The Swedish newspaper that dumped fossil fuel ads, has 20% more subscribers and better advertisers

Zweedse Krant Dagens ETC weert reclame van de fossiele industrie
Swedish newspaper Dagens ETC bans all fossil fuel ads

The Swedish newspaper Dagens ETC was the first one in the world to decide to not run fossil fuel advertising anymore. No exceptions. Not from the fossil fuel industry, not for fossil fuel cars, not for air travel. Dagens ETC went above and beyond The Guardian, who followed the Swedish example and banned ads from the fossil fuel industry.

The decision by Dagens ETC to ban fossil fuel ads because they fuel climate change and damage their credibility did cost them money though. They saw a drop of 20% in money coming in from advertisers. But they gained – within four months – 20% in subscriptions. And new, sustainable advertisers.

But they didn’t know that when they took the decision to – effective immediately – ban all fossil fuel advertisement in September 2019. To them this was the only possible course of action. For Dagens ETC but also for all other media. Editor-in-chief Andreas Gustavsson: “I’ve never seen this level of consensus among our team. We all want this, together. The board. The reporters. The marketing department. The subscribers.”

“I believe that the climate crisis forces us all to choose sides, not just in the future but right now. That also applies to our own profession even though its identity is deeply rooted in the idea that doing just that, picking sides, is a fundamental mistake.” Gustavsson issued a powerful statement in which he calls upon other newspapers to follow their example: “I am aware of the harsh reality of the newspaper world, but even then there is a right and wrong.”

We have permission to publish his statement on our website.

Believe me, your audience will soon demand action on fossil fuel ads

It was the sort of decision that had been gaining momentum for so long that in the end it was completely inevitable. Now was the time to get rid of all fossil fuel advertising. 

The energy companies that refuse to go green. The car manufacturers that try to sell their latest gas guzzlers. The airlines that want us to treat ourselves to a weekend in Paris. The travel agencies that tell us to, once back from Paris, escape winter doom and gloom and sun ourselves on an exotic holiday on the other side of the globe.

No exceptions, effective immediately.

I’ve made a lot of decisions as editor-in-chief of Dagens ETC, a daily newspaper that has been committed to producing climate journalism that encourages intervention and change since its founding in 2014. This is one of the wisest. And it isn’t even mine. In fact, I’ve never seen this level of consensus among our team. We all want this, together. The board. The reporters. The marketing department. The subscribers. The fact of the matter is, this was the only route we could take in order to ensure we maintain our credibility as a climate conscious media outlet.

Climate journalism simply cannot and should not be financed by fossil fuel advertisers. It is a contradiction. It draws an invisible limit to the reporting, to what can be scrutinised and how it can be scrutinised. 

I know that there are people out there who believe differently, who claim that journalism is independent of its advertisers, that the activity in the newsroom will never adjust to anybody else’s agenda. It all sounds incredibly hollow to me. And I know that there are many, many media consumers who share that feeling when they read, watch, and listen to something that appears unable to make its mind up.

It just seems false. Which way do you want it?

It’s fine to put money into hiring specialised climate reporters. Put together indignant opinion pieces about how passive politicians are, how passive this and that industry is (except, of course, for the media). Write emotional profiles of Greta Thunberg, feature daily presentations of the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. But you cannot then continue to provide a voice to fossil fuel advertisements – or even worse: dubious versions of native advertisement – as if nothing has happened, as if we are not in the middle of the first stage of a climate crisis.

It just doesn’t work.

Not any longer.

Imagine this text flanked by an ad for, say, all inclusive trips to the Maldives. It would just be outrageous.

“I see no other option for Dagens ETC”, I wrote when we announced our position on fossil fuel ads, an announcement that was also aimed at drawing other media outlets into the debate.

This has never been about seeming morally unimpeachable. It also is not an empty gesture or a cheap marketing trick. I believe that the climate crisis forces us all to choose sides, not just in the future but right now. That also applies to our own profession even though its identity is deeply rooted in the idea that doing just that, picking sides, is a fundamental mistake. That it is reprehensible to decide who is right and who is wrong in a conflict situation. But this is about our future. Do we secure our planet for future generations or do we continue doing what we’ve done before, even though it will lead to disaster?

I choose to reject fossil fuel ads.

This is not an opinion.

It is the logical consequence of respecting science.

It is, ostensibly, about prioritising the common good over Dagens ETC’s.

But I think we get one with the other. I know that we will lose money in the short term. It adds up to about 20 percent of our total advertising revenue, going into the millions of Swedish kronor. Although I did assume we would experience gains in other fields. 

I envisaged subscribers would stay because they don’t have to deal with mixed signals, constantly suspecting that journalism supported by the life blood of the fossil economy won’t ever ask the key confrontational and critical questions at the core of the debate. I hoped that new subscribers would be added to our books because they want their daily newspaper to assume responsibility and take action. That we would attract advertisers who want to be seen in a context where they don’t have to co-exist with climate destroying activities and cynical greenwashing. Journalists would not move on to other employers because they prefer working with companies who are ready to take on the challenges presented by the climate crisis. 

In other words, I was counting on financial gains in the longer term. But they came much more quickly than I could ever have imagined. In the past few months, our number of subscribers has increased by over 20 percent. Our marketing department has been able to start building new collaborations with partners who find it liberating to not have to share space with fossil fuel campaigns.

It all adds up – we’ve gained more subscribers as well as better advertisers.

I am humble to the fact that Dagens ETC is exceptionally well placed in terms of divestment. Adverts represent a smaller share of our revenue, where subscribers – and a state subsidy intended to support diversity in news reporting – are much more significant to our budget. We had the luxury to act decisively without risking the future of the newspaper and its employees. Other media outlets are set up differently. 

We all know how ruthless this industry is, whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, the fact that it’s an industry in the midst of some radical changes – and none of us know exactly what the end result will be. I am more than familiar with the strains, the trials and the harsh realities we’re all currently facing.

But whichever way you look at it, there is still right and wrong, assuming we allow everybody’s future to be a part of the equation. I hope more of us will start to do just that.

Fossil fuel adverts do not contribute to solving the climate crisis.

Fossil fuel adverts do exactly the opposite – in fact, they profoundly worsen the climate crisis.

Other media executives and journalists have come to me with a lot of questions about whether it was difficult to divest on a purely practical basis. The answer is both yes and no. It was easy to do it in print – we just closed our paper down to dirty ads. As it turned out, the digital side was a lot more complicated. On our website, we are dependent on a sub-contractor. The ads you see as a reader are related to what you have previously looked at on the internet and as of right now there is no way to completely exclude fossil fuel ads. However, we’ve entered into a dialogue with said sub-contractor about developing a system that makes it possible for us to close our website to external elements we simply cannot accept. It goes without saying that they’ve never come across this request from a media outlet before.

Until the new system is up and running we’ve set out to manually remove fossil advertisers from our website. Our readers are happy to help. They flag an ad, we take it down.

So what do we mean by fossil ads? Dagens ETC are happy to let Volvo show off their electric car, but we are not interested in helping them sell their most recent diesel powered SUV or hybrid. We’ll gladly let energy companies tell our readers about their commitment to renewables, but not if they’re using a single solar cell or wind turbine to hide the fact that they mainly deal in oil, gas, and coal. Greenwashing is out. 

We are aware that we may have to develop our policy in the future, especially since fossil fuel companies are becoming increasingly aggressive in their attempts to use the media to manipulate the public.

Dagens ETC became, to my knowledge, the first daily newspaper in the world to get rid of its fossil fuel baggage. The move was immediately picked up by The Guardian, even before anyone in Sweden reacted. This media giant – who has more than 60 times the subscribers/members than we do – understood what we are trying to achieve, and that the need for our industry to have this extremely important, if uncomfortable, conversation is more acute than ever.

The Guardian has inspired us. We look to their climate journalism, the changes to their style guide (climate crisis, not climate change), and their ambition to develop their paper together with their readers. There could be no better way to force this conversation than the fact that The Guardian recently started divesting, generously referencing Dagens ETC in the process. But for us, their first step doesn’t go all the way. Cars and flights get to stay, while fossil fuel extractors have to find other publications in which to peddle their climate destruction. 

Dagens ETC bit the bullet. Complete divestment.

Where you start is up to you. A little bit is better than nothing.

But refusing to discuss fossil advertisements is unacceptable.

Nobody will be able to kill this issue with a wall of silence. Believe me, it won’t be long until your audience starts demanding answers. There is no room for sitting on the fence or claiming that the time isn’t quite right.

How long are you going to wait? 

How long until you become stuck on the side of the climate destroyers?

Four months ago, I wrote:

”I see no other option for Dagens ETC or, really, for any other media outlets.”

I am now more sure of this statement than ever.

We are calling for a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel advertising from the Dutch Parliament. You can find a template to initiate this in your country here.