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'I wanted to show the public this openness of Ekstra Bladet': A conversation with Editor-in-Chief Poul Madsen

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'I wanted to show the public this openness of Ekstra Bladet': A conversation with Editor-in-Chief Poul Madsen

The documentary makers got lucky and found two major stories to base the film around, the sudden accelerated decline in print circulation and the Danish hostage crisis in Somalia. Inevitably, this put the spotlight on the key decision maker and editor-in-chief, Poul Madsen – even if, as he points out himself, the newsroom is run day-to-day by his co-editor-in-chief, Karen Bro.

His role at the Ekstra Bladet has ensured Madsen is a well-known figure in Denmark, a regular on Danish talkshows and their own TV channel. This has its advantages. As we chatted on our way to a meeting in San Francisco in late November, he recalled playing doubles with Serena Williams in a Pro-Am in Copenhagen just a few weeks before.

The film charts a dramatic period in Ekstra Bladet’s century long print history, but only lightly touches on the less sexy story of digital growth, apart from footage of the server room played to the soundtrack of what sounds like an old 9600-baud modem.

Over the years, we’ve got to know a different, forward thinking side of JP/Politikens Huus, the group that owns Ekstra Bladet. Having also followed Ekstra’s freemium paid content model from the first days of launch in 2013 to the 25,000 subscribers today, we wanted to get behind the film, and spoke with Madsen (pictured above, in a press image for the film) more about the digital success that runs in parallel with the print decline.  

Click here for our review of the film. We’re currently looking to source some copies of the film on DVD and are planning to organise a viewing in London alongside a presentation from Madsen at our Digital Media Europe conference in April 2015.

WAN-IFRA: How were you approached by the director?

Poul Madsen: The director [Mikala Krogh] came to us and said she wanted to do a movie like the one about The New York Times [‘Page One: Inside The New York Times’]. And she needed to choose between us and another newspaper called Information, which is more a left wing, small, niche-orientated newspaper.

So she spent about a week at Information and a couple of weeks at Ekstra Bladet just to make sure it was possible to make the movie and get access to what she wanted.

We decided if this movie should be made, it should be made with Ekstra Bladet.

We are very controversial in every way in all our journalism business. So it could be interesting making a movie on Ekstra Bladet.

But I said this is not going to be a propaganda film for me or for Ekstra Bladet, so I won’t see the movie before it’s in the cinema. Not at all. And she would have full access to everthing that is going on. My co-editor, Karen [Karen Bro] saw the movie before it was sent to cinemas just to make sure that none of our sources would be recognisable in the movie. And nothing was changed.

Of course, when this hostage case came up, we knew this was going to be the central case in the movie.

Was this just your decision?

Madsen: It was my and the editorial board’s decision. And of course I had to go to my boss who is the boss of the whole JP/P company. At that time it was Lars Munch [now chairman of the board. Munch is also a member of WAN-IFRA's Executive Committee]. He said ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’ I said ‘I’m sure this is a good idea, because people will probably see that we are discussing journalism a lot at Ekstra Bladet.’

I believe people outside Ekstra Bladet think of us as people who are only speculating in circulation and getting a lot of attention and not having any ethics discussions about anything. So now we can be open about what is going on, and on the other hand, we have in Denmark a political system which is closing down around decision making, and this could be a way of showing politicians and the public in Denmark that we at Ekstra Bladet, the most controversial of all, have opened up to show people how we are doing things.

That was the main reason for me. I wanted to show the public this openness of Ekstra Bladet making it an example for the political system and for everybody, that if you are open, you are probably not more popular, but people will understand that something is going on.

It’s quite a brutal story. You’re talking about the circulation being cut in half, staff losses, you get this press complaints judgement against you, you’ve got the digital side only making money because of soft porn and side 9 and stuff. You presumably knew some of that would come out. Were you worried about the perception?

Madsen: Yes, of course, I was worried about the perception because what we see in this movie is only half of the Ekstra Bladet story. We are a very successful and popular digital operation doing television nowadays and having as many employees in total as we had three years ago, and more than we had five years ago because of all this television and digital operation. We’re earning money on the digital part as well, and this is not featured at all.

In some ways, I knew it would not be in the movie because the best story is, of course, the transition of what has been going on for 110 years, the newspaper, and the decline of the newspaper, which won’t be here 10 years from now. And so as I said to the director, if I had done the same story about Ekstra Bladet, I would have done the story about the newspaper as well because that’s the best story. But this is not the full picture of Ekstra Bladet. And that’s probably what Lars and other people are concerned about, that we are painting only a very dark and hard picture of Ekstra Bladet instead of painting a success story, which is the other part.

We work with you a lot on the digital side, and you now have 25,000 subscribers on EKSTRA compared to when the film was made, which shows when you launched it. You saw this complete split in the newsroom between the print guys and the digital. Is that how it is now?

Madsen: That was a transition in one and a half years when she [the director] was here, the last call for the paper-only part of the newsroom. The transition started five or six years ago, so what we’re seeing in the newsroom in the movie is, in my opinion, the last breaths of the old school.

We had like 2,300 when the movie stopped, and now we have about 25,000, and people are not paying for nude content and funny stuff because they can get them everywhere. People are paying for web journalism and one of the things Ekstra Bladet should traditionally be number one in: in-depth journalism and the watchdog, the traditional Ekstra Bladet watchdog.

In the free part, we have all this entertainment content and we have the sport content. On television, it’s mostly ads at this time, it’s sport content and it’s entertainment. Then we’re going to build up more a like Huffington Post, which is shown, like two or three hours a day, involve our users in a discussion about what is going on in Danish society.

You talked about the perception, have you had some feedback externally about the film?

Madsen: Yes, a lot. Normally, when Ekstra Bladet is doing stories, half of the population is on our side and half are against us. But after this movie, it’s like 95 percent are positive about what we have done.

Now everyone is talking about what we should do to keep in-depth journalism because in-depth journalism is very expensive. That’s exactly what the director wanted, a discussion about if you want a society with well funded in depth journalism then you have to pay for it. Somebody has to pay for it.

Do you think you’ve proved the model now? If you look at this film as the death of the newsstand, do you see yourselves as a model for the transition, or are some going to just die on the way?

Madsen: We see ourselves as proof that [you can succeed] if you realise that you have to make the transition, and if you are doing it 100 percent, as opposed to only investing a little bit of money in the transition. We have invested a lot of money, that’s the best part of being a part of JP/P, that they invest money in journalism and their publishers.

I used to say 'I’m not running a printing plant, and I’m not in the trees and paper business; I’m a publisher, and I want to publish things where people are.' That’s what we’re trying to do, trying to make people pay for the best part of it and be able to remain publishers in the future. That’s exactly what we have done at Ekstra Bladet.

We would probably be the last ones now to close down our paper, because we have created a paid-content area on the digital part which is going hand-in-hand with the newspaper.

If you can make a newsroom that is able to make stories that are suitable for more than one media then of course you are able to have a newspaper with a circulation of 20,000. We had 100,000 paying for our content, and we’ve had Ekstra Bladet circulation since the movie going down to about 40,000. But it’s not a problem anymore because we have a second way of earning money on the same story on the digital part.

But is there still a bridge to cross? If your current price is 19Kr. And what’s the monthly cost of Plus [EKSTRA – the premium content on ekstrabladet.dk]?

Madsen: It’s only 29Kr (approximately 3.90 euros). It’s nothing. Then we have the ePaper as well, and we have 2,500 people paying like 190Kr (about 25.50 euros) a month for the ePaper. And what we’re going to do in the future is to combine a lot of new ways of being able to have our content. Maybe people bought their ePaper on the weekend or the ePaper Monday to Thursday and then the paper on the weekend. It’s not anymore about having it digital or on paper. It’s about: if you want our investigative journalism then you have to pay for it and everywhere.

Do you think you can keep the same size newsroom with the new model?

Madsen: Yes. But what we’ve been used to in the newspaper business is that you have one paper and you only have one deadline every day. Of course, we have in the new world a deadline every minute in the free part, and then you have to create areas for special websites which people can pay for. It could be for soccer, it could be a special website for investigative journalism – anything. And then this model of 29Kr for EKSTRA every month.

We have to create, instead of having only one business, we have to create two new businesses every year. That’s what we have promised our board, that we should create two new businesses every year. We’re going to start up a radio station now, on 1st February, and we’ve created the Danish BuzzFeed, which nobody has yet seen in Denmark. We’ve not done any promotion for this website, and it started on Friday, and we have like 200,000 people using it, on Friday, and without saying anything about it. It’s called digout.com.

Would you do this again?

Madsen: Yeah, I have no regrets that we did this. I think we’ve changed a lot of people’s minds about what Ekstra Bladet is. The movie has done very well in changing the mindset, and now we’re able to tell the full story about our great success on the digital side, because it’s not in the movie. A lot of people know much more about Ekstra Bladet now so they are prepared to listen to us telling this story.

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Nick Tjaardstra's picture

Nick Tjaardstra

Date

2014-12-19 13:04

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The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.


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