Scandinavians are avid newspaper readers, .0generally consuming more newspapers per head than any other European country. In Finland in 1998, there were 455 copies sold per 1,000 inhabitants. In Sweden, 430 copies were sold per 1,000 inhabitants, while in Norway the number is even higher than in Finland, making the Norwegians second only to the Japanese in newspaper consumption.
By comparison, in the UK in the same year, for every 1,000 people only 317 newspapers were sold, according to figures provided by Statistics Finland.
Little wonder that the region boasts a large newspaper industry. Yet if newspaper publishers in the region might have been excused the odd moment of complacency in the past, they now face a more competitive future.
Not only are rival publishers vying to achieve economies of scale across the region, but Scandinavia's rapidly developing commercial television industry - which barely existed as little as 15 years ago - and the rapid development and uptake of online services has meant added competition from rival media.
Despite this, the Scandinavian countries remain rather superior about what they perceive as their high journalistic standards. 'What we would call a downmarket tabloid, in the UK would be seen very much as a mid- to up-market newspaper, such as the Daily Mail,' Thomas Grahl, the managing director of the Swedish freesheet Stockholm News, says.
Not surprisingly, Scandinavian's largest media groups have made the most of the region's enthusiasm for newsprint. Five of Scandinavia's top ten titles are published by one company, the Norwegian-based Schibsted, which not only owns Norway's two largest newspapers, Verdens Gang and Aftenposten, but also extends its reach beyond its national borders. It owns both Sweden's national morning papers Svenska Dagbladet and Aftonbladet, two national newspapers in Estonia (Postimees and Sonumileht) and has interests in five local papers and nine magazines. Schibsted also controls the photo agency Scanpix.
The level of Schibsted's confidence in the future of print media in the region is suggested by its recent NOK1.4 billion investment in a new printing plant at Nydalen in Oslo. Schibsted also owns printing plants in Sweden and Estonia.
The remaining top titles in the region are divided between the Swedish group Bonnier, which owns Expressen and Dagens Nyheter, and Finland's Sanomat-WSOY, which publishes Helsingin Sanomat and Ilta Sanomat in its homeland. In addition, the aggressive Swedish-based Modern Times Group snaps at the heels of the established players. MTG publishes Finans Tidningen, which is a rival of Bonnier's Dagens Industri.
Yet, given the small populations in each of the Nordic nations (Sweden has just 8.9 million people, Denmark 5.9 million, Norway 4.5 million and Finland only 4 million), it is unsurprising that the big publishers are increasingly seeking deals beyond their national borders. For example, both Schibsted and Bonnier are bidding for the same newspaper in Denmark.
'Publishers are seeking economies of scale by blending individual countries into a single market. But it's a difficult job. There are factors that bind the different countries in different ways and factors that mark them as different,' the creative director of St Luke's Stockholm, Magnus Westerberg, says.
United, the Scandinavian marketplace may not prove as easy as it had been hoped. 'Sweden, Norway and Denmark share many similarities, especially in their languages. All three countries have only adopted commercial television in the past 15 years. But the differences are marked as well. Norway stands out as a non-EU state. Denmark's media was, until January 1999, bound by legal restrictions outlawing individual negotiation on price and the Danes are still coming to terms with the arrival of a free market,' Westerberg adds.
Publishers face a conundrum. The population is highly literate and the national newspapers are closely linked geographically. Yet each has its distinct outlook and its own marketing climate. This is particularly apparent in Denmark - arguably the most distinctive of the Scandinavian markets.
'The Danes have always been more inward looking and resistant to change than, say, the Swedes. We are seeing signs that Denmark is on the brink of some very big changes, that it's opening up to the world,' John Schoolcraft, the creative director of DDB Copenhagen, says.
The newspaper industry is at the heart of these developments. 'In common with the other Scandinavian countries, Denmark's newspapers have seen their profits level out over the past three years,' Poul Melbye, the advertising director of the country's biggest-selling newspaper, Politiken, says.
'That is because we haven't really changed our offering for 100 years. Commercial TV is getting more aggressive, the internet is a new challenge and we have to respond. The other Scandinavian media are looking at the newspapers like we're dinosaurs fighting each other to death in the swamps.'
Politiken, like most of the major Scandinavian titles, is exploiting the internet with its own online titles, politiken.dk and ekstrabladet.dk, as well as by joint ventures with entrepreneurial start-ups. These include the travel site politikenrejser.dk in partnership with travelmarket.dk, the recruitment site poljob.dk in partnership with jobmatch.dk, and a sports site, sportsfan.dk, set up in a joint venture with the former Danish soccer star Michael Laudrup.
In Sweden, the big publishing groups seem to have successfully transferred their print brands online. The daily afternoon/evening newspaper Aftonbladet has seen its popularity boom since the launch of its popular online site, Aftonbladet.se. Meanwhile, the rival newspaper Expressen has launched its own site, www.expressen.se, which has also proved a hit with readers.
Melbye believes that television poses a far greater threat in the long term and suggests that the industry should take on its biggest rival and beat it at its own game. 'Media agencies are gaining influence in Denmark - they're handling 70 per cent of national advertising budgets. They have a high focus on TV and they demand price discounts and documented results,' he says.
In a bid to provide this, Politiken has developed a new system of measuring its readership levels, based on Quality Ratings Points, which takes into account five parameters: day of the week, size, use of colour, placement and target audience. 'It means they can buy space in a newspaper with the same level of accountability as when they buy air-time from commercial TV,' Melbye says.
He concedes that the system needs refining and will take time to become established. However, it is set to become an accepted research tool across the region, having been picked up by all the major newspapers in Denmark.
The managing director of Zenith Media Copenhagen, Karen Jakobsen, says the system has potential: 'Instead of just selling space, they're trying to put forward something like gross ratings points in TV. In principle, it's a good idea - you pay for what you get.'
In Sweden, publishers are reviewing whether to adopt a similar system.
Zenith Media Stockholm's media director, Christian Dahlborg, says that rather than copying TV, the publishers should be looking to take the lead.
'What I would like to see instead of quality points is awareness points. For example, in TV we know that a daytime show at the weekend commands more of the viewers' attention than a daytime show during the week. There are fewer distractions, but at present we don't have any way of measuring it. The same problem applies to newspaper advertising and that's what the media owners should be looking at providing us with.'
STOCKHOLM: THE BATTLE OF THE FREESHEETS
Stockholm's first free newspaper, Metro, appeared in the city's underground transport network in 1995, published by the Swedish media conglomerate Modern Times Group.
In September this year, MTG shifted ownership of all its Metro newspapers, which appear in several European cities, to a subsidiary company, Metro International. This year, the Stockholm morning freesheet became the most widely read newspaper in Sweden, ending the 100-year dominance of the paid-for daily Dagens Nyheter, published by Bonnier AB.
Metro's first editor, Thomas Grahl, joined Associated Newspapers in 1997 to launch the London free newspaper, also called Metro, as a pre-emptive move against MTG gaining a foothold in the English capital. Grahl returned to Swedish newspapers this year as the managing director of a Metro rival, Stockholm News, backed by SEK70 million (pounds 5 million) of private investment and aiming to capture an upmarket afternoon readership. Grahl says: 'Metro is hugely profitable, with margins estimated at around 50 per cent. Of course, it was not going to be long before someone challenged them.'
Metro's response took everyone by surprise. Five days before Stockholm News' launch, Metro International suddenly produced Everyday, a downmarket afternoon freesheet, also distributed on the Stockholm subway. 'It's an old-fashioned newspaper war,' Grahl says.
Ironically, Stockholm News is being threatened by another Metro rival from Finland: the freesheet 100 Nyheter, published by Jamton and part owned by the Sanoma-WSOY Group.
100 Nyheter has been a bitter enemy of Metro since the latter snatched its licence to distribute in the Helsinki subway. 100 Nyheter now wants to take a poke at Metro in Stockholm and industry observers predict its arrival in January. Grahl says only two freesheets will survive and claims Stockholm News will be one of them.
However, Zenith Media Stockholm's account director, Christian Dahlborg, predicts a fierce battle: 'In a situation like this, 70 million krone is not a lot of money.'
Metro International would seem to have the upper hand. But the first independent comparative circulation figures published in January 2001 will be the most reliable indicator.
LARGEST DAILIES IN SCANDINAVIA 1999 CIRCULATION
TITLE CIRCULATION PUBLISHER COUNTRY
Helsingin Sanomat 454,710 Sanomat-WSOY Finland
Aftonbladet 381,700 Schibsted Sweden
Verdens Gang 373,550 Schibsted Norway
Expressen 353,900 Bonnier AB Sweden
Dagens Nyheter 352,200 Bonnier AB Sweden
Aftenposten 284,250 Schibsted Norway
Goteborgs-Posten 259,500 Goteborgs-Posten Sweden
Ilta Sanomat 218,010 Sanomat-WSOY Finland
Dagbladet 206,970 Schibsted Norway
Source: Geelmuyden, Kiese Sweden.
Sweden 8.9 million
Denmark 5.9 million
Norway 4.5 million
Finland 4.0 million
Source: Saatchi & Saatchi, Denmark.
PERCENTAGE OF ADSPEND ON EACH MEDIUM ACROSS THE NORDIC COUNTRIES (1999)
Newspapers Magazines TV Radio Cinema Outdoor
Finland 56.54 16.65 20.10 3.36 0.18 3.16
Denmark 60.66 15.21 18.83 1.97 0.50 2.83
Norway 57.68 14.99 20.44 4.34 0.82 1.73
Sweden 55.62 14.08 21.83 3.47 0.45 4.54
Source: IRM Media, Sweden.
This article was first published on Campaign