Last month, a new weekly magazine called Kjarninn (“The Core”) was launched. This weekly magazine may feature fewer articles than you’d expect to find in your typical news publication, but the articles are more of the “long form” variety, covering subjects ranging from the overlap of business and politics, the drug underworld, and foreign policy. But you won’t find it on your doorstep, in your mailbox, or for sale in any store. Kjarninn is a fully digital magazine.
The two guys who started it—Þórður Snær Júlíusson and Magnús Halldórsson—believe that this is the future of Icelandic media. Both used to work for media giant 365 Media, but made the decision to leave earlier this year. This was for many reasons, although “the final straw,” Þórður says, is when he learned that 365’s owner, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, sought to have Þórður fired for writing an article that was critical of IP Studium, a company owned by Jón Ásgeir’s wife, Ingibjörg Pálmadóttir.
The Grapevine caught up with the two at their downtown office to get their thoughts on why they believe this to be where we’re headed and why existing models of journalism are on the wane.
What is Kjarninn trying to do that no one else is doing?
Þ Firstly, we’re trying to do more in-depth journalism, to take just a few stories and do them really well instead of trying to touch on everything. And we’re trying to take advantage of the technological advances that have been here over the past few years. And thirdly, we’re creating jobs for ourselves. Like Maggi said, we’ve been talking about trying to do something in this field ourselves that we can run in the way we see fit. The worst that can happen is we fail, and then we’ll do something else.
I take that to mean you think there’s a lack of long-form journalism in the Icelandic media.
M I would say so, definitely.
Þ We have some entities in broadcast journalism that are more in depth, like [RÚV’s roundtable discussion show] Kastljósið, but I think that’s about it. In the Icelandic media in general, I think it’s been lacking for quite some time.
Although the lack of investigative reporting has been a global trend in the media, do you think there are any particularly glaring reasons for it in Iceland?
M Financial reasons would probably be the biggest reason. There’s not a lot of money put into the editorial departments. I also think it’s a marketing thing. When you’re trying to get advertisers and generate revenue, it can be very difficult to do longer, more in depth pieces. So I’d say this is a risky business.
Þ I think as well that both the print and online media are trying to create more headline-attractive news stories, and generate more clicks to make them more sellable to the advertisers.
M We believe, on the other hand, that niches can be very attractive for advertisers. We think that the advertising world in Iceland will be changing rapidly over the next two to three years, as the digital and online media market will be getting bigger. If you have 20–40,000 people reading your digital magazine once a week, it can be a very interesting place for advertisers.
That does make sense. Choosing the digital format for publication does make distribution virtually limitless.
Þ And it’s way cheaper. That’s one factor. Another factor is the advertising industry in Iceland is lagging behind what’s happening in Europe. Digital advertising in Europe is about 22% of the whole cake, whereas in Iceland, it’s about 8 to 9%. Something’s bound to happen in Iceland as well. We tend to be a little bit behind the curve, but someday we have to catch up.
M We’re on top of things when it comes to gadgets.
Þ At the end of this year, half of the households in Iceland will have an iPad. At the end of last year it was one-third. So it’s growing quite rapidly.
So in some ways, Iceland is behind the curve, but in other ways, it’s way ahead of the curve.
Þ I think that’s true. We’re quick to buy the gadgets, but we listen to more radio than any other Scandinavian country, we still watch linear TV more than anybody else. We still read much more print media than any other country around us. So the adaptation of how to use the media in different ways is something that takes us a little longer to catch up with.
That’s really interesting because that seems to indicate a discrepancy between form and content, that Icelanders are quick to adopt new forms, but not necessarily new content.
Þ If you look at things like radio and linear television, it’s on the decline in Iceland. But for some reason I can’t explain, it takes a lot longer here for changes to happen.
M Also, this can be changed very rapidly. Icelanders are buying 1,200 to 1,500 tablets, mostly iPads and iPhones, per month, and if this trend continues, in 12 months time, about 60% of households in Iceland will have tablets.
Þ Younger people aren’t using media in the same way as media has been used in the past. So when we look at the decline of print media, I think part of the problem is that the media is not adapting to new users. I’ve been working at a newspaper for years, but I haven’t gone downstairs to pick up a newspaper in quite a number of years. I read them all on my iPad or, before then, on their websites.
I think that it’s also worth mentioning that people’s involvement in the media has been much greater. People can google things now, and that helps make sure the media keeps their facts straight. I think in that aspect, all media is bound to become better, because it’s much easier for them to be caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing.
How would you describe the state of Icelandic media today?
M I think we’re in the middle of some very big changes in the Icelandic media as a whole. I think [national broadcasting company] RÚV will be changing the way they work over the next two or three years. These are very interesting times. I think that we are a small company, but that we have a very important role at the beginning of these changes in the media sector.
Speaking of RÚV, incidentally, we recently saw Progressive MP Vigdís Hauksdóttir, who also chairs the Budget Optimisation Committee, make some veiled threats about making deep cuts to RÚV. Have either of you experienced politicians trying to directly influence the content of the media?
Þ Well, politicians are always going to try to influence how you write about them, but I’ve never experienced a politician going out of their way to an abnormal degree to do so. But I’m not particularly worried that the Progressive Party will try to influence RÚV to the degree that she implied. I’m sceptical of that happening.
She chairs this committee, and hails from the party leading the government. These remarks of hers don’t worry you at all?
Þ I don’t think an Icelandic politician would follow through on those threats. I think Iceland is mature enough to be past that. If we’re not past that, we’re in deep trouble, but I have to believe that we’re past that.
I’ve heard from a number of Icelandic journalists that they feel the market is starting to consolidate. Do you get this impression as well?
Þ I think it has in the last few years, yes. The biggest privately-owned media company in the country  now has 60–65% of the advertising revenue. And when you have to rely on the advertisers and the subscribers to pay for the media, that’s a lot of consolidating.
Given that climate, do you think there can be actual competitive journalism in Iceland?
Þ That’s what we’re banking on, because technology has evaporated huge costs of printing and distributing. We can write, print and distribute a weekly magazine for a fraction of the cost of printing and distributing a printed-paper. We can do this with six people in this small office when just a few years back you’d need a lot more money. So that’s what we’re banking on, that the Icelandic people will embrace this new technology and start using it to get their news.