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Why UK newspapers should look to their Nordic counterparts to arrest sales slump

By Terry Watson

April 15, 2013 | 8 min read

As UK newspaper circulations continue to tumble, Terry Watson, who has travelled the world redesigning newspapers, explains why UK titles should look to their Nordic counterparts for inspiration on how to reverse the decline.

Terry Watson

I've witnessed at first hand the contraction of the newspaper business throughout Europe and further afield. It's not been a pretty sight.

For more than 10 years at Palmer Watson we enjoyed the boom years, travelling the world redesigning and relaunching newspapers. Our work - or rather our clients - won the biggest design awards around. We redesigned the likes of Le Monde and El País. We worked in Russia, India, Africa, South America.

Halcyon days, and probably never to return.

Four years ago the slowdown began and we reluctantly shed staff. Amazingly, we are still here, despite slowdown turning into meltdown. Partly this is thanks to digital and magazine work. But it is also thanks to our biggest client base being the Nordic countries.

Newspapers in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland face the same challenges as newspapers everywhere. But amid the gloom, there are Nordic success stories.

In Oslo the upmarket tabloid Aftenposten - Norway's equivalent of our own imperilled Scotsman or Herald - has 240,000 print subscribers. It claims 811,000 daily readers, in a nation of five million people.

We redesigned Aftenposten last year and the subscriber numbers rose further. We would love to claim the credit, but we know design alone doesn't sell newspapers.

Note the word subscribers. Like most Nordic newspapers, the vast majority of Aftenposten's readers subscribe. They pay £400 per year and their paper is on their breakfast table seven days a week. A dedicated delivery service guarantees this, even to a log cabin 20km up a remote fjord near the arctic circle.

Distribution is key. But that alone is not enough. If the paper was rubbish, it wouldn't sell. So does Aftenposten have a magic editorial formula for success?

It has a design that is contemporary, accessible etc etc (I would say that). But design doesn't sell newspapers.

Is it the content? There is nothing revolutionary about Aftenposten's editorial mix: domestic politics, world affairs, social issues, culture, comment and so on.

What Aftenposten - and all of the Nordic papers that we have worked with - seem to have that in our experience British papers lack, is a close connection with their audience and their region. There is a sense that they are part of the community; they serve their readers. Like all journalists, Aftenposten's hacks love the juicy exclusives, but alongside that sits a service mentality that does not take second place to hard news. From the other end of this relationship (and it does seem like a relationship), there is a feeling that if you are part of the community, you read the paper of that community.

How does this come about? What you notice, at Aftenposten and all Nordic papers we have visited, is that it is the staff as a whole who shape the newspaper. Each issue of Aftenposten is a collective, collegiate effort, with shared responsibility for content and presentation.

Having been immersed in the British way of newspapers where the editor and maybe one or two of his or her henchmen drive everything and decide everything, the Nordic way still comes as a culture shock even after a dozen years. The editor in chief is rarely seen on the newsroom floor. At 5pm, when barely a handful of pages are completed, the bosses are out of the door. They trust their staff to make the decisions.

In Britain, that would be unheard of. When I fleetingly held a reasonably senior position at The Scotsman, my normal working day was 10.30am (for morning conference) until 1am (after changes to the first edition). That wasn't through choice; that was expected.

This way of working can lead to idiosyncrasies. At another Norwegian paper, Dagens Naeringsliv, with whom Palmer Watson has worked on several occasions, we have attempted to instil a specific approach to the front page as part of an overall redesign, one that has been agreed with all the bosses. The person actually hands-on putting the front page together, however, has their own ideas. We have stood over their screen insisting "that's not how it's meant to be"; we have wasted our breath.

Dagens Naeringsliv, I should mention, is probably the most successful business newspaper in the world. Its daily readership is 266,000 in a nation of five million.

We had the same experience in Trondheim, halfway up the Norwegian coast, when we helped the regional daily there, Adresseavisen, convert from broadsheet to tabloid. Decisions were slowly, democratically arrived at, there was negligible input from the editor-in-chief, there was much reader involvement. The result? A sustained increase in subscribers.

The Scotsman could not have handled its change to "compact" more differently: the first the staff knew of the change was when they were told that the following day they would be producing a tabloid.

Nordic newspapers are not perfect paragons of social democracy. There are power struggles and conflicts just as in every office. But the newspapers are the products of a cross section of the community in which they exist and they reflect that; their UK counterparts are more likely to reflect the agendas of one ambitious, driven individual.

Further east, in Finland, it's the same story. When we worked on the relaunch of Hufvudstadsbladet in Helsinki, the proposed changes were the subject of intense debate on radio call-ins for months.

We are currently working with a group of newspapers in the middle of Finland for the fourth time in a decade. Four redesigns in 10 years might smack of football-club style chaos. Nothing could be further from the truth. These papers are bastions of stability, and their readership figures are similarly stable.

The majority of the staff on these Finnish papers have lived in their areas most of their lives. They are far from parochial in their outlook (otherwise we would not be working with them) and they are not afraid of radical change (otherwise we would not be on redesign No.4), but they know about and care about the community they are writing for.

In Denmark, we are closely associated with the broadsheet Politiken. Earlier this year it was named among The Society for News Design's "World's Best Designed" newspapers for the third time since our first redesign for them in 2006. There is no higher accolade. Politiken's print readership is declining, but it can still claim daily sales of around 100,000, which for an upmarket, expensive broadsheet in a country of five million is no mean feat.

Politiken has amassed a loyal, committed group of readers who care deeply about "their paper" to the extent that any design changes are guaranteed to provoke a mind-boggling number of emails. Even more mind-bogglingly, the art director will personally reply individually to each and every one. That is the sort of commitment which preserves a paper's status.

Such loyalty is not confined to the upmarket press. We have redesigned Denmark's sparky downmarket tabloid Ekstra Bladet. One series of changes involved the Page 9 Girl becoming a moveable "feast" to avoid the occasions when a flow of pages providing harrowing coverage of a grisly disaster were interrupted by a page devoted to topless 21-year-old Freja from Frederiksberg. You would have thought from the scale of the outcry that Copenhagen's beloved Little Mermaid had been taken hostage by the reviled Swedes. The Page 9 Girl stayed on page 9.

So yes, perhaps when UK newspaper bosses are brain-storming about how to preserve what remains of their print audience, they could do a lot worse than look to the Nordic countries for inspiration - and try to cultivate a sense of community spirit and democracy in the workplace. It wouldn't be a quick fix, but it might just be the only fix left.

Terry Watson is a founding director of Edinburgh-based media consultancy Palmer Watson

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