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What makes people avoid the news? Trust, age, political leanings — but also whether their country’s press is free
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Feb. 26, 2020, 12:47 p.m.

Maybe publisher cooperation is a path forward for news, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of public media

In Norway and Sweden, a survey finds some people won’t pay for online news because the news from their free public broadcaster is good enough. That’s a feature, not a bug.

When making just about any kind of international comparison around news media, one thing quickly becomes clear: The Scandinavians blow the curve for everyone else.

While the U.S. government spends a measly $3 per capita on public broadcasting, Sweden spends $95 and Norway $125.

What percentage of a country’s residents pay for online news? In Canada, that’s 9 percent. In the U.S., 16 percent. But in Sweden? 27 percent. Norway? 34 percent.

What countries finish No. 1, 2, and 3 in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index? Norway, Finland, and Sweden. (The U.S. is No. 48.)

In the United States, there is roughly 1 copy of a newspaper printed each day for every 10.6 people. In Norway, it’s about 1 copy for every 2.6 people. The U.S. has roughly 33× as many people as Sweden, but only 13× as many daily newspapers. 80 percent of Finns read at least one print newspaper each week.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It’s almost embarrassing for the rest of us, to be frank.

But there can still be trouble in media paradise, at least according to this new report from the Tinius Trust. (It’s the largest shareholder in the Scandinavia-heavy media group Schibsted, which has negotiated the transition to digital as well as any media house worldwide. The Tinius Trust is designed “to ensure that Schibsted remains a media group characterized by free, independent editorial staffs, credibility, and quality and with long-term, healthy financial developments.”)

Here’s Kjersti Løken Stavrum, the trust’s CEO:

There is a limit to how many digital news subscriptions the public will want to pay for in the future — a ceiling that will impact media diversity…This is clear from the results of a new survey done in Norway and Sweden for the Tinius Trust — conducted by Norstat.

In Norway, 46% responded that they would only want 1-2 news subscriptions in the future. Almost half of the younger respondents aged 18-29 assume that they will not subscribe to digital news sources in the future at all.

The same trend has been identified in Sweden: 42% of respondents state that they only expect to have 1-2 digital news subscriptions, while 54% of 18 to 29-year olds say that they will not subscribe at all.

So even in the Asgard of Nordic media, lots of people say they either don’t expect to subscribe to any digital news outlets or, at best, only one or maybe two. (The actual numbers for Sweden: 45 percent say none, 28 percent say one, 14 percent say two. In Norway: 33 percent none, 27 percent one, 20 percent two. Shoutout to my fellow “six or more” news nerds.)

That most people will likely only subscribe to one digital news outlet (at most!) is a real issue we’ve written about before. It’s not that it’s different from what we had pre-Internet — after all, most people only subscribed to a single newspaper too.

But it is quite different from what we saw in the last decade-plus of the internet, when first blogs and then social media pushed people to see news sites as a neverending buffet, where it was totally fine to grab a couple cocktail shrimp from The Washington Post, some broccoli from Vox, some mashed potatoes from your local daily paper, and maybe a brownie from Vulture. As more of those sites go behind paywalls, we moved from an open buffet to ordering entrees off the menu — and normal people don’t order five different entrees to have a little bit of each. That’s as true in Oslo as in Orlando.

The Tinius Trust survey (of about 1,000 Swedes and 1,000 Norwegians) went further and asked what factors most keep their number of digital subscriptions low. The No. 1 response: “There is sufficient access to free, digital news,” in particular from those well-funded public broadcasters:

Almost half of the respondents in Norway (45%) pointed to the free content provided by the national broadcaster NRK. The figure for Sweden is somewhat lower but remains high, with 38% saying that they will not pay for content given that the Swedish national broadcasting agency SVT offers its content free of charge.

The figures are cause for concern.

Eh…is it? Depends how you view the mission of a public broadcaster, I suppose.

British media companies have long complained about the BBC crowding out for-profit media. Canadian media companies complain about the CBC. Some ill-informed Americans do the same about NPR or PBS. The underlying goal of public media, after all, is to make high-quality news and information available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

By definition, that will reduce the number of people who want to pay for news. I call that a feature, not a bug. But the argument against public media seems to be gaining ground in some places. I would hope Scandinavia doesn’t become one of them. A study late last year found that, of Norwegians who don’t already subscribe to digital news, less than 10 percent of Norwegians say they’re even interested in someday doing so — meaning a trusted public broadcaster is critical to their information needs. Even in a country with the highest digital news subscription rate in the world.

The Tinius Trust report doesn’t specifically say funding for public broadcasting is bad, to be clear. (Though “Free news from public service broadcasters prevents subscription sales” gets close to that ballpark, if not quite in it.) But the trust does say the status quo is harmful:

The Norwegian government’s media policy seeks to promote diversity in the media. It is a fact that democracy thrives where information is freely available and of many kinds. However, diversity is currently restricted to those who can pay for media access individually. If this leads to a rise in the number of persons entering the category known as “news avoiders”, there is cause for concern. Such a development would create new inequalities based on insufficient information about societal development, something that will be detrimental to society at large.

The solution the trust is pushing is some sort of shared arrangement between publishers — something on the spectrum between a shared login system across sites to a sort of super-subscription like what Spotify offers for music. Bring back the endless buffet, in other words — just maybe charge for admission this time.

In Scandinavia, the transition to charging for digital news subscriptions has been a success. From the readers’ point of view, however, the requirement to sign in to the various publications often stops them from accessing the story they want to read. In practice, signing-in solutions mean that most people will limit themselves to one or perhaps two paid-for news sources…

Spotify’s payment solution for music has, for many years, been an obvious model for editorial content, although developments have failed to materialize. Most persons in the media industry have heard readers complain about how much they would like to access individual articles without having to pay for an entire month or even longer news subscriptions. Such statements must sound like music to the ears of a player like Spotify.

Because the issue is this: if creating a joint sign-in solution for content in the same category — such as digital, editorial news — is beneficial, someone will produce it. And if the media players themselves don’t take the initiative, someone else will.

The paradox is that the editorial media can, in fact, cooperate. They have done so by means of news services such as NTB [the Norwegian News Agency] in Norway for more than 150 years and Tidningsutgivarna [a Swedish publishers association] in Sweden for almost a century…But time is running out. They need to make a move.

A single sign-on can allow publishers to improve their data for ad targeting, however marginally, vis-à-vis the tech titans and allow for better customization and discovery. (Schibsted has had its own single sign-on for all its sites since 2013.)

I’m always happy to see these sorts of efforts, despite my skepticism — not only because they might help their home country’s news ecosystem, but because they could be proving grounds for ideas that can be replicated elsewhere. Cooperation is a good thing! Maybe there is a future for a common platform that people can use across an entire country to get news and information from lots of different commercial sources.

It’s a lot easier to arrange cross-publisher cooperation in a small country like Norway or Sweden than in a megalith like the United States. But even in smaller countries, the track record isn’t stellar. There have been attempts at creating something like a country-wide paywall before (like Piano Media’s attempts in Slovenia and Slovakia almost a decade ago, which failed because readers weren’t interested). And companies like Blendle have gotten lots of publishers to sign on to a shared, article-based platform, but they’ve struggled to scale.

Experience tells me that consumer demand for such a product usually trails its creators’ interests. And getting lots of different media companies to cooperate is hard work. Nónio, a Google-funded attempt to do something similar between Portuguese publishers, has had a slow go of it, with the newspaper Público dropping out of the alliance in December. There are a number of similar initiatives across Europe currently, but none (to my knowledge — feel free to inform me otherwise) has set the world on fire. And they’ve mostly been oriented toward improved user data for advertising — the better to fight Google and Facebook — not shared subscriptions, which is a different kettle of fish in a thousand ways.

Still, whatever efforts are made on that front, one thing is clear: They shouldn’t come at the expense of a country’s existing common platform for news and information, the one that in most countries is the most trusted source of news — public media. As our media ecosystems shatter into a million pieces, a public service broadcaster’s role as a trusted central anchor free to all is more important than ever.

Photo of the border between Norway and Sweden by Simon_sees used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 26, 2020, 12:47 p.m.
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