Aftenposten shares benefits, pitfalls of bridging commercial + editorial

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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Over the past five years, Aftenposten has undergone a major transformation in its editorial approach, with journalists working hand-in-hand with product and sales for a new type of storytelling.

Friday morning at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York, Aftenposten Managing News Editor Tone Tveøy Strøm-Gundersen and Brand Manager Marius Thorkildsen led the audience through what this change process has looked like, including the successes and challenges.

Strøm-Gundersen said that each morning the entire team, across all departments, gathers to review the previous day’s news coverage to look at what worked and what didn’t. All input from every role and department is welcomed, whether that’s from the editorial side or the commercial side.

“This has not always been the case,” she said. Five years ago, these departments operated very separately.

“Commercial people used to be hesitant to give feedback,” Strøm-Gundersen said. “But collaboration is absolutely necessary. Great journalism needs attention in order to break through in the chaos of information.”

Thorkildsen said, “When I started five years ago, I was told I could go to editorial meetings, but for the first three months to keep my mouth shut.” But now, it’s not unusual for people from the commercial side to give input to the editorial. “I think it’s starting to feel quite natural, even for the hardcore journalists.”

At Aftenposten, the editorial and commercial sides work closely together in everything.
At Aftenposten, the editorial and commercial sides work closely together in everything.

Where did the tension between editorial and business sides come from?

“In the ’90s, when we started moving into digital, we optimised for page views,” Thorkildsen said. This meant that the goals of business and editorial were at odds. “At some point, it became a disconnect of what journalism used to be and the business side.”

Measuring success through reach is even more challenging in a country like Norway, which has a population of only 5 million people. “Page views are limited,” Thorkildsen said. “Just surviving from that alone would be challenging.”

Another challenge was the audience that the editorial team was writing for. “When the digital shift began, our staff consisted of reporters who were used to writing for print subscribers,” Strøm-Gundersen said. “This meant there had never been a culture at Aftenposten of selling stories. This has changed.”

For the analogue newspaper, success criteria consisted of:

  • Circulation.
  • Keeping subscribers.
  • Increasing the subscription base.

They did this through in-depth coverage, unique stories, and covering the most important news of the day.

For the digital side, success was measured by:

  • Page views.
  • Traffic.

This meant that the focus was geared toward clicks, with universally appealing content, sensationalistic headlines, and clickbait stories.

“Because of this, we had two different newspapers with two different goals,” Strøm-Gundersen said.

In 2010, Aftenposten planned to build its future business model on digital advertising. Revenue wasn’t very big, but the prognosis looked good. This had changed by 2013 after print subscriptions and advertising declined. Their competitors were experiencing the same problems.

“We needed a long-term plan,” Strøm-Gundersen said, “and the answer was going back to the roots of Aftenposten.”

The digital subscription model

That new plan was a business based on digital subscriptions.

“We had launched paywall in 2012, but hadn’t gone all in,” Thorkildsen said. “In 2014, we decided it was time to do it right.”

Norway is a heavy news-reading nation. Most people subscribe to at least one newspaper, and 83% of Norwegians read news every day.

“We knew that we had to move,” Thorkildsen said. “Today, we’re at a point that we could only dream of when we launched it. We’ve seen the willingness to pay for online news in Norway increase from 7% to 17%.”

Today, Aftenposten’s business model has changed completely. The amount of revenue from advertising has declined, while revenue from subscriptions is up almost 80%. Within the company, the wall between editorial and commercial had to come down. “The way we value success at Aftenposten has also completely changed.”

Tone Tveøy Strøm-Gundersen of Aftenposten said the way the company defines success has completely changed.
Tone Tveøy Strøm-Gundersen of Aftenposten said the way the company defines success has completely changed.

This new shift required significant cultural change within the organisation. “Joining forces requires that management from newsroom and consumer business stand together on the floor of the newsroom, communicating the same goals and same future,” Strøm-Gundersen said. “We had to work our way through [culture change].”

One challenge was getting the newsroom to use all the tools that the commercial side developed. When it came to developing content, the way of work evolved around the new model:

Day-to-day

  • What content is converting right now?
  • What changes can we make to this content to make it convert better?
  • What’s being published in the next couple of weeks?

Medium-term planning

  • What are our plans for the next three months?
  • What can we do with specific articles or stories we are breaking, outside of just publishing?
  • What can we move around to ensure steady conversions?

Strategic collaboration

  • What areas are we not covering that might be profitable?
  • What is the next type of content we could put behind the paywall?
  • Providing the team with the right resources.

An important part of making this change happen and enforcing the new strategy was giving people the tools they needed to monitor users’ signals and execute the right content approach.

“If you want people to change, you have to give them the tools to change every day,” Thorkildsen said.

Some of these tools included:

  • Oracle:  recommendation engine that determines whether an article should be premium or on the metered paywall.
  • Curate: automation of ap.no Web site.
  • Insight: real-time dashboard that shows how articles are performing in terms of sales, geared to conversion.

“There’s no clear-cut rule about what should be behind paywall,” Thorkildsen said. “Oracle looks at the data and recommends based on how the article is performing.”

Another very important tool is Insight, which shows what articles are generating sales. “This is a tool made for journalists, and is used by journalists,” he said.

“We also make dashboards for engagement, to see how we’re performing for user engagement,” he added. “The whole purpose is to democratise our data and give it to the journalists. For us, that’s been the key to driving change and to feel like everyone is working toward the same goals.”

Strøm-Gundersen added that commercial and editorial now work together to prioritise stories three months in advance.

From the business side, Thorkildsen said this is helpful because when commercial knows the stories that are being planned, they can develop promotions and strategy around it.

“We are constantly developing existing areas as well,” Strøm-Gundersen said. “We decided to close all comments in editorials at Aftenposten [Web site] just for subscribers. We saw a change in how the editorials were outlined in order to attract readers and new subscribers.”

Developing new content and product

Thorkildsen said the team is constantly evaluating and developing new content based on the data insights.

“We’ve been addressing different content verticals that we already produce to attract new readers within that vertical.”

For example, the data showed that 26% of Aftenposten readers have children, but only 5% of them were subscribers. “When we saw that number, we wanted to know if we could improve that,” Thorkildsen said.

Because of that input, the team created a new parenting vertical to attract new subscribers in that demographic.

Risks of working this way

What about what didn’t work? Strøm-Gundersen discussed some of the pitfalls that the Aftenposten team discovered during this transformation.

One challenge was being able to provide enough data to make the right decisions ahead of time. “We have a lot of tools which focus on whether we did or did not succeed with a story. But we do not have enough tools to predict if a story will be a success. This is still left to journalistic intuition. Therefore, in order to fully develop this, we need to develop tools that allow us to do that.”

Making a living without compromising the reason for being

Journalistic integrity was another area the team had to think about. As an example, Strøm-Gundersen talked about the Paradise papers story out of Panama.

“We invested a lot in storytelling with the Panama leaks, to try and make the stories read better and get the readers’ attention,” she said. “But we noticed when we published, although we had invested heavily in storytelling, we were finding it hard to get the readers’ attention. This caused frustration for our journalists, because if the story doesn’t get the numbers, they feel they have to justify why that story was still important and needed.”

The dilemma of monetising investigative journalism became a question of how to influence public discourse while at the same time providing value for existing subscribers.

“The danger is that we focus too much on locking [content] behind the paywall, so we limit the ability to actually influence public discourse,” Thorkildsen said.

The other difficult aspect is that Aftenposten loses perceived ownership over the stories it’s publishing. With the Paradise leaks story, for example, as soon as Aftenposten published it, all its competitors picked up the story and began reporting on it. Therefore, it was no longer considered that Aftenposten broke it first.

“Owning the story is more important than breaking the story,” Thorkildsen said. Readers will go somewhere else, to the competition, once they also start publishing a story. “There’s a very real danger that we lose ownership of the story.”

This is something the team sees when it looks at traffic numbers, which remain flat. That means Aftenposten readers stay loyal, but the newspaper isn’t really attracting new readers.

It’s all about the storytelling

They are addressing this by focusing more on the storytelling, said Thorkildsen. “We have to create stories which are uniquely linked to our product and our style of storytelling.”

This has created a remarkable shift at the company and changed the way they tell their stories. They do more visual storytelling now, incorporating plenty of multimedia elements such as graphs, video, visuals, maps, and interactive elements.

“This makes it very difficult for our competitors to replicate that story,” Strøm-Gundersen said. “The visuals department is now the heart of Aftenposten, and it didn’t used to be like that. The experience of reading a story almost equals the content of the story.”

Thorkildsen said that today, Aftenposten is much more aligned with the goals and strategy for the future. Near the end of 2019, all of the departments came together to determine the best positioning of the company over the next five-plus years.

“We worked together to find this one gut feeling or position that will represent Aftenposten to our readers. For me, just being a part of that work has been a really nice way to experience how far we’ve come in these last five years. That editorial, advertising, and product can actually sit around a table and agree on what we should for the future.”