Tributes to one of Norway’s sharpest, most fearless and creatively irreverent media leaders have rolled in since news broke last week that Kåre Valebrokk had died, not unexpectedly, at the age of 72. What follows is a highly personal one, because anyone who ever worked for the man can hardly be objective about losing him.
Valebrokk, known for his ever-present unfiltered Teddy cigarettes in one hand and a gin-and-tonic in the other, was my boss for eight unusually adventurous and formative years back in the 1990s. Kåre, roughly pronounced as “Core-eh,” could be exactly that: The core of his staffers’ and readers’ waking hours, and on a first-name basis with everyone.
He hired me shortly after I’d arrived in Norway from the US and he’d decided to launch an English-language shipping newspaper called TradeWinds. He was already the high-profile and highly respected editor and publisher of Norway’s major business daily Dagens Næringsliv (DN), but as Kåre explained his ambitious diversification projects, he was “running out of Norwegians.” The only way he thought he could maintain the media company’s growth was to tap into the international market. Norway was simply too small for this mild-mannered but strong journalist from Kristiansand.
Kåre landed on two areas in which he thought Norwegians had enough expertise that international newspapers covering them could command some respect outside Norway’s borders: Shipping and oil. TradeWinds was launched first, then Upstream, another niche international paper that covers the upstream side of the oil business. The mandate for both was to cover these businesses in a critical and colourful manner, and both are now profitable must-reads in their fields. “The only friends we’ll have are our readers,” Kåre would tell us. Nothing or no one was sacred or off-limits, including members of the media company’s own board of directors who often were involved in businesses that Kåre’s papers covered. Kåre made sure they didn’t meddle in his journalists’ work.
The adventure for us in TradeWinds began in 1990, just five years after Kåre had taken the helm at Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and transformed it into Norway’s own version of the Financial Times, right down to the peach-coloured paper. The staff enthusiasm at both DN and TradeWinds was infectious. We routinely worked 12- to 16-hour days but it was fun (at least for the first several years). The sky seemed to be the limit as he sent us around the world, working on stories or setting up bureaus in London, Athens, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Connecticut. And Kåre became a hero for quite a few of us utlendinger (foreigners) living in and outside of Norway. It’s never been easy for foreigners to find meaningful, high-ranking jobs in Norway but Kåre had faith in us, and needed us. His English, along with that of other Norwegian journalists on the staff, was good but writing and editing it was a challenge. That’s where we could contribute.
Master at breeding loyalty
He expected a lot from us and we in turn didn’t want to let him down. He was unique in showing his appreciation for his staff and for his support during times of trouble or personal crises. We were handsomely rewarded, with some of the highest salaries in the business and flexible expense accounts. Kåre’s generosity was legendary. There were cases of wine on special birthdays, lots of travel, dozens of roses on special occasions, dinners out and myriad staff parties. On one memorable sunny day in May, Kåre arranged for several kegs of beer to be set up on the balcony of our old offices in Oslo City, with waiters from a local bar to serve it at lunchtime. “It’s spring, Nina!” he brightly announced as he pulled us out of our offices to enjoy the sunshine. It was entirely in keeping with Kåre’s much-repeated motto in the recent tributes that “all journalists should smell like beer after lunch.” He wanted his reporters to be out socializing and sourcing as much as possible. He had a bar in his office and a sign reading that he was glad if you smoked.
He always claimed that journalism wasn’t a job, it was a lifestyle. His own was far from healthy, and it likely caught up with him in the end. He was known for being the last man in the bar after a long day of seminar meetings and the first one, freshly shaved and with all the morning papers read, at the hotel breakfast table in the morning. It wasn’t unlike Kåre to host a staff seminar on board the cruise ferry from Oslo to Copenhagen and right back again, and hardly sleep during its duration. Kåre had a unique way of breeding loyalty. We were, perhaps, spoiled rotten. If we didn’t realize it at the time, we sure did when we moved on to other jobs, and met entirely different cultures, much more rigid and much less generous.
Kåre’s culture funket, as he might say in Norwegian: It functioned, for the most part. His grunder (entrepreneurial) spirit buoyed journalistic ventures that hopefully will outlive all of us. He profoundly influenced the lives of many, also after he moved on to take over Norway’s major commercial television station TV2. He demanded excellence and generally got it, with DN, for example, breaking so many major stories and winning so many awards over the years, and long after Kåre had left, that it’s hard to keep count. He was far from perfect, and his utter disregard for conventional ways of doing business or methods of management could drive some more structurally oriented underlings to distraction. But he built lasting foundations for good journalism.
Constantly questioning authority
Outside of the newsrooms where we journalists knew Kåre best, he was a force to be reckoned with, in both business, local and national politics. He questioned authority constantly, and was a champion of a less-restrictive, less-protectionist Norway with a powerful pen. Seats at his legendary lutefisk tables at Oslo’s Theatercafeén were prestigious and sought-after, and he’d host the most amazing combinations of politicians, business leaders and cultural elite. Yet there was nothing “elite” about Kåre himself. He remained, despite his carefully polished shoes and tailor-made shirts from Jermyn Street in London, the surprisingly soft-spoken, down-to-earth guy with quick and clever remarks from Kristiansand, a city he often fondly referred as being home to “everyone who came too late to catch the boat to America.”
Kåre was rarely if ever late. He has died much too early. And amidst all the tributes, not least from other editors at other newspapers and media outlets, one wonders “why can’t they all simply be more like Kåre? Why can’t they, and all of us, be as fearless, as independent, as fun and generous as he was?”
That would be the best tribute of all.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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