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Norway’s print media responds to digital threats

Subscription-based models are among the tactics being deployed by Norway’s print media organisations as they react to the digital threat to their traditional income streams

Norway’s print media industry is battling the hostile winds of a digital revolution. The fast-paced transition from print to digital newspaper platforms is being driven by technology and changing trends that are seeing consumers increasingly use mobile devices to access news.

While this seismic and unstoppable shift elevates the importance of online digital newspapers, it also calls into question the economic future of many of Norway’s local, regional and national newspapers.

Online publishing, coupled with falling advertising revenues, continues to hurt Norway’s print media. Shrinking income from adverts is leaving more print publishers without the means to invest in, or upgrade, their digital news platforms.

But it wasn’t always like this. Norway’s newspaper sector enjoyed a boom between 1950 and 1970. Over that 20-year period, the number of newspapers published in Norway, including daily and weekly national and regional titles, rose from 96 to 191. The number increased again to 233 in 1999 and 297 in 2012.

But by the end of 2016, the number of newspapers in circulation in Norway had shrunk to 227. The squeeze was on for traditional newspaper publishers, leaving national and regional titles in particular with little option but to invest in digital platforms or risk commercial ruin. Norwegian newspapers lost more than 40% of their advertising revenue between 2007 and 2016. During the same period, income from online advertising, including online newspapers, more than doubled.

According to data from the Norwegian Media Businesses Association (MBL/Mediebedriftenes Landsforening), Norway has the strongest penetration in the world for digital news subscriptions. Looking at ongoing digital news subscriptions, the Nordic countries top the European rankings. Norway leads the field with 15%, followed by Sweden with 12%, Denmark with 10% and Finland with 7%.

To protect the newspaper side of their business, most of the country’s publishers offer subscriptions that combine print and web. Norway’s 5.3 million citizens rank among the world’s most avid users of smartphones for reading news online. Significantly, they are also the most willing to pay for online news.

The MBL data for 2016 showed that 82% of Norwegians read at least one newspaper each day, while 61% got their news from an online digital newspaper. About 43% of Norwegians accessed online newspaper editions using their smartphones in 2016 – 7.6% more than in 2015.

“What is positive is that Norwegian news is increasingly read on mobile platforms,” said MNL managing director Randi S. Øgrey. “The focus going forward must be on providing strong-quality Norwegian digital content.”

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Retaining readers by scaling up their online digital news presence has become a fundamental objective for Norway’s publishing houses. Readership of newspapers in Norway declined by 11.3% between 2015/16 and 2016/17. Just six of Norway’s daily and weekly newspapers reported increased readership in 2016, while 99 newspapers saw lower readership.

The writing is clearly on the wall for Norway’s print media. With little or no major consolidation in the marketplace, the country’s smaller and less cash-rich publishing houses face the choice of borrowing to invest in digital news platforms or risk being left behind as smartphones and other internet-connected mobile devices play a bigger role as the gateway tool to access current affairs and entertainment via online digital news platforms.

But the good news for print media is the sector’s largely successful historic track record at managing change. National newspapers, such as Dagens Næringsliv, Aftenposten, Dagbladet and Verdans Gang, have shown others in the sector viable working models on how to convert visitors to registered users, and registered users to paying subscribers on their websites.

Most of Norway’s leading newspapers, including general and business titles, have installed paywalls for content. Despite this cost barrier, the number of digital subscriptions has seen steady growth in recent years. About 150 newspapers currently operate digital subscription models, with the most common hard-paywall model restricting “own-produced” proprietary news to paying customers only.

Leading newspaper groups Schibsted, Amedia, Polaris Media and Aller Media continue to innovate to identify new ways to generate higher yields from value-added paywall strategies. Amedia, which publishes local and regional newspapers, has built up 130,000 digital subscribers since it launched the universal login system for its digital subscription platform in 2014.

Publishers such as Amedia, Aller Media and Schibsted identified the need to transition to online news platforms at an early stage. All have invested heavily in building up a digital audience based on digital subscription models. Aller Media, which owns Dagbladet, has seen a decline in overall readership but an increase in revenue flow from its Dagbladet+ online premium digital edition. Rival publishing houses are seeing a similar trend.

Substantial room for growth exists in the paywall arena. This is enabled by Norway’s very high – by international standards – internet penetration, with about 96% of Norway covered and online.    

“In the case of Dagbladet+ and paid content, we are seeing year-on-year growth rates that are close to or above three digits in the last three years,” said Stephan Granhaug, Aller Media’s executive vice-president for digital. “But it must be stressed that this rate of growth is from a low base, and it may be difficult to maintain this rate going forward.”

Severe pressure

Although digitalisation is putting Norway’s print sector under severe pressure, publishers such as Adresseavisen show that traditional media groups can survive technological advance and consumer trends if they innovate towards digital platforms. Established in 1767, Adresseavisen is Norway’s oldest continuously published newspaper. Responding to wider use of mobile technology and an expanding internet, the publisher launched its online edition in the late 1990s.

Since 2012, Adresseavisen has put more of its own-produced news behind a paywall, transitioning from a free-to-read format to charging visitors and subscribers to access premium content. The financial stability of publishers like Adresseavisen is bolstered by growth in the community-based local bi-weekly and weekly newspaper market. Also, the relative stability in the number of newspaper titles in Norway is helped by the state’s subsidy system. About 150 of the country’s 227 newspapers receive some form of annual subsidy from the Norwegian state.

To survive, Norway’s print media houses will need to develop flexible corporate strategies to manage the explosion in the use of digital media. Growing convergence in the audiovisual media sector, where online services and broadband streaming are now starting to link up with television cable distribution, is also a major challenge for the sector.

The expansion of foreign social media giants, such as Facebook and Google, into Norway also poses a potentially serious threat for the print sector. Facebook and Google continue to negotiate media partnership deals with brokers in Norway. The media giants are offering Norwegian corporates more focused advertising and targeted pricing models.

Such a development presents a new level of competition for Norway’s print industry. The immediate risk is seeing a greater share of the national advertising spend move overseas.

While the outcome of this looming battle with Google, Facebook and others remains unclear, Norway’s print media houses have shown a wolfish capacity to adapt and survive in the digital era. To this end, Norway’s print media houses can be expected to deploy innovations to confront all challengers, be they foreign or domestic.

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