Who was Tinius Nagell-Erichsen? How does the Tinius Trust go about influencing Schibsted? And with Norway ranked no. 1 on the World Press Freedom Index, do we really need the Tinius Trust today?

It is now 25 years since Tinius Nagell-Erichsen established the Tinius Trust by deed of gift, on 8 May 1996. To mark its 25th anniversary, the Tinius Trust has published a recent interview with Ole Jacob Sunde, board chair of the Tinius Trust and Schibsted. You can view the full interview in Norwegian here, or see the video with English subtitles below. Ole Jacob Sunde was interviewed by Eva Sannum.


Here is a transcript of the interview:

E: Ole Jacob Sunde, we’re here to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tinius Trust.

OJ: Yes, it’s an important date.

E: But just to be clear: what is the Tinius Trust?

OJ: Many people think of a trust as an institution with a big bag of money which it doles out to good causes. What they may not realize is that there are trusts which can own a significant share of a company and can leverage the power that derives from the trust as a long-term owner to try and develop that company in the best possible way.

E: Which in this case is Schibsted?

OJ: In this case Schibsted.

E: So how does it work? How much does it own, and who decides over who?

OJ: Well, that requires a slightly more technical explanation but to put it simply: the Trust owns 80 percent of the shares and all the voting rights in an investment company called Blommenholm Industrier.

It’s called Blommenholm Industrier because Tinius Nagell-Erichsen lived in Blommenholm and when we were wondering what to call it …

E: OK, so this was just something you decided between yourselves?

OJ: No, there was a phone call between Tinius and me; he called and was very bewildered about what we should call it. We agreed that we had to call it something with industries and not invest, because invest was not how we thought or who we were.

E: Yes, I see that.

OJ: People often use place names, so I said: you live in Blommenholm, don’t you, Tinius? Yes, he did. Høvikodden, where he lived, was situated in Blommenholm. So we called it Blommenholm Industrier.

E: I’ve waited for that explanation for a long time.

OJ: Yes, that was a short digression. Blommenholm Industrier owns just over 26 percent of Schibsted, and that stake has a dominant influence because Schibsted has statutes which state that ownership of more than 25 percent entitles you to special rights.

E: Tinius Nagell-Erichsen is perhaps one of the most influential people in the history of Norwegian media. But not everyone is familiar with him. Who was he?

OJ: Well, first and foremost he was a newspaper man. He had worked as a journalist and knew the newsrooms very well, and for that matter the entire chain that leads to you having your newspaper delivered to your mailbox. He had also managed newspapers. He managed VG in the 60s and Aftenposten. That was where he acquired his knowledge and passion for the media.

So he was a lot of things. He was a big man, and you could feel a bit intimidated by him when you first met him. He could be very frank. He could also treat you with some suspicion, so I quickly learned a few basic rules.

E: Such as?

OJ: First of all, you always had to tell him what you knew first. You couldn’t casually turn up a few days later and say, “Oh, by the way” or let him hear it from somebody else.

E: I see.

OJ: You had to brief. Get to the point. He was very impatient. If you started off with “On the one hand”, “On the other hand” he would just cut you off and say “What is your opinion?”

And the final thing I would say is that you always had to give your honest opinion, but you had to be smart about presenting it in a way that made it relevant to his worldview.

E: You mean like when you present a story, go straight to the lead?

OJ: He liked to be challenged, but he could also be dismissive or aggressive or angry if he didn’t see the relevance or felt he was being attacked by what you said. So a lot of people found him quite difficult to deal with.

But we had one thing that served as a safety valve in our collaboration; and that was humor.

E: I see.

OJ: Especially if you could laugh at yourself. He could do that, too. That would make to chuckle and got us back on speaking terms again.

E: It’s something that can get you far, being able to laugh at yourself.

OJ: Being able to laugh at yourself can get you far, yes.

E: A free and independent press. That’s kind of what I associate with Tinius.

OJ: That’s his great and important legacy to Norwegian media, because he understood the value of a free and independent press. He was very determined that what he owned and the responsibility he had as owner should be carried on in a way that would keep it unified, and that could ensure free and independent newsrooms. But also to ensure that Schibsted was run according to the same sound economic principles that he had established.

And that’s because – as I mentioned – he was both a newspaper man and a businessman, so he could see how they worked together and weren’t two separate aspects. He understood that they were mutually dependent. It also made him recognize that you don’t have free and independent newsrooms unless the organization running them has sound a sound financial position.

E: You worked together for many years. What was your relationship like?

OJ: I had a good relationship with him. He was a private person in many ways, so we had more of a professional relationship than a close friendship. But when you work with someone for so long – we had known each other for 16-17 years by the time he passed away – of course you get to know that person well. And he was very hospitable, so we had many enjoyable midsummer parties at his house in Høvikodden.

E: And he expected you to be available when you were not in the same place?

OJ: You can be sure of that. As I said, he was impatient. So if he wanted to know something or wanted to reach you, he called and expected you to pick up the phone.

E: And at that time it was a landline?

OJ: Yes. So, Ingrid, my wife, occasionally took calls from Tinius sternly asking “Where is Ole Jacob?”

E: But it’s now 25 years since Tinius Nagell-Erichsen established the Tinius Trust by deed of gift on 8 May 1996. What were his motives at the time?

OJ: As I said, the idea of keeping the media houses together was important. And this work started already with the initial public offering, because we managed to negotiate special articles of association for Schibsted that would protect the company. And since Tinius – if he combined all his ownership interests – had a little over 25 percent, it was important that a 25-percent ownership stake could safeguard Schibsted. We got that approved, which meant that that ownership stake – which is still over 25 percent – that as long as it is kept together we will have special rights according to Schibsted’s articles of association, and can both protect Schibsted and influence Schibsted.

And it’s the latter of these which I have considered to be most important, that we must actively drive development of the group, and that in that way we can safeguard that legacy in the best possible way.

E: But he was a capitalist, wasn’t he?

OJ: Definitely. You could say he was a capitalist, but he was one who understood that you need to run a business in the context of society because that is really the key to being able to run the company over time. A company that does not take its corporate social responsibility seriously will not, in my opinion, remain relevant over time.

Take FINN as an example. All the environmental benefits that lie in reusing items and taking care of and extending the life of the things we use. That’s really good, and it’s part of Finn’s social contract. But another thing is that if you use Finn.no, you know you’ll find quality-assured information that you can trust. In the same way as in VG or Aftenposten or Svenska Dagbladet, or wherever you go.

E: We always speak highly of people in retrospect. So when I google Tinius Nagell-Erichsen, I read a lot of positive things about editorial freedom and independent press and so on. In your opinion, is Tinius the reason why Schibsted is where it is today?

OJ: He laid that foundation, but at the same time I would say it’s one thing to insert editorial freedom into some articles of association; putting it into practice is quite another, and that is definitely not as easy to do.

E: No, you’ve been working on that for some years now.

OJ: It’s been my main task, and it’s been an incredibly meaningful one. I feel privileged to have worked on it. But that’s right, my task has been to take what was stated in the articles of association and make sure it was implemented in practice.

E: How have you done it? I mean, how do you work with the Tinius Trust to fulfil the purpose of the articles of association?

OJ: I actually looked at the foundation as astartup, so you could say that it has evolved from there over time. I’ll return to that point.

A trust is essentially a tool that enables you to own something long-term. But a trust can quickly become a pretext for complacency because you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder and making sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. So when Tinius passed away in 2007, the Tinius Trust was really just a shell. There had been no activity. So it had to build its own identity and strategy. To begin with, I cut corners. We had a board, but no administration, no staff.

But I thought that this was a fantastic opportunity to develop a strong instrument that could support Schibsted. So gradually we began writing annual reports and thinking about who we wanted to be and what we wanted to represent. Then we went a step further by starting to build an administration. And today the Tinius Trust is more like a think tank and a driving force for developing Schibsted, but also for driving media development in Norway generally, to some extent.

E: But to run it as a startup, what would you say are the most important aspects of the strategic work?

OJ: A clear goal is to define what you want to be and where you want to go. That’s part of the nature of being a startup. Then there’s an impatience to see the results. And there’s the need to hire good people, talented people, who share those basic values, who share your enthusiasm and think that what you’re doing is great fun. And you need to gradually be able to be ask yourself critical questions and be willing to change so that you try to see new opportunities and recreate yourself.

E: Talking about opportunities … Right now we’re sitting here in these rather splendid surroundings, but when we’ve talked before you’ve often talked about risk, and the willingness to take risks.

OJ: But there’s no contradiction between having a sound values base and a respect for and understanding of history, and wanting to create new things. Because if you are to take care of something, you must also be willing to change it and develop it. And the driving force for me has been to build something that has lasting value.

E: Because you don’t allow yourself to think that things were better before and that it’s best to leave things as they are, and so on. That’s not your style, is it?

OJ: I would describe myself as a technology enthusiast who likes development and who definitely sees opportunities. But you have to put that development in perspective. And some parts of the technology development we’re seeing today make me wonder whether we are able to use technology to benefit society or whether it’s too focused on benefiting individual companies.

E: I think we’ll return to that point. Many trusts are influential media owners in the Nordic region. Why are trusts suitable media owners?

OJ: I don’t think trusts necessarily make good owners. It all depends on how the trust uses the opportunity.

My view is that the most important thing about a trust is that it lays the foundation for long-term ownership and provides reassurance that you can work long-term to achieve results. And I believe that if you use that opportunity and think long-term, then long-term ownership is often an excellent form of ownership, because it takes time to implement change. And the security that lies in the fact that you can think long-term also allows you to take risks, for instance, and say, “Okay, this can take three-four-five years before you actually see any results but our ownership is long term, so that’s fine.”

E: Speaking of trusts, you also sit on the board of The Guardian’s own trust, the Scott Trust. Are there any similarities between the Tinius Trust and the Scott Trust?

OJ: Yes there are. They have a similar purpose: to use the power of journalism to create a better society. One should build a community that has hope, that sees opportunities, that develops, that has equal opportunities for all, and so on. The tolerance and openness that are inherent in a democratic society. So there are many similarities.

There are differences, too, because The Guardian operates in a global market that has other competition parameters. In my opinion, The Guardian does an excellent job in creating good journalism, but Schibsted is way ahead in its digital development and its ability to incorporate digital technology into good journalism.

I’m very impressed with how the willingness to change in Schibsted has become part of its DNA, and not only on the business side but in its journalism, too. Take VG‘s corona coverage as an example, how they developed all the underlying coverage of the pandemic.

E: Which has also won awards.

OJ: Which has also won awards. It’s a great example of combining the strength of digital with a very good journalistic take on what information society needs. And the fact that everyone’s using it – even politicians and the health authorities – is significant. Then you really have connected business with society.

E: How important is it that Schibsted has a Norwegian controlling owner?

OJ: Having a strong owner who can drive the company’s development over time is important. I also think that its Nordic roots are important. Because if you think about how a digital company is often run, it usually has strong individuals who enjoy working towards a common goal. And the model on which Norwegian companies and Nordic companies are based, with a high level of employee participation, is actually quite similar to the one you find in startups and other technology companies that have succeeded. So I think there’s a pretty good match between the Nordic roots that we have and how I think you can best run that type of company.

E: The Nordic Model, no less.

OJ: I’m a strong supporter of the Nordic model and believe it’s a great strength for the development of digital companies.

E: You’ve been board chair of Schibsted for 19 years and have been involved for longer than that. What has been important to you during those years?

OJ: As chair, you have to accept that you have to work through others. And if you’re going to work through others, you must first and foremost think about who you choose to lead the company. And then it’s important that you build a close relationship with them, that you develop a good chemistry, a give-and-take and mutual respect, so that you can get things implemented.

The second is that I quickly learned that I had to concentrate on a few things at a time, and that they had to be the most important things, and that I had to stick to them. Then you know that it will seep through to the company’s management and organization and can become a force in the company.

That’s how it’s been for me, really, but that’s partly how I am by nature, as a human being, that I immerse myself in things. I don’t do thousands of things at the same time. I try to learn about the things I’m actually doing. I think it’s more fun that way. So I’ve spent a lot of time on Schibsted and media development in general, because it makes me a more relevant partner for a management team. You also have to create security, enthusiasm, drive. Being a media leader in a rapidly changing world is a difficult job.

E: In other words, you need to really know the company you are going to lead?

OJ: Yes, I think so.

E: I wouldn’t use the word power to describe how you exercise your leadership, but Tinius believed that the Tinius Trusts’ strength, unlike many other trusts perhaps, was that it had power. What did he mean by that?

OJ: Power is a fairly loaded word in Norwegian society, so implementing changes because you have power – in other words, some kind of autocratic leadership – I don’t believe in that. But as a majority owner you have the possibility to exert influence, and it’s that execution ability that comes with ownership that’s important. If you can use it constructively to develop the company, you can achieve a lot. That’s the kind of power I believe in. So you could say that power can have some significance in a defensive sense.

E: Norway has the highest level of press freedom in the world, and the other Scandinavian countries also rank high.  So do we really need a trust that protects the independence of the media?

OJ: I would say that freedom of the press must be grounded in legislation prescribed by the authorities. That implies what you could call protection. But if you’re thinking of protection in terms of practicing journalism, then it doesn’t work. You can protect an old house, you can protect a waterfall, but you can’t protect the practice of a profession. It has to have legitimacy every day. It has to be exercised in such a way that it has relevance to the society you live in, and it is the power which journalism itself exercises that gives it legitimacy.

E: But Schibsted is dependent on renewal and innovation. What examples of innovation would you highlight?

OJ: You invite me to name examples, but I think of innovation as more of an attitude than as representing isolated events. It must be in a company’s DNA to constantly try to challenge itself, but also to see opportunities in the difficulties that arise, and then to help itself to get a grip.

And in established companies, it’s rarely one single major event or thing that leads the company to innovate. It’s much more the everyday innovations, as I call them. What makes the company a little better every day. And that’s because some employees see opportunities in their own everyday lives, dare to do things a little different, dare to suggest new solutions and get positive feedback.

E: You have written several articles in Norwegian newspapers about big international technology companies. In what ways are these companies challenging the media today?

OJ: The big technology companies have a different values base and a different social contract. There’s no doubt that this seriously challenges the media, especially regarding revenue sources, and that media companies have so far been on the defensive.

We may be seeing signs of change now, and that’s because the media as a force for a democracy has become more apparent in recent years. And because the technology platforms’ basic values ​​and social contract are not as strong, in my opinion. That’s why I perhaps see a glimmer of hope for change, though it requires interaction between authorities – but also more awareness among consumers, because to my mind consumers don’t fully understand the journey they are on over time.

E: Yes, and who is responsible for making them understand?

OJ: I believe that primarily it is the media companies’ responsibility. But the media are often a little misunderstood on that point because the know-alls say “It’s all very well blaming Google and Facebook, but you use them yourselves, too.”

E: Yes, that’s something I might have said myself.

OJ: Yes, and my reply would be that you have to make do with what you have. Obviously, if your back is against the wall and you’re fighting for own survival, you may end up sleeping with the enemy because you have no other option. But that doesn’t mean that it depletes you as a company; it just means that you acknowledge that you have become inferior and that you have to submit to the platforms in order to survive.

If you take a platform company, it is intent on getting get you to stay as long as possible and being as engaged as possible, because they want to collect as much data as possible and because they want to use it to earn money. That’s a very different business model from one that produces content and would like to find an audience for that content.

E: But in this cat-and-dog fight between the media and the platform companies, do you see hope?

OJ: I see some hope, but it still depends on governments and consumers, along with the media companies, understanding that they need to work together.

We tend to take many things in life for granted; we take clean air for granted. But it’s no longer the case that we think that clean air comes out of nowhere. Oslo’s inhabitants take the ski trails in the forest for granted, but as you know, ski trails don’t fall from the skies. The same applies to the media; they don’t just appear from nowhere. Someone has to produce high-quality content. That costs money, and society must be willing to pay for it, otherwise we may see the same pattern of newspaper deaths in Scandinavia as we are seeing in the United States.

E: So people have a responsibility, consumers have a responsibility? The public must also understand that it costs money to create good content. Is that what you mean?

OJ: Yes. They need to recognize that it’s also a valuable service. And of course it is the media’s responsibility to produce content that is so relevant and good that readers are willing to pay for it. But there’s an underlying contract there.

E: Exactly.

Thank you for talking to me, Ole Jacob, and congratulations on the 25th anniversary of the Tinius Trust.