INMA members had not been together as a group since the last weekend in February, 2020. So 40 of us walking through the streets of Copenhagen, visiting six news media companies keen to share their stories in detail, was a long-time coming and a welcome look into how these companies were doing after the last couple of years.
As part of INMA Media Innovation Week in Copenhagen this month, study tour attendees got a deep dive at into the Danish media market, two traditional media companies (Berlingske Media and Politiken), a tabloid (Ekstra Bladet), a primarily B2C business daily (Dagbladet Børsen), a non-profit company started by the Danish resistance movement in 1943 (Information), and a digital start-up launched by four college journalist friends in 2016 (Zetland).
Why are their stories important to those outside this small Nordic country? Because they represent the stories of most news media companies worldwide.
An overview of media throughout Denmark
Here’s something you may not know about Denmark: The bulk of Danish media is state owned.
The advertising market isn’t too different from other countries, a growing digital market where Danish media companies hold an ever declining share of that market. Which is why, also like other countries, most media companies are moving away from an advertiser-based business model to a subscriptions-based business model.
In 2022, 18% of Danish readers paid for content, compared to 15% in 2018. Podcast listening currently is low but growth is so impressive, all media companies INMA visited are paying attention.
“If we keep the status quo, big international tech companies will eat up the ad market. And with big national broadcast companies offering free journalism on the other side, there will be no private media business left,” said Mads Brandstrup, CEO of Danske Medier (the Danish Media Association). “Seems that resonates with the politicians as long as you keep a constructive dialogue.”
Brandstrup described talks with Big Tech as an “arms race.”
“When it comes to regulation, we want to define some sort of universal right to our content — beyond discussion that, of course, we have the right to make money if our information is reused, no matter what platform. What drives audiences is still good content. Our business is to make quality content that people would like to see. It’s a big arms race in terms of making sure whatever we produce, wherever it is published, wherever it is shared, that we have some sort of string attached to it so we can make money from it.”
The six news media companies on the study tour had, of course, their unique histories, challenges, and audiences. But these commonalities tied them together: a focus on their narrowly focused core reader, the shortening of the print runway, a sprint toward digital offerings, a declining reliance on ad revenue and increased push toward reader revenue, strong (yet mixed) feelings about the intersection of data and journalism — all with the outside influences of how funding from the Danish government and pay-for-content struggles with Big Tech influence them.
This conservative media company owns several newspapers, Web sites, and radio stations in Copenhagen. Chief Editor Tom Jensen has been in this position since 2007. Historically, the brand has been considered “old, cold, and dusty without a clear profile,” he told study tour attendees.
In the past five years, the media company has moved from the No. 3 position to the No. 2 position in the quality news market and is four times bigger in reach and subscribers. Jensen said his biggest impact has been removing things from the newsroom — including lifestyle coverage and even sports, which is now covered through wire copy from news agencies.
“We focus on what we want to be and nothing else,” he said. “Our editorial budget has been cut by 50% since 2015. We focus on building and evolving the core.”
That core is centre right, mobile, modern, and focused on well-off Danes between the ages of 35 and 60 who live in Copenhagen: “Everything we do is for them,” Jensen said.
He also moved the print facility out of the building to another facility with a small team in charge, intentionally out of sight of the editorial team.
“That was also tough. Editing for print was the heart of our newsroom for 270 years. Everything evolved around that. If we had it there, we would focus on that. We don’t want that in our newsroom. We instruct them what goes on the front page. We have one person per section per day deciding the flow of the print section. It was difficult, but it enabled us to get our head into the right place.”
And that place is doing great journalism in digital spaces. Having outsourced the printing operation in 2017, the company is now on the brink of automating it — something nobody in the industry is doing yet.
Other changes that deemphasised print:
Those in charge of the printed newspaper are not allowed to talk to the journalists.
A team page one meeting no longer exists, replaced by a 1:30 p.m. meeting that looks at the news cycle for the next 24 hours.
Jensen walks a fine line between keeping the newsroom informed about how their stories do and focusing on the journalism they need to do, he said: “If you communicate the wrong things, you can cause wrong behaviour. If you see as an editor that you are behind the curve today, that you should’ve had more sales, and you communicate that in a way that sets off some sort of panic, then your reporter might jump out and do stories they shouldn’t do. Stories that don’t fit our position. How do we as leaders talk about numbers in a way that makes our reporters do the right thing, not the wrong thing?”
The business daily Børsen is owned by Bonnier Publications, the largest media group in the Nordics. The 125-year-old company is newly focused on something it’s never had: an explicit purpose.
“The approach we took is a ‘future back approach,’ explained Bjarne Corydon, editor-in-chief and CEO. “What do we actually think about basic megatrends? Let’s be explicit about those and where they will take our industry. It starts with digitisation, which leads to two megagrends: discount on content (commodification) and declining advertising revenue.
Børsen’s business model is a bit different than the other companies on the tour because it has both a B2C and a B2B business model, selling high-dollar subscriptions to companies that give it to their employees. The No. 1 reason people read Børsen is its coverage of the business sector, followed by coverage of policy and economics, innovation, management/career, and sustainability.
The company is doing well at digital ad revenue and increasing subscriptions. On the latter, it went from 35,000 in 2018 to 93,000 today (the goal is 200,000). Its relatively new corporate product offering, which is digital only and involves a three-year contract, comes with a fairly high discount compared to its B2C product.
A newsroom dashboard allows the editorial team to look at how individuals at corporate clients are engaging with the content. They can tell one company has clicked on a story 700 times, for example. The newsroom is able to keep track of engagement going up and down at these corporate clients. Are banks overly engaged and insurance companies lagging? They might move a reporter from bank content to insurance company content to even things out.
This popular daily tabloid published by JP/Politikens has one million daily users. It launched it own data platform (Relevance) three years ago, then its own contextual advertising network (Publisher Platform) two years ago.
“Fifty percent of our revenue is digital advertising,” Thomas Lue Lytzen, director of ad sales and tech, told study tour attendees. “Print is less than 8% so our future is purely digital. More than half of our traffic goes through an Apple device. Five years ago, they [Apple] started blocking tracking. What happens if we as a publisher are no longer capable of demonstrating that an ad shown actually makes a sale?”
Enter, Relevance, which gathers first-party and contextual data. Having their own data platform also allows Ekstra Bladet to create their own brand safety filters for advertisers.
“”One advertiser didn’t want to appear next to news of train delays,” Lytzen said. “So we built a filter for that.”
The data is not shared, not even with its sister publication, Politiken.
Ekstra Bladet has in-house data team, an AI innovation team, and partners with local universities. Together, they are working on sentiment analysis — machine learning that is able to find emotions in news articles. Thirteen researchers are working on this full time on this, predicting the sentiment a reader will have toward content. Similarly, they are working to reach the algorithm how to understand if news articles are related.
The study tour gathered in the offices of Information, a former Nazi publication taken over by the Danish resistance movement in 1943. That history isn’t forgotten within these walls.
The largest shareholder of the media company, which is a non-profit, is the employees themselves. The company has about 100 employees, 65% of which are full-time. The average age is 40. Their strongest readership niches are young people and those over 60.
Editor-in-Chief Rune Lykkeberg explained the editorial staff has a meeting every day to decide who will write that day’s editorial. He is not in charge of that; the decision is made collectively.
Information’s content niche is deep, explanatory, with the added mission of: “We enable you to change the world.”
“We want to reinvent activism,” Lykkeberg said. “This is something we can do to prepare you to be an activist. A basic understanding of climate change, for example. Of course we write about what’s happening in the world, but we want to have a global, public, intellectual debate with the biggest thinkers and writers of our time and we want to connect it to what people are thinking about in their living room.”
In a big step away from newsroom trends, editorial staff does not see data about how their stories affect the company’s bottom line.
“We will not produce journalism on the terms of Facebook and Google,” Lykkeberg said. “Our journalists are not privy to who is reading and what is turning subscriptions. We want to provide a kind of journalism that is profitable in itself on our own terms. We don’t want to use a woman’s body to sell our paper culture [he said, referencing the scantily-clad women on Ekstra Bladet’s page nine]. If we were to negotiate with Facebook, we wouldn’t be an independent newspaper. Being independent of these machines and these tech captors … that is the most important part of our culture today: to be profitable and to be liberated from that.”
The days of its printed edition are numbered, but that is a string attached to funding by the government (which has somewhat antiquated rules about funding print products delivered to subscribers regardless of where they live).
Also owned by JP/Politikens, Politiken is a leading daily broadsheet newspaper, known most recently for boldly raising its digital subscription rates by 400%. Denmark is a purely subscription-based market. To take advantage of the opportunity — especially during the early pandemic lockdown — Politiken started delivering packages with the print edition of the newspaper at 5 a.m.
The newsroom focus at Politiken is on three target groups:
Youth (20s to 30s).
Digital target group (ages 38 to 45).
Core readers (50+).
The strategy with the youth target group is to get someone in their early 20s with a cheap or free product, then convert them to full price on their 30th birthday. Politiken is one year into this strategy.
“We’ve always had lots of readers, lots of traffic” in the youth age group, Troels Jørgensen, digital director at Politiken, said. “The biggest challlenge is getting them to pay for it. Our goal at the beginning of the year was to have 10,000 young subscribers in 2022. I think it’s within reach but given our current financial situation, we’ve decided maybe getting these people isn’t as important as keeping print readers.”
Editor-in-Chief Lea Korsgaard was pregnant and traditionally unemployed when she and three university friends started Zetland in 2016. Zetland launched that year with the support of a few private investsors and 1,400 founding members.
The daily digital publication offers two published articles, a news podcast, and a daily morning news brief each day. That’s it.
After driving around the target market in her Volkswagen asking people what they want to read, this was Korsgaard’s takeaway: “It’s not the amount of information. It’s the mountain of information that’s available. Let’s sort through that mountain and tell them what to spend their attention on. People told us: ‘I’m exhausted by the thought of news. I really don’t get what’s important. I really don’t get the whole picture. And I really need a media who does that.’”
The staff is made of 40 people, 25 of them in the newsroom, a handful on the app-building team, and another handful on the engagement/growth team.
Today, 55% of members visit every week. The goal is to build habits but not necessarily daily visits, Korsgaard said: “It’s more important they have a good experience and build a habit around that.”
As of its audio launch in 2017, users can read or listen to all its content (recorded by the journalist who did the reporting) — 75% is listened to, 17% is consumed via text, and 8% do both.
Decisions are made with these member needs in mind:
The need to have complicated news stories explained to them.
The need to have a general world understanding to discuss with friends and colleagues.
The need to hear “mind-blowing stories,” as Korsgaard described them, to feel connected and alive.
The need for a beautiful news product.
The need to get involved.
When Zetland needed more paying members, it asked its paying members for help. A three-week campaign brought in 3,400 new members.
And the members really feel part of the company, Korsgaard said: “They are super engaged. We hear from them through mail and the phone and out at events. It enhances the journalism that the journalists meet them and that they are real human beings.”
You can find more coverage from Media Inovation Week here.