The rise of commercial TV hit Scandinavian newspapers hard, especially the tabloids. But by launching extra sections and targeting niche markets they are fighting back, Nicole Dickenson says

The rise of commercial TV hit Scandinavian newspapers hard, especially

the tabloids. But by launching extra sections and targeting niche

markets they are fighting back, Nicole Dickenson says

Scandinavians love their newspapers about as much as they detest having

to pay too much tax. Well over 80 per cent of Danes and Norwegians and

95 per cent of Swedes read a newspaper - if not two - every day. And

just to make sure they get their daily fix, most subscribe to a quality


The Scandinavians’ penchant for newspapers has probably put a few media

magnates into the mega-tax bracket, and the leading newspaper publishers

enjoy enviably large market shares. In Norway, the Schibsted group

controls two of the top three dailies and a massive 40.4 per cent of the

total newspaper circulation. In Sweden, Bonnier owns the country’s most

profitable newspaper and its titles account for 28.4 per cent of

newspapers’ total income.

Most newspapers are local or regional - although many are increasingly

developing a broad circulation outside their home base - and each

country has two tabloids that have a more or less national distribution.

The Danish and Swedish tabloids follow the best (or worst) tradition of

the Sun for sensationalism, gossip and scandal, but in Norway they are

more restrained.

In all three countries, newspapers have suffered from the recession and

the arrival of private, commercial TV in the past seven years. But

adspend on newspapers increased last year as advertisers switched

budgets back to the press and continues to rise. ‘Some clients are

getting disillusioned with commercial TV. It has the most expensive cost

per thousand in Europe, there is no regional solution and the

advertising environment is not that great,’ says Richard Davis, media

director of Message Media in Sweden, part of the Lowe group.

Peter Legaard, Nordic media director at Ogilvy and Mather, says smaller

advertisers are keen to go back to print: ‘Advertisers with limited

budgets didn’t get very good results from TV. The dailies are the only

alternative to TV for building up coverage fast,’ he says.

In every country the tabloids’ circulations are falling, which most

blame on television. ‘The tabloids have been hurt most by commercial TV

because it offers the same sort of product - short news stories, lots of

sport and real-life drama,’ Johnny Twile, an account director at Carat

Scandinavia, explains. In contrast, the broadsheets, which offer more

in-depth news coverage than TV, have seen their circulations go up.

The top-selling Swedish tabloid, Expressen, is hurting more than most.

Its weekday circulation fell to 418,300 in the first half of 1995 - a

year-on-year decline of 32,700 copies, according to Dagens Industri. The

rival tabloid, Aftonbladet, fared better with a rise in circulation of

4,500 to around 350,000 - leaving the smallest gap in circulation between the two papers since the 50s.

Observers say that Expressen has lost direction partly as a result of

too many editorial changes. The evening tabloid has had five editors and

five relaunches in as many years. The newest editor intends to follow

her predecessor’s strategy of taking the paper upmarket and making it a

‘must read’ rather than a titillating alternative to the quality papers.

The tabloids, or so-called evening papers (although it’s a bit of a

misnomer; the first edition comes out before 11am) are increasingly

competing with the broadsheets, but appear to be losing the battle as

their ad revenue is falling.

Media buyers say the editorial environment of the tabloids is risky for

many products. ‘The tabloids offer a cost-efficient package, but only if

you’re targeting a broad group. We have to consider whether they offer

the right editorial environment. They’re too unpredictable - you never

know what your ad will end up next to,’ Karin Forsgren, a media planner

at MediaCom Sweden, says.

In a desperate bid to appeal to as many readers as possible, the

tabloids have come out with more and more special sections and

supplements on anything from sport to women’s issues to TV listings.

But Carina Carlsson, Carat Stockholm’s group manager, believes that they

will never regain their former glory. ‘The quality of tabloids has

deteriorated and they’re not seen as a serious source of news any more.

They will never have the sort of sales they had ten years ago,’ she


Despite the tabloids’ woes, the Swedish newspaper industry is still in

healthy shape. Last year, the daily press enjoyed profits of more than

SwedishKroner 1 billion (pounds 98 million), helped by a 10 per cent

increase in ad revenue and state subsidies of SKr487 million (pounds 47.7 million). Not only does the Swedish government bestow lavish

subsidies on newspapers, it is also considering imposing an 11 per cent

tax on TV adspend.

Earlier this year, the TV company, Kinnevik, launched a Stockholm-only

daily newspaper, Metro - the first daily launch for 14 years. It is

given out free at underground and railway stations, takes ten minutes to

read and has a print run of more than 200,000 a day. Metro is reported

to have the second highest circulation in the capital behind Dagens


But Forsgren is wary of some of the circulation claims: ‘Two research

companies are trying to measure the circulation and haven’t come up with

any definitive figures yet. But if an advertiser wants a strong campaign

in Stockholm, Metro is a good buy. It seems to have more young readers

than other papers,’ she says.

The leading business daily, Dagens Industri, launched an upmarket

morning paper, Dagens Politik, in November. There was a lot of

excitement before the launch, but that petered out when it revealed a

target circulation of just 10,000 copies. Still, it has got the thumbs-


In Denmark, the tabloids, Ekstra Bladet and BT, are having similar

problems to Expressen. Sales are down, but thanks to the quirks of

newspaper purchasing habits - Danish households in rural areas like to

share a newspaper with their neighbours and delivering the paper has

become a social event - readership has stayed buoyant.

The tabloids are trying to win back readers by spicing up their

editorial even further and running lotteries and bingo games. No-one

knows yet whether the games will give the papers more than just a

temporary boost in circulation. BT also relaunched last year and Ekstra

Bladet is trying to regain its reputation for hard-hitting journalism.

A sign of the times is found in the regional broadsheet, Jyllands

Posten, which overtook Ekstra Bladet as the top-selling daily in the

summer. Jyllands Posten has continually revamped and improved its

editorial and launched new supplements, including one on Copenhagen a

few months ago. In doing so, it went head to head with the quality

morning papers, Politiken and Berlingske Tidende, which have a strong

base in the capital. ‘Jyllands Posten positioned itself as ‘the

newspaper if you want to know more’ and it has a very strong editorial

product,’ Twile says.

The intense competition between the three broadsheets and between the

two tabloids belie the general spirit of co-operation between rival

Danish newspapers. Danes would never witness the aggressive price war

started by Rupert Murdoch that has cost English papers so much in lost

revenue. In Denmark it is altogether more civilised. ‘Newspapers have an

unspoken agreement that they will have more or less the same cover price

as their direct competitors,’ Ebbe Dal, director of the Danish Newspaper

Association, says.

The dailies also present a united front in buying newsprint and deciding

the size of discounts on space buying - one audacious media buyer was

even blacklisted for trying to secure a discount against the ratecard.

The Norwegian newspaper publishing world is not quite so genteel. For

the first time in many years Norway’s two tabloids, VG and Dagbladet,

have suffered falling circulation, but, bizarrely, readership has stayed

the same. Dagbladet was affected first - its average daily circulation

fell by 16,414 in the first half of this year while VG lost 6,820 a day

- but then VG suffered more in the third quarter, losing a massive

30,000 sales in one week in September. In contrast, the broadsheet,

Aftenposten, sold 4,000 more issues a day in June this year compared

with last year.

Tom Oestad, a research director at Carat Norway, believes that the

tabloid, Dagbladet, suffers from unclear positioning. ‘It’s read by

well-educated people, mainly women, and ends up competing with

Aftenposten. It doesn’t know where to position itself - it’s stuck in

the middle of VG at one end and Aftenposten at the other,’ he says.

The publishers of VG and Dagbladet are convinced that falling tabloid

sales are all the fault of commercial TV, but don’t seem to know what to

do about it. They have fewer options than their counterparts in Denmark,

as bingo and lotteries are not permitted. There is speculation that the

tabloids may close some of their special sections in an effort to cut


Both VG and Dagbladet have invested in clever TV and poster campaigns,

but will have to do more. ‘It would be dangerous for the tabloids to

change the product too much - they could alienate existing readers.

Although their cost per thousand is still cheaper than regional papers,

they should lower ad rates to reflect the fall in circulations and

compete with TV and radio,’ Egil Storaas, managing director of MediaCom

Norway, says.

The tabloids seem in no hurry to slash ad rates, but then ad revenue is

still on the increase thanks to the general economic recovery. The top

three dailies enjoyed ad revenue increases of 15 to 18 per cent in the

first half of 1995.

The booming ad market should bode well for the planned launch of a free

daily for the Oslo underground, much like Sweden’s Metro. It will end

Aftenposten’s near monopoly in Oslo and inject much-needed competition

into the market. The paper’s backers are still not known, as the

underground network has yet to award the franchise. The launch is

unlikely to go ahead until late next year.

Although the past few years have been hard for the Scandinavian press,

Legaard is convinced that the future is brighter. ‘Newspapers still have

a very important role to play even if commercial TV supply continues to

increase. They’ve already started improving their product and winning

back readers.’

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