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Why Norwegian media lead the world in digital subscriptions

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Why Norwegian media lead the world in digital subscriptions
Photo: Håkon Mosvold Larsen / NTB scanpix
08:00 CEST+02:00
Norway has the strongest penetration for digital news subscriptions of any country. Can media organisations in the Nordic country thank consumer culture, good strategy or something else entirely for the boom in paywall payers?

Newspaper readers in Norway don't seem to mind parting with a set number of kroner each month to ensure access to their digital sources.

The Norwegian news media has proved adept at converting visitors to registered users, and registered users to paying subscribers on its sites.

Both the number of newspapers with paywalls for content and number of digital subscriptions have seen prolific growth in recent years. A recent report by Nordicom showed that, following a doubling of newspapers with pay models for online news in 2015, 151 newspapers across the country had paid digital subscription models by the end of 2016.

The most common model is the so-called ‘hard paywall': self-produced news on the sites is restricted to paying customers only.

All three of Norway's major newspaper groups – Schibsted, Amedia, and Polaris Media – have actively contributed to the growth of paywalls, according to the report.

Almost nine in ten Norwegians now use digital news every week. A recent study compiled for Reuters Institute's Digital News Report put the figure at 87 percent. 26 percent of these pay for online news, according to that survey, putting Norway first out of the 35 countries included in the measure.

Statistics such as these are reflected in the experience of those at the top end of the Norwegian digital media industry.

Stephan Granhaug, executive vice president for Digital with Aller Media, which publishes the Dagbladet newspaper, told The Local that he could “clearly” see the trends highlighted in the report.

“Our paid content product, Dagbladet+, has seen growth rates year-on-year near or above three digits for three consecutive years now. Though from a low base, so such growth rates will be difficult to maintain going forward,” Granhaug said.

Dagbladet is one of the majority of established publications that have fared well with the switch.

“In Norway, there has been a strong tradition for print newspaper reading, and the traditional news providers still dominate when it comes to online news,” says Hilde Sakariassen, a PhD candidate at the University of Bergen's Department of Information Science and Media Studies and co-author of the Norway section of the Reuters Institute report.

There is still room for digital subscriptions to grow in Norway, according to Sakariassen. Nevertheless, the country remains a leader in the European context.

“Almost two thirds [of Norwegians] mostly find news by going directly to traditional news providers' webpages, and only few take the opposite route and google the news story. The level of digital subscriptions, however, is not very high, only 26 percent have paid for online news content in the last year. This is still higher than in other countries, and hybrid solutions where one gets access to both paper and digital content seem to be a contributing factor,” she said.

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Norway has a strong tradition for local news. Amedia, which owns 62 local and regional outlets across Norway, has gone from zero to 130,000 digital subscribers since launching a universal login system for its digital subscription platform in 2014 – a remarkable number that is extremely competitive set against publishers in the much larger US and UK markets.

A number of factors are relevant in Norway's strong performance in digital subscriptions. One of these must be the country's extremely high internet penetration, says Sakariassen – 96 percent of the country is online.

“Norwegians still tend to be more digital than other countries, but our interest for news does not make us stand out,” the researcher adds.

Pål Nedregotten, Amedia's executive vice president in charge of business development, data, insight and innovation, says that a historical culture placing value on local newspapers, and Norway's readiness to embrace technology, are important – if not decisive – factors in getting readers to hit the subscribe button.

“We [Norway, ed.] come from a background of really strong local newspaper traditions and even strong national newspaper traditions, which sort of separates us from a whole range of other countries. For instance, in the US you have the local TV stations that play the role of the local newspapers here in Norway. So I'd argue local newspapers have been part of the local identity, there's been a certain amount of pride in having a local newspaper,” Nedregotten told The Local.

“Secondly, and I think this is really important, Norway was really early in taking their newspapers online. The first [newspaper to go online] was in the late ‘90s, and I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance of a publication like Nettavisen, that published news for free on the internet. That sort of triggered VG and all the others into following… we were very early in building up a digital audience, which was significant by the time we started the digital subscription model,” the Amedia EVP continued.

It's no coincidence that Nedregotten names VG. The newspaper's well-documented innovative approach to building digital readership has proven successful, and its digital edition reaches more Norwegians each week – 55 percent – than any other outlet.

This alone provided a strong point once it became clear subscriptions were the way forward, VG's digital editor Ola Stenberg told The Local.

“The fact that we have more readers than anyone else in Norway is obviously a perfect starting point for making sales on good journalism. And the premium journalism is, in my opinion, core to our success. When users come to VG we manage to give them teasers on good journalism worth paying for,” Stenberg said.


Photo: Terje Bendiksby / NTB scanpix

Regardless of starting point, Norwegian conversion to media subscription does not have a by-the-numbers format. Take Adresseavisen, the country's oldest newspaper which celebrated its 250th anniversary this year. Subscriptions were Adresseavisen's bread-and-butter for most of this time – until, with the 1990s drawing to a close, the online edition was launched and content became free.

Over the last five years, Adresseavisen has gone from a free, ad views-only model to implementing a paywall for some content in a subscription model.

“We've seen an increase in both subscriptions and subscribers' use of the protected content over the past two years as the proportion of paid content versus freely available content has increased,” says the newspaper's director of innovation and newsroom development Ingeborg Volan.

“We've learned that our digital subscribers are just like our traditional subscribers; they appreciate quality journalism with a regional and local flavour. These days, we place a lot more of our best content behind the paywall.

“It might not be very surprising, but our coverage of Trondheim's local football team, Rosenborg – Norway's top team – is among the most popular content for subscribers. Nothing generates more subscription sales,” Volan added.

“On a general level, succeeding with customer acquisition on paid products is very much about the game of mastering campaigns, promotion and pricing, and to secure return of investment on these activities, tools for targeting and analysis are key necessities,” Granhaug says.

This point on backing up readers' investments with a quality product – the journalism itself – is echoed by Nedregotten.

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“Clickbait is not something people are willing to put their money down for. So one of the most gratifying things that we've discovered in this process is that the kind of journalism that we thought was important actually turns out to be important,” the Amedia EVP said.

Should Nedregotten's findings bear out, it would seem possible that quality and subscriptions can feed off each other. Does this mean, then, that subscriptions can improve trust between users and the media in a time when the fake news phenomenon is putting the industry through a crisis of public confidence? The line is a fine one, given the expectations paying users are entitled to have, says Stenberg.

“Either you manage to meet those expectations or you fail – and fail equals user leaving you. If you succeed you create a relationship that is worth a lot and then improve trust between the user and the news brand. And you can also use the fact at they now are logged in to communicate targeted messages on content or services that strengthen trust,” he said.

Statistics on direct site use against access through social media support the theory that Norwegians value a news brand they trust, says Sakariassen.

“We find Norwegians to have a varied media diet, and with a strong tendency to go directly to traditionally edited news providers, also online,” she said, continuing:

“Even though many use social media as part of their news diet, very few have it as a main source, which indicates a scepticism to rely on news with dubious sources. This implies that Norwegians mostly have trust in the traditional media, even if not everybody is willing to pay for it yet.”

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