Cakes and coffee on a tray
Credit: Photo by Ea Ehn/Pexels

"The fact that you are always in some kind of breaking news situation makes the long-term strategic focus that you need to make a transformation hard to find," says Christina Johannesson, project manager for future competencies at Sweden's public broadcaster SVT. "So it’s really important to understand why you need that change."

That meant speaking to people in the community.

Johannesson says that even in 2016, SVT had relatively advanced audience data, which highlighted trends and concerns – including the fact that the broadcaster was losing its link to the younger generation.

What she felt was missing was a personal connection with the audience, as well as with people in Sweden who were not actively following SVT. Her solution was the 'Fika med SVT' project, a series of small meet-ups (typically between three and 30 people would attend, plus SVT staff) held all over Sweden.

There were two goals: finding out what people need from the public service media both in terms of content and in terms of accessibility and how they consume the news, and aligning staff behind shared goals.

"Audience attitudes change very quickly, so if we are not keeping our ear to the ground we will very soon be off track in serving the audience," Johannesson explains.

‘Fika’ is the Swedish word for a coffee break, and in recent years it has become part of the national brand in a country that has a reputation for an introverted social culture. It most often refers to breaks in the workplace or with friends, but is also used as part of integration efforts – it plays such an important role that part of the ceremony people go to after receiving Swedish citizenship through naturalisation is a fika at their city hall.

SVT has been organising their community coffees for five years now, a time period in which the broadcaster has switched from being TV-first to digital-first and covered one Swedish election, with another one approaching in autumn 2022. Several hundred fikas have been hosted, including 75 in the first year alone as well as online versions during the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Have you got audience data? Good. Now use it

'They don't even know we exist'

One concrete example illustrates the value of the meetings in delivering reality checks.

During a fika with a group of journalism students - regular viewers who were enthusiastic about following the news and politics and even knew the names of many SVT presenters - they suggested that SVT develop a news app.

The problem? SVT already had one, which was several years old at the time.

Hearing that even these highly engaged younger people were unaware of the app helped to turn the dial on how the newsroom approached its digital offering. Broadcast producers had previously pushed back over extensive cross-promotion of the app during TV programmes, but this insight brought different members of the team onto the same page.

"Instead of having hour-long meetings about ‘should this line on the app be blue or red’, you realise that’s not important. They don’t even know we exist [in app form]!" says Johannesson.

From complaints to coffee

All the coffee meetings took place in the community, not the newsroom, with SVT staff heading to schools, workplaces, community groups and town squares up and down the 2,000 mile-long country.

This was a choice in order to show respect and curiosity, Johanesson says, and to ensure that attendees felt safe in familiar environments.

As for how the locations were chosen, a website publicising the initiative allowed people to invite SVT to their area, but the organisation also worked to find groups that did not already engage with the broadcaster. For example, when people called SVT to log complaints, the switchboard invited them to join the coffee meetings. These people often they accepted the invitation.

After the meeting, participants were asked fill out a form and these were reviewed to spot patterns, which means the meetings provided quantitative data as well as qualitative feedback from the staff who attended and spoke to community members. 

The results

There were some common threads in what audiences reported they wanted from the news: they said that international news focused too heavily on the USA, and Swedish news on Stockholm. They wanted local news, more context and clear explanations of major topics, but also more constructive and positive journalism.

As a result, the newsroom adapted its content strategy, with a much stronger focus on solutions-oriented angles, including a new style of debate show ahead of the general election this autumn. Inspired by a similar project in Germany, Sverige Möts brings people together who have different views, and facilitates debates between them, as well as with politicians and experts.

Another question often raised at the fikas was whether SVT is truly impartial, which prompted further research and projects by the newsroom, including reviewing which perspectives are under- and over-represented in the news coverage and ramping up staff training on impartiality.

Johannesson found that hearing directly from real people had a stronger impact on staff than seeing data, even if these showed the same trends. She recalls one award-winning news anchor who joined a fika with industrial workers in southern Sweden. They did not recognise the anchor, who Johannesson says spoke about the audience in a different way after the fika.

Since the launch of Fika med SVT, the broadcaster has seen growth in both traffic to the website and sessions on the site, and has regained popularity with the 20-39 age group they had formerly lost touch with.

There were also internal benefits. Staff surveys also show that leaders in the newsroom have become more engaged, while staff also feel more focused and satisfied in their work.

Digital transformation

Just like Swedish fika is about more than the coffee (tourism companies will tell you it is a "way of life" or "state of mind"), SVT’s switch to audience-focused strategy is about more than just the fika.

Fika med SVT was part of broader transformation efforts as the newsroom made its shift from broadcast to digital, and these did not come easily. In 2016, shortly before the project started, 70 percent of all managers were replaced in a restructure.

Johannesson says the audience engagement project happened alongside work which aimed to develop a strong feedback culture within the newsroom, because previously changes happened slowly due to a lack of clarity over goals and who was responsible for decisions.

Hundreds of staff have received training on how to give and receive feedback, how to coach, and how to use audience data in their work, while around 100 seminars open to all staff have raised awareness of changing news consumption habits.

"We needed to change the concept of a leader from being the one who is a specialist and knows how things are done, to being the one who coaches and gives feedback in order to make change happen."

In the beginning there was a lot of scepticism towards the coffee meetings, with reporters arguing they already knew their audience well.

Johannesson notes that journalists are paid to scrutinise authority, which makes it hard for change strategies to be accepted, but adds: "When the understanding of why we need to change is in place, journalists can be fantastically resourceful in collaborating and finding ways to do change. You need to empower people to tap into this."

"Everyone needs to know where we are heading and why. The fika is a foundation for that," she summarises.

"It’s a combination of different changes, but this time they are aligned. It’s not one content strategy, one digital strategy and one business strategy, but everything together with the focus on audience at the centre."

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