Aftonbladet’s two-decade journey into paywalls has lessons for us all

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Doubling revenue from digital subscriptions in the past four years, the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet provides a blueprint for success and shares all of its pivots since launching in 2003. is a primary destination for the news-hungry Swedes, reaching 4 million unique visitors daily in a country of 10 million. 

In mid-September, this paywall pioneer enjoyed 249,000 digital-only subscribers, a slice of 1.2 million that its parent company, Schibsted, amassed across Sweden and Norway.

INMA interviewed Ted Kudinoff, head of Aftonbladet Plus, in the morning after his product’s 20th birthday party in September. Peer executives from all over the world sent the recorded wishes on video. (Your INMA researcher rapped while wrapped in the AI-generated bunny costume.)

Lessons from the trenches: “You have to be brave and curious,” said Kudinoff when asked for the biggest learnings from two decades. 

  1. Focus on charging for journalism rather than add-ons: “It’s our core business, our DNA, so go there and take the money.”
  2. Get a buy-in from the top, set clear goals, and align everyone behind the subscription: “If your newsroom doesn’t support the strategy, you will never succeed.”
  3. Follow your readers: “Listen closely and adapt to their changing lives, as we did when moving to mobile, video, or bundles.”

Never waste a crisis: Business model innovations are often born out of necessity. The 2000-2001 Internet bubble crash decimated advertising in the Nordics. Aftonbladet realised it needed revenue streams beyond digital ads and print. 

When launched in 2003, the subscription service Aftonbladet Plus was seen as a side project, not core to the business. It offered lifestyle fare like recipes, dating tips, travel guides, and not its signature news content.

“At the time,” Kudinoff quotes the now-retired visionary founder of Aftonbladet Plus Kalle Jungkvist, “the mindset was: You can’t charge for online news.”

No wonder: It was a decade before The New York Times launched its paywall in 2011, and the industry followed. In the early 2000s, only The Wall Street Journal and few other business brands dared to charge for online.

From recipes to breaking news: The turning point was the debut of the Apple iPhone in 2007 and the rise of mobile Web and apps that followed. 

Kudinoff became Aftonbladet’s mobile editor in 2009: “We saw news, sports and entertainment becoming big on mobile, and people paying for mobile apps.”

In 2013, Kudinoff took charge of online subscriptions and put some news, entertainment, and sports behind the paywall — the longer articles, in-depth and exclusive. 

Today, 30% of articles on Aftonbladet’s homepage are paid. Major events, like elections, drive traffic spikes and boost subscription sales. A whopping 90% of sales are organic, primarily via the locked articles. 

Data helps to shape Aftonbladet’s strategy. Editors learn what articles attract new and existing subscribers: investigative and expert journalism, product tests and guides, insider sports, and health advice.

The user experience is personalised — subscribers see a different homepage than non-subscribers; readers interested in sports or health might see those stories elevated.

From a corner to the whole pitch: In the beginning, a dedicated desk of 15-20 journalists prepared all the Plus stories. Their focus helped to learn what worked best and delivered early results, but this approach was a barrier to scale further. 

By 2020 and the pandemic spike in demand for quality journalism, the responsibility for growing subscriptions and the know-how spread across a 250-people-strong newsroom. 

Today, every news desk has Plus goals. A dedicated conversion desk optimises the selection of Plus stories on the homepage. 

“It’s important that everyone understands this business because it is key to our future,” explained Kudinoff. 

Balancing the subscriber volume and revenue: At one point, the number of digital subscribers to Aftonbladet peaked at 300,000. It then stabilised around 250,000, of which almost half have been subscribers for at least two years. 

“Some churn is natural, especially after promotional campaigns. If you want to reduce churn, stop selling,” joked Kudinoff. “At the moment, the volume matters less to us than revenue, but we discuss the balance every six months.” 

Since 2003, the monthly rate for the Plus subscription has steadily increased from US$2 to US$13. In the past four years alone, per Aftonbladet CEO and editor-in-chief Lena Samuelsson, this translated into doubled average revenue per subscriber and an impressive 100% growth in total revenue from digital subscriptions. 

Kudinoff believes Netflix and other streaming companies helped to set the reference point for customers. The cost of Netflix that launched in Sweden in 2012, a decade after Aftonbladet, is from US$6.99 to US$19.99 per month.

The future of digital subscriptions: When stopped by the paywall, Aftonbladet readers can today choose between the Plus subscription or pay double (about US$27) for a Super Package. 

That bundle, one of many launched across Europe this year, includes another Schibsted national brand Svenska Dagbladet, news aggregator Omni, and podcast aggregator Podme.

Kudinoff sees a future where subscribers can add other services such as television or magazines, including the ones Schibsted doesn’t own. (However, in September Schibsted acquired 10% of Viaplay, a Nordic video streaming company.)

The head of Aftonbladet Plus believes future digital bundles will come in many flavours as many readers value flexibility, contrasting with traditional cable TV’s all-you-can-eat content model.

He stresses that exclusive news content remains the primary driver of subscriptions over everything else.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here. 

About Greg Piechota

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