Ten months ago, Róbert Marshall was selected to oversee an exciting experiment for 365 Media. The largest media company in Iceland, was creating the 24-hour TV news station NFS. Less than a year after the station went on the air, the plug was pulled and the experiment was regarded a failure. In an effort to save the project, Marshall wrote an open letter, titled “Dear John”, to the owner of 365 Media, Mr. Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, president of Baugur Group. He was promptly fired.
In an interview with the Grapevine, Marshall discusses the final days of NFS and the future of Icelandic media.
/// You quit NFS on Friday September 22, the same day you received the termination letter, does that apply to the other 20 who were fired as well?
– Yes, in most cases. The station went off the air that same evening, so there was nothing left to do there. The difference is that I was fired on Friday morning, while everyone else received a letter later that day. However, it became obvious earlier that I would be parting ways with the company. On Friday, the week before, when [the daily newspaper] Blaðið reported that plans were underway to close NFS, I sat down and reviewed my options. Was I prepared to be a part of that process, to close the station and fire all those people? Or should I resign myself? In my mind, the choice was very clear. I had no interest in being a part of closing the station, so instead of resigning, I chose to write an open letter, where I stated that from the beginning, everybody involved maintained that it would take two to three years to get people to establish the idea. That is, at some point, management was ready to lose money on the project for two to three years. So, as soon I wrote the letter I knew that I would probably not be returning to the company, but I hoped that the station would at least continue. But, everyone knows what it means in English when a girl writes you a “Dear John.” That is a different kind of a termination letter.
/// So you wrote the letter knowing that it would effectively be the last thing you did as an employee of 365 Media?
– Yes, I mean, I wrote a letter directly to the owner, going over the head of my superiors. But I did not write the letter asking for a handout. I was asking people to keep their words and asking for the financial means to continue this experiment, there is a big difference. There is also a difference in being a media company under the ownership of Baugur and being a Baugur media relations company – which NFS was not, and never will be. But it would be naïve to think that the owner is not the one who has the reigns. It is Rupert Murdoch who decides if Sky is on the air or not, but that does not mean that he is influencing editorial poicies.
/// Many believe that you burnt a lot bridges when you wrote that letter, that you even committed professional suicide. Do you think so?
– No, I don’t think so. When you take on a particular project under specific premises, you expect those premises to hold. I gave 100 percent and I believed in the project and that it could be successful. I was willing to fight for it.
/// Was it a realistic project?
– Absolutely. By bringing in 20 more people, and greatly increasing potential income, we were creating a media where there was no limit to the amount of advertising you could sell, we were broadcasting 16 hours each day. We were combining different mediums and methods of reporting. I am positive that this is how the media will develop.
/// Viewer ratings never met expectations though?
– Viewer ratings for the NFS TV station alone were not high, that is true. But you have to take into consideration that for the first six months the station only reached 30 percent of the nation. If you look at the lowest ratings, you will see that 6-10,000 people were watching the station. But if you combine the 12-14 percent listener ratings for [the radio station] Talstöðin, broadcasting the same program, the 30,000 people who watched the web-TV, the 40,000 people who visit visir.is, and the news on [the popular radio station] Bylgjan and that we provided news for [the daily newspaper] Fréttablaðið; if you take all these things into consideration, then viewer ratings can never reflect them. Overall, this news station was providing most Icelanders with their news.
/// It seems as if there is a high employee turnover at 365 Media. Is that the case?
– Well, I don’t know how it is overall, but on NFS, it was not very high. We took in a lot of new people, and we put an effort into training them, we trained the first group of journalists who specialised in stand-alone media journalism, where people are responsible for the whole production process of the news story. But 365 Media is a young company that is still going through a development phase. It has been trying to establish the right size and identity. During such times, it is natural to a higher than average employee turnover. The nature of the company also encourages a high employment turnover. In a company like this one, there is no constant. The culture you try to create is a culture of constant change, where you try to keep the company in constant development, constantly trying out new ideas to see if they work, and let them pass if they don’t and continue if they do.
/// I’ve heard employees of 365 Media complain about this in particular, that ideas are not given enough of an opportunity to develop, such as perhaps NFS?
– Experience shows that these people’s complaints are reasonable. You need stamina to maintain this culture. You have to be sure that you have fully put the idea to the test before you discard it. It is the basic premise for this model that things have been fully tried, and I think this is where 365 Media went off track.
/// Then isn’t “the culture of constant change” backfiring?
– Yes, if people don’t know the premises behind it, and don’t work in accordance with it, then it will inevitably backfire. Either you are this sort of company that I described, or you are like [the daily newspaper]Morgunblaðið, where you have to go back decades to see the changes made to the paper.
/// So, what went wrong? Did the management lack the courage to keep going?
– It lacked the stamina to keep it going. I created a budget plan for the company, which I followed in detail. We also had a revenue plan, which I did not create. Both these plans were presented to the management and accepted. Then obviously, the revenue plan did not hold water.
/// Doesn’t that simply mean that the business model was not realistic?
– No, look. The revenue plan was far off, but we had always said that we needed two to three years to reach our goals. Sales were increasing; nationwide distribution would have made all the difference in that regard. So you can’t say that model wasn’t realistic, it would have been realistic if the station had been in full distribution.
/// So the premises were wrong?
– The premises of the revenue plan were wrong.
/// Mbl.is [the Morgunblaðið website] has been implementing videos along with their regular news delivery. Is that a direction NFS will be moving towards?
– I think mbl.is has surely been moving in the right direction, they are focusing on the internet, and they simply have to take a step further. They are doing what NFS was doing, in offering a combination of text and video material.
/// Isn’t it embarrassing for NFS then, if Morgunblaðið, this institution, is taking the lead in this development?
– Yes, it would be.
/// Well, they have, in my opinion, mbl.is is a better news site.
– Yes, it is still the strongest news website in Iceland. They have an advantage over other media outlets in that respect. But that is a good example, because mbl.is has been in operation for a long time, at least ten years I think, and I believe last year was the first time they showed a profit.
/// So they had the stamina to keep it going.
– Yes, exactly. It is just short-sighted to take on a project like this one, without realising what it entails and to be ready to put the project to the test.
/// It seems that we have managed to draw up two different models here. On one hand, the culture of constant change that NFS was working by, and then the slow, conservative model used by Morgunblaðið, and at the end of the day, it seems as if Morgunblaðið is left standing in a better position.
– Yes, but I don’t know if that says anything. I am not sure if we should draw any conclusions from that, whether that reflects a final victory for anyone.
/// I am not necessarily referring to this as a victory for one business block over another, but rather the different models; do you still maintain that the NFS model is a better one?
– Yes, I think that is closer to what we will see in the future, which is a media synergy, where the combined effects are more important than that of a single unit. NFS is going to take this development further. In the near future, people will be able to choose what news they watch and when they watch it. The time of appointment viewing, where viewers gather in front of the TV screen at a pre-determined time to watch the TV preacher in the form of the news anchor inform on them what happened today, has ended.
/// What comes next for Róbert Marshall?
– Many people ask me if I am going into politics.
/// Are you?
– It is certainly something that I have considered. At this point, I wonder if I am perhaps done with this business and it is time to move on. Perhaps I could be of use somewhere else.
/// I’ve heard rumours that you’ll be running in the primaries for the Social Democrats in the south district, is that true?
– Yes, I have plans to run for a pole position in the south district. That is true. I will announce it formally soon.
/// What will be your political agenda?
– I think there are certain signs of danger regarding civil rights in this country. Especially regarding freedom of expression. I think it is a cause for concern if the so-called “War on Terror” means that our civic rights are being curtailed. Then someone else has won.