Annual Report 2009

Opinions in the Age of New Media

The Revival of Editorial Writing by PJ Anders Linder

  • Political Editor-in-Chief Svenska Dagbladet, Stockholm

Innovation and tradition are the key words

We must never compromise away the core of our
task – to offer qualified contemporary comment.
However, we must revive the art of editorial writing.

 The Revival of Editorial WritingThe editorial comment is an honourable old discipline. Development of the genre began as early as the 18th Century but it found its real form during the first half of the 19th Century, Sweden's National Encyclopaedia states and names The Times and Aftonbladet as early examples.
The editorial material provides a newspaper with identity and profile, but far too often it has remained too venerable. We have changed all of that at Svenska Dagbladet.
We still believe strongly in editorial journalism that unites knowledge and analytical ability with a consistent and distinct position, but we do not believe that comments have to be made in the same way as they have always been made.
We concentrate on creating an alloy: tradition and innovation.
The editorial page faces the same challenges as the newspaper in general. On the one hand readers are becoming increasingly well-educated and well-informed, on the other hand they have less and less time and are bombarded with information from all directions. On the one hand, they like reading the newspaper in paper format; on
the other, they read more and more on the Internet. They are at least as interested as before in well-founded opinions, but if we want to retain them as readers we have to capture their attention and use the channels that suit them best.
The readers and their needs are changing. If this is so, then so also must the editorial page.
The readers view their reading as communication and want to know the person
they are conversing with. The obvious thing then seems to increase the proportion of signed material and to offer the opportunity to make comments on articles and to indicate the blogs that are linked to the editorial pieces. We vary the choice of subjects and the temperament, and we edit with a twinkle in our eye. When the editorial page looks the same every day and constantly takes itself so deadly seriously, it should be no surprise if the readership starts to tire of it. It is extremely important to maintain high standards - however, quality does not just lie in facts and analysis, but also in ingenuity and presentation.
The genre is old and honourable - it will do it a world of good to be regenerated. For that reason we are trying out some of the new opportunities that developments in technology offer. If we had not tried blogs, Twitter, Youtube and Internet TV, then we would not have found out what works. When new channels of communication come along, we are going to try them out. Things that do not work, we will drop; things that do work, we will take on - to do something with real impact.
 P J Anders Linder is Political
Editor-in-Chief of Svenska
Dagbladet. He used to be
Director of Communications
at the Confederation of
Swedish Enterprise and the
Swedish Employers’ Confederation
and managing director
of the think tank Timbro. He
holds a degree from University
of Lund and has studied at
Catholic University of
America,Washington DC, and
Universität Passau, Germany.
In May 2010 PJ Anders Linder
publishes Ja.Monarkins bästa
tid är nu. He has also written
e.g. Ett folk i kollektivt
näringsförbud (2006) and
Bra för Sverige (with Anders
Grönstedt) (1990).
We have something to say and that makes us extra keen to find the forms of expression that will best let us say it.
Svenska Dagbladet's print edition reports regularly on how things look at "Tyckartoppen" (Top of the Opinions) or "Bloggtoppen" (Top of the Blogs) at SvD.se. Which current articles on the website have generated most reader comments? Which have had links from most blogs?
One Monday in January 2010 - the month in which I am writing this text - articles from the SvD editorial team were at numbers one and two on the Tyckartoppen chart and one of them is also number one on Bloggtoppen. That is not the way it looks every day, but neither is it a one-off occurrence. Editorial articles are frequently among the material that is linked and commented upon most. For example, on the Monday one week after the Monday above, slots one, two and four on the Tyckartoppen chart are from the editorial page, and an editorial piece is in number three slot on Bloggtoppen. Once a week in January 2010, editorial articles have received more than 300 reader comments at SvD.se. One of them achieved almost 800 comments.
SvD has defined Opinion as a key area. Our readers are well-informed and committed when it comes to current affairs - they appreciate material with a qualified political opinion that can influence them and against which they can test their own views. As a consequence, the editorial page and the Brännpunkt (Focal Point) debate page, are put in prominent positions and are matched actively in print and on the Internet. Since autumn 2009, the editorial team does a double-spread instead of one page on Sundays, on which we have launched the op-ed articles by writers from outside, as a new format. SvD was early in inviting readers in by making an opening for reader comments on the Internet and by indicating the blogs that link to the articles at SvD.se. In the media industry's most important market reach surveys (carried out by the readership survey company, Orvesto) a high proportion of those who read SvD in print respond that they read the editorial and debate articles. The percentage is
55-60. But the opinion material also functions well on the Internet, although the overlap is limited between those who read SvD in print and at SvD.se, respectively.
The editorials (and the term "editorial" in this text means both unsigned and signed articles on the editorial page) are not just published on paper, they are also made available every morning on the Internet; we write special short editorials in conjunction with major political events and on public holidays when the newspaper is not issued and, in addition, the editorial team writes for two opinion-forming blogs. One editorial article and one Brännpunkt article are given particular emphasis every morning on the opening page at SvD.se and there is a plug for every new blog insert. When some major political event takes place and the editorial team writes a quick comment that can be published in conjunction with the news item at SvD.se, there is often a huge flow of traffic. The comment can arouse just as much interest as the news item itself. People do not just want to know, they also want to have well-founded opinions on which to form an opinion, to agree with or oppose. The opinion texts become a foundation for continued speculations and conversations - for those who agree and for those who take a different view.
Editorial articles and editorial blogs generate plenty of web traffic by means of this exposure. If the three channels, on which the editorial team works, are added together, the material attracts 35,000 - 60,000 unique web-readers a week. In autumn 2009, the average was 43,000. Traffic to the editorial department's sites thereby equate to an entire week's traffic for a daily newspaper's site for a medium-sized Swedish town, such as hallandsposten.se in Halmstad, for example.
The interest in the editorial material may, in part, have to do with a general
upswing in ideas-led journalism. A brand new textbook for journalism students describes the situation as follows: "Opinion journalists are becoming an increasingly important part of the newspapers' profile. Professional opinionated material is one way for newspapers and other media to create a specific identity for themselves, to distinguish themselves from their competitors and to develop a deeper, more personal relationship with their audience. Editorial writers, columnists and reviewers contribute to providing a newspaper with a special character and a voice of its own."
The obvious objection is that this is a description of reality from the media houses' perspective. The producers clearly like opinion material, but what do the consumers think? Has the readers' interest also increased? From my own judgement and experience, I think it is probable and conceivable that the answer to this would be in the affirmative.
The party loyalties of citizens/readers are dying off and far fewer things can be taken for granted in politics. An increasing number of voters/readers make their minds up late on in election campaigns, swap parties between elections and feel greater loyalty towards ideas and values than towards organisations. The fact that the organisations are losing members is not because interest in political issues has collapsed - it is because people want to have more freedom to define themselves and to form their own opinions. Thanks to the Internet, they also have much better opportunities to express themselves and to make their own contributions.
Some people have been convinced that the new faithlessness and individualism, in combination with the new diversity of blogs and opinions on the Web, would marginalise the traditional forums for opinion forming. But that depends. When loyalty is no longer carved in stone, it becomes increasingly important for the individual to hear good arguments and to acquire a foundation for the opinions he or she is going to form. The conversations on the Net and between individual people need shared references to start out from. Certain editorial teams have the advantage of having very strong brands and of having been fairly strong over a period of time in their descriptions of reality, analyses and recommendations. That provides stability. If the brands are then nurtured and developed so that they offer well-written, thought-provoking, relevant and enjoyable reading, it will be possible to become one of the beacons that people orient themselves by on the ocean that is the Internet. Editorial teams that do not adapt to the new situation but which just keep grinding on as before, run a high risk of fading away - however, those that have interesting things to say and who say them in an interesting way, have much greater potential.
A long time has passed since the more ambitious Swedish newspapers finally cut loose from the political parties and since the editorial teams also adopted a more independent role. Nevertheless, we have long been living with echoes of party politics, at least to the extent that the editorial teams have been thinking about their task in political terms rather than journalistic ones. Orders have not been taken from politicians and an increasingly small number have stayed loyal to parties, but views and opinions have been the primary factors whereas readability has become secondary. Perhaps most especially this has become clear in the recruitment of editorial writers, where political competence has packed more of a punch than journalistic competence.
This too is busy undergoing change. I agree with the textbook about editorial pages - at any rate some of them - having become "more unpredictable and journalistic" and about the manner of address having become "more informal and more personal". In more and more newspapers, they are cutting back on the traditional editorial column with unsigned and more formal stances being taken, in favour of signed material that is written in a more personal tone. Some editorial pages no longer publish any unsigned material at all. SvD has not gone quite that far. We still believe that there is value in the newspaper being
linked to a specific viewpoint on a number of key ideological debates and points at issue, and that there should be a certain constancy in the opinions. SvD as an opinion-former thus becomes greater than the sum of the individuals who are working on the editorial team on any specific occasion. At the same time, several days can pass without SvD publishing any unsigned editorial material and we devote considerably more space than before to allowing individual colleagues to create a distinctive personal profile and improve the contact they have with the readership. Until further notice, it is believed that the best balance is produced by applying approximately the same mix ratio as in a robust dry martini: three to four parts signed, one part unsigned.
But. Of course, we also want to believe that the response to the SvD editorial material is not just related to general trends but also to what we have done ourselves.
My perspective stretches back to January 2004, when I took over as political
editor-in-chief. To begin with, the work was about gradual renewal of the editorial page in the print edition. I wanted to go further as regards the choice of subject matter, new angles of approach and items to please the eye. One recurring criticism of editorial pages is that they are "predictable". Those responsible defend themselves by saying that it is not possible to be anything other than predictable on the opinion-forming side, if you are to stay on course and not bob hither and thither opportunistically or without a plan. But the criticism does not necessarily apply to standpoints on causes or concepts, but rather to the fact that the opinions are always put forward
in more or less the same way, using approximately the same phraseology, without ingenuity as regards angles of attack and examples, means of expression and images.
A first measure was to create greater graphical variation on the editorial page, to
provide greater space for the pictorial material and to begin using it as an active messenger instead of as passive decoration. In combination with more lively headlining and captions, this provided more inroads into the articles and the readers got one surprise or another when they opened the newspaper. We began to supplement traditional politics with subjects that are more like social and values issues: everything from philosophies of life and feminism to TV series and obesity. We changed most of the editorial page's external columnists, reduced their number and began to publish columns on specific days instead of ad hoc, with the purpose of giving the columnists more distinct profiles for the readership.
And then we discovered the Internet. Six years ago, SvD.se was a fairly modest affair where the important thing from the perspective of the editorial department was to give the single-minded surfer a certain chance of finding his way to the editorial articles. But we had not devoted much thought to the channel itself. However, in late summer 2004 SvD's then network manager, my deputy and I began discussions based on the fact that it had become apparent that the Internet and blogs were about to become important in the then current presidential election campaign in the US.
I thought it seemed exciting to make an attempt and without having any budget
or having carried out any investigative work to speak of, we launched the simple blog PJ Just Nu (PJ Just Now). We beat one of our competitors in the daily press - I seem to remember that it was Helsingborgs Dagblad - to the finish line and, since 29 August 2004, have been able to take pride in having "Sweden's first editorial blog". We scored a direct hit.
In last year's Tinius Trust annual report, Kalle Jungkvist writes about aftonbladet.se and about how important it is to dare to experiment to ensure you are first with new devices. I can only agree. PJ Just Nu was nothing exceptional in itself. The format was the simplest imaginable: short texts containing links but no illustrations and no opportunities for the readers to post comments. Nevertheless, the blog became the centre of an exceptional amount of attention. I do not know how many conversations, interviews and appearances it gave rise to during that autumn. Time and time again, I was asked to talk about the revolutionary idea of writing one short editorial after the other on a particular page on the Internet. As number two, the blog would not have had anything approaching the same impact, but we were pioneers then.
I was very productive that first autumn and although I have not kept up the same pace since then, PJ Just Nu is still actively in use and ongoing. At the time of writing, there have been a total of more than 2,600 posts.
The blog rapidly showed its value to the work of the editorial team. It makes it possible to comment on incidents in real time. No need to wait impatiently for publication the next morning - you can be involved in setting the agenda immediately. Other opinion-formers are an important part of the readership. When members of the editorial team are contacted by radio or TV to give statements on current issues, it is often on the basis of posts they have made on the blog. Blogging makes it possible to make a large volume of material useful as tips for further reading and links for which, quite simply, there is no space in the newsprint newspaper. The blog also promotes a more relaxed way of writing and makes for closer contact with the reader. Although for a long time PJ Just Nu lacked a comments function, it quickly came to generate just as much interactivity in the form of email communications as the far more
widely read editorial page in the newsprint newspaper. Working on the blog made the readers much more tangible to us and acted as an important reminder of the purpose of our business: not to have articles written but to have them read, and to reach out to people and make an impression.
At the start of 2007, PJ Just Nu was joined by a group blog for the entire editorial team: Ledarbloggen (the Editorial Blog). The first contribution, on 19 February, was about municipal tax equalisation (!), but the material is normally more engaging than that and Ledarbloggen has established itself as one of the most influential in the Swedish blogosphere. In barely three years, we have made more than 2900 posts and have been the subject of an enormous number of blog links, email messages and comments. On the blog too, our contributions must maintain high SvD quality, but of course there are more rapid-fire, humorous contributions and tip-offs on the Net than there are in print.
With only one tabloid page in the newspaper at our disposal, the possibilities of publishing comments are meagre. In order not to turn into a debate page, we have to limit the right to reply to those who have been singled out in person. In that situation, Ledarbloggen offers a chance to show greater generosity. Responses that we would otherwise have been forced to forego can be published on the Net, in the best cases with a short reference from the print edition. Sometimes we can publish a shortened version of a rejoinder in the print edition and a complete version on the Internet. We have also been pleased with Ledarbloggen when we have become involved in specialist issues and have wanted to promote these - issues that cannot be reckoned to attract the interest of more than a limited number of the readership. Then we can practice a form of rotation. We publish more detailed articles and shorter comments in the printed newspaper together with indications towards longer Internet versions, and on Ledarbloggen we can also include documents, summaries and links. In autumn 2009, using this way of working, we made a major breakthrough and influenced decisions on the issue of a new battle management system for the Swedish defence forces.
That's an important issue, but also so narrow and complex that we would never have been able to take it up sufficiently frequently to have a full opinion-forming effect if we had only had the editorial page in the print newspaper to work with.
When I had to recruit a pair of new colleagues in autumn 2007 and winter 2008, it seemed natural to look for people who could write well and who had a special interest in communication and in forming opinion on the Internet. Naturally, they had to have opinions that were accommodated within SvD's centre-right tradition, but I did not place great emphasis on a party-political contents declaration or experience. In the end, I settled on two people who, previously, would scarcely have been considered as members of the SvD editorial team: one had been working in commercial TV, radio news editing and SVT (Swedish Television), and had made a name as a sharp, cogent blogger. The second was editorial writer in a newspaper, whose "colour" historically had been a great deal different from that of SvD, and who was also actively running a clever, well-written blog. Both had an academic background in the Humanities: film and theatre studies, respectively. Now we set the agenda within the debate on cultural policy and often use as a starting point the books, films, performances and TV
programmes of popular culture, even for comments on heavyweight issues.
Those recruitments meant that our innovative pace could increase further. We search to a greater extent for ideas and news on blogs and websites, refer to news sources and quotations on the Internet and are more active in the continuous conversation going on in the blogosphere and on Twitter (where we opened an account in January 2009). That takes place mainly on Ledarbloggen but net references also find their way into articles in the newsprint newspaper.
One device that has attracted attention and appreciation, which marries serious current political comment with public education, humour and moving pictures, has been Ledarbloggen's work on YouTubiana.
After having been inspired by the way a prominent Swedish music critic created innovative, interactive journalism by digging into the bottomless YouTube archive and presenting the greatest moments in rock history, we decided to do the same thing, only with politics.
In autumn 2008, Ledarbloggen introduced the countdown for a top-33 chart, in which each video clip was accompanied by an analysis which introduced the short film sequence in a natural, comprehensible, and not infrequently topical, context. The choice of subject matter was eclectic, humorous and more sensationalist than normal, with the purpose of explaining contemporary and historical politics. Everything was included from North Korean propaganda films and Czech politicians in fistfights to tough debates in the European Parliament and embarrassing moments in Swedish domestic politics. The project led to greatly improved web traffic - in the first week, it broke all records by more than 250 per cent - and aroused great attention. The first post was made on 22 September 2008, the thirty third and last on 15 December, and on 21 December we collaborated in the heavyweight SVT weekly magazine programme Agenda to discuss the project and to comment on clips. In spring and autumn 2009, Ledarbloggen continued with this format in two separate sessions, and using moving pictures to score political points is now a method that has come to stay in our arsenal - and will be developed further.
In spring 2009, the editorial and internet teams at SvD and Aftonbladet initiated a collaborative venture in the form of the interview and debate programme Korseld (Crossfire), which is executed in Web-TV format and is published in parallel at SvD.se and at aftonbladet.se. It was a little unexpected for the centre-right editorial department at SvD and the social-democratic one at Aftonbladet to be the first Swedish Schibsted editorial teams to bring about a collaborative venture with a distinctive profile, but in this case their traditional antagonism was turned into a strength.
Korseld is based on two programme hosts (one from SvD and one from Aftonbladet) interviewing an invited guest from their differing ideological perspectives. The programme hosts thus do not try to act objectively but subjectively, and represent their ideas in the Web-TV programme in the same way as they would in their normal writing jobs, which means that there can sometimes be direct debate between the two programme hosts. There is more vigour in Korseld than in most traditional interview programmes.
The first programme was broadcast on 16 April 2009 and it had Sweden's Social Democrat Party economic policy spokesman, Thomas Östros, as its guest. The following week it was the turn of the party secretary of Sweden's Moderate Party, Per Schlingmann. Among that spring's four other guests were the Swedish Green Party's party leader, Maria Wetterstrand, and Sweden's Minister for Employment, Sven Otto Littorin. First up in the autumn season's series of six programmes were Social Democratic Party leader Mona Sahlin, who was followed by others including the Minister for Defence, Sten Tolgfors, and the Minister for the Environment, Andreas Carlgren.
Viewer figures were encouraging even during the spring but took a clear step upward during
the autumn. The programme with Mona Sahlin greatly exceeded the level of 100,000 unique Web viewers and the average for the last six programmes is in the range of 80,000 Web viewers. That means that Korseld is not just attractive to the interviewees by virtue of being new, creative and with a genuine interest in factual matters and ideology but also by virtue of offering a large, interested audience. At the time of writing, it has been decided that there will be a series of six new programmes during the spring - we are also holding discussions as to how the operation can be intensified ahead of the Swedish General Election in September this year.
Work is also taking place at present on the Korseld application for the iPhone. Ahead of the General Election, subscribers will be given access to a flow of questions in which they have to form an opinion on two different responses on a current or principal political question. Once the vote is cast, the subscriber is told whether he or she has responded like Sanna Rayman (the SvD programme host) or like Katrine Kielos (Aftonbladet). The user successively builds up a profile, showing whether she/he is most Rayman/SvD or Kielos/AB. It is to be hoped that the result will be both entertaining and thought-provoking.
A more informal appeal, broader choice of subjects, PJ Just Nu, Ledarbloggen, new recruitment policy, new network of contacts and reference points, blog links, commentaries, YouTubiana, Twitter, Korseld, iPhone.... Isn't there a risk of the form taking over at the expense of the content? What about substance and quality?
That is quite a natural question to ask, but I feel confident in the answer. We are very conscious of our readers' trust in us being based on the strength of our analyses and arguments, and the standards we set for our own quality are at least as high as before. We must always be on the highest level regarding technology, style and content. Our material should be thoroughly proofread and correct. It should be attractive by virtue of its good judgement, its joy of wordcraft, and its temperament - and it should be written on the basis of expert knowledge and logic. We prefer to plough our own furrow off the beaten track, but of course we ensure that we have a presence in the heavyweight debates. The targets that we have drawn up include us acting as spies
for our readers, and introduce them to news items in Swedish and foreign public debates. On the whole, we consider it important to write about the world outside our Swedish Verona. Now as before, a good proportion of the editorial team's working hours is spent on reading up, following the debate, holding background conversations and remaining well-informed. A confirmation that the quality line is being held includes the many invitations that members of the editorial team receive to give lectures, participate in panel debates and to be present on radio and TV programmes.
The desire to innovate reflects humility rather than rashness. We notice that there is an appetite for what we are doing, but we know too that the competition for the readers' attention and time is incredibly stiff, and we do not believe that business
as usual should be the obvious response to how we are to become successful. We are really clear that knowledge and clarity of thought are the factors that apply, but we are not strangers to seeking out good new forms of presentation and distribution. Out of respect for the needs of our readers we possibly have to write more snappily and in a more condensed way today than we would have been able to do 10 or 20 years ago, and we may have to communicate with our readers on several occasions during the day. We must never comprise on the core of our duty - offering qualified contemporary comment based on a spectrum of liberal, conservative and generally centre-right values - but we are unable to insist on being allowed to do it in precisely the same way as before. We have to earn our trust and our readership. Precisely as other genres are regenerated, we want to regenerate editorial writing. It does not feel like a sacrifice.