Digital Norway

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My hearty thanks to the staff of the Dagbladet in Oslo, Norway, for having me as the featured speaker at their seminar Thursday for online advertisers.

Dagbladet also invited me to their corporation’s winter holiday party – where I was easily identifiable as the sole person among the 300 there who didn’t speak Norwegian! I particularly want to commend the hospitality of, among others, my new friends Dagbladet MediaLab Editor and CEO Rune Røsten, Dagbladet.no Editor Esten Sæter, and Svein-Erik Klemetsen who chose and invited me.

Every country seems to think that someone else is ahead of it in practical application of online media. I’m often asked which country is the best. The answer since the late nineties has clearly been the four Scandinavian counties, though South Korea and Estonia have joined them in the top rank during the past four years. The Finns, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, South Koreans, and Estonians have pulled well ahead of the Americans, Canadians, British, Irish, Dutch, Germans, and Singaporeans in online media usage and application.

Before putting Norwegian online usage into perspective, allow me to first tell you about Norwegian printed media usage. Until Japan surpassed it last year, Norway for years had the world’s strongest readership of daily newspapers – 0.626 copies sold daily per adult, compared to 0.33 in the US). At the beginning of 2006, the national tabloids Dagbladet and Verdens Gang Verdens Gang and Dagbladet were selling 343,703 and 252,716 copies per day respectively in a nation of only 4,610,000 people. Imagine the equivalent daily circulations in America, which adjusted for population would be 22,366,789 and 16,445,726, far above the actual circulations of 2,269,509 for USA Today or 1,086,798 for The New York Times. DB and VG are very successful printed newspapers.

Despite that strong readership, print circulation is rapidly declining in Norway. The state agency Medianorway reports that VG‘s circulation dropped 6.2 percent and DB‘s 13 percent during 2005. Several DB staffers told me that the as yet unreported 2006 circulation changes were be similar. [Update: Audit Bureaux of Circulation figures released Febuary 12th showed that VG‘s daily circulaiton during 2006 had dropped by 28,000 copies to 315,500. I don’t yet have the ABC figure for Dagbladet.]

As in most other countries, many print edition executives are blaming their companies’ free online editions for cannibalizing printed edition circulation sales. These print edition executives want either (a) access to the online editions to be sold for a subscription fee equivalent to print or else (b) that the online editions not provide full news and instead encourage online readers to get that by purchasing a printed copy.

That first option is philistine and regressive In a world where the only growing sector of daily newspaper circulation is free papers – up more than 137 percent during the past five years, from 12 million to 28 million copies worldwide. The second option is like insisting that each automobile one hundred years ago have a horse in front of it, a really dumb idea.

Almost all Norwegian adults and teenagers are online, far higher percentages than in America, Canada, or the UK. The average bandwidth into Norwegian homes and offices is 1.5 megabytes per second. And the strong newspaper readership and advanced online infrastructure shouldn’t lead to any mystery that Norway produces what may be the world’s best online editions (so too do several of the dailies in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland).

VG.no receives 950 000 unique users per day and Dagbladet.no 750,000. The weekly unique user numbers are 2,240,000 and 1,820,000 respectively, almost entirely domestic traffic. The equivalent number in the US would be 61,822,124 and 48,806,940 unique users daily, or 145,770,060 and 118,438,174 per week. Compare those numbers to to NYTimes.com’s 13,372,00 unique users per month. Online editions are pervasive in Norway.

Dagbladet.no’s EBITA earnings climbed from 8.5 million to 22 million Kroner (1.3 million to 3.3 million US dollars) between 2004 and 2005. The 2006 increase was at least 40 percent more and forecast to be the same during 2007. The Economist magazine last year reported that VG‘s publisher Shibsted earned nearly 40 percent of its revenues from new-media. Dagbladet AS reportedly earned about a third of its that way. New-media will probably contribute more than 40 percent of each companies earnings this year.

Whenever I asked Dagbladet staffers whether they or VG had the best online edition, they answered with typical Scandinavian humility that VG did. Their answer was like the student who scores 98/100 saying the student who scored 99/100 is better. A tiny difference.

My role last week was to explain to approximately 90 dagabladet.no’s advertisers what the future of digital media will be. No one, including me, truly knows the answer to that. I chose not to tell them the trends — indicators that have too often been wrong during the past 15 years of public access to the Internet. I instead explained the underlying dynamics that are driving change and, in particularly, what this will mean to not only dagbladet.no but the company’s social networking site, blink.no. (I plan to put my Dagbladet presentation online later this season.) More than 350,000 Norwegians – including 42 percent of norwegians between ages 16 and 18 and 75 percent of those younger than 26 years– belong to it.

I was surprised to discover that the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK, which has long been involved in online media, produces a good website, but its online, mobile, and interactive/digital TV developments and strategies seem behind the British Broadcasting Corporation and other Western broadcasters, and well behind the South Korean broadcasters. Is the problem lack commercial competition that could make NRK change more quickly? I don’t know.

While in Oslo, I talk to several people about the idea of holding an online news publishing conference in Scandinavia. But the World Association of Newspapers beat me to the idea, announcing yesterday that one will be held there on March 8-9. Relatively short notice. (Plus, WAN’s website unfortunately was down today.)

My apologies to my Norwegian old friends Gard Jenssen, of Startspin.com and Iignitas.com, and Bent Nordbø, formerly of Aftenposten, both of whom I had hoped to contact while I was Oslo. I hadn’t time in lieu of Dagbladet. (Bent: I’ve lost track of you. Please let me know your current contact info?)

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