In September 2019, Dagens ETC announced a new position on fossil fuel ads: Complete divestment. No exceptions, effective immediately.
It was the sort of decision that had been gaining momentum for so long that in the end it was completely inevitable. Now was the time to get rid of all fossil fuel advertising.
That included the energy companies that refuse to go green. The car manufacturers that try to sell their latest gas guzzlers. The airlines that want us to treat ourselves to a weekend in Paris. The travel agencies that tell us to, once back from Paris, escape winter doom and gloom and sun ourselves on an exotic holiday on the other side of the globe.
No exceptions, effective immediately.
I’ve made a lot of decisions as editor-in-chief of Dagens ETC, a daily newspaper that has been committed to producing climate journalism that encourages intervention and change since its founding in 2014. Of all those decisions, this was the wisest.
We all wanted this, together. The board. The reporters. The marketing department. The subscribers. The fact of the matter is, this was the only route we could take to ensure we maintain our credibility as a climate-conscious media outlet.
Climate journalism simply cannot and should not be financed by fossil fuel advertisers. It is a contradiction. It draws an invisible limit to the reporting, to what can be scrutinised and how it can be scrutinised.
Preparing for reactions
I envisaged subscribers would stay because they don’t have to deal with mixed signals, constantly suspecting that journalism supported by the life blood of the fossil economy won’t ever ask the key confrontational and critical questions at the core of the debate.
I hoped that new subscribers would be added because they want their daily newspaper to assume responsibility and take action — that we would attract advertisers who want to be seen in a context where they don’t have to co-exist with climate-destroying activities and cynical greenwashing. Journalists would not move on to other employers because they prefer working with companies who are ready to take on the challenges presented by the climate crisis.
In other words, I was counting on financial gains in the long term. But they came much more quickly than I could ever have imagined. In the past few months, our number of subscribers has increased by over 20%. Our marketing department has been able to start building new collaborations with partners who find it liberating to not have to share space with fossil fuel campaigns.
It all adds up — we’ve gained more subscribers as well as better advertisers.
We all know how ruthless this industry is, whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on. This is an industry in the midst of some radical changes — and none of us know exactly what the end result will be.
But no matter how you look at it, there is still right and wrong, assuming we allow everybody’s future to be a part of the equation. I hope more of us will start to do just that.
Overcoming challenges online
Our initiative was easy to do it in print — we just closed our paper down to dirty ads. As it turned out, the digital side was a lot more complicated. On our Web site, we are dependent on a sub-contractor. The ads a reader sees are related to what they have previously looked at on the internet, so as of right now there is no way to completely exclude fossil fuel ads.
However, we’ve entered into a dialogue with said sub-contractor about developing a system that makes it possible for us to close our Web site to external elements we simply cannot accept. It's not surprising to learn they’ve never come across this request from a media outlet before.
Until the new system is up and running, we’ve set out to manually remove fossil advertisers from our Web site. Our readers are happy to help. They flag an ad, we take it down.
So what do we mean by fossil ads? We’re happy to let Volvo show off its electric car, but we are not interested in helping the company sell its most recent diesel-powered SUV or hybrid. We’ll gladly let energy companies tell our readers about their commitment to renewables, but not if they’re using a single solar cell or wind turbine to hide the fact that they mainly deal in oil, gas, and coal. Greenwashing is out.
Starting a movement?
Dagens ETC became, to my knowledge, the first daily newspaper in the world to get rid of its fossil fuel baggage. The move was immediately picked up by The Guardian, even before anyone in Sweden reacted. This media giant — which has more than 60 times the subscribers/members we do — understood what we are trying to achieve, and that the need for our industry to have this extremely important, if uncomfortable, conversation is more acute than ever.
The Guardian has inspired us. We look to its climate journalism, the changes to its style guide (climate crisis, not climate change), and its ambition to develop a newspaper together with its readers. There could be no better way to force this conversation than the fact that The Guardian recently started divesting, generously referencing Dagens ETC in the process.
Nobody will be able to kill this issue with a wall of silence. Believe me, it won’t be long until your audience starts demanding answers. There is no room for sitting on the fence or claiming that the time isn’t quite right.
Four months ago, I wrote, “I see no other option for Dagens ETC or, really, for any other media outlets.”
I am now more sure of this statement than ever.