In Norway, newspapers tackle e-tablets together


Newspapers and magazines worldwide have given a hero’s welcome to e-readers and e-tablets, especially the iPad. Handsets, they hope, will allow them to sell digital content, something that few have managed to do successfully with their websites.

In Norway, newspapers have decided to explore this new frontier of publishing together. The national media association, Mediebedriften (MBL), launched an e-reader project in spring 2009. The aim is to help members exploit the potential of portable devices.

“Weimage saw that e-readers were taking off in the American market. There were projects in Sweden and other countries to develop specific services. We wanted to start a project in Norway, just to see how our member newspapers could be developed in a suitable way for e-readers,” said Geir Engen, director of MBL.

Converting pdf to xml

The initial plan was to test e-readers, then to advise newspapers on the strategy to adopt. But as the project got underway, its scope quickly expanded.

“Last summer we found out that tests would only be a small part of our project. A big part is going to be to help our members get content from the newspaper production system, which is directed towards the production of print, to digital devices,” Engen said.

The association is setting up a system to automatically convert pdf files into xml, or extensible mark-up language, used for encoding documents electronically.

“The main issue is to try to establish a system in which all newspapers are available and to help them create good digital editions as fast and as cheaply as possible,” Engen summarised.

Getting a fair share of revenue

Then, as the project developed, the Norwegian association added yet another objective: to distribute content itself.

MBL is now developing its own digital distribution platform. The aim is that every newspaper taking part in the project will be able to sell content through its own portal. This way, it could bypass much-criticised sales platforms like the Amazon and Apple stores.

“We found out that the whole business model, the Kindle business model for instance, is one in which newspapers have no influence: they can’t set the price and don’t have a direct contact with customers. We are trying to create a model which allows us to secure a better place in the value chain,” Engen said.

Publishers are critical of Amazon and Apple for taking a large share of revenues and not sharing information about customers. With Apple, they can go around this by selling subscriptions through their own websites. But with Amazon, this is impossible.

According to Engen, MBL has advised its members not to sign for Kindle without consulting the association first.

“To my knowledge, there are no Norwegian newspapers available on Kindle,” he stated.image

Testing three e-papers

The distribution platform is to be tested soon. “We expect it will be up and running by the end of June. We will start off with three newspapers, which will be provided to 200 readers,” said Mikal Rohde, the project manager.

Newspapers with different profiles have been chosen for the test phase:

  • Aftenposten, a large national newspaper
  • Drammens Tidene, a local paper based 30 km south west of Oslo
  • Nordlys, a local paper based in Tromsø (northern Norway)

The choice of newspapers reflects the variety of MBL members. Different papers may need specific solutions. Portable devices can be particularly useful for newspapers that are distributed in remote areas, for example.

“Norway is a small but very widespread country. Delivering digital editions would be beneficial for some of our very small niche newspapers, because distribution costs are extremely high,” Engen explained.


The 200 readers for the test phase are being selected with the help of a professor from the University of Stavanger. They will be expected to provide regular and detailed feedback.

“We want to understand how they accept the product, what content they would like to see, whether the length of an article is too long ... [and so on],” Rohde said. MBL will also test out a price list and advise members on whether or not an e-paper should be sold in bundle with a print paper.

“We would like to have all options available,” the project manager said.

When considering prices for digital editions, publishers will also have to take their other products, like websites, into account.

“Our aim is for a digital edition of a newspaper to be a pay product, not a free product. But then you have to consider your whole portfolio. The website, should it be free? Most likely, it will still be free. But you have to re-think your strategy and what content you put on the web, compared to what you put in the paper and the digital devices,” Engen said.

Fast-changing environment

MBL will carry out the tests with an undisclosed handset. After the test phase, it aims to develop content that can be used for different devices, like the iPad and tablets that use Google’s Android operating system.

The e-paper format currently developed by MBL is a simple product based on a conversion of the print newspaper. But the association may decide to develop more complex products later.

“We feel that simply converting newspapers to digital format isn’t necessarily the project we will have in the future. But it is still a very interesting start for us to offer that. This way we can learn today what we will be doing in the future,” Rohde said.

Members could also decide to go their own way. The Scandinavian press group Bonnier has already chosen to develop its own e-tablet products, the AFP’s Eric Scherer reported. The Mag+ research project tests out innovative magazine formats for handsets.

Flickr images from users theplan8podcast