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    3 The Press

    Historically, the printed press played a crucial role in the establishment of the Nordic countries as open, democratic societies. Within the newspaper sector there has been strong support for the view that the media should appeal to all and should inform and enlighten the population at large, and consumption of newspapers has been high in all social groups. However, both individual newspapers and the press as a whole are going through great shifts. In a time where there is frequent discussion of the crisis of traditional institutions, not least a crisis for print media such as newspapers, there is a need to reexamine the history, recent developments, and prospects of the Nordic press to understand its role in democratic society, and more specifically, in light of the discussion of the Media Welfare State.

    The Nordic newspaper sector has historically reflected the principles of the Media Welfare State as identified in chapter 1. The Nordic countries stand out as early proponents of both universal literacy and universal communication systems, and the early institutionalization of postal services as public goods was vital to secure broad and equal access to newspapers. Institutionalized editorial freedom, the second pillar of the Media Welfare state, evolved early and distinctly in the Nordic press; indeed the long history of freedom from authoritarian and government interference is held out by observers as one of the more distinct features of Nordic publishing. The press has perhaps less than other media sectors been subject to extensive cultural and content regulation. Still, structural measures are instigated to positively influence media content and combat marketization, standardization, and globalization. Press subsidies, which arrived in the 1960s, are clearly a product of cultural policy, as the state intervened in a free-market structure to safeguard regional and political diversity.

    The system of press subsidy, as well as other forms of support of privately owned media, is indicative of the fourth pillar of the Media Welfare State: the preference for policy solutions that are durable, consensual, and involve consultation between all main stakeholders. Although not every political party and media company agrees on all aspects of press policy, the level of conflict between and within parties and corporations is generally low. If conflicts erupt, processes of consultations are usually instigated in order to stabilize the situation and coordinate the interests of private and public media sectors. The raison d’être for this tradition, which remains strong, is that the press is seen as not just a business sector, but as a vital ingredient in democratic society, and that stable conditions benefit the press in carrying out this role.

    With a basis in traditional institutions with long historical legacies, the Nordic press has taken on diverse market trends, faced economic shifts, and with various degrees of success embraced new technologies in the digital era. This chapter discusses the trends of globalization, marketization, and fragmentation, as well as authoritarian tendencies, and how they impact on the traditional press structure and editorial principles. The Nordic newspaper industry has—as elsewhere—been affected by the global challenges related to the migration from print to online media, and, although there are broad similarities in how these challenges are handled all over the world, we argue that there is a strong element of continuity in the Nordic strategies.

    This chapter has five parts. Following this introduction, part 2 traces the history of the press in the Nordic countries under four headings: press freedom, self-regulation, press support, and a diverse press structure. Part 3 focuses on two key cases that are emblematic for the transformation of the Nordic press in the 21st century; the emergence of free newspapers funded entirely with advertising and the growth of online news, which destabilizes a structure based on print. Part 4 discusses the recent and future challenges to the Nordic press in terms of globalization, marketization, fragmentation, and recent authoritarian tendencies and discusses whether the Nordic press is in a state of crisis. Part 5 summarizes the discussions and singles out three overarching observations.

    The Press in the Nordic Countries

    In this part the Nordic press is discussed under four headings: Press freedom, self-regulation, press support, and a diverse press structure. We aim to identify unifying traits across the region and features that distinguish the Nordic press in comparison with other countries and regions, but also differences between the Nordic countries. Crucial to the chapter is the belief that the press, which is essentially a private and commercial sector, is vital to what we have defined as the Media Welfare State. Indeed, one can argue that the structural features and ideological principles that came to characterize Nordic newspapers throughout the early phases of the industrial revolution and mass democracy represent foundational features without which there would be no distinct Nordic model.

    Press Freedom

    The Nordic countries tend to cluster at the top of rankings that attempt to measure and compare press freedom worldwide. Since the launch of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2002, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway have more or less taken turns at the top of the ranking. The 2010 index had all Nordic countries, barring Denmark, sharing the number one spot together with the Netherlands and Switzerland. The report pointed particularly to Iceland and Sweden, as these countries stand out through a unique level of protection for the media and a particularly favorable climate for the work of journalists. By comparison, the United States was number 20, the same as the previous year (Reporters Without Borders 2010), but plunged to number 47 in the 2012 report due to the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the meantime, the Nordic countries all stayed within the top 12, with Finland and Norway topping the list (Reporters Without Borders 2012). The same pattern is clear in the 2013 index, which lists the 5 Nordic countries among the top 10 (Reporters Without Borders 2013).

    A 2011 report by Freedom House, an organization with historically close ties to the US centers of power, points out that the Nordic region in this regard contrasts the European Union countries in general, which have lost their leadership status with 14 of the members, including Italy, Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria, in the lower part of the ranking. The report attributes the Nordic countries with the “free” label with scores between 10 and 13, while by comparison, the United States scored 17 (Freedom House 2011).

    Measuring freedom is no easy task. The indexes as well as the measures stem from the Western part of the world. As such, we should be aware of the risk of biases (e.g., Hallin and Mancini 2012a, 2012b). The first question posed in the survey behind Reporters Without Borders’ report addresses the number of murdered, harassed, threatened, and physically violated journalists. Sadly, the safety and working conditions of journalists remain an issue in many parts of the world, and it is important to count and report violations. In general, censorship and government interferences are frequent in Asian-Caribbean countries such as China and Burma, in Cuba, as well as some Arab-Asian countries, and eastern European countries such as Russia, the Ukraine, and Turkey (Hallin and Mancini 2004; Blum 2005). The high level of press freedom in the Nordic region therefore stands in sharp contrast to the censorship and oppression in these countries.

    Such statistics can be used to sort democratic societies with a functioning rule of law and low levels of corruption from those without such features. As explanations for the uniqueness of the Nordic press compared to, for example, the European Union and the United States, these factors have less value. To understand differences among such cases, we need to look at press freedom historically.

    The Nordic region is characterized by the early institutionalization of press freedom. In some cases, the Nordic countries were the first to implement laws and systems to protect the press—systems that were later launched in Europe and elsewhere in the world. The most prominent example of such legislation in the region is the Swedish law for free print. Launched in 1766, it is considered the world’s oldest constitutional provision of freedom of expression, dating back more than 20 years prior to the French Declaration of Rights’ (1789) famous ascription of press freedom. Across the Atlantic, the amendment to the US Constitution securing press freedom was not written until 1791 (e.g., Chapman 2005, 13).

    Key figures in the Nordic countries at the time were indeed inspired by human rights and freedom of speech movements in France and the colonies that were to become the United States, although societal developments in England were also an inspiration. For instance, progressive and forward-looking Nordic editors imported the understanding of the press as “a fourth estate” (which could control the executive, legislature, and judiciary) from what they termed “lovely England” (Eide 2000; Raaum 2001, 25, authors’ translation). In this way, continental European ideas of a “public opinion” that could be cultivated and communicated from the wider society toward those ruling the country, including thoughts and concepts that emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries, travelled north.

    Even so, the origins of press freedom in the Nordic countries are related to a specific historical and political context in the region—namely, common democratic, legal, and cultural traditions. This similarity is not least related to the fact that the region has been more integrated geographically and politically than current maps indicate. For more than a century, the entire region was even united in a single monarchy: the Kalmar Union (1397–1523). When the union was broken up, Sweden continued its rule over what was to become Finland until 1808, whereas the future Norway remained under Danish control until 1814.

    If we look at the institutionalization in the latter state, the most important laws of the Danish-Norwegian autocracy included a chapter on printed texts, and the laws of censorship even prescribed the death penalty for violating the prescriptions (Eide 2000). In this context of royal authorization, editorial content covering societal issues was rare. The forerunners to what we today call newspapers can be traced back to early modern society, even in the form of handwritten notes telling about major societal events (e.g., Eide 2010 for the Norwegian example). Yet, the rationale behind the first Nordic newspapers, emerging from the 1630s in Denmark and approximately 100 years later in Norway, were not primarily public debate. Rather, these publications, like early paper-like publications elsewhere, grew out of a commercial need for trade communication. The content was primarily advertisements and business information, with the production skills transferred from book publishing, while the newspaper style was learned by copying foreign examples, particularly publications from Germany and the Netherlands (Eide 2001, 1999; Picard 1988).

    During the 18th century, however, newspapers aiming at contributing to public opinion emerged in the Nordic region. First came Sweden, following the 1766 freedom of the press legislation, and then Denmark (e.g., Gustafsson and Rydén 2010; Picard 1988). In 1814, the Norwegian Declaration of Freedom instigated a subdued blooming of newspapers, especially in the 1830-40s. Nevertheless, the emerging Norwegian press was short-lived, as the country failed to gain independence, but instead was simply transferred from the Danish rule to a new Swedish-Norwegian Union that lasted almost 100 years more, until 1905. Soon after the union between Sweden and Norway was formalized, the Swedish authorities took control of the Norwegian press (Raaum 2001). Similarly to Norway, Finland only gained independence (from Russia) in 1917. While the first Finnish newspaper came later than in Sweden and Denmark (1771), the Finnish press was growing in numbers and importance during the 19th century. The years leading up to and following independence, a period with not only thriving national cultural movements, but also social and political turmoil, was the heyday of political newspapers in Finland (Tommila and Salokangas 2000).

    As such, and in accordance with international tendencies, the free press developed in close relation with national public spheres in the Nordic countries. Beyond this general point, the growth of a modern press in the region exhibited different paces and time frames, as the rural colonies of Norway, Finland, and Iceland lagged behind the centers of power in Sweden and Denmark. On the other hand, through shifting borders, the interconnections between the countries meant that the ideas that formed the region with regard to press developments were very much the same. As a result, the Nordic countries’ public spheres have been closely intertwined. Therefore, the notions of press freedom and its significance resonate across the region.

    Press freedom is grounded in negative policy. That is, a free press depends on legal and political setups that reject interference from state powers. The solid foundation of a long history of institutionalized press freedom—a freedom that is continuously being respected—is one key characteristic of the Nordic region (e.g., Hallin and Mancini 2004, 145). Identified as one of the pillars of the Media Welfare State from its inception with the printed press, the principle of editorial independence was later transferred to new media such as radio and television. For the press, however, the freedom goes hand in hand with another measure, that of institutionalized self-regulation.


    Several of the now well-known and widely implemented measures and instruments to support press freedom originate from the Nordic region, including self-regulation such as media councils, the media ombudsman, and the editor as the guarantor of editorial independence (Picard 1988; Barland 2005). The Nordic media live by the self-regulation doctrine of “let the press correct the press” (Eide 2000, 1999), with the idea being that journalists themselves should agree on a set of rules that the entire profession is held accountable to. These rules are constituted in fairly detailed codes of conduct, which are concerned with issues of both privacy and correctness. For example, the Code of Ethics of the Norwegian Press includes a paragraph on the avoidance of a presumption of guilt in crime and court reporting. In all Nordic countries, codes of conducts are managed by independent media councils that deal with complaints from the general public who claim to be victims of unfair press coverage. The media council then decides if the complaint is justified or not, with a common self-imposed sanction for the publication in question being to publish the media council’s statement.

    The existence of a press or media council is not a purely Nordic thing; it is also found elsewhere, for example, in other parts of northern Europe. Yet, in comparative studies, the Nordic ones tend to come out as among the strongest and most efficient, as journalists respect and pay attention to them (Hallin and Mancini 2004, 172–73; Humphreys 1996). As with the negative policy that creates the basis for a free press, the self-regulatory measures only matter if those subject to them are giving them weight and credibility. Here, the Nordic countries stand out. The Swedish press council can even issue fines, and a study showed that the Finnish practice of publishing decisions in the journalists’ union magazine does receive attention, with as many as 98 percent of journalists reporting that they read them at least occasionally (Heinonen 1998; Karppinen, Nieminen, and Markkanen 2011). By contrast, in other parts of Europe, some publishers tend to pay less attention to the press council, thereby clearly diminishing its authority (e.g., Humphreys 1996). By further comparison, the United Kingdom and the United States are not described by institutionalized self-regulation to the same extent. On the contrary, self-regulation in these countries is informal to a large degree, taking place “within particular news organizations and in the wider peer culture of journalism” (Hallin and Mancini 2004, 223). Consequently, the importance of formalized self-regulation in the day-to-day constitution of the press represents a second key feature in our case countries.

    Press Support

    The Media Welfare State rests on both negative and positive policy interventions, and the regulatory regime for the press includes both types. The positive policy interventions we have in mind are the press support schemes, and in order to better understand these schemes, we need to take a closer look at the more recent history of the region’s press.

    Along with the development of the Parliamentary system in the latter part of the 19th century, the Nordic press formed a so-called party press. In this system, newspapers were owned, staffed, and directed by a political party and its close affiliates (e.g., Høyer 2005). The party press was really a multiparty press, with different papers biased toward different political views and ideological directions. As such, it was a clear example of political parallelism in the media (Hallin and Mancini 2004). This is a trait found today for instance in southern Europe, with the typical example being Italy, where each of the public broadcaster RAI’s channels is seen to represent different parties or political strands (e.g., D’Arma 2010). By comparison, such parallel relationships between the press and political parties were significantly less pronounced in the United States and the United Kingdom.

    The Nordic Socialist press became an integral part of the party organization from its very beginning, with Social Democratic dailies in the capitals proving so successful, that by the end of the 19th century their profits subsidized the extension of the party press regionally. The links between political parties and editorial decision-making were closest in Norway, although the party press was also important in Denmark and Sweden. In the first decades of the 20th century, the most successful Labour Party newspaper, Socialdemocraten, became Denmark’s largest by circulation (Høyer 2005, 77).

    Party newspapers were still the dominant form around 1970, as political party dailies represented 92 percent of the total number of newspapers in Denmark in 1968, 57 percent in Finland in 1970, 69 percent in Norway in 1972, and 50 percent of dailies in Sweden in 1975 (Høyer 2005, 79; see Salokangas 1999, 95; NOU 1992, 38; SOU 1975, 79, 65). No exact year marks the end of this system, but as early as 1974, the leading broadsheet newspaper in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter, had declared itself independent from party affiliation (Høyer 2005). By 1995, only 30 percent of the Finnish language press in Finland (there is also a Swedish-language press in Finland) had formal ties to political parties (Salokangas 1999, 97). By the start of the 1990s, 39 percent of Norwegian newspapers belonged to the political press, but by the end of that decade, only one newspaper declared a party attachment or commitment in its preamble (NOU 2000, 79). The party press dissolved through “a long and gradual, historical process, influenced both by internal and external factors” (Allern and Blach-Ørsten 2011, 96; also, e.g., Schultz 2007). Among the key conditions imposing this change were the introduction of television, an increased sense of professionalism among journalists, and the success of apolitical tabloids (e.g., Høyer, Hadenius, and Weibull 1975).

    On an institutional level, then, the Nordic press is no longer a party press. Still, on the level of content, studies have found that parallelism remains (Allern and Blach-Ørsten 2011, 98ff.): in some cases, owners retain mission statements that explicitly state ideological and political orientation, while content analyses have shown how political partisanship remains strong in Scandinavian newspapers. Both the way a political issue is framed and the way a newspaper interprets or approaches it are affected by a news organization’s political history and traditions (Allern and Blach-Ørsten 2011, 102).

    As the formal ties with the party system faded on the institutional level, newspapers became more dependent on the market. As a result of intensified market competition, the Nordic newspaper sector faced a downturn around the mid-1960s (e.g., Tommila and Salokangas 2000; Jensen 1997, 244ff.). The decline particularly affected the local press, where advertisement concentration led to hard times for all but the leading newspapers. Many of the second-largest newspapers closed down, and few news ventures were launched. The deteriorating situation in the press soon became a political issue; some parties were concerned that the papers closest to their views would not survive, and the situation was seen to impair the ideal of a democratic press structure in which the entire population has access to, and benefits from, journalistic pluralism. Editors and journalistic staff alike shared these concerns, and when the government discussed the possibility of positive policy measures in the form of state support to prevent further “newspaper deaths,” representatives from the press were involved. In the debate, opponents feared press subsidies might hamper press freedom. In spite of this critique, in 1969 the Norwegian government constructed a scheme to subsidize the smallest newspapers that were losing out to local competitors. Sweden, Finland, and Denmark followed the Norwegian example, and all implemented press subsidies in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    These subsidies may be perceived as a form of cultural policy regulation, which we have defined as one of the pillars of the Media Welfare State. The justification for supporting a private press with state money was to uphold diversity on two levels: diversity of political opinions and geographical diversity. In addition to countering the ongoing marketization of the newspaper sector, the aim was to counter regional and local fragmentation and help sustain vital communities. The result was not state-funded presses, but a system where an element of public funding was introduced to counter the standardizing effects of the market, without undermining press freedom and self-regulation.

    With the aim to mitigate inequalities in opinion making and secure a diversity of views, all the Nordic parliaments instigated some form of politically defined subsidies for the print media, although the exact layouts differ somewhat. While Norway and Sweden offer direct support to selected newspapers, the representatives of the press, supported by a political majority, have rejected similar proposals in Denmark. In Finland, the majority of the subsidy has been channelled into reducing the cost of postal delivery (Herkman 2009, 77; also Tommila and Salokangas 2000, 212ff.). The schemes have also changed in the decades since their introduction. For instance, by 1992, nationwide newspapers with a distinct editorial profile—whether religious, political, or cultural—became eligible for press support under the Norwegian system (Østbye 1995). Meanwhile, the Finns saw substantial cuts to the level of subsidies in the 1990s, as since then, €13–14 million per year have been designated for press subsidies compared to €79 million in 1985 (Herkman 2009).

    Nonetheless, 40 years after the implementation of press subsidies in the Nordic countries, the system remains an important part of media regulation regimes, as newspapers continue to receive a considerable amount of funding. In 2009, newspaper subsidies comprised 3 percent of total revenue in Sweden, 2 percent in Norway, 1 percent in Finland, and 3 percent in Denmark (Nordicom 2009). In 2011, the estimated amount of press subsidies provided by the Norwegian Government was approximately €45 million, while Swedish authorities supported the press with approximately €66 million in 2009. And although similar systems exist in several other European countries, in 2010, the Nordic countries, together with Austria, France, and the Netherlands, were found to have the most efficient system for publicly supported newspapers (Lund, Raeymaeckers, and Trappel 2011). The exemption from VAT, still in force for print newspapers in all the Nordic countries, yields much more: according to the Norwegian Department of Finance, the country’s scheme was worth €225 million in 2010 (NOU 2010). However, VAT exemption or reduction, as also found in many other European countries, serves all newspapers alike and does not aim at supporting pluralism as such with direct funding. Crucially, the Nordic newspaper ecology still includes commercially run local papers, regional papers, and national papers, and particularly in Norway and Finland, the local press remains of key importance. The central position of local newspapers in these Nordic countries differs from most other countries, where national newspapers are the backbone of the sector.

    A Diverse Structure with Universal Appeal

    The Nordic countries stand out compared to other countries and regions with their diverse press structure with universal appeal and high levels of newpaper consumption. As we showed in the previous chapter, the numbers of copies of newspapers distributed to readers in the region is the highest in the world. The three Nordic countries Norway, Finland, and Sweden each have a newspaper penetration that is between four to five times higher than in the southern European countries Spain and Italy, and over seven times higher than in Greece or Portugal (Elvestad and Blekesaune 2008; see WAN 2005). In Norway, where almost all citizens read newspapers, being a nonreader could even cause a degree of stigma (Blekesaune, Elvestad, and Aalberge 2012). The strong position of the newspaper in the Nordic countries can in part be explained by the comparatively late introduction of broadcasting, and especially the late coming of commercial television. Newspapers early on established themselves as the primary channel for advertising, as well as the main provider of daily news for the population (Eide 1999).

    The number of published titles clearly matters in this context, which in turn points back to the system of press support. However, there are differences here within the Nordic region.

    Table 3.1 details the results of a comparison from 2006 (Weibull and Nilsson 2010, 46). It shows Norway, Finland, and Sweden as the three highest ranking in terms of newspaper copies per 1,000 inhabitants, all above the United Kingdom. Denmark and Iceland have lower numbers, but as shown, they still rank well above countries such as Spain and Italy. The table further shows how the number of existing papers per 1 million inhabitants follows a similar pattern: The same three countries are at the top of the list, here followed closely by Iceland and Sweden, all above 8. By contrast, the United Kingdom had 2.4, Spain 4.1, and Italy 2 papers per 1 million inhabitants. Although the Danes are not as eager newspaper readers as especially the Norwegians and Finns, the Nordic region stands out in unison regarding the broad range of different newspapers.

    TABLE 3.1. Newspaper Copies per 1,000 Inhabitants and Newspapers Existing per 1 Million in the Nordic Countries Compared to Selected European Countries (2006)
    Placement of Nordic Countries Compared to Selected European Countries Newspaper Copies per 1,000 Inhabitants Newspapers Existing per 1 Million Inhabitants
    Norway 601 16.4
    Finland 515 10.5
    Sweden 466 10.0
    Denmark 287 8.2
    Iceland 198 9.7
    United Kingdom 335 2.4
    Spain 110 4.2
    Italy 156 2.0
    Source: Data from Weibull and Nilsson 2010.

    The high level of newspaper circulation in the Nordic countries is fuelled by a nationwide and universal distribution system. A typical trait is the high level of subscription and home delivery, as between 75 percent and 90 percent of the total newspapers and magazine sales derive from subscription. This stands in sharp contrast to, for example, the Spanish and Italian markets, where the majority of copies are sold over the counter, with only about 10 percent via subscription (Nordicom 2009). The high share of subscriptions in the Nordic countries is linked with the importance of home delivery to establish habits among users such as the morning coffee and newspaper reading. In turn, the preference for subscriptions is related to demographic factors, including a scattered population and probably also the cold winter weather, which makes home delivery preferable.

    Circulation and distribution are important for the egalitarian structure of the Nordic press, but the characteristic is also visible in the journalism (Karppinen, Nieminen, and Markkanen 2011; Von Krogh and Nord 2011). Most of the national papers in the Nordic countries address the entire population with popular and rather spectacular front pages that focus on crime, celebrity culture, and political scandals. Yet, at the same time, the national papers emphasize serious journalism such as political and social reportage, foreign news, and cultural debate. This balance—a middle-of-the-road approach—between the tabloid and the serious is a characteristic feature of the Nordic newspaper, and it is partly a result of the press subsidy system and partly a result of the relatively small populations in the Nordic countries (e.g., Lund, Raeymaeckers, and Trappel 2011, 49). On the one hand, the subsidy system requires the papers to have a news profile and would exclude purely sensationalist newspapers. On the other hand, the national Nordic papers need to address the entire population and cannot afford to draw a separation between, for example, affluent and less affluent publics. In contrast to the United Kingdom, for example, there is not such a clear distinction between “popular papers” and “quality papers.”

    In their editorial profiles, the national press in the Nordic countries have indirectly sought to eliminate differences between sociocultural groups, instead supporting the idea of one universal public (Eide 1999). This universalism and egalitarianism, as well as the structural and political features that sustain and nurture it, is a key to understanding the historical role of the newspaper sector within the Nordic welfare states.

    Free and Online Newspapers

    Massive changes affect the press worldwide. Intensified marketization, global and transnational ownership, and social fragmentation deeply affect the newspaper industry in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. The biggest change is arguably connected with the transition from paid to free news, whether free print papers on the subway or news distributed electronically via the web or other platforms.

    Free Newspapers

    From the mid-1990s until about 2008, free daily newspapers grew as an international phenomenon. In Europe and the United States, total circulation increased 119 percent from 2004 to 2008, while in the years that followed, this growth halted. One survey counted 133 newspaper titles in 29 European countries in 2007, but by 2010 the numbers were down to 82 newspaper titles in 29 countries (Nordicom 2010a, 216). Up until that point, free dailies had made a dramatic impact on the Nordic press, but in quite different ways within the different countries.

    One Swedish company was first, coming to dominate the Nordic free daily markets, and also leaving its mark on the phenomenon of free newspapers globally. In 1995, Modern Times Group (MTG), the media arm of investment firm Kinnevik, which was under the leadership of the controversial Jan Stenbeck (see chap. 5), launched a novel form of newspaper in Sweden’s capital: Metro should be a free “down market tabloid” with local content, aimed at young and immigrant readers (Gustafsson and Rydén 2010, 323). From staffing via content to distribution, Metro was the antidote to the traditional Nordic press: produced in a cost-efficient and low-status basement venue, and with an advertisement department (approximately 30 salespersons) that was bigger than the journalistic department (about 20 writers); Metro presented reorganized media content from news agencies, and provided compact and unpretentious articles on the most prominent stories. Rather than building a foundation of costly distribution over large areas to subscribers’ homes, the company struck a deal with Stockholm’s Traffic Authority to acquire exclusive rights to distribution at subway entrances—in exchange for a full-page daily ad (Andersson 2000; Gustafsson and Rydén 2010, 323).

    After four months, Metro was Stockholm’s second largest newspaper (Andersson 2000, 309–10). The success in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, was the basis for immediate economic profit and international expansion, and by 2000, Metro was established in other Swedish cities, throughout Europe, and in South America and the United States—from Newcastle in the United Kingdom and eight cities in the Netherlands alone, to Rome in Italy, and in Santiago (the capital of Chile), as well as in Philadelphia in the northeast United States. The growth was enormous. By 2000, the global circulation passed a million, while in 2009, Metro reached 19 million readers through 56 daily editions in 18 countries worldwide (Parmann 2010).

    But one country is curiously absent from the lists of free dailies. Notwithstanding one ill-fated 1997 initiative in the capital region of Oslo that closed down after five years, Norway was without a free newspaper for quite a long time. The reluctance toward free daily newspapers is linked to the strong position of the paid-for press and the high circulation of daily paid newspapers (Parmann 2010). A second reason is the market power of the expansive media company Schibsted, which originated in Norway and is one of the largest media companies in the Nordic region (see chap. 5). Among others, Schibsted publishes Norway’s largest tabloid newspaper, VG, as well as the dominant national broadsheet, Aftenposten, and has a dominant presence in the newspaper and online advertising market. By 2010, the former newspaper had an average daily circulation of more than 230,000 print copies, and the circulation of the latter newspaper’s morning edition in the same year was approximately 240,000 (MedieNorge 2010). Schibsted actively worked to prevent the emergence of free newspapers. Third, more so than the other Nordic countries, Norway has a geographically dispersed population and high average labor wages, thereby making distribution of free newspapers a fairly costly affair. Still, by 2012, some local newcomers were successfully publishing free papers in mid-size Norwegian cities (Hagen 2012). Importantly, the major Norwegian media companies do not shy away from publishing or investing in free newspapers outside the Nordic region. Schibsted publishes free dailies in Spain and France (20 Minutes) and even bought a share of Metro International in 2008.

    Again, there are varieties across the Nordic region. While Norway was “spared,” Metro made a deep impact on the press in the other Nordic countries, which all saw domestic ventures into the world of free dailies. Fréttablaðið (The Newspaper) debuted in 2001, and grew to become Iceland’s biggest newspaper. In parallel with the general international trend, the years up to 2008 were the prime time for free Icelandic dailies, with the country’s third largest paper also being free (Nordicom 2009, 49). In Denmark and Finland, however, Metro directly challenged the established domestic press actors. Launching a Finnish version in 1999 and a Danish one two years later, Metro fought traditional publishers such as Sanoma (in Finland) and Berlingske (in Denmark). By 2008, Metro was the biggest free daily in both countries (Nordicom 2009, 49), thoroughly changing the Nordic press in the process. By 2011, while the print runs of free dailies were still high in Sweden, the peak seemed to have passed (e.g., Facht 2012).

    Metro was perceived as the incarnation of a new informational capitalism and was controversial from the outset, as incumbents claimed that the newcomer destroyed the market for serious news journalism. Modern Times Group’s radically different strategy—explicitly low cost, and with an aggressive advertising agenda—clearly altered both the overall journalistic landscape in the region, journalists’ working conditions, and the advertising market. Incumbent for-pay newspapers were seriously challenged. Modern Times Group defended the publication by pinpointing how Metro represented a clear alternative to the traditional paid-for newspapers by primarily addressing new audience segments, turning teenagers, immigrants, and others who previously did not read papers into readers (e.g., Andersson 2000, 382).

    Nonetheless, the invention was at odds with traditional journalistic ideals, such as the idea of the creative and investigative journalist. Free dailies also created turmoil among those who entrusted the national press with the key task of sustaining a primary arena for public debate. In sharp contrast to the image of the news reporter with a high professional journalistic integrity, some argued that the free papers were produced according to an industrial logic belonging to the category of “the news factory.” In accordance with this, Metro entrepreneur Jan Stenbeck described Metro International as a global franchise, as “the newspaper version of McDonald’s” (Andersson 2000, 310). Such bluntly provocative statements only strengthened the opposition against the paper and its owner. On the one hand, free dailies altered the advertising market and intensified the competition for readers, thus impairing the conditions for paid newspapers. On the other hand, there is no denying that papers such as Metro really did create a new market, not least by recruiting nonreaders among the young and immigrants (Gustafsson and Rydén 2010).

    In a commercial international context, this way of producing newspapers signalled a transition for journalism. In the years that followed, readers got used to news as something that was abundant and free. And the question of how to fund journalism came to be front and center for the press, including in the Nordic region. As such, with its new production and distribution routines and new content, the free print dailies represented an omen, or a head start, for the online newspaper.

    Online Newspapers

    The emergence and rise of free dailies is an aspect of recent press history that is easy to ignore since it flies in the face of the dominant trend of the press from the last part of the 20th century. The Nordic print newspaper sector saw a 20 percent decline in circulation between 1997 and 2007 (Nordicom 2009), which was not at all exceptional internationally. The downturn had to do with new ways to distribute news electronically. The phenomenon of online news dates back to the early 1970s, when videotext technology enabled the distribution of information via telephone lines or cable to television sets or personal computers in the United Kingdom, and, from the mid-1970s, via the Minitel service in France. Throughout the 1980s, media and communications companies experimented with information services distributed via television sets, for example, the Chicago Sun Times’ Key Calm and Knight Ridder Newspapers’ Viewtron (Gunter 2003). Yet, the “killer application” for electronic news was the World Wide Web and its growth into a mainstream media platform starting in the mid-1990s. A simple periodization of this growth is to separate the early phase from the late, with the turn of the millennium and the so-called dot-com crash (a sudden global downturn in the inflated business of everything online) as the separator.

    Hence, the years leading up to the turn of the millennium represented a first period of online news in the Nordic region. The initial experiments were more or less random, often carried out by individual enthusiasts within a newspaper, or in a more orderly sense by publications with a professional interest in technology issues (e.g., Falkenberg 2010, 248). In retrospect, key media events stand out as important levers. In the international arena, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (in 1997) and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair in the United States (from 1998) demonstrated the power of the web when it came to not only speed, but also to depth and community building (Allan in Falkenberg 2010, 249). Similarly, when the Norwegian Internet service provider Oslonett published the results from the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, the effect was tremendous (Rasmussen 2006, 31).

    This way of generating online traffic through media events, breaking news such as sports competitions, political scandals, or natural disasters remains a typical trait of the most popular online newspapers, including those in the Nordic region. In Denmark, a different type of external event led to a first leap for online news: a 1998 strike among those printing newspapers made journalists turn to the Internet to get their stories out. As a result, both the content and the outlets rose quickly (Falkenberg 2010, 249). At that time, in the late 1990s, some local and most nationwide print newspapers were present online (e.g., Rasmussen 2006, 40). But ambitions were far lower than what we have come to expect. As late as in 2000, less than 25 percent of Norwegian newspapers updated their website during the day (Ottosen et al. 2002). By 2010, 89 percent of Norwegian newspapers with some form of web presence offered online news (Høst 2011, 16).

    Established offline actors dominated Nordic online news at this point in time, although some online-only news sites did emerge. When the Norwegian Nettavisen, launched in 1996, published news around the clock, the news profile was similar in comparison to print papers, having recruited key editorial staff members from established actors. Nettavisen operated as an independent editorial rebel, and the main business idea was to offer updated versions of news stories published elsewhere (Ottosen and Krumsvik 2008). This is in line with the first online newspapers in the other Nordic countries, such as in Finland, which recycled editorial material from printed papers and produced their online versions with a minimum of resources (Heinonen and Kinnunen 2005). Along with features such as unlimited space, continuous publication, and interactivity, this is one among the different characteristics of what has become known as online journalism (e.g., Karlson 2006; Engebretsen 2006). Nevertheless, these features should not make us blind to the aspects of electronic news that represent continuity rather than change.

    In general, pure online outlets without a print “mother” were rare in the Nordic setting (e.g., Falkenberg 2010), as the rule was that those who provided offline news also took care of the online arena. Beyond initial experiments, the established Nordic press chose different strategies when approaching the web during this first period. Together with the publicly funded broadcasting institutions (see chap. 4), some companies were driving the development. In Finland, Alma Media, a broadcast and press company with a long traditions as a newspaper publisher, which owned a portfolio of regional and local papers, invested heavily in online innovation, set up a range of services, and also bought Internet start-ups in the years leading up to 2001. The burst of the so-called dot-com bubble had a major financial impact on the Internet sector, and also triggered organizational changes. Meanwhile, competing newspaper publisher Sanoma chose a more careful path, only starting real online expansion in 1999. And by the end of 2001, as the company saw signs that the bubble was bursting, management was able to scale back its new media activities (Lindholm 2010). Norwegian-based Schibsted has perhaps been the most successful among the large Nordic media companies in this regard, and has profited from generating online traffic, not least Schibsted’s newspapers, Swedish Aftonbladet and Norwegian VG. These papers were also used as vehicles for new add-on services, including the business site E24, a collaboration between two Swedish and two Norwegian newspapers (Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet, Aftenposten, and VG), dating services (such as Møteplassen) and a weight-loss service (VG Slankeklubb) (Nordicom 2009).

    The years after the turn of the millennium and the dot-com crash, around 2001, mark the beginning of a second period of Nordic online news, characterized by stable, but slow growth. As we saw in the previous chapter, Internet penetration and use has been comparatively high across the region, providing fertile ground for the take-up of new services, including news. The breakthrough of online newspapers has been comparatively more prominent in the Nordic region than the rest of the world (Ottosen and Krumsvik 2008, 25), with online news steadily increasing their market share compared to print newspapers. In addition to the investments in building a universal infrastructure, which provided a rapidly growing customer base, a crucial reason for this speedy development was that established media companies, which had competence and resources to enter new markets, invested heavily in online newspaper publishing.

    Figure 3.1 illustrates the rapid growth of online news, focusing on Norway’s leading tabloid VG. By the end of 2008, the online version was proclaimed “the most read Norwegian newspaper ever,” reaching nearly 1.5 million daily readers (among a citizenry of under 5 million). That was almost 100,000 more than its print “mother” achieved when its circulation peaked in 2002 (VG Nett 2009). By 2012, the online version had over 1.8 million readers, while the print has continued its decline and was even surpassed by the mobile platform, which had 775 000 readers. This signalled a wider trend on two levels: First, no one could any longer doubt the shift from print to electronic means of news distribution. Second, and more interestingly, established offline actors were dominating online news, and well-known structural features still mattered, as the number of new entrants remained low, and geography and scope still defined readership and distribution (e.g., Falkenberg 2010, on Denmark). Additionally, the shift from print to electronic means is not all encompassing, but first and foremost concerns national and international news. The still large population of local newspapers in the Nordic countries have not yet prioritized online news provision. Norwegian statistics remind us that a substantial part of the local newspapers still only use the web as a secondary channel for publication. At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, there remained papers that only produced a few online stories per week (Høst 2012). Adding to this impression, the number of new market entrants in the form of designated online news actors was consistently low across the Nordic region. In that sense, the traditional institutions of the Nordic press remain strong in the digital era.

    Fig. 3.1. Number of daily readers of VG, Norway’s largest tabloid newspaper, on different media platforms. (Data from Medianorge 2013b: data for years 1999–2012.)
    Fig. 3.1. Number of daily readers of VG, Norway’s largest tabloid newspaper, on different media platforms. (Data from Medianorge 2013b: data for years 1999–2012.)

    Online news in the Nordic region continues to be characterized by continuity as the already established actors have expanded beyond the online newspaper format. This expansion has taken two forms. On the one hand, online newspaper sites are becoming more interlinked with other web services, whether external or internal blog platforms, news aggregators, or different and changing social-networking sites. On the other hand, the news content itself has moved onto new platforms. The market for tablet computers, with Apple’s iPad being the forerunner, is a case in point. By 2013, the major Nordic press actors all experimented with different iPad/tablet versions. Again, Norwegian Schibsted-owned VG serves to illustrate a wider trend. It had a total daily reach of 52 percent of the Norwegian population in 2010, which was spread over four distribution channels, of which online newspapers reached the most people (38 percent), while printed newspapers reached 23 percent. In addition, VG reached 5 percent of the population with their mobile phone news distribution and 4 percent through their own online community Nettby, which was soon to be overrun by Facebook and closed down (Fursæther and Møglestue 2010).

    A decade into the 21st century, the electronic means of news distribution had reached a high level of sophistication in the Nordic countries. While the emergence of free dailies, spearheaded by Modern Times Group’s Metro, had shocked the established publishers, by 2013, as news reading increasingly merged online via different terminals, the traditional news actors were still very much in the lead, although the game had changed.

    Future Prospects for the Press in the Nordic Countries

    It has become commonplace to talk about a crisis in the newspaper industry being linked to decreasing advertising revenues, lower circulation numbers, fewer readers, and reductions in staff. While studies have been conducted in various countries, the main reference point seems to be the US press. The crisis has not struck universally across the world, so it is not accurate to talk of a worldwide newspaper crisis (e.g., Benson 2010, 189).

    To better understand the nuances in different contexts, historically aware, geographically comparative studies are needed (Siles and Boczkowski 2012, 12ff.). Moreover, the “rich and slippery” (Siles and Boczkowski 2012, 2) concept of a crisis might not fit everywhere. We argue for seeing the current and emerging changes of the Nordic press as another turn in a long history of recurring “crises” for the press: a turn that entails challenges as well as prospects. This perspective is in accordance with recent journalism research in the region, which frames the developments as “adjustments” or “reorientations” (Eide et al. 2012) or even approaches it through the study of innovations (e.g., Sundet 2012). Tracing the history of business news in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway, Kjær and Slaatta (2007) add to this impression that what we see are adjustments. While the concept of “crisis” indicates a retraction of serious forms of journalism, the authors show that this particular genre has expanded both in terms of journalistic status and quality and in the amount of resources allocated to it. As a case, the expansion of business news makes us aware of the continuing diversity of the press. Forms of content, economic models, or modes of communication emerge and fade over time, and we should be careful not to label the general development as a simple “crisis.”

    To take stock of the ways in which the Nordic press, and its role within the Media Welfare State, is changing in a digital era, we focus on three aspects: global challenges, the future of press support, and adjustments associated with increased participation by the public. In the early 21st century, these developments can illustrate how the overarching processes of globalization, marketization, authoritarianism, and fragmentation take new forms for the Nordic press.

    Global Challenges

    On a basic level, electronic news has not fundamentally changed freedom of the press in the Nordic countries. Journalists’ privileges from the analogue era are transferred to the digital era, as the fundamental negative policy does not discriminate based on publication platform. However, this does not mean that the principles of freedom of the press are accepted and supported by all. As both societies and media systems become increasingly globalized, onslaughts on press freedom can come from anywhere at any time.

    One illustration of the new situation is the so-called cartoon controversy. In this press debate, the ideal of freedom of speech was put to the test when the Danish print daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a 2005 issue. According to Danish law, the cartoons were legal, and supporters of the decision to publish held the cartoons as a legitimate exercise of the right to free speech. The publication triggered protests against the paper (and also against Danes and Denmark more generally), and turned into a political crisis. Reactions were mixed in the Nordic press, and even though several editors sympathized with the Danish editor, they were generally reluctant to republish the cartoons because they wanted to avoid unnecessary provocation by publishing what many held to be blasphemous drawings (Stjernfelt 2009). In the end, newspapers in more than 50 countries reprinted the cartoons. Still, the Mohammed cartoon was first published in a Danish newspaper, which could be read as an illustration of the high standing of press freedom and liberal publishing policies in the press and among editors in the Nordic countries. More importantly, the case shows how issues of freedom of the press no longer rest within nation states, but take on a global significance. As a consequence, challenges to press freedom could emerge from outside the jurisdiction of press laws—illustrating how the challenge of authoritarianism takes new forms in the digital age.

    The global nature of the information and communication industry and infrastructure represents market changes on another level. Novel distribution channels such as smartphones and tablet computers represent new bottlenecks in the chain of news delivery. Or, to use a well-established metaphor from journalism research: those who control these new devices and their systems emerge as a new kind of gatekeeper. To date, the most prominent example is the power of global players such as Apple, with the risk of US media laws and regulations affecting the Nordic region because of the US ownership of Apple, as their iPad has become a popular platform for news distribution. Apple imposes editorial control by prohibiting content that promotes competing products or conflicts with the strict US decency rules.

    Nordic publishers have already been in conflict with Apple, albeit over issues that might not directly affect the core of press freedom; for example, the editor of the Danish tabloid newspaper Extra Bladet protested against Apple’s censorship of their topless “page 9” girls, characterizing the restriction as: “A historical violation of the Danish constitution for press freedom” (Kampanje 2010, authors’ translation). It is important to remember that the “violation” follows from the opportunity explored by the Nordic press for reaching new market segments via new distribution platforms—in this case the iPad. Apple is neither intruding on the press’ established medium nor obstructing web expansion, as the potential and problem come as a pair. Nonetheless, the transformation is real and pertains to the press globally, and not just in the Nordic region. Yet, because of its early adoption of new media, coupled with its comparatively small and shielded markets, the emergence of the new gatekeepers could be seen as particularly challenging for the Nordic press.

    The Future of Press Support

    A key feature of the Media Welfare State is flexibility and adaptability; while there is continuity regarding the overall principles or pillars, concrete policy measures are modified and changed in the face of new challenges. The positive policy of press support is a case in point. We have seen how this policy originated in the late 1960s as a response to an earlier “crisis” for newspapers, at a time when politicians feared for the press and its societal functions due to changed economic conditions. A result of the migration of newspaper reading from the print to the online environment is that the traditional income model based on advertising sales, in combination with subscriptions and copy sales, has been threatened. The development of online newspapers has changed the basic rules of publishing. While the online newspaper readership is relatively stable, at approximately 80 percent of the population on an average day, the average reading of print copies has declined from over 80 percent to about 70 percent, and importantly, the share of those who read online only is growing and is approximately 10 percent (Nordicom 2010a). There is thus a widespread fear of a new wave of “newspaper deaths.”

    One of the most prominent online trends is the decoupling of news from ads and the revenue that they bring. Combined with decreasing profit margins following a global financial downturn, this constitutes a worsened economic situation for the press (Fenton 2011, 65). The search for new income models online is a global challenge that also affects the Nordic publishing markets, but perhaps to a lesser degree than most other regions of the world due to continued income from subscriptions sale and a growing online advertisement market, as well as the public support mechanisms of the national news production. In some cases, the global setbacks may not have stricken the Nordic region as hard as elsewhere. The region as a whole—and Norway in particular—has emerged fairly intact from the recent financial hard times. This again has resulted in a fairly aggressive innovation strategy in traditional media companies, such as in the Schibsted publishing house, which owns the dominant Norwegian classified online advertising website Finn.no (see chap. 5). On the one hand, this illustrates how traditional publishers manage to enter new markets online and maintain their position, while on the other, it is debatable as to whether the emergence of new commercial services more or less directly linked to editorial content should be understood as a digression from the journalistic calling or an innovative way to fund news reporting (Barland 2012). The economic challenges are also clearly real and important for the Nordic press (e.g., Nygren and Zuiderveld 2011, 145).

    To supporters, press subsidies appear to be more important than ever as such measures are seen as the main vehicle to ensure diversity and combat social and political fragmentation, but they are also more controversial and harder to make fit. How and whether the subsidy system should be transferred from print to online media, and what guidelines and principles a new press support system should be based on, is not yet finalized. While a print market is easily divided, for instance, into regional, local, and national newspapers, online editions have a far more complex distribution and reach that are harder to measure. Around 2010, governments in the Nordic countries appointed committees to discuss and outline new rules for press subsidies in an online environment. Many of the suggestions were geared at sustaining the established press system by extending existing arrangements online, rather than abandoning print support for a brand new approach (e.g., NOU 2010). However, more radical suggestions have been raised, including the issue of public support for social media platforms (Christensen 2011, on Sweden). A related trend is that NGOs offer support to alternative media outlets or even individual bloggers, as has been the case in Norway (Fritt Ord 2010). At the same time, there are signs that some of the traditional support schemes are disappearing. In 2008, Finland changed its system for direct support of newspapers, so that the funds are now channelled through political parties (NOU 2010, 50).

    Public Participation

    The new technological possibilities online, specifically the ease with which more people can participate, constitute a third key development for the Nordic press. As with the fundamental negative rights of press freedom, the self-regulation system is also extended to new media and platforms. Mapping the ethical terrain of online news seems to be a task taken seriously by the press councils in the Nordic countries.

    While the established Nordic press may have been fairly successful in moving online in terms of the number of readers, in general, the potential for changing journalism and news provision in the digital age into a more interactive model has only partially been fulfilled. Studies of the Nordic news operators’ use of different tools that allow for feedback from readers, or other forms of interactive features, show a reluctance and merely modest successes (e.g., Finnemann and Thomasen 2005, on Denmark; Heinonen and Kinnunen 2005, on Finland; Engebretsen 2006, on Scandinavia). This state of affairs is not particular to the Nordic region, but also found elsewhere, both in Europe and the United States (e.g., Quandt 2008). The difficulties linked to creating a working model of interactive journalism have to do with internal organizational issues, economy, and editorial priorities. But the question of how to tackle the involvement of the users also touches on a number of ethical aspects that relate to the press’s role in constituting a common public sphere.

    In Norway, where space for anonymous commentary on mainstream online newspapers’ articles has expanded significantly in recent years, the July 22, 2011, terrorist attack illuminated the ethical challenges, as the perpetrator cited a mixed bag of far-right extremist writers, bloggers, and organizations as his inspiration, claiming the end of democracy as a goal. Should such authoritarian views be debated in the mainstream media, or instead be silenced? Would it be better to try to moderate extreme expressions within popular and visible channels, rather than push them to obscure websites in the margins of a fragmented web sphere?

    In the aftermath of the attacks, some media have imposed a stricter moderation and allowed less anonymity, but overall the changes have not been significant. In the longer run, striking the right balance on this issue remains a key challenge for the Nordic press and its self-regulatory regime.


    The press has played a key role in the establishment and maintenance of the Nordic countries as open and democratic. We have argued that the historical role played by the press is essential to the establishment and development of the Media Welfare State. In this chapter, vital aspects are discussed under four headings: a well-respected freedom of the press; an established self-regulatory regime; state support for a private, commercial press; and a resulting diverse structure with universal appeal and high levels of consumption. The Nordic press has changed in the digital era, with the emergence of free and online news as key developments. In looking at the prospects for the Nordic press, and the ways in which its role within the Media Welfare State is shifting, we addressed the forces of globalization, marketization, authoritarianism, and social fragmentation. Summing up the chapter, we draw attention to three main points related to the peculiarities of the Nordic press structure.

    First, we have seen how important features of the Nordic press continue in the digital age. In Finland, Sweden, and Norway, this is not least the case with the diversity in local and regional newspapers, which is important for the scattered population in at least two ways: (1) to secure public debate in smaller communities; (2) to reinforce local identity and settlement patterns. Newspapers help people feel attached to their local communities, providing a locally relevant source of information and space for debate—supplementing the national news arena sustained by the large newspapers. While, in the digital age, the Nordic press has explicitly met the same challenges as the press in other, comparable parts of the world, the ways in which these challenges are played out depend to a large degree on the previously well-established policy tools as a strong set of traditional stakeholders has ventured into the new world of, especially, online journalism. This speaks to the path dependence of media systems (e.g., Humphreys 2012)—the tendency that traditional institutions continue well-trodden paths in the face of new challenges.

    A second point to draw attention to is the Nordic press as an experimental and innovative sector. The pioneering development of free print newspapers originating in the region, as well as the expansive commercial strategies of companies such as Norwegian Schibsted in the digital age, illustrates how the fundament of press freedom and well-respected self-regulatory arrangements serve as a platform. The Nordic press is not one united, internally defensive entity, but rather houses contradictory developments, not least visible in uncertain times.

    This points toward a third observation. It might seem as if the building blocks of the Media Welfare State are unstable. For instance, it remains uncertain as to how and to what extent the Nordic press support schemes can be transferred to online media. However, such instability or uncertainty should not necessarily be read as an omen for the press in the region. We have shown how the specific tools used to sustain the Media Welfare State are being altered or even swapped for new ones as the Nordic Model adapts to new contexts. We can therefore conclude that the sector known as the print press is changing, but that there are strong signs of continuity regarding its role in the Media Welfare State.