Seven lessons Scandinavian media can teach us

On topics ranging from job training to self-regulation

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.

Involvement in the press council system is voluntary, but pretty much every news organization in each country belongs; audiences recognize the outlets’ signing up for such scrutiny as a kind of stamp of accountability. “This is like the… what do you call it in America?” asks Kjell Nyhuus, one of the secretaries at Norway’s press council. “The fox that watches the henhouse. But it is a very good fox! A very serious fox.”

As I’ve previously noted, there have been a few attempts at similar self-regulation systems in the US, each on a much smaller scale. In order to follow this Scandinavian press council model, news organizations here would have to all agree on a code of ethics, all agree to submit themselves to external evaluation and potential punishment, and all contribute money directly to the council for its operational costs. That kind of organized institutionalism seems unlikely to be successful here, in such a fractured landscape. But more frequent (and more publicized) industry-wide conversations about standards, ideals, and ethics couldn’t hurt, either.

4.) Public broadcasting can (and should) prove to their audiences that they are non-biased. Because Scandinavian audiences directly fund their public TV and radio through a mandatory annual fee, they tend to feel a strong sense of ownership over what they watch and listen to. Research departments within the broadcast companies constantly conduct audience feedback surveys, as well as quantitative analyses—about how much total time is given to representatives of various political parties, for instance. Publicizing external evaluations are important, too. In Denmark, The Radio and Television Board funds research projects at the University of Southern Denmark’s Centre for Journalism that measure political balance and impartiality in public media broadcasts during elections. In Sweden, a widely publicized annual survey, “The Media Barometer” measures audience activity and trust of different media companies.

Studies throughout the region consistently show that public broadcasters are the fairest and most trusted sources of news in their respective countries—not to mention among the most trusted institutions, period. Or, as Johan Ljungström, a project manager at public broadcaster Swedish Radio, puts it, “We are consistently voted the number two most trusted company in Sweden, after IKEA.”

Last year, following the sting of NPR by activist James O’Keefe, and the resignation of NPR’s CEO, Republican members of Congress took the occasion to cry “bias” and try to cut off federal funding. While defunding is unlikely in the near future, NPR and PBS are continually put on the defensive. This politicized sniping would have been tamped down much more quickly if there were a well-established, and well-publicized, methodology for determining whether these organizations’ coverage is biased.

In the midst of the hubbub last March, On The Media produced an excellent series exploring the question of bias in public radio. The series included both soul-searching by producers who worked within the organization, and explanation of quantitative research by outside academics and analysts. There are people in the U.S. studying and measuring these things, and On The Media found them. Public media audiences, public media haters, and all those who are in the position of making funding decisions should be invited to participate in these types of surveys, and should be made aware of the results. If public money goes to these institutions—and recent evidence reinforces that it must—then the public deserves to trust their neutrality and feel ownership over their coverage.

5.) Governments can experiment with new business models, too. News organizations that loom too large are never a good thing, even if they are public broadcasters. In 2010, the Danish government announced that it would be taking one of the radio stations away from DR, the national public radio network, and putting it up for auction, with the goal of injecting some competition into the marketplace. Foreign companies had previously tried to compete, but all had failed when put up against DR’s generous funding and advertising-free programming. So the government proposed an experiment, an entirely new model for public service radio that was essentially a public-private hybrid. It would be owned by a private company but receive public money, while operating under strict requirements for the types of public service programming it would air.

The resulting 24-hour news and talk network, Radio24syv, launched last November. It’s much smaller and leaner than DR (it has 35 full-time employees to DR’s 3,000), and its CEO and editor in chief, Jørgen Ramskov, hopes that he can use new technology and new production methods to encourage innovation throughout the radio industry. “We’re not so focused on stealing audience,” says Ramskov, “we’re more focused on increasing the overall [market] for talk radio.”

The US government does not have nearly as much oversight over our media landscape as the Danish government has over Denmark—nor would increased control here be a popular move. But there is an argument to be made for the government playing a role in carving out spaces for new media experiments and, together with private-sector investors, throwing those experiments some money. The Knight Foundation and its counterparts can’t, and shouldn’t, be the only ones fostering foster innovation in the news industry.

6) Journalists and whistleblowers should have strong laws protecting them. Sweden’s first Freedom of the Press Act is older than the United States, and is widely cited as the world’s first law of its kind. Today, the Principle of Public Access in the Swedish constitution requires that all court records, documents, and communications within the government be available to the public. Government employees are encouraged to provide information to journalists, and punishing them for doing so is prohibited.

What’s more, adds Tom Moring, journalism professor at the Swedish School of Social Science, Swedish shield laws are so strong that if a journalist publishes information from an anonymous source, it is actually against the law for anyone to even ask the journalist to reveal that source. (A CJR colleague learned all the ins and outs when Julian Assange tried and failed to ingratiate himself with Sweden in 2010.) Swedish laws protecting journalists and whistleblowers are perhaps the strictest, but the whole region has a similar strong tradition. “In Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, the idea of the publicity of official documents is holy,” says Moring. “This transparency is a very crucial part of our society.”

U.S. shield law is toothless by comparison. The nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press keeps a list of reporters jailed for refusing to reveal confidential sources to prosecutors. Judith Miller probably got the most attention for going to jail for 85 days in 2005, but she wasn’t the first, and she won’t be the last. Also underreported are the fines that courts levy against individual journalists who stay silent. Journalists should not be punished for doing their job. Sweden knows it. American policymakers should learn it, too, and strengthen shield laws for reporters and editors. Perhaps then the US could rise above its current lowly rank of 47 (tied with Argentina and Romania) in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

7) Journalism training, and jobs in journalism, should be much more accessible and inviting. The Danish School of Media and Journalism was established in 1962 as the official vocational school for journalists in Denmark. The curriculum, a four-year bachelor’s degree program, was a collaboration between media organizations and the journalist’s union. It soon became akin to a necessary accreditation program, with requirements in the field—like a medical school, if medical schools were free. Since 1999, the school no longer has a monopoly on journalism education in Denmark; masters’ programs have developed in other universities since. But the school’s legacy has set the standard for journalism training.

The school’s entrance exams were rigorous and wide in scope, and the program only admitted 250 students a year. It was a true meritocracy, in that students were not admitted because of their pedigree (because applications were anonymous, and did not include high school transcripts) nor because of their ability to pay (because the school was free). Kim Minke, director of the Danish Cultural Institute in the UK, describes the school’s history in a chapter of European Journalism Education (2009). “And finally the four-year programme would contain an eighteen-month trainee period in the middle of the programme, in which the students would work as paid interns in various media companies,” Minke writes. “These were the concessions made to the skeptics who feared that the real talent and a true understanding of ordinary people would not be appreciated in a formal educational system.”

One topic that just about every American journalist—employed or not—is sure to have a strong opinion about is the value of a formal journalistic education. It’s everybody’s favorite thing to argue about, after paywalls. But everyone can probably agree that starting out in the field of journalism can be prohibitively expensive. If you’re not paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for grad school to get the training and the access that might come with that degree, you’re paying your own way during an unpaid (or extremely low-paying) internship that increasingly seems to be a prerequisite for a “real” job.

The current system is discouragingly elitist. A challenging, inexpensive training program that evaluated students on talent rather than on family names or bank accounts would be in everyone’s best interest, especially the industry that would be hiring its graduates. Unfortunately, as long as the industry is itself in financial duress, it’s unlikely that this will materialize. But news organizations should, at the very least, enliven their newsrooms by considering job candidates with unconventional resumes and informal training.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , , ,