Since the paper you are currently holding has already caught your attention, read on to learn how free press has fared in Finland and what different things “free” may mean.

IN late July this year, the Janton Group, owner of the popular City-lehti, announced that the print version of the paper will be discontinued out of financial reasons. Since then, there has been some talk about a change of ownership and a possibility of continuation, but when we write this, the likelihood is that after a couple of more issues, the print version of City-lehti, one of the biggest free papers ever to appear in Finland, will reach the end of the line, and Finns have one less free paper available.

Free papers are great. When you hit the railway station (or other public spot) in the morning, instead of spending your money on a publication, you can buy a cup of coffee and a mini-croissant with what you just saved by picking up this paper. Mmmmm, nice!

Do you ever come to think where this “free” stuff comes from? Perhaps the same place where the famous free lunches are served? That’s right – eventually someone does pay for it, be it advertisers, the publisher, sponsors or a combination of these. From your standpoint, the point is you can grab it for free, or in the case of distributed free papers, simply check your mail to find one.

Although free papers have a combining factor in that they are not free in the strict sense, they can also be very different from one another (even when speaking about those within the same cultural reference such as the country of Finland), as they come from all kinds of backgrounds, exist in parallel universes (your spouse at the other end of the table may feast upon one that you wouldn’t prod, and the same with tables turned) and sometimes ride the descending economic curves to their death. We delved into a few examples for your edification and delight.

City-lehti – success and tumult

City-lehti is a Finnish semi-monthly magazine. Established in 1986, it rose to an echelon virtually unimaginable for a sharply profiled new paper, with print runs and reader numbers reaching several hundred thousand – “that goes to eleven” in the Finnish context.

City-lehti became the voice of urban youth since the late 1980s. It is aimed at 18-35-year-olds, who represent close to two-thirds of the entire readership. And why shouldn’t have young Finns grabbed a copy from a stand! The paper’s staff and contributors have included a plethora of essential names in the Finnish cultural and business scenes, from multi-gifted whizz kid Sam Inkinen to cutting-edge writers like Timo Harakka and Jari Sarasvuo in the earlier days and Anna Perho and Arno Kotro later on. At some stage, even a bimonthly English edition appeared.

“Back in the day, the Finnish media scene was different in the sense that the youth were not really served with a paper of their own, and City-lehti was able to bridge that gap,” says Maria Pettersson, the editor-in-chief of City-lehti as from January 2012. “City-lehti emerged a strange bird in that it was not backed up by a big media house; we have always relied on finding our own financing.” Pettersson underlines that the word “free” is highly relative for much of the “free press” – in their case, the money needed to run the paper comes from advertisements. “As far as I can tell, virtually every professionally made paper in Finland needs income from advertisements, save, perhaps, the weekly news magazine Suomen Kuvalehti,” she explains. “We have been able to reach a good number of people, from 300,000 to 500,000, which is sufficient from the advertisers’ standpoint and in view of running the paper on a full-time professional basis. Understandably, to attract advertisements substantially you need to have adequate numbers of good sales people alongside the journalistic staff.”

The major economic recession of the early 1990s nearly killed off the paper at one point, but City-lehti came through after major adjustments. Now, a score of years later, it again faces the possibility of major changes, which may well mean its end. “There has been talk about discontinuing the print version altogether, but also the option of continuing under new ownership has been discussed. We shall have to wait and see,” Pettersson says.

But City-lehti will continue online as before, with a smaller team than on the print version. “People in our target group are active users of the internet, and free access goes well with that. For example, we can boast reaching a large number of young males that read no other paper beyond City-lehti, and a vast majority of these guys want to enjoy high-quality journalism without paying for it.” So going online should be no threshold for their readers. “Once digital tablets become more common, free papers probably need to enter that format as well,” she says.

Uutislehti 100 – a brand assimilated out of sight

One of the best-known free papers in Finland was the newspaper Uutislehti 100. Launched in April 1997, it was modelled after Metro magazine in Stockholm, to be made available in public transport vehicles and stations. Just think how perceptive the idea was: someone had observed people waiting for underground trains or sitting in buses, with idle hands hanging in simian style (no, not a Swedish trait per se) and empty gazes on their hanging faces (don’t worry about yourself; you’re reading this so you’re safe), and decided to energise them by giving them something sensible to read. There definitely was room for this innovation – but the market soon got crowded.

“About two years later, Metro, by then an international force, landed on our shores with pretty much the same concept,” says Janne Kaijärvi, Editor-in-Chief of Uutislehti 100 from 2004 when the Sanoma Group acquired it. “In 2006, Metro sold its Finnish operation to Sanoma, which then had two free papers with virtually identical concepts on its hands. The publisher decided two years later to bunch them into one, using the internationally established Metro brand. This spelled the end of Uutislehti 100 as we knew it.” Kaijärvi remained with the company as the Editor-in-Chief of the Metro, a position he still holds today.

This is more a story of the business than journalism. “The concept of providing public transit users with a compact news package was a splendid innovation from the Swedes in 1995,” Kaijärvi recounts. “Traditional Swedish publishers failed to see its vitality then, but today Metro is Sweden’s most-read daily paper, and the concept is active in 22 countries, currently achieving growth in South America, for instance.”

Kaijärvi vacated another editor’s seat to assume the one at Uutislehti 100, within one of Finland’s most substantial media groups. “You did not need rocket scientist credentials to foresee the plentiful opportunities that opened up in a major media house,” Kaijärvi explains. His previous employment, the paper Länsiväylä in Espoo, was owned by the company Janton – interestingly, the current owner of City-lehti. “Larger houses have better resources that can be allocated more diversely; small houses are often, though not always, fresher and more flexible,” he compares.

How does Kaijärvi deem the opportunities for free papers? “In the past, many Finnish advertisers may have had doubts about the status and the potential of a medium that is free for users. But the World Wide Web has changed things and attitudes. Internet users consume a lot of online information that is good and free, and are also involved in the production of information content, and do it for free. This has accelerated development towards a more unbiased assessment between those products that cost something and those that are free. Consumers are today less prone to take something just because it’s free; instead, they consider whether they actually want it or need it. Another thing is that to categorise readers strictly as recipients of one-way communication is a thing of the past. We need to have them involved in producing and refining the content to ensure that they consider the content meaningful.”

Uutislehti 100 is not the only free paper hammered to death by the boardroom gavel, so to speak. Similar courses of destiny were experienced by other free publications in Finland, as the following examples testify.

Nöjesguiden is a monthly free paper in Sweden, with a focus on fun, music, cinema and entertainment. Its sister publications were launched in other Scandinavian countries, with varying degrees of success. The Finnish version was started in the mid-2000s, and initially it did reasonably well under Christian Moustgaard and Antti Isokangas, but after a transfer of ownership to the Sanoma group and a subsequent name change to “V”, most of the staff left and the new concept turned out a flop, leading to the paper’s termination in 2007. The said letter surely worked better for Winston Churchill than Sanoma.

Current head of the Swedish People’s Party Carl Haglund lead the Swedish-language monthly Papper before making a political splash. Launched in 2006, the paper’s online version became home to a lively blog community, where bloggers contributed with film and restaurant reviews and other content, and was acquired in 2008 by the group KSF Media. After the start-up funding from Kulturfonden dried up, the owner decided to stop the print last winter (see the online version of SixDegrees’ March 2012 issue for further details).

Other past and present free papers in Finland

We Are Helsinki
The bimonthly appeared from 2006 to April 2012, but was discontinued due to lack of financial resources.

As the name implies, this one packs punch – and in a critical, socio-cultural way, leaning to the left. Reading this may be one of your best excuses to learn Finnish!

This entertainment-oriented paper has fared well for 10 years already. It is also a good bait for your Finnish studies.

Vaihtopenkki missed by provincial sports fans

A collective sigh of dismay could have been heard from the trembling lips of sports fans in provincial Finnish cities of Jyväskylä, Mikkeli, Kuopio and Savonlinna when Vaihtopenkki (meaning the bench where substitute players sit), the rather short-lived sports paper distributed for free in the said regions, announced its termination in late 2011. For example, the Jyväskylä edition always had well-drafted articles of acute local interest, covering everything from professional sports such as ice hockey and football to exotic ones like lacrosse as well as exercise and conditioning-related topics for the benefit of physically minded readers.

What vile paediatric disease could have slain such a well-loved infant at its very cradle? “Basically what happened was that we, a pack of three guys, started and ran the paper with our own funds, and couldn’t build up funding through advertisements to an adequate level by the time we no longer were able to finance the paper ourselves,” says Vesa Pölönen, the father of Vaihtopenkki.

The Savonlinna-based Pölönen started the paper for his love of sports. “In my active floorball playing days, I used to talk with my teammates and other people of how great it would be to have a local sports paper, covering everything that moves us, although I have never studied journalism for one day,” he says. City by city, he established contacts with key people to build up a team of contributors, and as reader experiences testify, was able to do this successfully. What proved more challenging for him was finding good and successful salespersons to build up advertisement sales – by the way, this is not uncommon in Finnish business circuits. Are Finns too self-conscious, too proud or too scared to get sales done? This one we like to pose as an open question.

At best, Vaihtopenkki had a print run in excess of 200,000, and the number of readers per household was in many cases more than one. The makers got almost exclusively good reader feedback, there was extensive talk of expanding to Lahti, and advertisement sales were picking up. “We were close to making it permanently. Had we been able to get 2–3 large customers with advertisements in all our editions, we would have had a basis for building this up further. But we were not able to achieve this,” Pölönen laments. “Another deficiency was that our online offering was inadequate for a paper of this sort in this day and age,” he adds.

It must be said that there are not too many private people like you or me who can run a paper in print with their own money (when leaving out the school paper category). In a small publisher’s bedtime prayer, “send me an angel” means a multi-millionaire business angel with ample funds or access thereto. In the initial stage, during which advertisement income is just building up, the paper should have some “fat to burn around the bones” – private funds may easily run slim in the process.

It is a pleasure to hear that Pölönen is not completely discouraged by the financial setback of Vaihtopenkki. With the necessary funding in place, he could consider launching a new paper. Waiting for this off chance, many-a-reader is left weeping at the previous one’s wake.

Concordia res parvae crescunt…

So starts a Latin proverb that emphasises co-operation in successful build-up of even smaller things. Free papers are no strangers to this. We talked to one, run by a residents’ association in the district of Kortepohja, Jyväskylä. The eponymously entitled Kortepohjalainen comes out four times a year and relies on local output in writing, layout, even distribution; only the printing is done elsewhere in another town. Fittingly, the responsible editor Risto Urrio also heads the residents’ association.

“The paper was started in 1981, with 3,000 copies per issue” Urrio says. “Today, the print run is 6,000, and the paper is read in some neighbouring districts as well.” The paper covers articles with local interest, and is mainly funded by local small businesses. “Entrepreneurs in the area have said that every issue of the paper with their ad in it brings 1–2 dozen calls from new customers. They couldn’t afford to advertise in the bigger media, and even if they could, they wouldn’t have the resources to meet the demand growth.” This shows that even a small publication can be big for business, when used in the right dimensions.

Understandably, the paper is run on a voluntary basis. “I edit the paper pro bono, and will do so as long as it’s fun. The same goes for the contributors. The 5th graders of the local school distribute the paper, and their classes are rewarded a lump sum for school trips and such purposes. The only ones paid are the layout designer and the printing house.”

While not a money-making machine, Kortepohjalainen brings a lot of joy and benefit to the people and businesses in the district – and to Markku Anderson, the Mayor of Jyväskylä, who used to live in Kortepohja, where his daughter currently lives and where he has bought property for his senior years. Anderson visited the district fair this summer, and later gave an in-depth interview to the paper. So a small print run does not inevitably mean small-time.

Another bevvy and bun to double the fun?

While we may want to watch our calorie intake, the availability of free papers gives us that option. And thanks to the best Swedish innovation this side of Volvo and soured Baltic herrings, we can avert the simian look on the platforms and in the vestibules. Whether individual free papers survive or perish is eventually up to the readers; if they keep on grabbing that paper, the advertisers and other financiers will stay in the game as well.

Mika Oksanen