The celebrity guest editors

On occasion of today’s edition of metroXpress, which was edited by the Danish crown prince, I’ve taken a look at the trend among especially free dailies to use celebrities as guest editors.

The trend started earlier abroad but as far as I can tell, the first instance of it in Denmark was when then leader of the then largest opposition party and current Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt edited Nyhedsavisen, which is now closed, on May 1, 2007. Later, then party leader Naser Khader and scientist Bjørn Lomborg were also in charge of the content of this free daily (on respectively June 5, 2007, and May 21, 2008).

MetroXpress, the main Danish publication of Metro International, however, leads the pack when it comes to inviting celebrity guest editors: here, radio host duo De Sorte Spejdere (April 22, 2008), pop group Outlandish (their front page is the illustration to this blog post; June 4, 2009), judges of television show Talent 09 (September 11, 2009), comedians from television sketch show Live fra Bremen (March 4, 2010), rock group Volbeat (music section only; May 23, 2011), and rapper L.O.C. (music section only; November 7, 2011) have acted as editors-in-chief for one day, and global guest editors-in-chief James Blunt (November 17, 2008), Lady Gaga (may 17, 2011), and Karl Lagerfeld (February 7, 2012) have also indirectly been in charge of the Danish free dailies.

The question remains, however, who benefits from this widespread use of guest editors.

As I see it, the news organizations are first in line to reap the harvest from this arrangement. They get a lot of mainly positive publicity, and the readership is likely to spike (when Bono guest edited UK broadsheet the Independent in 2006, for example, it reportedly sold 70.000 extra copies). In the next line, the celebrity guest editors get enormous exposure – also to segments of the population, they aren’t usually in contact with (which is fortunate as the guest editing often coincide with album releases or other cultural events). This way, both media and celebrities benefit, and from their point of view the whole guest editor arrangement makes economically sense.

But how about the public? A positive effect is that guest editors can sometimes make possible or highlight specific stories because of their personal positions and networks. If Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Danish Social Democrats, had not been in the editorial chair on the International Workers’ Day 2007, Nyhedsavisen’s readers might not have been able to read an exclusive interview with the leading Swedish social democrat Mona Sahlin. And in her 2011 Metro edition, Lady Gaga focused intensely on the rights of homosexuals, drawing attention to a subject matter that seems to be neglected in a lot of countries.

Two negative consequences, however, are that the quality of the news might not exactly benefit from having a celebrity rather than a news professional in the driving seat and that the selection of news can be somewhat more eclectic than usually. Critically inclined persons would say that the audiences get inferior news while the media and entertainment industry get the advantages. The way I see it, however, is that when celebrities take over, the news is not only about udating the public (though it often is when you’ve turned over the first approximately 15 pages and reached the point where it’s just business as usual). On the contrary, rather than being information about current event, the guest edited newspaper constitute an experience in itself for the reader and should be understood that way. It’s an intellectual experiment come to live: what does the world look like through the eyes of this or that celebrity?

In his seminal article “What “Missing the Newspaper” Means” from 1949, Bernard Berelson pointed out that newspaper reading “has respite value” (p. 119). When guest editors putting together free dailies, creating an experience for the readers, I think this is still the case.

Update October 5, 2012: Yesterday, Sir Richard Branson was Global Guest Editor-In-Chief of Metro. Here are links to the Danish and American versions of “his” newspaper.

Urban closes, Metro International last man standing

Berlingske Media – publisher of the oldest Danish newspaper and currently owned by London-based investment company Mecom Group – just announced that they will close their free daily newspaper Urban tomorrow, leaving metroXpress and 24timer [24hours] (both owned by Metro International) as the only national free daily newspapers in Denmark. In a press release, CEO of Berlingske Media Lisbeth Knudsen says that

“We [Berlingske] expect a year where economical growth won’t increase, where consumption won’t increase, and where the pressure on the transition from print to digital and mobile will continue. We have to make sure that the group continues to be strong in the competetive situation we face. […] We are sad to choose to say goodbye to thousands of faithful readers of our free daily newspaper Urban but there are no indications that advertising conditions will turn advantageous for the national market for free daily newspapers in 2012; with three [free daily] newspapers there are too many players for that part of the advertising.” (my translation)

When I taught a course on free daily newspapers and news media in Denmark in the Fall of 2009, one of the things I discussed with the students was of course the future of the free daily newspapers. Would they all survive (the financial crisis was also peaking at that time)? If not, which would close? Or perhaps new ones would open? We agreed that if one of the free daily newspapers were to close, it would probably be Urban. Why?

First, the target audiences of metroXpress and 24timer were much more clearcut; metroXpress spoke to an audience interested in international matters and politics while 24timer prioritized lifestyle and service journalism. Urban’s target audience was, however, less clearly defined and it could be hard to define exactly who it was written for. We expected that when having three different free newspapers to choose from, people would probably go for the one that matched their interests best – and judging from Piet Bakker’s recent calculation of readership, I’d say they apparently did.

Second, Berlingske Media was under immense pressure (to say the least) from their owners in Mecom to make a profit; in that situation, giving away news for free on one more platform than the existing economic problem-child of the web seemed an unlikely long-term strategy. Substituting shop steward Thomas Conradsen more or less touches upon the same perspective in a comment to the professional journal of Danish journalists:

“I don’t know if you can say we’re surprised. You know that when you don’t generate profit, it’ll have consequences some day. But we have run the newspaper as [economically] tight as we could so we hoped we would make it.” (my translation)

I’m actually a little surprised to see such an honest admission that Urban wasn’t profitable. But for the two reasons given above, I wouldn’t say that I’m very surprised the free daily newspaper closed.

In 2001, Metro International introduced the first free daily newspaper to the Danish citizens. Now, 10 years later, the transnational publishing company remains the last man standing on the Danish market for free daily newspapers. And with two outlets now instead of just one in the beginning, the organization might actually come out stronger from the battle against now closed free alternatives Nyhedsavisen, dato, and Urban.

Media subsidies for democracy

The so-called Dyremose-commission has just released its recommendations for the future media subsidies in Denmark. Previously, online newspapers haven’t been entitled to receive state subsidies as the money were set aside for print and broadcast media; this is an arrangement that has generated a lot of criticism. Now, the commission recommends that the money should be distributed in accordance with the production of original content, i.e. the more journalists a media organization employs, the more subsidies is should receive. This is clearly an invitation to vitalize democracy by strengthening journalism and publicist activity. No one can oppose this aim. One kind of news media, however, appears to be quite negatively affected, namely the free daily newspapers: according the the commission’s calculations, metroXpress and 24timer (both owned by Metro International) will each lose approximately 14 m DKK (a good 2.5 m USD) each year while the subsidy for Urban (owned by Berlingske Media) remains the same.

In my master thesis Gratisaviserne som politisk ressource [Free Daily Newspapers as a Political Resource] from 2009, I argued that free daily newspapers could serve an important democratic function because (1) they are the most-read newspapers among the members of society with the lowest income, the shortest education, and the hierarchically lowest jobs, and (2) their political content contains sufficient information to enable its readers to follow and (to some degree) understand the political processes. I concluded that:

All things considered, the free daily newspapers are to be regarded as a political resource to a certain degree; especially the political content of Nyhedsavisen is enabling political citizenship. Still, the political content of the free daily newspapers do not match the standards of Jyllands-Posten, whereas it is actually better than the political content of Ekstra Bladet. (p. 1)

Nyhedsavisen is no longer published but to the extent the remaining free daily newspapers still have readers among the disadvantaged groups (and I unfortunately have no recent statistics on this aspect of readership) a weakening of this particular kind of news dissemination is not unambigiously a strengthening of democracy.