In a few weeks time, a large group of INMA members will travel to Stockholm and Oslo for this year’s Media Subscriptions Week. There are a few reasons for the choice of location, none of them being the lovely Nordic mid-March weather.

First, Norway and Sweden are in the top tier of countries where the highest share of consumers pay for online news. In Sweden, close to 30% of all Internet users subscribe to digital news content, directly or through a bundled print/digital subscription.

Digital transformation requires focusing on value, not the wall itself.
Digital transformation requires focusing on value, not the wall itself.

There are several resons for this. One is that Sweden and Norway are traditionally strong subscription-based print markets. Another is that both markets have a high penetration of other subscription services, like Netflix, HBO, and Spotify, which is mostly a strong indicator of willingness to also pay for digital news content; 13% of all Internet users subscribe to three types of streaming services: music, film/tv, and news.

Also, Norway and Sweden are among the most innovative markets in terms of developing more sophisticated models for paywalls. This is in both designing different kinds of paywalls — more hybrid or data infused, rather than metered/freemium — and analysing data to understand customer behaviour. The main focus has been on increasing engagement and lowering churn, rather than on acquisition.

Dagens Nyheter, where I work as head of the editorial development, is one of several players in this development. In the past four years, our number of digital-only subscriptions has grown from just a few thousand in early 2015 to 160,000 this month — and we keep growing by almost 40% on a year-to-year basis.

In a few months time, the number of digital subscribers is expected to exceed the number of traditional print (bundled) subscriptions. Our digital-only reader revenue now exceeds the digital ad revenue for the first time.

So, we’re good at building walls, right? Quite the opposite. If we have any learnings to share from this process, it is probably this: Stop talking so much about the paywall in itself.

If we succeed in establishing a business model for quality journalism in a constantly transforming digital market, it is because we manage to get better at understanding our readers’ needs and at providing them with the kind of journalism and services that engage them and build true loyalty. And, to achieve that, we have to turn most things in our organisations upside down.

Here are five areas where we have greatly transformed and constantly need to keep developing:

1. Start working together. For real.

Acquiring subscribers is quite easy. Keeping them is much trickier. Doing it with the highest possible lifetime net-value and keeping churn at its lowest possible level requires a truly cross-functional organisation with total transparency of data.

For us, that includes not only everyone in the reader revenue and marketing departments, but also developers, analytics, and the entire newsroom. By making the editor-in-chief also responsible for reader revenue (as CMO), we made sure the efforts between the editorial and customer sides of the operation were seamlessly linked.

Our key learning is that this saves a lot of time, a lot of meetings, and a lot of money. And it’s more fun.

2. Invest in the right kinds of journalism.

Digital loyalty is impossible without digital quality — in content, formats, visualisation, and packaging. We focus on four pillars of journalism: investigative reporting, long-form storytelling, in-depth/guides, and breaking news.

We also reduced the number of stories we publish. We do fewer stories but they are higher quality and better presented. Our teams have also gotten much better at prolonging the shelf life of our best stories because we are being smarter about re-packaging and re-publishing in different formats. To quote Chris Moran at The Guardian: “We have a responsibility as editors to make sure that our best journalism gets read.”

3. Understand our readers. They change.

Our digital subscribers are, on average, 20-25 years younger than our old print subscribers. A clear majority of them are women, and they come from different parts of the country than the old print population. They might be interested in other topics or ways to engage with our content. Their readering patterns differ vastly with different weekdays and different hours of the day.

To understand how to give them the right content at the right time and in the right format, we need new ways to monitor reader behaviour — and we need to be able to adapt to that.

4. Make everyone informed by data. And act upon it.

Newsroom metrics — and how they are transparent, discussed, and used for action — has been key to our editorial change processes. By developing internal tools and dashboards, and elevating metrics that truly measure reader engagement and loyalty, we can focus on the right content and set clear goals.

Getting everyone on board to understand why a story works or not has been crucial. By showing top lists of converting stories, stories with the highest total engagement score, and stories on the front page with the longest time spent, we focus on what makes a difference in the long run — not on short-term viral wins.

5. Change newsroom culture. And keep changing.

The first step in moving toward a truly digital-first mindset was to plan digital distribution as if print did not exist. The second is to create a culture of agile teamwork by using resources more efficiently, breaking down old department barriers, building temporary hubs and new ways to communicate and be creative, and focusing on how to make sure each story is given its best possibilities to engage as many of our readers as possible.