What kind of journalism are readers willing to pay for? 

At Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), this question has led to new priorities and ways of working. At the same time, the answer makes it clear in what areas we in the media should concentrate: being truly relevant, meeting readers’ varying demands, and devoting ourselves to our basic journalistic remit.

Do you think one cannot predict journalism?

Well, in September, 17 years had passed since the terrorist attacks in the United States. Just like before, the media in Sweden and the rest of the world produced articles about 9/11. In a generally unpredictable news flow, editors are grateful to be able to plan something that won’t shift, regardless of what else happens. It could be someone’s 100th or 10th anniversary; the more even the number, the greater the attention.

But new possibilities of data analyses are merciless toward old editorial habits. So far, I have not seen one single piece where the anniversary has been the gist of the story and has actually been read by any significant number of people. The same thing goes for what we in the newsroom call “Wikipedia pieces” (that is, articles too closely resembling encyclopedia entries or something government authorities might post on a homepage).

In the category of “Why not?” we count articles resulting from poorly considered ideas overseen by stressed sub-editors. The result is lukewarm content lacking relevance for a majority of readers.

Readers are willing to pay for content that helps them understand the news flow and is relevant to their daily lives.
Readers are willing to pay for content that helps them understand the news flow and is relevant to their daily lives.

What readers will pay for

All three of these categories have now been banned, but not, I am sad to say, entirely uprooted in the SvD newsroom. They may seem harmless, but they occupy way too many resources and are simply in the way of the kind of journalistic work that engages readers.

A bit more than three years ago, we started the project SvD Premium, content only for subscribers. At the time we did not ask ourselves what parts of our journalistic arm we were going to lock in. Instead, we started at the other end: Which content could be so relevant readers would be willing to pay for it?

Judging from thousands of converting articles in different formats and in different topic areas, we soon saw a pattern. The common denominator was not topics but needs. A model with four fields took shape.

Field 1: Content helping the reader understand the news flow.

For media houses in the news category, this is fundamental. Without astute journalism that is investigating, digging, guiding, and analysing the news flow, the whole model will collapse. This is a field delivering a great number of articles and has many readers.

The rate of conversion is rather low, as other media can present similar content. But the volume leads to a high share of new subscribers.

Field 2: Content close to readers in their daily life.

This can best be described as journalism that readers “need to know” and is directly useful in their day-to-day lives. For example, it may be advice concerning people’s private financial situations and property deals or new findings in psychology, food, and health.

This field has many readers and a high rate of conversion.

Field 3: Content helping readers understand the world we live in.

This is about our own perspectives describing something about the wider world around us, such as where society or parts of the population are going. For example, at SvD, we had great success with in-depth reports on how Sweden will look in the year 2025 if the right-wing Sverigedemokraterna, or other political parties, gain control. This could also be journalistic reports from places most readers cannot reach, such as a piece from Mensa, the association that gathers people with high IQs.

The number of readers is often lower than in the other two fields, but the rate of conversion, among those who take an interest, is high because the material cannot be found elsewhere.

Field 4: Content close to readers’ interests and identities.

This is “nice-to-know journalism.” It could be tips about films or books, restaurant reviews, language, or history.

Normally, this field does not convert very much, but it has a high proportion of logged-in reading and is therefore fundamental for preventing churn — an important field to fill to satisfy our subscribers’ needs and expectations.

Whenever we have good numbers – both as it concerns conversions and engagement among our present subscribers — it often coincides with having filled all four fields with sharp and clear journalism within our core topics. On bad days, we are falling back, producing unfocused content that doesn’t put readers at the centre and lacks relevance for them.

The insights we have gained along the road have, among other things, led to new jobs in the newsroom — editors responsible for different fields in the model, working across boundaries with every other department and in close cooperation with the data and analysis team.

Furthermore, we present content we haven’t had before, signed on several external experts, and started cooperating with other media, such as the American magazine The Atlantic, from which we publish, every month, a carefully selected and translated in-depth story.

The efforts have paid off. In the last three years, the number of new subscribers has increased nearly five times and logged-in reading and conversion rates have both increased. As for our prioritised weekend, in-depth pieces, we have eliminated almost all of the articles that were being read by only a few people and more than doubled the feature stories that engage a large number of subscribers. Both extremes are important to consider: the editorship of the future is as much a question of editing out as it is of prioritising.

Readers want to pay for quality

In the media’s present transformation process, the possibilities of working in a data-informed way are important. For a long time, we could practically do whatever we wanted; it was common that reporters’ personal interests governed what we wrote and how. The fact the power now so manifestly has shifted to our actual employers — the readers — may make some people feel uncomfortable: Where will it end if we give the readers what they want? Isn’t there a risk we will abandon the role of editors and become populistic?

For my part, I am hopeful.

As we see content about traditional topics, such as anniversaries, sink like stones among fierce competition, we also see how readers value other articles. They want to pay for quality. The technology, formats, and way in which we report may change a lot in the time to come. As long as we focus on that which makes us unique in the enormous flow of information, proper journalistic endeavor and the demand for what we do will prevail.