Akersgata on 31. October 2013: This is Espen Egil Hansen’s last day at work in the mediahouse of VG, the Norwegian daily Verdens Gang in downtown Oslo. Only a few of his coworkers know that the digital editor is walking around with a lump in his throat, which is growing by the hour.
They are aware that he is going to quit, but they don’t know that its just a matter of hours. Mr. Hansen has been walking in and out of this glass house in Akersgata almost his entire adult life. At this point he is planning to sneek out the back door without risking potentially emotional situations. Some of the colleagues shed several tears two weeks ago when the man from the southern coastal town Grimstad accepted the postion as Aftenposten’s new editor-in-chief.
His desk has been cleared. Hansen has put the items he wants to keep in two cardboard boxes, among them a shoe brush and a globe, the book series Språket vårt (Our language), a cicero stick and and old picture of Frognerparken, which used to hang on the wall behind his grandfather’s desk. Right now he is on his way to the IT-department to return his computers, an Ipod and a Kindle. He puts them on the table in front of him and asks the person on duty:
– Could you please erase the harddrives?
His long watch of 25 years is nearly over.
«The hotdog stand» that grew to be big
Espen Egil Hansen started his career in 1988 as a press photographer in VG. A former colleague described him as «no action-photographer, more of a storyteller». And he added teasingly: «They didn’t give him a permanent job as photographer, but apparently he is good enough to be editor-in-chief.» Hansen quit as photographers still used film rolls and developing fluid, before the digital revolution. Then he was appointed head of the entire photo department. Since the turn of the millennium he has risen through the ranks in the newspaper’s web edition known as VG Nett.
As the web-adventure started, the editorial staff of seven was nicknamed «The hotdog stand».
Not any more. The institution Hansen is leaving is Norway’s preferred news channel on the web, mobile phone and tablet. Money keeps flowing in. The future seems so bright they gotta wear shades.
Because while the rest of us in the early 2000’s sent coarse video clips recorded on outdated phones back to our editorial offices, where the staff hardly knew how to post them on the internet, VG Nett had a plan. It worked.
Every day in the week no. 46 their website had 12,4 million page more views on the web, tablet and mobile than Aftenposten.no. This makes up a difference of more than 4 billion clicks in one year.
– Quitting this place feels kind of strange, says Espen Egil Hansen.
– Why on earth do you quit, then?
Heavy breathing, glassy eyes. Then:
– I prefer to say that I am not quitting VG, but I am going to begin in Aftenposten.
After former editor-in-chief Hilde Haugsgjerd announced her resignation last August, Espen Egil Hansen’s name became rapidly part of the speculations. «(…has the ability to initiate new projects (…) a popular leader (…) one of the most digitally comptent media leaders», according to the journalist union’s paper Journalisten.
They let him know that he was wanted. Two voices started a fight on the inside of his head: «You are an idiot if you leave VG», said one of them. «Do it!», the other one insisted.
He caught himself reading Aftenposten more carefully than he had done before. Suddenly he began waking up at 5 a.m. ever morning, with an Aftenposten-issue in his head. But Espen Egil Hansen could not stop thinking about VG and all the activities he had taken part in there, the work environment, and then the lump grew bigger.
He spent the last August-weekend in California with VG’s digital editor, Jo Christian Oterhals, a close friend. Enjoying a glass of white wine, they discussed Aftenposten. Again. Oterhals suffered from jetlag, was tired and bad tempered.
«Now, please make sure you finally quit the VG!», he exclaimed. Espen Egil Hansen kept brooding, sleepless through the night. He went up early in the morning, and went for a walk along the cliffs near Timber Cove. On the highest cliff he met Oterhals. He hadn’t been able to sleep either. Espen Egil Hansen broke the silence as daylight pressed through the morning fog on the Pacific:
– Listen: What you said yesterday. Do you want to get rid of me? Get me out of here?
Things were getting serious.
The appointment was made public on 1. October. Digital Hansen shared the news in the modern way, on Twitter. He made a picture of the visitor’s badge he had received in Aftenposten’s reception. It carried his and Hilde Haugsgjerd’s name.
He entered #denfølelsen (thatfeeling), published it and entered the hall to meet the staff. Two weeks later he is curling up in a VG-sofa to summarize.
– I analyzed Aftenposten very closely. I asked: Will this be a plausible achievement?
– Who answered yes?
– I did. Aftenposten’s brand and the public involvement with this paper is very strong. Persons have begun stopping me on the street in order to tell me that I have to get rid of Harald Stanghelle (the chief political editor) or do something about the culture section.
– Do you intend to get rid of Mr. Stanghelle?
Before leaving the VG-building the last day he publishes a new tweet. Its the picture of a small card he has written: «Dear all. March 1988 – October 2013. Thanks for your help. Espen Egil.»
Fear and emotions
Four days later Espen Egil Hansen’s blazer is hanging on the back of a chair and he prepares to address an audience of a hundred persons in a hotel at Gardermoen, near Oslo’s international airport. Usually he will sleep uneasy the night before public performances like this. He is worried that he might be wasting peoples’ time. This time he will find himself among friends in the Norwegian Association of Editors. He is the last speaker before lunch, and he doesn’t hold back. He speaks to the colleagues about the press coverage of Justin Bieber’s visit to Norway last April.
– My theory is that those who critizise us for covering Bieber are the same persons who didn’t manage to get hold of a ticket for the Stones concert in Sjølysthallen in 1965. Since then they have been going through life as bitter human beings. A surprisingly large share of them decided there and then to go for media studies, he says. The editors laugh and clap their hands, but the applause is broken off by Espen Egil Hansen exclaiming «watch it now!» Because here is the point: The young girls who entered our webpages in order to read about Bieber stayed with VG Nett. They even opened other articles; international affairs, finance, the Boston-bombs. This is how to recruit new, loyal readers.
Now Hansen owns the hall. He walks about on the stage, engaged and excited. He is so forward leaning that it seems he is about to make standing situps. During luncheon he finds a seat across the table from Earl Wilkinson, head of The International News Media Association. Wilkinson travels around the world with a rather cocksure idea about what is right and wrong, whom there is a hope for, and the others, seemingly doomed in this media industry.
– Espen has been in the centre of one of the most interesting transitions from newsprint to web in the global media industry. I have no doubt, Aftenposten finds itself in the middle of a revolution, says Wilkinson.
The Texan knows what he is talking about. If its true that everything that happens in America will eventually end up in this country, the traditional Norwegian newspapers are facing terrible times. There is a reason why Earl Wilkinson stated: «It is part of our industry’s DNA not to change anything, unless motivated by fear».
Strong. And weak.
Aftenposten’s worst fear is, roughly speaking, that the advertisers and readers will turn their backs on the print edition, while at the same time there will not be sufficient interest in the paper’s web pages. Some will say Aftenposten’s digital development has been too slow. Espen Egil Hansen’s predecessors were more or less exclusively editors-in-chief of the print edition.
With Hansen in charge the costs for printing, distribution, transportation and newsprint will be reduced, whereas the income from user-payment, advertisements plus side-products will be increasingly transferred from the print to the web editon. If this doesn’t succeed, last year’s upsetting round of cutbacks may be followed up by a set of much worse measures.
– Hilde Haugsgjerd says you are doomed to succeed.
– Does she?
– Yes. You have to succeed, or else: a) in a few years there will be no Aftenposten. b) It will end up as a small nice newspaper with all the cutbacks involved in that.
– Mhm, says Espen Egil Hansen and rubs his chin, as if it itches.
– Yes, but thank you very much indeed.
– Do you feel it in your stomack?
– A bit. But probably the responsibility feels somewhat heavier right now, a few days before I will be taking over. I just want to get started. But I agree with Hilde’s analysis. I have reached the same conclusion. Aftenposten has an extremely strong and well liked print edition, with 220.000 subscribers. But its digital position is too weak: Many visit the website, but only rarely, and it takes a long time before they return.
– I have no pat answer at all to what we are going to do. But I bring with me a methodology which I will try to implement. I think it will be possible to cultivate much more the things people identify with Aftenposten, he says, draws his breath and continues:
– It shall remain a nationwide newspaper for the major questions, the news and debates. Seen with digital eyes, the whole nation should take an interest in this kind of journalism. At the same time we shall be the intranet of the capital region, Oslo and Akershus. We are going to be the paper and the website which connect all of us who live here, he says.
The next day Espen Egil Hansen will go to Vietnam for a holiday. He has packed several kilos of background information that he ordered from Aftenposten’s department for analysis, in addition to some books Harald Stanghelle thinks he ought to read. Hansen says he will «relax, but even draw Aftenposten in the sand.»
He is the one I want
About a week before his first working day at Aftenposten we meet again, this time in his home. The 48 year old who, during more than a decade, has helped create the widest and most popular website in Norway, has an exclusive address.
The incoming chief editor lives in an old wooden villa, surrounded by embassies and luxury flats in Frogner, the fashionable neighbourhood on Oslo’s west side. From the windows of his three living rooms he may view Bygdøy and the yachts in Frognerkilen. In one of the doorframes are Redcord slings for working out, but Hansen prefers the kayak, skiing and going for a walk.
Near the wall stands a loudspeaker from Bang & Olufsen, the BeoPlay A9. It is digital and bright red, «a work of art with sound», according to the expert magazines. But there are also older classic pieces of furniture, collected through the years. The cat «Pus» takes a nap in one of the chairs.
Hansen has a nice tan, looks full of energy, and he has baked a bread. He brings toppings out to a built-in conservatory where his past as a gardener’s son can be seen in the flower pots. He sits down with the sun in his eyes, and it doesn’t seem to bother him.
Hansen’s partner, Per Eigil Schwab, a head of department in the ministry for foreign affairs, isn’t at home. They got together 23 years ago. Espen Egil Hansen was 25 and looking for a sweetheart. A common friend invited them to a birthday party. They realized it was an attempt at pairing the two of them, as no one else were invited.
«He’s the one that I want», Hansen thought.
But in the beginning Per Egil Schwab was jealous at everything and everybody. «You will have to choose. I will not put up with this jealousy», Hansen warned.
– He is nine years older than me. It was not planned that he should be. I was looking around for boys and girls of my own age.
– When did you stop looking for girls?
– Do you ever stop doing that? When I met «Peik», it was no recognition that now I’m gay, only that now its «Peik». I have been dating girls as well, but the pieces fell into place when I met him. He is a fantastic person, he says, and for a moment he seems moved.
While Jonas Gardell, who represents the same generation as Hansen, has written about his gay friends who were taken away by the HIV-epidemic, and others have told about the difficulties involved when living openly as a homosexual, the newspaper man has been «lucky, incredibly lucky». His family always supported him. Inconveniences? Never, neither in private or in his professional life. But he says his partner represents a different generation, and he has had «several disturbing experiences.»
There is however one other thing that hurts a bit.
When Norwegian lawmakers finally opened the way for adopting children by gay couples, it was too late for Espen Egil Hansen and Per Eigil Schwab. Surrogacy abroad always seemed the wrong way for them. But Schwab used to say: «The day a child stands by the roadside asking for help, we will ask noone for permission.» In this way Brazilian Paulo dos Santos entered their lives 16 years ago. His family name is also on the doorbell at Frogner.
Espen Egil Hansen met 15 year old Paulo during a carnival feast in Salvador, Brazil. The short version of a long story goes like this: Hansen and Schwab visited the boy and his family in Rio de Janeiro. They invited him to Norway. He came and remained here. Today Paulo dos Santos is working as a teacher in Inderøy in Northern Trøndelag province in central Norway. He calls Hansen and Schwab his fathers. They call him their son.
– I should have liked to have more children, says Espen Egil Hansen.
Don’t say click
The man who is to become Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief no. 24 in a row since 1860 has told about himself that he has a speech impediment (the r’s) and that he is a dyslexic.
In an e-mail where he informs about where and when we can meet, he mixes up the letters in several words. He had to learn certain special words by heart, one by one. But then came the computers with programs for spelling checks. And then suddenly the revelation: Hey, I can write, can’t I!
– Will you be writing editorials?
– No, like my predecessors, I will entrust the political editor with that task. Time and again I will write some commentaries, but I feel that other tasks are more pressing.
– For instance the web. Is it true that many clicks equals many advertisements equals incomes?
– No, its a misunderstanding. Those who assert this are underestimating the internet. Besides I never use the word «click».
– Page views?
– One click (!) has noe value. The persons behind the screen have. The fact that they spend time reading the article increases the probability that you may ask them to pay for it, and that this market is an attractive place to be for an advertisor.
– If page views are money, and 1,2 million unique users enter VG.no in order to read about the broken relationship between celebrities Aksel Hennie and Tone Damlie Aaberge: Can Aftenposten afford not to report such a story?
– Aftenposten is an entirely different publication. We may mention this divorce, but its not so important to be breaking the news. To VG on the other hand, this is very important. VG is big because they have a mixture of major, heavy news with substance and high quality, and an entertainment aspect which deals with famous people, their weddings and divorces. Aftenposten’s mixture is quite different.
– Not as clickable?
– Now you used the word click again.
– Page views.
– Aftenposten is Norway’s largest print newspaper, without bringing the story about this divorce on its front page. There is a reason for this. It simply isn’t the kind of stories you expect to find in Aftenposten, says Espen Egil Hansen.
20 minutes, 100 ideas
Sources in VG told Aftenposten that Hansen has a «hell of a temperament». You will feel it in your body when he is pissed off. He doesn’t show much sympaty for people who earn 500.000 Norwegian kroner (about 45.000 dollars) a year and fail to do their job over time. If they also whimper and complain, saying that everything was better in the old days: Poor guys.
Former colleagues say Hansen is the kind of boss you can come to with every matter. He may be impatient, too impatient, and sometimes too full of ideas. In his younger years, he might sometimes give himself the task of finding 100 ideas for stories to write in 20 minutes.
He has a well developed intuition for what is good material for the newspaper: He was involved with the list of missing persons after the tsunami in 2004 as well as hiring Hans Olav Lahlum, a Norwegian author, as a chess expert on VGTV. But even Hansen makes mistakes. When your job is to try out digital journalism that was never tested before, mistakes do happen.
As concerns Aftenposten, this might happen already on Monday. The night before, he will join the paperboys and distribute newspapers from 6 to 8 a.m. Its a bit of a hype, in order to show that everyone on Aftenposten’s staff are equally important, and that the journalists may need to reduce their somewhat high self esteem.
On Monday he will see if the cultural divide between VG and Aftenposten is as wide as many people say. Maybe he will forget where he is, read through an article and conclude with the same words that became his mantra in the old hotdog stand VG Nett:
– Good enough, lets get the shit out.
Read more about the letter to Mark Zuckerberg: