Audiences at the heart of Karjalainen’s radical newsroom overhaul

The Finnish local newspaper overhauled its entire newsroom based on lessons learned from successful audience-focused experiments. The key objective: to better engage new, younger digital subscribers. “Everything we do, every day, should only be things that support our goals. We have tried to build a structure that forces us to do that,” said
Jyrki Utriainen, Karjalainen’s Managing Editor.

Publisher bio: Karjalainen is a regional newspaper founded in 1874 and based in Joensuu, the capital of North Karelia, a region in eastern Finland with a population of 160,000. The publisher underwent a major reorganisation in 2021, which helped its newsroom of about 40 journalists to adopt digital-first workflows. When Karjalainen joined Table Stakes Europe in early 2023, its total circulation was 24,000, of which 6,000 were digital-only subscribers.

Karjalainen started its Table Stakes Europe journey with experiments that targeted two specific audiences in the publisher’s region in eastern Finland: Young families and Nature enthusiasts.

Although these early pilots were somewhat limited in scope, their results were anything but: Karjalainen had already begun efforts to build digital subscriptions before TSE, but these new audience-focused projects helped accelerate the upward trend even further, as the newspaper’s digital subscriptions grew from 6,000 to 7,400 between January and September 2023 – an increase of 23 percent.

Perhaps more importantly, more than half of the new online subscribers were younger than 55.

For a company with a strategic goal of increasing digital subscriptions, particularly from younger audiences, these audience-focused experiments had clearly put them on the right track. As a result, the publisher decided to use these pilots as the starting point for a drastic redesign of its entire newsroom.

“Our new organisation makes sure the newsroom works in an audiences-first style and that our content is in line with the strategy of reaching specific audiences,” said Anna Suoniemi, News Manager at Karjalainen.

As the local publisher’s newsroom is relatively small (about 40 people), it is crucial the entire editorial team is aligned and working in the same direction, added Jyrki Utriainen, the Managing Editor: “Everything we do, every day, should only be things that support our goals. We tried to build a structure that forces us to do that.”

The restructuring builds on an earlier reorganisation that helped Karjalainen take a big step towards digital-first workflows in 2021. Now, the aim was to take the transformation even further: from web-first to audiences-first journalism.

Entire newsroom focused on specific, younger audiences

At first glance, the new structure may look fairly typical, but beneath the surface it represents a profound shift from the usual newsroom model.

One major difference is that all the desks now have a list of specific audiences they try to reach with their content.

For example, the Health & Wellbeing team focuses on target audiences such as People interested in relationships, Beauty care enthusiasts, Families with young children, and People interested in mental and workplace wellbeing.

When it came to selecting the specific target groups for the various desks, Karjalainen made a remarkable decision: only people under 50 years old would be targeted.

“Although we don’t specifically target people over 50 with any of our content, we know that they will still be interested in it. For example, we know that many over 50-year-olds are interested in the Nature enthusiasts content. But our focus is entirely on reaching audiences under 50,” said Suoniemi.

The new structure also aims to break down hierarchies in the newsroom. Teams are expected to work in a self-guided manner, each with their own “razor-sharp” goals, which include the number of articles published, traffic to their content, and subscriptions generated.

As the desks work more autonomously than before, the role of the News Manager has also evolved to supervise the teams and coordinate content production across the newsroom. Each team is responsible for following a general content plan – a simple spreadsheet that tracks publication times, assigned journalists, story length (S, M, L, XL), and possible multimedia elements.

One thing that might not be obvious from the newsroom chart is how Karjalainen’s daily print newspaper is produced. The newsroom works digital-first, publishing content online throughout the day, A dedicated print team then takes the digital content and uses it to create the print paper. The newsroom publishes about 30 online articles a day, and 80-90 percent of these end up in print.

Internal communication key to bringing people on board

Such a major reorganisation obviously means that there had to be changes in the roles of some people – and these discussions are not always easy to navigate. In Karjalainen’s case, employees were informed about the reorganisation early on and kept up to date, which gave everyone time to get used to the change and understand why it was necessary.

Although clear communication was very helpful, some conversations were still “somewhat tough,” said Utriainen. “But I think that people are mostly excited about the new teams and audiences-first thinking,” he added.

The first audience-focused experiments (with Young families and Nature enthusiasts) also helped, as the TSE team could point to their positive results when faced with questions and doubts from the newsroom. And the promising experiences that their European colleagues in TSE had with audiences-first approaches were also very encouraging.

Perhaps surprisingly, Karjalainen decided not to announce the newsroom restructuring externally to readers. “We thought that they are not as interested in our organisation as our content,” Utriainen said.

As the publisher makes progress with the transformation, Suoniemi stressed the importance of not losing sight of the bigger picture – and what motivated the change in the first place.

“I think we have been traditionally very dissatisfied when something negative happens to our traditional audience, for example when we have to reduce the number of pages or there are problems with the delivery of the print paper,” Suoniemi said.

“But what I’ve tried to say is that we should be more dissatisfied with the fact that there are so few people under the age of 40 who subscribe to us in any form. So let’s worry about them for a change, instead of worrying so much about the traditional audiences.”