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Stavanger Aftenblad creates popular podcast when it reopens cold case

By Tarald Aano

Stavanger Aftenblad

Stavanger, Rogaland, Norway

After four decades in journalism, I am sure of only one thing: Things change.

 Just look at our podcast, Missing — the man with the empty tomb, a huge project that spanned eight episodes, several news articles, and a digital universe of its own packed with extra information.

It started as something completely different, however, when reporters said they wanted to look at persons reported missing to the local police station. 

Their idea was to make a series of podcasts about a handful of local stories: who they were, when they disappeared, and what their status was.

Our reporters found some interesting missing person cases. But most of them were already known to our readers. We, and other local and regional media, had reported on the old bachelor who disappeared without a trace, we had written about the missing Polish worker the police were not able to find, and about the young man who never returned after a night out. 

We could retell all these stories, in a new format, possibly with new information. And that is what we planned to do. 

But things changed.

A story like none other

Among the missing files, the story of Reidar Sandanger, a local sailor who lived in Brazil for several years, caught our reporters’ attention. They had never heard of him before. Only one very short piece was written in a small local newspaper. The police had closed the investigation, and his story was forgotten. 

So things changed. We threw away our previous idea and concentrated on Sandanger’s story. And we soon discovered he wasn’t forgotten at all. 

The story of Reidar Sandanger captured the attention of reporters and the audience alike.
The story of Reidar Sandanger captured the attention of reporters and the audience alike.

His daughter could never forget. Nor could his son, his sisters, his friends. They were eager to tell — and they were bursting with questions and frustrations: What had happened? Is he dead? Has he run away from everything voluntarily? Had someone killed him? And why is this a cold case?

Our team dug into all these questions, and what we thought would be a couple of months’ work filled our calendars for a whole year — and more.

Digging through the past

Sandanger’s life was as colourful as a novel. His adventures were many, as were his failures. And then, at the age of retirement, another change in his life: After a long time in Brazil with a new family, he decided to move back to the little Norwegian town of Sauda, where his sisters still live. He made plans on where to live — but then … silence. No more phone calls, no e-mails, no updates on social media. 

Before long, strange messages started coming in — in broken Norwegian — asking for money.  

In short: This small story grew huge. We travelled to Brazil, we interviewed people in different countries, and obtained police documents, welfare documents, work documents, and more. The Sandanger family opened their doors and shared photos and written material as well as their thoughts, hopes, and fears. 

The result was what we regard as a groundbreaking podcast, in which we explored a combination of investigative journalism and a literary form with dramaturgical means in a new way:

  • It is, to our knowledge, the first Norwegian investigative true-crime podcast made by a regional newspaper.
  • It is the first podcast that shows that people are willing to pay for it — up until Missingall relevant news podcasts in Norway were free.

In the end, we decided upon a three-part release. The first five episodes were published just before Easter last year, with the sixth airing in April, and the last two episodes released in July. This triple launch, including a collaboration with VG, the No. 1 newspaper in Norway, was very successful. 

Measuring results

This series had an effect on subscriptions. We gained more than 1,400 new subscribers, a substantial number for a regional newspaper with just above 30,000 digital subscribers.

But it also showcased our journalism with an impressive documentary podcast that achieved 250,000 downloads. And most importantly, after years of negligence, the police decided to reopen the case. 

So yes, things do change.

The team members involved in this project were: Hans Petter Aass, Elisabeth Risa (reporters), Rune Vandvik (producer), Inga Sverdrup (designer), Haakon Aareskjold (Web developer), Finn Vaga (photo), Filip Blaauw (sound cleaning), Hakon Areskjold and Oyvind Roysland (Web development).

About Tarald Aano

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