Back in 1986, after living in Finland for four years, I returned to the States to study journalism at the University of Georgia. One of the courses I took on my way to a non-existent future job in the Fourth Estate was “International Communications”, a course that surveyed what passes for journalism in different corners of the globe.
Part of the coursework for this class involved each student giving a presentation about the media of some foreign country. Naturally, I chose Finland.
Luckily, I happened to have a prop I could use for my presentation, an actual copy of a Finnish newspaper, in fact the country’s premier paper, the Helsingin Sanomat.
Hesari, as Finns like to call it, is something of an institution here, a 124-year-old broadsheet that is practically revered by a nation that is one of the most voraciously literate in the world. Looking at it in an American context, Hesari enjoys the gravitas and pedigree of The New York Times, but with 15 times the readership on a per capita basis).
The paper is said to have the biggest circulation of any in the Nordic countries, amazing when you consider that, population-wise, Finland is smaller than Denmark and roughly half the size of Nordic heavyweight Sweden. Another way to look at it is that Hesari enjoys a near-monopoly status not matched by say, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s biggest broadsheet daily.
In Finland, some 400,000 (or 8% of the population) subscribe to Hesari, which supposedly reaches 75% of households in the home market of Greater Helsinki. That’s something I’m sure the Times could never even aspire to. In short, it’s damn near ubiquitous.
So, it’s no surprise that it was a big deal this week when the Helsingin Sanomat switched from a broadsheet format to tabloid size. I’m sure there was some trepidation about what the change would mean for this icon of Finnish media. TV news crews were on hand at the factory as the last broadsheet copies came off the presses, and the nation had to wait a full day without Hesari in any format before it, reborn as a not-so-broadsheet, again hit the streets early Tuesday morning.
From what I’ve heard, mostly second-hand, the Finnish public has adjusted well enough to having its printed news squeezed into a narrower space. I haven’t seen the new version myself, since we took the opportunity to move completely from paper to an on-line subscription (with the bonus of giving us an excuse to finally buy an iPad).
Even with its new size, Hesari still follows a policy that's unique when it comes to deciding what goes the front page. Basically, it comes down to money. Page One content is always determined by who’s willing to pay for it.
I still remember how, when I made my little presentation in Athens almost thirty years ago, even the professor was somewhat surprised when I held up my copy of Hesari. The reason is that the front page was covered with nothing but advertisements (and costly ones, too). That’s how Hesari does it. Journalistic content starts only on page two, making this paper probably the only national daily anywhere to take this, um, “up front” approach to advertizing.
And so, in keeping with this tradition, the front page of the very last broadsheet edition, issued on Sunday, featured an appropriately traditional ad, one for an 80-year-old brand of cheese called “Koskenlaskija” (which translates roughly as “rapids skier”).
The full-page ad, with its vintage graphic of a rather determined-looking blond-headed log driver navigating through whitewater rapids, seems like a perfect way to evoke the long history of a venerable newspaper willing to rock the boat a little by making a big change -- and sell a little cheese at the same time.