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Over the last century, Sweden’s media landscape has undergone extensive changes. In this article, Mundus International traces the evolution of the newspaper landscape from its start as a party political press system at the end of the nineteenth century, through deregulation, and the “de-politicisation” of the 1960s and 1970s, to its present state.
An overview of the present
Every year since 1986, the SOM Institute (Society, Opinion and Media) at the University of Gothenburg has issued surveys, answered by thousands of Swedes, about everything from their lifestyle choices to their political and media preferences. Looking at the latest survey, we can glean some interesting insights into the present press landscape. By classifying the political colour of newspapers using their own self-definition, we can group them into six categories: Social Democratic, Centre Party, liberal, Moderate, conservative and independent. The major actors are daily newspapers Dagens Nyheter on the liberal side, Svenska Dagbladet and Expressen on the conservative side and Aftonbladet, which calls itself independent Social Democratic.
According to this classification, every third Swedish household (32 per cent) reads a newspaper that has a liberal profile, and every fifth (19 per cent) read one that has a conservative profile. The Social Democratic press is read by less than one in ten Swedish households (8 per cent) and the Centre Party’s press is read by 6 per cent. The group comprising “independent” morning newspapers is read by 22 per cent of the population. These results mean that the liberal newspapers reach more than 40 per cent of all newspaper readers, while the conservative papers reach about 25 per cent. Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet Expressen and Aftonbladet are incidentally the biggest papers in Stockholm. On a local level, a regional analysis of the newspaper market shows significant differences in readership. The Social Democratic press has its strength in north-central and northern Sweden, where Arbetarbladet, Dala-Demokraten, and Norrländska Socialdemokraten are prominent papers. The liberal papers are particularly strong in western Sweden (see Göteborgs-Posten), and in southern Sweden (see Sydsvenskan); while the Centre Party’s press is quite strong in southern Sweden (see Skånska Dagbladet).
History of the Swedish newspaper landscape
“The history of the Nordic press is very much the history of the party press” according to the prominent professor of media studies, Lennart Weibull. By this he means that the emergence of a press system funded by, and closely associated with particular political parties – in the main, newspapers with a Social Democratic leaning – occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. This resulted in the emergence of the modern press system in Sweden.
This development is linked to the increased politicisation of Swedish society. From the start, newspapers in Sweden had clear political affiliations. At first they were mostly privately held, but with an editorial board which was for all intents and purposes integrated into whatever political party the paper supported. However, the Social Democrats lacked the support of the existing liberal newspapers, and so it became important for the party to start its own newspapers. Also the associations between rural people and the agricultural sector found it important to create newspapers that would allow them to get their opinions across. By the start of the twentieth century, the structure of a party political press system had been put firmly in place, and it is worth noting that the newspapers, which had the largest circulation in 1900, remain the largest today. Thus, despite the decline in the volume of newspapers sold, there is stability in terms of actors. However, as we will see, the ownership and political affiliations of the actors has changed dramatically. The connection between parties and newspapers has been weakened, and in many cases disappeared entirely in all the Nordic countries, particularly in Sweden.
In Sweden, the once mighty Social Democratic newspaper conglomerate A-Pressen went bankrupt in 1992, and now only two newspapers owned by the party remain in existence, Piteå-Tidningen and Värmlands Folkblad. But the fact that ownership ties disappear does not necessarily mean that the newspapers cease to support and promote a particular political vision. In fact, has been the defining characteristic for the majority of all liberal and conservative party press in the Nordic countries. Lennart Weibull notes that party ownership was missing or was small, but that there was a political affiliation both in the editorials and in terms of what news was covered. The biggest change is that the newspapers no longer value loyalty to party over loyalty to ideas, and no longer rush to the defence of “their” party when it comes under attack – and, in fact, often attack it themselves. So, during the twentieth century, the traditional party political press system, which had developed during the preceding century transitioned to a new system, dominated by large liberal centrist newspapers with a single strong owner, often a family (like the Bonnier family in Sweden, or Erkko in Finland or Schibsted in Norway). In this new system, newspapers often maintained their political stance, but this was secondary to the newspapers’ main goal: to be profitable. At the same time, the “professionalisation” of journalism has led to a stronger emphasis on quality. For a newspaper to reach a leading position in its market, it needed to cover a range of topics. Thus, Professor Weibull has argued that it can be asserted that the “market orientation and the professionalisation of journalism eventually "outcompeted" party politics from the agendas of publishers.” Newspapers started to describe themselves as independent, though often still ascribing to themselves a political leaning, so for example, Dagens Nyheter calls itself “independent liberal” (“oberoende liberal”). Meanwhile the free daily newspapers (like Metro in Sweden) went a step further and did away entirely with political editorials, replacing them with columnists putting forward their own personal views.
The diminishing significance of the party political press system also mirrors the diminishing differences between the political parties. The type of differences of opinion, which existed at the dawn of system, no longer exist. During the 1920s and 1930s, the newspapers were able to arouse interest in their product through strident political proclamations, but as the political system consolidated into something approaching its present state during the 1950s and 1960s, the political relevance of the newspapers decreased. Another, related explanation, is that the party political association of the Social Democratic press mattered less when the party held the reins of power – it being easier to foment political discussion in opposition. This argument is lent credibility by the fact that Expressen – the leading conservative oppositional newspaper- began declining in terms of volume when, after the conservative parties’ decades in opposition were able to form a government in 1973.
The start of the 1960s saw a number of state-run inquiries into the press systems of the Nordic countries. The inquiries aimed to highlight the developments (discussed above) taking place in newspaper markets, and to prescribe various actions addressing them. In Sweden, the first step comprised a series of general support measures, followed by a selective system of support for newspapers with weak market positions. The Swedish state-administered press support system was designed to support political party plurality by giving even smaller parties a chance to voice their opinions in the press, despite changes in ownership structures and economic factors. The press subsidy system has had the effect of allowing the party-owned newspapers to be maintained, at least for a time. However, Lennart Weibull asks whether the support did not in fact reinforce the changes that were already underway, since hitherto, party political newspapers had relied on the parties for funding. Freed from this financial association, many arguably became more self-consciously independent. Nevertheless, he maintains that the system of state-run press support had an obvious role in maintaining pluralism in the newspaper market and contributing to a diversity of opinions.
Between 2004-2014, one in three local editorial offices have been forced to shut down and the resources have been moved to city editorial offices. To curb the trend - and try to protect local newspapers from bankruptcy - the government in mid-March presented a proposal to change the rules for press subsidies. Describing the trend as a “threat to democracy”, the Minister for Culture, Alice Bah Kunke (MP) said she fears Sweden could have “blind spots on the media map where there is a complete absence of a scrutiny from a local newspaper.” The government considers the main problem to be that today's press subsidies are based on the newspapers’ printed editions. The fact that people are increasingly reading newspapers online or via apps means that newspapers’ paper circulation is decreasing and thus the newspapers are losing their press subsidies. Going forward, the government proposes that digital subscriptions be taken into account when working out how much newspapers should receive in state aid. In addition, the current rules (which state that at least 70 per cent of the circulation figures should be made up of subscriptions) will be relaxed to 51 per cent, and extra support for papers in large cities will end.
The role of editorials
At this juncture, it is important to point out that the death of the party political press has not meant the death of a political press. On the contrary, studies show that Nordic newspapers continue to provide political news space and that the news often is politically coloured. The big difference from before, is that the party political coverage is no longer predictable, because political loyalty is no longer of paramount importance. This is particularly true of the editorial pages of newspapers. Today, the political relationship is confined to the editorial pages but research has found that even these pages are moving towards a more commentary, “objective” style that is characteristic of news in general.
In an article in Göteborgs-Posten, Marie Demker, a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg asks what democratic role the editorial pages play in today’s media landscape. She notes that Stig Hadenius, who was Sweden's first professor of journalism studies, used to say that the increasing separation between political parties and the press was to be welcomed rather than lamented. Hadenius stressed that editorial pages without party affiliation have to compensate for a potential lack of relevance by having a high degree of expertise in specific areas as well as by crisp and independent policy analysis. However, notes Demker, a thesis from the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at Göteborg University (entitled ‘Ledarens identitetskrig’, published in 2013, and written by Mai Nestor, Victoria von Heideman and Veronica Pettersson) implies that what is becoming increasingly important is who is writing the editorials – that is to say that it is becoming more personal than before. The writers also note that the texts themselves criticise individual people to a greater extent than before. While the tone has not necessarily become harder, criticism is more frequently directed against individuals. Moreover, the language has become less formal and more colloquial, and personal opinions and emotional arguments are given more space than before. “Nowadays, we rarely have unsigned editorials, we live in a time where signed is more natural. At the same time, editorial pages maintain a stance that is reflected in the selection of texts”, explains Tove Lifvendahl, Political Editor of Svenska Dagbladet in an interview.
The Swedish newspaper landscape has changed much in the last hundred years. Two factors in particular stand out as causing this: party political change and structural developments in the newspaper market. The party political press system was created by stable political and economic conditions with strong parties and successful companies that followed the political and economic crises of the 1920s. This situation remained in Sweden until the 1950s and 1960s when the newspaper market began to be more liberal. Two parallel processes are at play here: deregulation and professionalisation. From the sixties onwards, political opinion shifted away from the older Scandinavian party press tradition, and an increasingly independent and professional corps of journalists sped this process along. The press subsidy system, implemented to maintain political party pluralism, ended up looking more like support to a faltering industry. Nevertheless, the role of the party political press system is a key reason for the strong political role newspapers continue to play in Swedish society today, and are likely to play for some time to come.
NOTE: This is a shortened version of the original article, which was published in the May 2015 edition of the Monthly Policy Review. Footnotes and graphs are only available in the subscriber version of this article.