Thomas Mattsson, editor-in-chief of the Swedish tabloid Expressen, set a bold goal for his staff last summer: Develop, build, and launch a viral news site — think the more LOL elements of BuzzFeed — in just two weeks.
The paper met its deadline and in July launched Omtalat, which means “talked about” in Swedish. In short order, Expressen followed up on Omtalat with new viral sites specifically dedicated to sports and animals.
Expressen has a print circulation of 193,100 and its main websites — expressen.se and expressen.tv — are among the most visited news sites in the country, but in an email Mattsson emphasized that he wanted a “more entrepreneurial approach” to look outside the main sites to “create simpler and…quicker sites.”
That’s an impulse that’s spread beyond just Expressen, as there’s been an explosion viral news sites starting in Sweden this year. Expressen is one of two main national evening tabloids in Sweden. Its rival is the larger Aftonbladet, and the two have competed head-to-head for scoops, readers, and advertisers for years — think of the New York Post vs. the Daily News, except on a national scale. And now they battle on the viral front as well, as Aftonbladet’s parent company Schibsted launched its own viral news site, Lajkat (“liked” in Swedish) this summer as well, followed by a viral sports site.
American viral sites like BuzzFeed, Mashable, and The Huffington Post have all opened international outposts. But by bypassing certain foreign markets, these sites have allowed local publishers, like Schibsted and Expressen’s parent Bonnier, to mimic their publishing techniques and business models. Just as viral sites aggregate the rest of the web, the most effective of their ideas are now being aggregated abroad.
“It’s a rather new phenomenon, and I think the reason the traditional media organizations have started them is that they don’t want any competitors in their market,” said Ingela Wadbring, a professor at Mid Sweden University who studies change in the media.
But expanding into new online publishing models has indeed brought new competitors for Aftonbladet and Expressen — namely Newsner, another new viral site in Sweden. But unlike Lajkat or Omtalat, Newsner is run by a digital marketing agency, not a traditional media company.
True to their aims, despite being in a country of just 9.6 million people, the three companies’ sites have managed to attract significant traffic in a short time — particularly on mobile devices. In Sweden, web traffic is measured by the week and ranked on the KIA-Index, a ranking run by an advertising trade group. During the week of Nov. 17, Newsner had 1.2 million unique mobile browsers, Lajkat brought in 829,274 unique mobile browsers, and Omtalat had 803,113.
Swedish news organizations are facing the same challenges as media companies throughout the world: Readers’ habits are changing and advertising in traditional formats continues to decline. Take Aftonbladet, for example. Weekday print circulation fell 17 percent through the first nine months of 2014 compared to the year before, according to Schibsted’s 3rd quarter financial report. And while online revenue grew 11 percent in the quarter, it was outpaced by a 16 percent drop in print advertising revenue.
Media organizations see these viral sites as a potential way to reverse these trends. Though online revenue isn’t replacing what’s being lost in print advertising, these viral sites are low-cost endeavors that are bringing in some cash for their publishers. When Omtalat launched earlier this summer, Expressen’s existing five-person social media staff worked in shifts running the site, but since then, Expressen decided to hire two staffers to focus exclusively on the viral sites, Mattsson said.
Lajkat only has one full-time editorial employee working directly on the site, but on the business side it’s been able to take advantage of Schibsted’s large sales team to feature native ads on the site. Through late October, after about 10 weeks of publishing, Lajkat had brought in about 500,000 Swedish krona ($67,343) in advertising, Ehsan Fadakar, Lajkat’s founder and Aftonbladet’s head of social media, told me.
Fadakar was working on a corporate report for Schibsted when it struck him how the company was struggling to attract younger readers. So when he told Aftonbladet publisher Jan Helin “give me a developer and 48 hours, and I will build a Swedish BuzzFeed,” he was given the opportunity to experiment and build the site, Helin said in a column he wrote for a Schibsted report on the future of media.
“Before it was a question of age — now it has turned to be a question of generations,” Wadbring said. “You can see that there are changes that will continue. People will not change when they get older as they did before. And the newspapers, even if you take it together the print edition and the online edition, you reach one-third of the Swedish population. And we used to reach very much more than that, so everyone is really struggling to even stay on the market.”
Both companies are deliberate about differentiating the sites from the larger news organizations: There’s no Schibsted branding on Lajkat, and though Omtalat’s URL is expressen.se/omtalat, there’s only one small Expressen logo at the bottom of the page.
Lajkat certainly feels very BuzzFeed-y, with lists of texts from parents or the best things about Swedish media personalities, and content that attempt to speak to personal experience, like “14 stadier alla går igenom när man flyttar hemifrån,” or “14 stages everyone goes through when they leave home.” (It’s even been accused of lifting content from other sites, much like BuzzFeed has.)
Omtalat posts more content than Lajkat, and many posts are just embedded videos that are already circulating on the web, like the video Snapchat produced last month announcing its SnapCash payment system. Its animal and sports sites are similar.
Omtalat also offers more serious tech and politics reporting with stories detailing the most recent update to Instagram or the Vox-like “18 questions and answers about politics in Sweden after the election (which you want answers to but do not dare ask).”
Omtalat is part of what Expressen calls its “Lab sites.” It’s here that the company is experimenting with different forms of content and revenue generation. It’s even trying out producing content in other languages. In November, after two weeks of development, it launched German, Turkish, and Norwegian language versions of Omtalat. The sites all look the same, save for the language.
“We have recruited journalists from Norway, Germany, and Turkey living in Sweden and based them among the Expressen staff in Stockholm,” Mattsson said in an email. “We will look for local freelancers as well, since we guess that language and cultural knowledge is important.”
While Expressen and Schibsted battle it out for Swedish youth, rival viral site Newsner has instead found its own audience: 45- to 55-year-olds on Facebook, Johan Rikner, CEO of Newsner’s parent Nyheter365, told me. That doesn’t mean it’s ceding the overseas market, though, as it’s started an English-language version of the site as well.
Rikner said 95 percent of the site’s traffic comes from Facebook, and that while other viral sites have content that appeals only to the younger demographic, while Newsner makes sure to have a broader appeal.
“We have less of those that are more interesting for a younger group. We do more that is more interesting for everyone,” Rikner said. “They have more things about school or something you remember now that you’re 20 from when you were 10, dating things…we haven’t done those that are too focused on the young group.”
The sites often do publish similar stories, many of them videos or memes that are in English. Eighty-six percent of Swedes speak English well enough to have a conversation, according to a 2012 European Union study, so in addition to competing with each other, the Swedish upstart viral sites have to compete with established American sites as well. In the past month, BuzzFeed has had about 1 million unique visitors from Sweden, according to Quantcast.
@danedstrom och även oss. värdelöst beteende.
— Ehsan Fadakar (@ehsanfadakar) October 29, 2014
“Viralking.se copying a recipe for success,” Edström tweeted, according to a Google translation from Swedish. “Code and all wrapped straight from Omtalat. Not OK.”
“And us. Worthless behavior,” replied Lajkat’s Fadakar in Swedish.
And as is true throughout the world of online viral publishers, Swedish sites occasionally fall prey to fake stories racing around the social web. To combat these rumors, the Swedish free daily Metro runs a blog that factchecks and debunks rumors that are circulating on Swedish social media and viral sites.
The blog is called Viralgranskaren, which translates to Viral Eye. Jack Werner, Metro’s social media editor who helped found the blog, told me he thought of the idea last fall after seeing a fake anti-immigration story take off among Swedish Facebook users. The site launched in March.
“Since a story can reach so many people on Facebook it can actually affect their world view,” Werner said. “If that story then is fake, their world view may be falsely or wrongly distorted. We figured this area needed some journalism.”