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Waiting for a "quality newspaper"

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Norway Now
, 1995

 Some public issues never seem to die, but instead go temporarily into hibernation before resurfacing without warning. Such revitalised topics are often being debated with unprecedented fervour, trying desperately to give the impression of being new and fresh; but it does not require a very keen faculty of recollection to realise that these issues are actually part of a seemingly eternal loop, repeating itself as regularly as the seasons of the year.

The resurfacing of old issues may happen for a perfectly sound reason, namely the simple fact that they have not been resolved. This would be the case with the question of why Norway does not have a "quality press". This question has been on the agenda of the domestic intelligentsia for decades, and it returns regularly. "Look at our neighbours," someone might say. "The Swedes and Danes have two or several excellent newspapers each, and what do we have by way of national press? A couple of tabloids and a serious morning paper, Aftenposten, which despite its regular facelifts remains a humdrum and provincial product?" Someone else would point out that: "What is characteristic of this country is its possessing more than 160 newspapers for a population of slightly over four million. The price to pay for this laudable decentralisation is an overall mediocre quality." A third contributor to the debate would charge that the quality of the newspapers has declined seriously very recently; a fourth one would argue that the fragmentation entailed by the development of new mass media, especially television, threatens the integrity of the printed word; someone would by then be moved to the defence of the newspapers - and the discussion would roll back and forth for a few weeks.

One of the main public debates of this summer promises to be a new round of abuse from frustrated intellectuals directed chiefly at the tabloids, coupled with sighs of resignation at the seeming impossibility to set up a decent, thorough, serious alternative for readers who would rather have long articles on, say, Bosnia and Shakespeare than spectacular road accidents, royal gossip and juicy incest accusations. A survey carried out by the non-governmental organisation "The Future In Our Hands" recently suggested that there had been a dramatic decline in the proportion of "serious" stories in the major liberal newspaper Dagbladet. The figure quoted for 1994 was 25 per cent, as opposed to 58 per cent in 1965.


Finn Jor, former cultural editor at Aftenposten, laments the sorry state of affairs in an article conceived independently of the survey mentioned, published in the weekly Morgenbladet. The intellectuals of the country, he suggests, ought to voice their concern loudly and explicitly for a change in editorial policy to come about. Alas, the group Jor regards as "the intellectuals" comprises a minuscule proportion of the "target group" for the large newspapers.

What do we have, then, by way of national press? There are the two national tabloids, the conservative VG and the liberal Dagbladet. The latter still runs a few pages dominated by writing, including some of the best journalism in the country, but the bulk of both consists in headlines and photographs captioned by brief newsstories. There is also Aftenposten, the "aunt of Akersgata" (Akersgata being Oslo's Fleet Street), which seems to fear offending part of its very heterogeneous readership to the extent of rarely printing anything remotely provocative or unpredictable. Ho hum. Then there is the notoriously schizophrenic Arbeiderbladet, now an independent social democratic paper, which tries to be part VG, part La Repubblica, part itself although nobody is sure of what that means. Further, there are the smaller, more specialised newspapers. Dagens Næringsliv is for businesspeople (to throw any doubt aside, it is printed on pink paper); Vårt Land is for the Christians; Nationen is for the farmers; and Klassekampen is for those who identify themselves with what is left of the Left. They all have their strengths, but their general appeal is limited. Time-honoured Morgenbladet, finally, which Karl Marx once described as "a lovely little paper", has been revitalised by a group of uncompromisingly intellectual youngish men and would have been a good candidate for a thorough quality paper, had it not been for its total lack of news and inclination towards dumb arrogance.

So the nation is fragmented: There seem to be too many little public spheres for a large shared public sphere to be viable. Of course, one could imagine a newspaper containing the culture and arts pages, the chronicle and the political commentary of Dagbladet, the political reportage and literary reviews of Klassekampen, the opinion and feature sections of Aftenposten, the satirical column of Vårt Land, the technology pages of Morgenbladet The result of such a grand merger would be outstanding, but nothing like it will ever come about. Pluralism is the price to pay for democracy, and we sceptically await the summer's media debate, hoping at least that the contributions (which will naturally be printed in the newspapers the discussants abhor) will possess such qualities that they alone temporarily heighten the level of the domestic press.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1995