while visiting Berlingske Officin, you would not be worried about the future. There's tremendous enthusiasm about doing what media companies do best: creativity," said Montgomery to smirks and suppressed laughter in the audience, where many thought, with all the negative press he has received in Scandinavia, and the worries of the journalist unions, this had to be obvious spin (if only the Brits wouldn't use so many superlatives, so many words, and remember esteemed Norwegian proverbs such as "Silence is gold", they might gain trust more easily here). Still, Montgomery, as the biggest optimist on the panel, went on:

"Don't be despondent about our industry, it's got the skills required: if it sticks to the core skills of creativity it will have great future, but it will demand hard work."

Then for a traditional Norwegian dinner...

After the debate, Montgomery was escorted to a very civilised, traditional Norwegian cod dinner in Bristol's legendary Bristol Grill (he should be happy that the debate was in Oslo, and not in Bergen, where 'traditional' Norwegian dinner could have meant Lutefisk or Sheep's brain): an Englishman in Scandinavia, quite at home in the formal setting of Hotel Bristol, but not quite with his informal, yet terse, fellow panellists...

(yes, I know he's Irish, but still, ever so British).


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