From Iceland — The Fourth Newspaper in Reykjavík Gains a Readership

The Fourth Newspaper in Reykjavík Gains a Readership

Published July 22, 2005

The Fourth Newspaper in Reykjavík Gains a Readership

Are you on downtime? Today is Friday and you don’t come out again until Monday.
We are looking into the possibility of coming out with a weekend paper this summer or fall. What we decided in the beginning was to start publishing in May to get stabilized and find our place in the market… before fall, as Christmas brings the biggest ad season here, between November and December.

(Offers me a snack from his enormous table of baked goods.)

I’d heard of your experience. I didn’t expect you to be this young.

Is this young? I’ve been working in journalism since 1986. All that time I spent in tv and radio, I never worked in a newspaper before I started this year. I never even stepped into a newspaper [office] before this year… Never. I never [went] to Morgunblaðið, Dagblaðið or anything. I’d never gone into a newspaper [office] for any reason. My whole career has been in television and radio…I was at Bylgjan from the beginning. Bylgjan started in 1986. It was the first independent radio station in Iceland. I was there from the beginning until 1988, and from 1988 until last year I was with Channel 2.

Why did you stop last year at Stöð 2?

We decided to leave last year because Sigurður Guðjónsson was the CEO, and he was fired. I worked closely with him, so I decided to leave.

He was fired and replaced with Gunnar Smári, of Norðurljós, under parent company Baugur? You decided to leave with Sigurður because?

I decided to leave with him because I didn’t like what was happening with Stöd 2 and the management and the new ownership and things like that.

What was happening?

We didn’t like the way they wanted to put Fréttablaðið and Stöd 2 together into one medium. We wanted them to be separate media. I wanted that at least. I thought this concentration of media was not very good.

And for somebody who hasn’t taken Journalism 101, can you explain what’s wrong with a concentration of media under one of the largest business owners in the country? What are the dangers?

The danger is that the owners are trying to influence the media. But I don’t think that’s happening directly in this country. Even at all. What happens is that the journalists themselves don’t intend to reflect the views of their owners but in a way they do it without meaning to do it. It’s not something they decide to do or really want to do.

Can you think of an example where you saw major stories released that seemed to reflect the view of the owners?

No. In the period that I was at Stöð 2, I remember two instances that owners tried to influence a story. In both cases it was not a very important story for that matter. But, in general, owners do not call the editor and say do this or do that. I worked for Stöð 2 for 18 years. Most of the time Jón Ólafsson was the biggest owner. I only spoke to Jón Ólafsson two or three times in the first 15 years that I worked with the station. It’s not like owners are calling you every day, it’s not like that.

But, for example, we talked with Sigríður Dögg about her Fréttablaðið series on Halldór Ásgrimsson and the privatisation of Landsbanki and Búnaðarbanki. One concern we raised was that running it in Fréttablaðið, a newspaper owned by someone opposed to the current government, took away from its credibility. It’s a bias of the owner.

I agree with that. That’s the problem when you have a powerful owner. Everything you write or do is looked at in that way. Like you’re writing what the owners want you to write. I’m pretty sure that Sigríður Dögg did the best she could and her article was pretty good. But this happens, she doesn’t want to reflect the views of her owner. If she reflected them, that was unintentional.

Like I said, journalists want to be fair. Owners don’t try to have a direct influence on news stories. I’m pretty sure that [owner of Baugur] Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson does not call Kári Jónasson [editor of Baugur-owned Fréttablaðið] or Páll Magnason [director of Baugur-owned television station Stöð 2] and ask about this or that story, it doesn’t happen like that. And actually, I think that, for example, Stöð 2 has done a good job on reporting on the Baugur case. A much better job than Fréttablaðið not to mention DV that has not even mentioned the story.

Who are the owners of Blaðið?

The main owners are three individuals: me, Sigurður G. Guðjónsson and Steinn Kári Ragnarsson…. None of us have experience with newspapers.

You say the three main owners. Are there other owners? Because I had always heard that the BYKO and Krónan group were behind Blaðið.

There are other owners. But we have a majority stake. There is no ownership here by BYKO or any other supermarket chain or whatever. There are no big companies in Iceland that own any part of Blaðið. So we are totally independent. If BYKO owned something they would probably advertise here, but they are very small advertisers in our paper.

I noticed that. They haven’t had an ad recently at all.

When you start a newspaper, the first thing people start wondering about, especially reporters, is who are the owners. The first thing they think about is, let’s see, who owns the newspapers: Baugur. Who owns the other part of the market and would want to confront Baugur. That’s just nonsense. It was nonsense from the beginning.

Yes, you asked me that same question before this interview, who owns the Grapevine. But I have to admit, I’m guilty of believing and reporting Blaðið has ties with Krónan. If Blaðið is independent, then what other paper is without ties to major corporations in Iceland?
Who else is? In the media market? Well, none are.

Can we go back to this statement that you didn’t even step foot in a newspaper office before you started here? This had to be an awkward transition, then. From tv to paper.

It was in the beginning. But when we quit Stöð 2 in November of last year, the media was the only thing we knew. What happened was that we sat down, looked at the media market and thought about where in the media market there is a gap. Where could we step in. We knew better than most people how the television and radio markets were and there was no absolutely no room there.

What we knew was that Fréttablaðið was doing a pretty good job being a free newspaper and being distributed for free. They had quite a good large share of the advertising market. And we found out there was space for one more newspaper, when we started looking at numbers. Then Steinn Kári came from PoppTivi. We really stepped into something we knew nothing about. We knew nothing about practical issues regarding newspapers: layout, what you need in a newspaper.

(Laughing.) Okay?

So what we did was we hired a few people who knew everything about this. And those people helped us for starters. Right now we’ve been publishing for two months, and we are quite satisfied. Our paper is being printed in 80,000 copies every day just in the Reykjavík area. In the next few weeks we will add Selfoss and Hveragerði and Reykjanesbær. The Gallup Survey that was published last week showed that in the Reykjavík area we have almost the same amount of readers as Morgunblaðið. Morgunblaðið has been here for more than 100 years. It took us 60 days to almost get the same readership. Of course we are free and they’re not free but still.

And actually all of our plans have been realized. We’re selling the same amount of ads that we expected. Cost has been the same as we expected. So there’s nothing that has surprised us, in the first two and a half months. Everything has been going as planned.

In talking about this determination to start a newspaper you mention numbers and markets, but what about editorial voice or style of reporting?

I had envisioned Blaðið was started because they looked at Fréttablaðið doing substandard reporting, running nothing but press releases without even fact checking and said we could do better.

When you’re a newspaper that’s distributed from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, like we are because we use the postal service, that affects the news stories. We don’t have our own distribution system. Pósturinn has a fantastic system, but they don’t distribute at six o’clock in the morning. When your paper is being printed at nine o’clock at night like ours is content is affected.

That would make you the first paper to go to print.

That’s right. We’re printed just before Morgunblaðið at their press. So we send it out just before 9 o’clock at night and it isn’t distributed until 5 pm the day after, that presents a problem, because you can’t really tackle the same new stories that the other newspapers have. If you do that people won’t read you. You have to find your own voice. You have to have major stories that the other papers don’t have. When you have few reporters like we have, it makes things tough. To have breaking news, you have to have 40 or 50 reporters to catch timely stories.

We decided in the beginning to aim for younger people than Fréttablaðið and Morgunblaðið, and we wanted to aim a little bit more for women, younger women. If you look at our paper you see that we cover a lot about what is going on and things that young women are interested in… Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið, in the way they present and choose stories, is a little bit heavy-reading for young people. Young people don’t want to read a paper that is 100 pages or 80 pages like Fréttablaðið sometimes is. It is 80 pages of sometimes total chaos when you look at it. We decided to have young people working for us, people between 20 and 30 years old.

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