Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Attitudes of papers/An online chat

Introduction

Today (2009-11-03) I stumbled on a “chat” which was to take place between Gunilla Herlitz, new editor-in-chief of the Swedish newspaper DNw and the public/readers about an hour later. I decided to make use of the provided form (for asking questions in advance) to give her a deliberately “difficult” question. I was not surprised to see that this question went unanswered, while a number of other semi-hard questions were answered “politician style” (i.e. with answers that duck parts of the question, give a rhetorical answer, or otherwise fail to truly address the concern). Generally, the answers were not very informative, but obviously focused on making DN look good.


Side-note:

Unfortunately, I neglected to keep a copy of my own question, and can thus not give it verbatim. Roughly, however: Will DN take the comments and feedback [that is regularly given online by readers of the articles] on lack of quality, poor background-research, and similar, seriously—or will things go on as before.

This question should be seen in the light that DN apparently has a much higher opinion of itself, its journalists, and its articles, than the readers do...


Below, I will give some of the questions and answers that I found particularly noteworthy. Note that I have paraphrased (and translated) in order to get to the gist and to illustrate my above points. For those interested in the exact questions and answers, I refer to the Swedish originale.

Selected questions and answers with comments

Legend: Q for question, A for answer, C for my comment (which will, obviously, not be present in the original).

  1. Q: Printed papers generally see diminishing editions. How will DN combat this?

    A: Many readers are prepared to pay more, if they think that DN develops and brings more value.

    C: A previous debate about online papers gave me the impression that the willingness to pay for either version of a paper is dropping. Further, there was a general air of “I would be willing to pay if the quality is right—but it is not!”, which makes me skeptical to her chances of being correct. At any rate, an improvement in quality is like an absolute pre-requisite for even keeping the current prices and circulation.

  2. Q: Will it still be possible to charge for the paper version and have advertisments in the future?

    A: It is still a splendid business idea to charge both readers and advertizers.

    C: To me, this implies a too money focused attitude, which leaves the readers in an unfortunate situation—and goes a way to explain the lack of quality. Further, it may very well be naive: Both readers and (at least wrt conventional channels) advertizers are becoming more reluctant to pay, and many consumer are used to either paying or having to live with advertizing.

  3. Q: I miss input from varying societal groups. DN seems to focus on people in the work-force. Will you do anything to improve this?

    A: DN already deliberately tries to give space to people with different backgrounds. An important work that can always be improved.

    C: The negative part of the question is effectively ignored, as is the implied wish for a constructive answer (what specifically will/would be improved). The phrasing is such that the casual readers have the impression that DN already excels—the more thorough see that merely an attempt, not success, is claimed.

  4. Q: What kind of reporting do you wish to give me that I can get nowhere else, and which will make DN unique and indispensable.

    A: One that engages both in breadth and depth. DN will continue to be the only paper in Sweden with a global net of correspondents with the target to bring the world closer to the readers.

    C: The first part of this answer is very vague and could stem from more or less any paper. (I note that current DN, IMO, fails at least at the depth part.) It could also be seen as a sign of a faulty attitude: While engaging readers can be a good thing, the main focus of a paper should be to inform and educate readers. Being engaging should be considered a means to an end, not the end itself.

    The second part is a very bold claim of disputable truth: I do not keep tabs on the internal details of various papers, but I suspect that there are a few editors-in-chief around Sweden who would be insulted by the implications. I further note that this ignores the international competition and the fact that Swedes, being good at English, have ready access to e.g. CNN, Google News, and [the international online paper of your choice]. It further ignores an ongoing development of newspapers producing less and less own material in favour of re-hashing what Reuters says—in the end, the “global net” may turn out to be overly expensive and without benefit.

  5. Q: It sucks that DN is not published every day of the year: Change this even at the cost of an increased price!

    A: [As expected, Gunilla Herlitz laps up the implied praise, and points out that the online version is less restricted.]

    C: The interesting part here is not the answer, but the question (resp. request): Considering how uninformative the answer was, the main reason to include the question at all was likely to make DN look good. A possibly side-effect is that an attitude of “DN has a very favourable price” (else no-one would suggest an increase) can be disseminated. The implied criticism, notably, is brushed under the carpet.

  6. Q: Will you invest as much in the Internet as your predecessor?

    A: There will be a differentiation between the paper and online version: The latter is for fast and free news updates, the former will be a premium product with analysis, depth, and reflection.

    C: In effect, the ideal reader will pay for the paper version and check in several times a day online to make sure that he does not have to wait until the following morning; the online versions will lack anything beyond what other services provide, and bring no real benefit. While I, myself, have always enjoyed a good printed paper, this is a naive point of view in the long term—the readership of the printed paper will diminish noticeably as time goes by. Further, it ignores that others will provide in-depth content online, that many readers will be disappointed by the online version and discount DN as a whole (possibly unjustly), and that the even the paper version is not as good as DN, itself, seems to think.

  7. Q: [similar question]

    A: [similar answer] + “to remain current you must read both the paper and the online version of DN”.

    C: Must I? What if I read the paper version of DN and the online version of another paper? Just the online version of another paper with more depth? Find that I am better served by a mixture of Google News, independent bloggers, and specialist sites focusing on individual topics? (Notably, many bloggers provide better writing, information, and critical analysis than the average journalist—not too mention that they often write on topics that they actually have a decent grasp on, which cannot be said about most journalists.)

  8. Q: DN seems to have a tendency to stick to the “official” truth, e.g. by echoing the health department concering the swine flu. I see a danger here. What is your take?

    A: I do not agree [with the alleged tendency]. But obviously I agree that a paper with such a tremendously strong position as DN has a responsibility to report from different perspectives.

    C: The question is denied, while the chance is taken to (with tasteless exaggeration) point to the strong position of the paper. I note that there are some “truths” that are parotted by a wast majority of Swedish newspapers and journalists, including many social democratic and feministic ideas, and that this is a definite problem. Good journalists should strive to uncover the truth and to criticize “truths”. (Whether this is a specificially Swedish problem is another matter: I regularly read newspaper articles from Sweden, Germany, the US, and other English speaking countries, and none of the countries are free from bias; however, in my subjective impression, Sweden is worse than the others—possibly, with the exception of the US.)


    Side-note:

    While a good journalist will strive to uncover the truth, he should only do so when factual matters are concerned (e.g. scientific hypotheses) or there is a legitimate public interest in the matter. An example of the latter would be a politician engaging in embezzelment; not, however, various matters relating to his private life. The old movie cliche “The public has a right to know!” is, notably, typically used when the public does not have any legitimate right to know.


  9. Q: Where will DN be in ten years?

    A: DN will still be Sweden’s most important paper. The number of readers is even larger through the online edition, and therefore our journalism has an even greater impact.

    C: The claim about being (let alone remaining) Sweden’s most important paper is disputable: The tabloid Aftonbladetw has a larger circulation, and both are positively dwarfed by the free paper Metrow. Looking instead at quality and impact on intellectual issues, I definitely saw same-niche competitor SvDw ahead when I lived in Sweden (and could make a regular comparison).

    The second claim is also disputable: It is possibly true that the number of online readers will be even larger than today; however, the impact per reader will be reduced, because these readers are shared with many other newspapers. Further, according to the above, the online edition will not be as thorough as the paper version, which makes me doubt its impact.

  10. Q: Give three reasons why DN is better than SvD. Give three reasons why SvD is better than DN.

    A: [The first half is completed with disputable answers. The second half is ignored.]

    C: Who would have thought...

    This half-answer is particularly unfortunate as the question was a very good one: The readers would have benefitted from a full answer, Gunilla Herlitz would have had an opportunity to display that she knows here business, and a (much needed) self-critical introspection would have been good for DN.

    Instead, obviously, we have to draw conclusions from the omissions...

  11. Q: Hi Gunilla! Rumor has it that you have a dog. What race? And will we get more dog articles in DN? Good luck!

    A: [Affirmative small talk].

    C: The important thing here is what kind of question was answered. It can, e.g., be concluded that my question was not excluded merely because the number of questions was too large to handle (which is common problem with such chats)—if personal nonsense questions like this are let in... I would even speculate that this question was included with a hidden agenda of showing a more personal or private side of Gunilla Herlitz—something that image builders tend to very keen on.

Pseudo-chats and their problems

In addition, it is telling that these so called chats are typically not chats, but work on the principle of visitors asking questions in a limited time window, which are then filtered and queued by someone, and eventually answered one by one in a pseudo-interactive manner by the “chatter” until the window closes. While I cannot make conclusive statements about this particular chat, it appears to be another instance of such a pseudo-chat. Unfortunately, they are plain idiotic: A much better way would be to just collect questions over a longer time period (say, two days) and then to answer them yet another few days later with statements that had been well thought through. Alternatively, a real chat, not a pseudo-chat, should be held, e.g. by putting the chatter in a publicly accessible chat room.