Siv Tveitnes, Executive Vice President of Schibsted News Media, laid out Schibsted’s five factors that are still driving the Nordic media group’s transformation during her opening keynote presentation at WAN-IFRA’s Newsroom Summit which took place at the company’s iconic news brand, VG (Verdens Gang), in late October.
(Editor’s note: This presentation took place before the announcement on 11 December that the Tinius Trust in Oslo aims to acquire Schibsted’s news operations and have a 100% controlling interest, meaning Schibsted News Media will be managed as a separate company and no longer be listed on the stock exchange, with the remaining business, consisting of the current business areas Nordic Marketplaces, which includes Delivery, and Growth & Investments continuing to be a listed company. The Tinius Trust retains its 26% ownership stake in this (latter) company. It is a non-binding agreement that is subject to approval in 2024. Here is an in-depth interview about the possible acquisition.)
Context and structure to Schibsted’s success
Schibsted’s key brands operate in Norway and Sweden and enjoy top market positions: primary news destinations VG in Norway and Aftonbladet in Sweden (advertising main rev stream); premium subscription brands Aftenposten (national title, Norway) and Svenska Dagbladet (national title, Sweden), regional daily Bergens Tidende (Norway) and Stavanger Aftenblad (business title, Norway); and a number of niche brands and new models that thrive on both advertising and subscriptions, notably the new PodMe podcast platform.
Tveitnes, who has worked in numerous positions for the Schibsted group and brands for nearly 20 years, first shared how the news business has been organised, taking in mind its two core revenue streams: advertising and subscriptions.
Schibsted Marketing Services takes care of advertising, and Product and Consumers handles subscription-related activities, as well as product. Resources and capabilities within these units are shared across all brands in Norway and Sweden. And all brands are served by a centralised tech stack development and maintained by a common tech/engineering team and other support functions like finance, strategy, and HR.
Schibsted has been known to set clear, big ambitions and targets (even publicly) to align its strategies across the entire organisation. Tveitnes said 2019 was a pivotal year for that when the company boldly proclaimed to have all its brands digitally sustainable within a few years.
“And we reached that ambition back in 2021,” she said. “So now we can say that all our brands are actually digitally sustainable, that they can survive on digital revenue solely. It doesn’t mean that we will stop doing printed papers, but we see a continuous decline in print. And I think we should be very clear about our reason to be: to deliver high-quality journalism to our users, no matter what platforms they’re actually using.”
“But we have been working very hard to improve the digital margins in our business. And today, the digital revenues account for approximately 60% of our revenues in the news media portfolio.”
The handful of reasons for successful transformation
1) Brand strategies refined in the digital era: “In the digital economy, each brand must really stand out to reach their audience and identify its unique offerings,” she said. “And they need to be crystal clear on why people should come to their news site (or other digital platforms). And with this background, all our brands have developed a more clear and tailored strategy for our primary news destinations, VG and Aftonbladet. It is really about being first on breaking news within all news categories. For Aftenposten and Svenska Dagbladet, they have focused more on explanatory or smart news experiences. And for our regional newspapers, it is all about being best on the local and regional coverage. Because of the competitive nature of digital, it is crucial to stand out with each brand and pool the available resources to remain relevant – and thrive.”
2) Product and tech development – the guts to disrupt your own business (models): This is where Schibsted made a name for itself globally as far back as the mid-1990s when VG and Aftonbladet consistently pushed the envelope in product development, but also disrupting their own business.
“Much of this has really been initiated by the brands, and our newsrooms, and journalists themselves,” Tveitnes said. Aftonbladet went online already in 1994, VG in 1995. Aftonbladet launched its first paid content model in 2003. Aftonbladet was among the first Swedish companies to launch an app on the iPhone in 2008. “And a few months later, Aftonbladet gave an iPhone to all its employees, so they should really experiment with it,” Tveitnes said. “And I think this is really something to think about now with ChatGPT and everything that is happening with AI – to really give the tools to the employees to experiment.”
VG’s success story is that of a news company that has continually challenged itself, investing in new technology really even before it became mainstream, especially not in the news industry. And a vital part of VG’s strategy has been to disrupt its own businesses. Take VG Net, VG Mobile, and VG TV, all separate companies established outside the VG core business so they could fully focus on innovation and at full speed. “When the technology and the user habits have matured, these units have been brought back into the VG core.” There are so many lessons learned in doing that and it cuts to the core of building an innovative culture – also in the newsroom!
3) Customer-centric approach in advertising: “About eight years ago, we made a significant strategic shift from a brand-centric to a customer-centric approach in advertising sales, meaning that you have one inventory across all of Schibsted, both in the news media part and in the marketplaces,” Tveitnes said. “And I think Schibsted was really the pioneer in the Nordics to have a more unified advertising inventory instead of doing per-brand sales. And that was really to try to tackle the global competition. “
Tveitnes said Schibsted is reaching eight out of 10 Norwegians and Swedes every week combined “with frequent site visits. The premium context that news media provides and being a fraud-free ad environment has really been our USP in the advertising business.
Over time, logged-in users have become a crucial part of our strategy.” Today, Schibsted has more than three million logged-in users across Norway and Sweden, “thus giving us a lot of first-party data. And we have centralised and aligned our ad platform across all our brands. And that has really been an edge in a fast-changing digital advertising market.”
4) ‘Professionalising’ tech development: Tveitnes said Schibsted also shifted its approach here similarly to that of its ad strategy, i.e. from being brand-centric, where each brand had their own tech stack, to developing common tools and platforms for all newsrooms and the subscription business. “Our core news product is a content discovery and creation tool that we have developed in-house, and it is actually complimented by our journalists!”, she said. “And this platform is really the foundation for new features and products that we are developing. And over the years, we have also learned to strike a balance between the collaboration across the different brands but also being able to be more brand-centric specific in our development. In some development, it totally makes sense to do things together, but I think also that we should give room for each brand to develop their own features and products.”
5) Growing the digital subscription business: “I mentioned that Aftonbladet already introduced this 20 years ago, but I think the real breakthrough of digital subscriptions in Schibsted and in the Nordic market came in 2012 after we experimented with some of our smallest subscription newspapers. At that time, we were iterating and testing with the other subscription newspapers before we launched it at Aftenposten, our biggest subscription model in newspapers. And back in 2021, we acquired the podcast platform, PodMe. In parallel, we have invested a lot in podcasts across all of our brands, and we see that podcasts are becoming a very important subscription service.”
Since the acquisition of PodMe, she said Schibsted has tripled the number of paying subscribers for its premium podcast platform – “the fastest-growing subscription product that we have ever seen in Schibsted.”
Today, Schibsted has about 1.2 million digital subscribers, according to Tveitnes. “We really believe we are just in the early days for how this will all develop.” Increasingly, a (flexible) bundled subscription that gives users choices to access all the different brands and content they desire is paying off, she said.
Leadership team behind transformation
Tveitnes said Schibsted News Media’s leadership team consists of publishers in their biggest brands, and the leaders in the business units and support functions. “Since journalism is really the core of what we are doing, that must be reflected in the executive team,” she said. A somewhat unique structure within Schibsted: most publishers of their brands are also editors. And they have a combined editorial and commercial responsibility for their brand.
“And we, as a team, have a common strategy for news media – across all units. We have the same incentives, and we are actually measured on Schibsted News Media as a whole and not on the different brands.”
“To sum up, the quality of our journalism is really the backbone of our strong position in Schibsted News Media,” Tveitnes said. “And we can never compromise on that. However, journalism without an audience and a sustainable business model is of limited value. So in addition to having very strong brands and the best journalists in our newsroom, we need to have the best people within product, technology, our revenue actitivies, advertising, and subscription. And that is really part of our success formula. … we are entirely dependent on each other to succeed.”
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