Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are consistently ranked highest in the world for both freedom of the press and participatory democracy. The Scandinavian population has among the highest news readership in the world, and can choose among the world’s greatest number, per capita, of local and national newspapers. Why? What are these countries doing right?
These countries are all relatively rich, and have not been hit as hard by the global financial crisis as many other places. And all have traditionally been comfortable with high governmental spending on public services—services that include both higher education and the media.
But beyond the most obvious explanations, there are many other reasons why the Scandinavian media is so healthy and successful. I spent two months last fall traveling through Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark, researching and reporting on the media there. Here are a few lessons that I think the American media could learn from our colleagues across the ocean.
1.) PBS and NPR should go big or go home. When Eva Hamilton, CEO of Sweden’s public television network SVT, hears about the budget cuts and political controversies plaguing her American counterparts, she nods in sympathy. Hamilton and many of her colleagues say that staying ambitious with a wide range of programming is the only way to ensure relevance in the cultural conversation—and, therefore, the best way to ensure funding. That’s why, in addition to the types of shows you’d expect from public TV (like high-brow costume dramas and news-analysis roundtables), SVT also shows all kinds of things that you wouldn’t expect (like sports games and HBO imports).
“As long as the population more or less daily is using the services that public service provides, then you can keep a strong position,” says Hamilton. “But as soon as you start to go downhill, and big groups of society don’t use your services, then you can’t count on any political support, and then you can’t count on the will to pay.”
2.) Simple and fast can trump flashy and confusing. One of the most popular news services in Scandinavia is also one of the oldest. Teletext is a primitive, pre-Internet digital technology that broadcasts small bursts of text onto a television screen. It has developed since the late 1970s into a whole menu of information, like weather reports, sports scores, and traffic. Despite the fact that its interface is about as sophisticated as an Atari game, it’s simple, and fast, and millions of people in Scandinavia use it every day.
Executives and producers at the public broadcasters who put out the most popular teletext channels say they are baffled by its continued success. “This is a peculiar thing,” says Heikki Lammi, head of online news at Finland’s public broadcast company YLE. “Teletext has not developed at all for thirty years . It is ugly if you compare it even to the most simple website.” But, Lammi adds, this just demonstrates that the quality of the content is much more important than the interface. So instead of shutting it down, as the BBC did to Ceefax just last month, Scandinavian teletext providers are updating it for younger audiences and newer devices. Case in point: the teletext iPhone app.
This can serve as a reminder that, as American media companies continue to experiment with new online technology and app platforms, they don’t have to start from scratch. Flashy graphics, interactive features, and social-media integration can all enhance the reader experience. But when it comes to a daily or hourly news habit, if the readers’ main motivation for visiting a site or opening an app—whether it be checking a sports score, or getting an overview of the world’s headlines—isn’t easily and quickly satisfied, they might not be back. Many news readers crave simplicity and speed above all else, even above pretty design.
3.) Self-regulation works, as long as everyone’s on board. Scandinavia’s press councils are independent organizations, staffed and (for the most part) funded by the journalism industry, that were established to give readers a place to bring grievances against news outlets. Each one is like a combination ombudsman and courtroom: the reader with the complaint and the news organization in question have their say, and then a group of journalists, editors, and members of the public decide whether to uphold or deny the complaint. If they decide that the news organization has broken the journalistic code of ethics, the organization must pay penance by printing or broadcasting a notice saying so.