VG makes a strong case for integration of print, online


Coming from Norway, it's natural for Torry Pedersen to use analogies involving skiing when talking about the integration of print and online at the Schibsted-owned newspaper Verdens Gang (VG). You can be a great cross-country skier, he said, and you can be a great downhill skier, but it's difficult to teach one type of skier to do the other type well.

Still, he said, that's similar to the task that VG faces as it begins to streamline and integrate its news operation to incorporate print and online. Today, Pedersen said, it's important, to deal quickly with complexity of market situation, user behaviour and internal operations.

He told attendees at the INMA World Congress that traditionally the line has been very clear between the VG newspaper and online operations. For example, the newspaper operation gains 77% of its revenue from user payments, while online gains 90% of its revenue from advertising.

Overall, though, as a brand, VG holds a dominant position in Norway. More than 50% of people in Norway read the brand in some form everyday whether through print, online, or both.

But the trend has been clear, he said: In 2000, online was weak in all metrics, while the newspaper was strong. But in 2010, 76% of all Norwegians visited the VG Web site in February. Nearly 90% visited the home page, with only 4% being referred from Google. More importantly, Pedersen said, the profit margin has been 33% over the past five years. Meanwhile, the relative strength of the newspaper has deteriorated, and circulation is continuing to fall.

So the key, he said, is to take what used to be a monoproduct and transform it to complex, multiplatform delivery. “We are growing in all areas of the digital arenas,” he said. “That's why it's important to handle the brand under just one editor at this time.”

One example of that convergence, he said, was the recent Royal Wedding in England. VG's online coverage included heavy use of video and was coordinated by three young women in a studio. Because CNN, MSNBC and other news networks were constantly updating, Pedersen said, the Web site had to be updated constantly as well. “That makes a big difference in audience engagement,” he said. Fortunately for some viewers, he added, “it was easy to get rid of the wedding coverage and make it go away just by clicking a button.”

Another example was the recent death of legendary Norwegian marathon runner Grete Waitz. Her passing was covered across platforms, with photo-heavy, layout-intensive print coverage and constantly updated, interactive coverage for mobile and online.

“The web page was updated constantly,” he said, stressing the importance of keeping the content active and constantly changing.

From a content standpoint, it made perfect sense to integrate all of VG's products. One major advantage is that multiplatform integration allows for news throughout the day. For example, he said, VG reaches 400,000 from 8:00 a.m. until well into the evening.

From an advertising standpoint, a new approach was created called VG24, emphasizing the brand's ability to reach people at all hours of the day through all outlets. They have told advertisers that it's possible to reach half a million every hour throughout the day.

“Our readers start using mobile first thing in the morning,” Pedersen said, “and it's also the last thing they do at night. That's one of the main reasons we have to integrate our selling across platforms.”

Regarding platforms, Pedersen said he expects digital transformation by VG to accelerate. For example, he said, “in my opinion, the smartphone will transform the landscape radically. The mobile edition of VG is more read that most other printed newspapers in Norway.”

While he notes the importance of the iPad, he raised some eyebrows with his observations about how newspapers are taking advantage of that platform. “Most newspapers have done the iPad quite wrong,” he said. “They have approached it in the traditional way, with the brain and the eye and the heart. But they have forgotten about the index finger. For the iPad it's about getting a story with the help of the index finger,” and usability is important.

Pedersen made several other points about lessons learned along the way:

  • It's important to maintain parity in the newsroom, allocating the correct amount of resources. In the VG integrated newsroom, there's a great deal of attention paid to achieving balance of resources. There is one management group, split 50% between editorial and commercial, online and newspaper, women and men, young and experienced, and so on.

  • It has also been important to keep an open flow of communication in the newsroom. Pedersen holds newsroom meetings each day, open to everyone. They only last 15 minutes ("Everyone stands," he says), but the point is to make managers easily accessible to employees, and to provide an avenue for consistent feedback.

  • It has also been important to integrate tech people from the company into the newsroom. This not only facilitates communication and sharing of ideas, but also makes it possible to quickly create content solutions. “We are going from an industry to a technology-based communication,” Pedersen said. “We have to commit more intellectual capital to understanding this shift.”

  • While circulation of the printed product has fallen by 40% in recent years, profitability has been maintained by increased efficiency, more revenue from digital, and some strategically integrated price increases.

During the question-and-answer session, Pedersen was pressed on the integration being more about money than about content. He conceded that economically the strategy is more efficient, but “in my view, the endpoint is digital. We have to train all people in the newsroom to be digital-savvy.

“I do not pretend to have the right answer. But I know that we have had the right model from 2000 to 2010. We can't predict what will happen from now until 2020, but the speed of what we will be experiencing in the media landscape will only accelerate.”

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