Espen Egil Hansen took the helm at Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten earlier this month, and is ready to steer a new digital course. He started his first day on the job, though, by pulling a delivery cart full of papers around the frosty streets of Oslo, following the couriers before dawn.
“Good morning, my name’s Espen. I’m new here,” Hansen addressed his colleagues at his first staff meeting, fresh from the paper round. He started by delivering the papers, he said, because he wanted to learn about “every aspect” of what he’ll keep turning into a modern media house, Aftenposten.
“Am I the last editor-in-chief who will get to experience this?” he wrote in a commentary for the paper the same week. At a time when increasing numbers in media-savvy Norway are consuming their news on mobiles, iPads and online, the future of print newspapers remains uncertain.
Some are still doing well, like Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and Morgenbladet, which DN just bought into. One of Aftenposten’s greatest fears, though, is that both readers and advertisers will abandon the printed paper without becoming interested enough in its online content either, or refusing to pay the same ad rates.
Hansen’s predecessor, Hilde Haugsgjerd, told him he just has to succeed, because otherwise there will either be no more Aftenposten, or else it will become a little niche paper.
There is perhaps a feeling that, if anyone can do it, Hansen can. He had a successful career at newspaper VG and comes to Aftenposten straight from being the digital editor at VG Nett, which under his leadership became the country’s biggest website and most popular multimedia news channel. He is described by trade paper The Journalist (Journalisten) as “one of the most digitally savvy media leaders.”
“He’s a leader you can come to with everything,” according to former colleagues, but is also known for his “cursed temperament,” impatience and lack of sympathy for staff who think that everything was better before. He’s also a fast thinker, and as a young man, working at the former tabloid newspaper Verdens Gang (VG), could generate 100 news story ideas in 20 minutes.
Hansen admits that although Aftenposten is the country’s biggest print newspaper, with fully 200,000 subscribers, it’s been slower to develop online. “Many visit the website, but not often, and it takes a long time before they come back,” he said.
The paper now wants to remove the online-print barrier, and at the same time scale down its production and printing costs, transferring more of its income, advertising and subscriptions to the web. Paying subscribers can now access all content in digital format and can also search and read online everything published by the newspaper during the past 153 years. They can also now read the next day’s edition from 10pm the night before on its iPad app, and the paper is launching several new products in both its online and mobile editions. Access to aftenposten.no is no longer free, and will cost NOK 199 (USD 33) month after an introductory period for those who don’t subscribe to the paper, which costs more.
Started as a photographer
The changes come during tough times after the paper underwent heavy staff cuts, and the new government is slashing press subsidies and imposing new taxes.
The new editor-in-chief wants Aftenposten to be “the national newspaper for the big questions, news and debates” where the quality of its editorial content across all platforms is what matters most. He also wants to develop Osloby, (Aftenposten’s own website for Oslo), to be an intranet for the city. “We will be the paper and website that bind all of us who live here together,” he said in an interview with the paper.
Hansen started in tabloid newspaper VG in 1988 as a photographer. A former colleague described him as “not an action photographer, more a teller of stories.” He became news manager before he was hired as editorial manager and then editor and editor-in-chief of VG Multimedia AS. By 2011 he was digital editor of VG’s joint media house, in charge of VGTV, VG Mobil and VG+.
When he was editor at VG Nett, it was nicknamed “the hot-dog stand.” His mantra, after reading through articles was, apparently, “good enough, remove the crap.” The website and news channel mixes hard news stories with celebrity gossip and entertainment, and gets an estimated 12.4 million more hits in an average week than Aftenposten’s website, according to the newspaper’s own estimates. Both Aftenposten and VG Nett have the same owner, Norwegian firm Schibsted Media Group.
He spent part of his childhood in Tanzania, where he was home-schooled, but learned enough English and Swahili to play with the other kids on the street. He now lives in West Oslo’s affluent Frogner district, with his long-term male partner Per Eigil Schwab, who is a head of department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Utenriksdepartement).
NRK a tough rival
Hansen will be editor number 24 at the newspaper which started in 1860. Like his predecessors, he says, he will leave writing editorials to the political editor (Harald Stanghelle). He will somtimes write some opinion pieces, but feels that other things are more pressing.
One of the biggest challenges for the paper, as he sees it, is the competition from broadcaster NRK, who already provides online news content for free, paid for by the licence fee. “When they are positioned so close to us, are so heavily financed and have such as big editorial office, it’s clearly a problem,” he said to Dagens Næringsliv.
He now wants to pick up the tempo at Aftenposten. “The model in newspapers before was to move slowly. In the digital world things happen all the time … product development and change is no longer something one does sporadically, it’s the normal state of affairs,” he told Dagens Næringsliv.