Stile over wall
Credit: Dreamer, via Wikimedia Commons
Would you pay to read your local newspaper online?

An increasing number of Norwegian locals are gambling the answer to that question is yes.

Try reading a small local newspaper such as Hallingdölen , or a regional such Faedrelandsvennen, online and you will hit the paywall for most articles, save those on major news events, the traffic or those originating from newswires. At Norwegian local Möre-Nytt you have to pay if you want to read more than five articles.

Other local newspapers, such as several of those owned by Edda Media, a group in the process of being acquired by A-pressen from Mecom, are introducing so-called "plus models", where readers have to pay to access the "plus" area, which typically offers more features and in-depth articles, of the paper’s digital offering.

This is a model which Schibsted-owned tabloid Aftonbladet has been very successful with in Sweden. Aftonbladet however, is a national which boasts around 2.5 million readers on average each day. How come local newspapers have the audacity to attempt introducing a model pioneered by a market leader?

The answer is partly to be found in local newspapers’ unique position in Norway.

Despite suffering major cost cuts over the last few years, Norwegian local and regional newspapers can still boast a fairly strong market position compared to similar newspapers in other countries.

While the decline in print circulation is dramatic for Norwegian national tabloids such as VG and Dagbladet, local and regional newspapers on average only saw a 2 to 3 per cent decline in print circulation last year.

Still, there is ample cause for worry, among them how the subscriber base for many such papers both seem to be dwindling and getting older. 

I thought it was a lot scarier to sit on the fence and do nothing, than to test a new payment modelEivind Ljöstad, editor-in-chief, Faedrelandsvennen
"I thought it was a lot scarier to sit on the fence and do nothing, than to test a new payment model," said Faedrelandsvennen’s editor-in-chief Eivind Ljöstad.

"We have been in a difficult situation for a long time. We lost more and more print subscribers every year".

In May the newspaper launched its new digital first strategy at the same time as it was introducing a paywall.

With the new model, subscribers get access to all content regardless of platform, and all content is published online first but only accessible to subscribers unless it is of a very generic nature.

"We create one set of content: Read it wherever you want to. We do not talk so much about a paywall as such.

"Our starting point was looking at our subscription and what it means to be a subscriber of Faedrelandsvennen. Many of our subscribers said they wanted to have full access to read us on all digital platforms," he explained.

The result is what many would call a fairly "hard" paywall with roughly 70 per cent of Faedrelandsvennen’s content only accessible to subscribers.

But motivation for introducing payment models is not only about trying to stem the decline in circulation and subscriptions.

Several of the industry insiders I talked for a big feature on digital payment models for Norwegian media and marketing magazine Kampanje recently also mentioned the value of a closer relationship to the newspaper’s subscribers, the value of more subscriber data to tailor more relevant content and advertisement – as well as creating better business models.

The result is a flurry of new and old, tried and untried payment models – which includes such measures as hard and soft paywalls, "plus models", pay per day, week or month, bundling various content, niche news apps and general news apps – which either have been launched or are in the process of being launched.

In Denmark, it is the nationals who currently are leading the charge to introduce new payment models. Politiken.dk, has announced it will introduce a "soft" paywall, inspired by The New York Times, towards the end of this year.

Another Danish national, Jyllands-Posten (JP.dk) has said it is looking to introduce a payment model inspired by Le Monde’s more "plus-like" model where a lot of content is available for free online, but readers have to pay to access certain unique content.

Mecom-owned Berlingske, who owns national newspaper Berlingske Tidende, has experimented with various forms of user payment, and its national is also expected to launch a new digital payment model online this year.

"Newspapers in general have a weak position in Denmark", said Henrik Schultz, a Danish media analyst at Sparebanken1 Markets.

"We often forget Norway is one of the most newspaper-reading countries in the world, while Danish newspapers had a dominating position 25 years ago but failed to meet the competition from the internet and from freesheets".

Against this backdrop he thinks the need for good digital payment solutions is more pressing in Denmark than in many other countries. In general, he feels Nordic media have been too slow to introduce digital payment solutions.

"They have talked a lot about payment solutions but remained on the fence, protecting their strong advertisement positions for too long.

"There is no reason to wait for the one major payment solution which works for everyone, it will not materialise. I think we will rather see many different models, often within the same media company, which may work within a certain area", he said.

Or, as newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor accurately observed for Nieman Journalism Lab back in March: "Suddenly it’s paywalls all around the world".

"We’ve moved ― in a couple of years ― from the question of whether to when. The big question that should be asked now: How?"

At least for Scandinavia, the observation could not be more bang on the money.

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