2014-12-09: Interview with Gunnar Strömblad

The Swedish media industry has experienced dramatic changes during the last decades. During these years, Mr Gunnar Strömblad has been one of the most influential and successful leaders in the industry turning around declining newspapers and pioneering new products. He has been the CEO of both Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet, two Swedish newspapers which he put into the right track again. In the 1990ties he took the initiative to launch aftonbladet.se as the first Swedish newspaper online and currently the most successful. While working for the Norwegian firm Schibsted, he had a pivotal role in the launch of the successful web portals blocket.se and hitta.se. Since 2013, Mr Strömblad has also been member of Lagerkvist & Partner’s Advisory Board.

Four Sides: Recent surveys about media consumption show that people globally, use their smartphones 34 minutes more per day than they watch TV. Is this surprising and is traditional media doomed?

Gunnar Strömblad: These figures are interesting but the trend they show is not surprising. However, traditional media I hope will survive since they have a function in society that is hard to substitute with the new internet based services. Printed newspapers are doomed but you will still be able to make money during the 5-6 years to come if you treat it as a “sunset industry”. That is probably Warren Buffet’s purpose when he has bought newspapers. Today, it is easy for people to get information, but in a decentralized media landscape there is always greater risk that incorrect information proliferates. In that way, traditional media can offer a more qualified product.

FS: Aftonbladet.se has been successful as an Internet version of the newspaper. How come you succeeded to start so early?

GS: It was launched in the autumn of 1994 so this year they are celebrating their 20th anniversary. Back in 1994 we thought aftonbladet.se was a fun project since it was so new. In other newspapers, there was considerable resistance against the Internet, but in Aftonbladet there was not so much resistance. We had a different culture. Even the culture editor was enthusiastic since the online newspaper made it possible for them to publish more material. Generally, I think the resistance against Internet is stronger in continental Europe.

FS: How did aftonbladet.se achieve its strong position?

GS: Aftonbladet.se was the first big Swedish newspaper to go online. Later, after the dot-com crisis, many Internet projects were stopped at the same time Schibsted (the owner of Aftonbladet) continued to invest and develop aftonbladet.se. Later, when the money came back to the market, aftonbladet.se had a considerable advantage over the competitors. Today they are 3 times bigger than Expressen online and 4 times bigger on mobile devices.

FS: When we started to look at the declining newspaper market we thought that local newspapers would be the last to fall. Is that still correct?

GS: Local newspapers have a delicate situation with high distribution costs and lagging technical edge. They have often a local monopoly of news and ads, but they have not found a new business model yet that works. Making money online is only possible for larger newspapers like Aftonbladet.se. And then you have the issue with the high average age of the readers. The local newspapers must find a new business model, otherwise it seems very hard to make the transition from print to digital.

FS: Generally, what do you think about the development of the media landscape?

GS: Overall the development is positive. Thanks to the Internet, people can, if they want, easily keep updated about what is happening in the World. However, one worrying thing is the distrust against the “old media”; many people prefer to trust their “friends”, sources of information that offers the view they like and that many times is tainted by prejudice and false information. It is positive that people are critical towards media, but an exaggerated critical view towards generally accepted sources can in the long run be dangerous if the criticism is based on dubious facts.

FS: Is there still a role for public service?

GS: I think so even if Swedish Television has become more of a me-too product.

FS: So, is the Media World becoming better or worse?

GS: The development must be embraced and I am convinced that things are getting better. The challenge is to stop the degradation of the journalistic profession, but otherwise, the current development is probably good for democracy.