Why create a newspaper?
The core reason I wanted to create a newspaper is I wanted to change society. In the modern political system, at least in Sweden, it’s not politicians who have the main power; it’s the media. Before, the political parties were dominant and were the ones who led the country. Now the media, including social media, create issues and the political systems just follow.
Let me explain with numbers.
Sweden is a country where there are many candidates and many people both on the political right and left. So maybe 45% are left and 45% are right. These numbers go up and down, but opinions are divided like in most European or Western countries. And still, the journalists are 85–90% on the left, as well as all of the major serious newspapers. There are newspapers or news sites on the right, but they are low-level. This is one of the gaps. And in surveys, about 30% of the Swedish public says they don’t like the news because it’s too lefty.
This is my finding. So this is the niche I was going for. Otherwise, I would never start a newspaper. There are so many newspapers you could not become profitable just by starting another one.
The second reason I started Bulletin was that traditionally, whereas America, England, and other countries have intellectually high-level newspapers like the Times of London, Telegraph, The Guardian, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, and Sweden doesn’t have newspapers of this quality press category.
We have traditional tabloids. Tabloids will try to maximize the impact and clickbait, whereas high-quality newspapers will try to be objective. They pick more intellectual topics. They will write more about foreign politics, economics, or science, and the headlines will be more subdued, more informative, and calm. So I wanted to believe that there would be an audience for this highbrow intellectual news and that in this way, we could also increase our credibility. That was the content part of the idea.
There were two more parts that mattered. The newspaper industry used to be profitable until the early nineties. Before, if you wanted news, you had to have a newspaper, you had to buy one. Another source of revenue was placing ads in the newspaper. And then between 1990, roughly, and 2015, the newspaper industry was destroyed in terms of profit and many publishers were bankrupt. People would read reviews on the Internet for free. And the lead in advertising went to Google and Facebook and other online sources.
But however, this is not the end of the news. It was the end of an old business model and the invention of a new one.
People still wanted to read the news, now online. At the end of the day, people still trust newspapers more than Google for getting high-quality news. And if you make your newspaper good enough, you have a connection with your readers. They’ll willingly pay for it on the paywall.
This is one of the many things Nicole Miller taught us. He was the former head of Harvard Media School, worked at The New York Times, and later was an adviser for Bulletin for a short but for us valuable time. And it was he who told us to do paywalls. Instead of seeing the Internet as our enemy, let’s think that’s our friend, he said. This friendship, what does it give us?
We don’t need to print our newspaper, we don’t pay for distribution and logistics. Also, what’s the most profitable segment of digital news? He proved to us it was a newsletter. It was not obvious to us, but he explained. Newsletters go directly to people; they open their email and they just trust what’s there. And people won’t unsubscribe because they’re so used to it.
Ads are just going to be a compliment now. They won’t be the main revenue source. The main thing is going to be subscription revenue. The question remaining is how to gain readers’ trust so that they pay for a subscription.
On building trust with readers
When we launched, I expected more engagement in international news. However, the demand for international news turned out to be not as big as I had hoped. People tend to go towards clickbait on the one hand, and on very serious and intellectual, political, and domestic articles on the other hand. And that’s one of the things that our paper does. People care more about their own country, but they like to read articles that are serious, new and original. They like to think, and our paper gives them that.
If you look at the most-read articles today, four or three are domestic and two are international. We do have articles about Russia, articles about the US. But the majority is domestic news. If we wanted to maximize our traffic, we could do fewer international news. But we try to create serious articles.
The other thing that we learned from our readers is what they really want is original news of major scandals and discoveries. People believe that that’s lacking, so we give them that too.
I think what our readers appreciate about our paper is that we treat them as intelligent. We don’t talk down to them.
Also, we try not to make conclusions for them, which is what many people do not like about the existing news. The existing news has an agenda. They already have an opinion about whatever they’re reporting about, and they’re trying to tell readers what they should believe. We try to give our readers facts and believe that people are intelligent enough to make their own conclusions.
And the third thing is we also believe very strongly in freedom of speech. So we do not censor our writers and are not afraid to talk about controversial matters like race, immigration or global warming. And we have also tried to do it fairly for both the political left and the right. We try to widen the corridor of opinion established here in Sweden and further, excluding any self-censorship. Not many other serious newspapers would allow people to critisize, for example, Islam, but we do.
However, people criticizing anything should rely on facts so that we don’t censor their opinion. That’s a different competitive edge. And I guess actually, if I was going to tell you why our readers like us, it’s because people are sick of censorship. And even though our paper has had problems with such a position, our readers consider us courageous; they appreciate that we go against the mainstream and that we have no agenda. We are not owned by any party. We do not affiliate with any organization or political party. And this is also an independence that people admire. We are honored by our readers.
This is one of the things we put a lot of effort into. Bulletin has a very clear line between opinion pages. Various types of opinion articles are quite easy to organize because each person writes their own article.
For an opinion piece, a Head of Opinion reads through it first. They make sure there are no repetitions and themes fit our newspaper.
The Head of Opinion talks to the people, reads the article once. Also, the publisher and a law person have to read the article so there’s nothing illegal in it; otherwise, they rewrite it.
News is difficult to organize because news is done in a team. The Head of News has a very important role. They have to think about what topics they cover. Every day in the morning they give out roles to different journalists. It’s very important to organize a schedule. If an opinion publication can be scheduled, news appears every hour, so someone has to be on the night shift. We even have one person in Australia who works when it’s morning or night in Sweden.
One of the reasons why American newspapers and good English ones are maybe the best in the world is because the articles are more accurate and require better research, more layers of editing. The role of an editor is much more representative. First of all, go facts and objectivity, and the reader comes next. In Swedish tradition, the editor is weak and their main job is to defend the journalist against external criticism.
So we hired the former Head of Opinion at the New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal, at Bulletin to teach us this and implement these layers of editorial wisdom and various methods and habits of news.
And this is how the process works. It’s that we now have one Chief Editor and a Head of News. And they both have a team. And the job of the head of each department is very important. This person really determines the content to a large extent. They also seek out freelance people to bring in. In our paper, we have been trying to be more international.
The former head of BBC and the former head of the American Democratic Party have written for us. We have had cynical eyes from Nobel Prize winners.
But also, of course, we ask many Swedish people to write for us. I try not to micromanage the content, but if I read somebody saying something interesting on Facebook, I might say, ‘why don’t you write an article for us? I think our readers would like that.’
Content management system and its role
Our content management system has many integrations because we are digital news. Authors write everything inside this system. It has many functionalities that make their job easier; for instance, spell check.
One of the biggest debates we had was if we should build this system from the ground up or use WordPress. WordPress is cheap and easy to use and journalists know how to use it. But I asked experts and they said no. In the long run, it would be better off building our own system. It provides more flexibility. We can build something faster and add to it more, and we wouldn’t have all the bugs and stuff. So this is what we did.
We built a system that visually resembles WordPress, but with some significant advantages. Journalists write their articles in the system and can see each other’s texts. The editor can see the article and put it in the planning. Very important for the time stamp on it. It tracks all the articles, so if one is retracted or changed, it’s all there. And of course, there are other advantages like graphics, putting ads.
I approached the process of selecting a website development company very thoroughly. In the end, I decided on Anadea, and there were some reasons.
At the start, we wrote a standardized letter describing our project and emailed it to 20 companies or so. And then we evaluated their answers. How good was their English? How much did they understand the task and what the questions were? How professional was the answer? Then we picked four or five companies and interviewed them. And ultimately, Anadea was the best.
I was criticized for not putting the development in Sweden. Sweden would be closer and more convenient — and not that much more expensive. However, Anadea came much easier to work with compared to Swedish companies. Swedish developers would fight me if I told them to do things my way. They are like artists. Creating is okay, but I already had my vision. I needed someone practical-minded and client-oriented.
We wanted to design a newspaper without knowing basically anything about it ourselves. That’s why we needed a company that had people who could think for themselves, not only to program. It requires something beyond programming.
In a long-winded way, it’s very important to have good programmers. And being good programmers is not only a technical question but a question of understanding the end product and thinking creatively. And that’s very rare.
This is the reason I would recommend Anadea. At the end of the day, many clients are not going to be IT experts; they’re going to be engaged in various fields. In my case, news, economics, and public opinion. It’s good for me to have somebody who is creative and intelligent enough to understand my field and communicate with me.
Today’s newspaper is an IT company
The modern newspaper that is read online like us is almost as much an IT company as a news company in terms of what gives us revenue. 60–80% of our readers use mobile devices, so the quality of the newspaper’s code directly impacts user engagement.
We have certain algorithms because we have a commercial newspaper. We developed algorithms to see which articles should or should not be open depending on readership. We integrated ads, auto-posting, we put articles on Facebook, where social media will have our traffic. Then, a lot of information has to be reported to the government every year. This is complicated. And so it’s very important to do Google ranking. You need to be SEO-optimized, which is also a lion’s share of technical hygiene.
One of my mistakes was that I brought in my friends and gave them stocks. It was not professional enough. It started as a project with friends which caused internal fighting.
I was very bad at recruiting people. I’m an academic; I didn’t do business before that. That was really my main mistake.
First of all, I should have kept all the control, and second, I should have done the recruiting. I should have not recruited someone I know but recruited people in a more evidence-based way.
Another one, I didn’t realize so many people would be so angry that we were doing so much international news.
Now I’m focusing on recovering from the damage done by infighting and making Bulletin financially stable. The second goal is to grow our readership back and beyond where we were. And the third one is to scale up in terms of improving the design and increasing the number of reporters. It’s really a continuation along a tangent, but our long-term goal is to become a major Swedish newspaper, one of the largest and most trusted in Sweden.
Tino Sanandaji – founder and owner of Bulletin, a Swedish online newspaper founded in 2020. A researcher in economics and economics history. Writer on political subjects covering topics of immigration and crime. Author of a book.