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Oct. 21, 2021, 2:08 p.m.
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How Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat has built digital success through “diamonds” in the rough

HS is the only subscription national newspaper in Finland. Here’s how it gets readers to subscribe.

This year’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2021 Digital News Report revealed an interesting tidbit about Finland. Twenty percent of Finland’s 5.6 million people subscribes to a news publication. Of that 20 percent, 48% subscribe to Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s newspaper of record and the only national subscription newspaper in the country.

The Reuters Institute also found that Helsingin Sanomat has the third highest trust rate (81%) among news media brands in the country, just behind the Finnish national public broadcaster Yle News (85%) and local newspapers overall.

Helsingin Sanomat is headquartered in Finland’s capital of Helsinki and was founded in 1889 under the name Päivälehti, when modern-day Finland was part of the Russian Empire. Today it’s owned by parent company Sanoma, which also owns 40 other media brands in Finland, including Ilta-Sanomat, one of the two largest evening newspapers in Finland.

In 2016, the editors of Helsingin Sanomat realized that its paywall wasn’t working as intended.

After reading five articles, readers would hit the paywall — and wouldn’t subscribe to read more, editor-in-chief Kaius Niemi said.

To combat this, the paper started experimenting with the kinds of stories it put behind the paywall. Some stories, it was decided, would be behind the paywall no matter what — only subscribers or readers signed up for a two-week free trial would be able to read them. Instead of using the more common lock icon to signify that you would have to pay for the story, they used a diamond.

“The lock symbol had become a worldwide way of portraying the paywall,” Niemi said. “We felt that the lock does not signal the added value of quality journalism and advanced digital storytelling. Rather, it had a risk of creating a negative connotation by closing the gate in front of a potential subscriber. Diamonds also illustrate the hard work behind the stories.”

At first, “diamond stories” were selected during story planning meetings. But when the staff’s picks didn’t lead to a bump in subscriptions, Niemi started holding separate meetings to choose the stories that would be behind the paywall. That led to a change in the kinds of stories that were selected.

“It was very inspiring to start learning about what stories make a potential reader subscribe,” Niemi said. “What worked well in 2017 would most probably create only a mediocre result today.”

The diamond strategy was here to stay. Today, HS has a daily feature at the top of its website that translates to “Diamond of the Day,” to put that handpicked story on readers’ radars as early on in their homepage browsing experience as possible. Culture and lifestyle stories often tend to be reliable “Diamond” picks. In recent weeks, for instance, diamond content included a stories about mental health, one woman’s experience living in poverty, and tips for moving away from a meat-heavy diet for health. (The image at right shows some of them; the Google translation is clunky, but you get the gist.)

Today HS has more than 400,000 subscribers, a base that’s been growing every year since 2017, when the 25 years of subscription decline began turning around. Of those 400,000 subscribers, around 140,000 are digital-only and 150,000 are print and digital subscriptions. In the first six months of 2021, HS subscriptions were up by 3%.

The increased subscription revenue has helped HS start a business vertical for young professionals, hire a reporter to cover student issues and research at Helsinki University, and create an environmental desk to cover the climate crisis.

That investment — in creating digital experiences for a range of readers — has paid off. This past March, HS won a silver medal in the experimental design series for the Society for News Design’s annual Best of Digital News Design competition. The awarded project was HS’s climate crisis font, “an OpenType variable font that helps people see the urgency of climate change.” According to the project page, “the font’s weight responds to NSIDC’s (National Snow and Ice Data Center) Arctic sea ice data from 1979 to 2019 and IPCC’s prediction all the way to 2050, showing how the ice is expected to shrink because of climate change based on current forecasts.”

The more the ice shrinks, the more difficult the font becomes to read. Anyone can use it, and HS even employs it for its own logo on its website.

HS knows that its work — and what the staff has learned about innovation — can be beneficial to other newsrooms in Europe. In 2020, Helsingin Sanomat opened up its playbook to Hungarian news outlet Telex so to help it launch a reader-funded model.

In 2020, the editor-in-chief of Hungary’s leading news site, Index, was fired “after he publicly raised alarm over political interference in the outlet’s operations.” Former staffers form a new, independent, reader-funded outlet, Telex. Telex raised €1 million in less than a month.

HS might not have been this generous with its competitors in Finland, Niemi said, but he felt it was necessary to help build a free press in a European Union country. (HS also ran a press freedom campaign in response to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s meeting in Helsinki in 2018.) “I think there is a consensus that when it comes to the press and press freedom, we need to help these guys.”

Beyond focusing on its current audience and expressing solidarity with other outlets across Europe, what makes HS stand out is its focus on building a future audience, particularly by trying to understand the consumption habits of people who aren’t subscribing yet.

“We are interested in different segments and smaller groups because understanding them is elementary in order to be able to make this business-to-consumer subscription model sustainable,” Niemi said. “If we are a national newspaper and people are trusting us … then we also need to understand who is not subscribing to us and why.”

That includes getting young people interested in current events. In 2015, HS launched a TV news show for kids ages 6 to 12 to not only help keep kids informed, but also build their media literacy skills. The show was so well-received that in 2019, HS started publishing a newspaper for kids. Niemi said that many parents subscribe to the children’s paper for their own kids because they trust HS. The paper then creates “offline moments” for the kids to learn about the world around them.

“We need to be competitive, and when I say competitive, I mean that we want to be at the very forefront in digital storytelling,” Niemi said. “And it’s not because we want to be, like, the top something in the world, but rather we see that it is something we must do in order to win the heart of the younger generation. Otherwise we might lose it.”

Courtesy of Sanoma

POSTED     Oct. 21, 2021, 2:08 p.m.
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