Andrew Rosenthal isn’t Swedish, nor does he speak Swedish. The former editorial page editor of the New York Times says his initial knowledge of the country was informed by shopping trips he took in the ‘80s, while serving as Moscow bureau chief for the AP—and of the Swedish press, by what he learned from watching the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But in an unlikely move, Rosenthal, who is semiretired after decades of rising through the newsroom ranks, has taken a job as the interim editor in chief of a vexed Swedish media start-up called Bulletin. “The thing that makes it possible is that it’s not my job to figure out Swedish politics, and it’s not my job to influence the Opinion pages,” Rosenthal told me. “The purpose here is to stand up a functioning news organization.”
Since departing the Times in 2018, Rosenthal has been, in his words, “putzing around”—freelancing, serving on the advisory board of his town’s local newspaper, and teaching. He was pitched the Bulletin job by a member of its board: Nicco Mele, formerly of the Harvard Kennedy School, who had previously recruited Rosenthal to teach a class on race, politics, and the media. Rosenthal recalled Mele asking him “to sign on for three months as the editor in chief of a struggling online news start-up.” Sounds good. Then Mele tells him it’s based in Sweden, and—despite bilingual aspirations down the line—Bulletin currently publishes only in Swedish. Rosenthal says yes anyway. He misses the work, and he’s “tired of just bitching” about the current state of journalism, particularly the dying ecosystem of community-based newspapers, “so here was an opportunity to actually do something.”
Since its launch in December 2020, Bulletin, which has around two dozen staffers, has become the subject of much debate in Sweden, owing in part to its right-leaning editorial views. Oscar Westlund, a journalism and media studies professor at Oslo Metropolitan University, told me the site recruited several well-known Swedish writers out of the gate, some of whom had already “been associated with controversies” before joining. Most of Bulletin’s writers veered “far-right,” he added, with a “few towards the left.” That might seem like an unusual stable for journalists for the former boss of the liberal Times editorial page, but Rosenthal warns against making apples-to-apples comparisons with the U.S. press. “They call themselves liberal conservatives, but American terms are useless in Sweden,” Rosenthal says, likening them to centrist Democrats.
According to Rosenthal, some of the controversy at Bulletin stemmed from how it covered the country’s COVID-19 approach—rocking the boat with a position that Sweden should have followed international medical guidelines, rather than embarking on its own strategy. It has also gotten hammered for stances it has taken on immigration—although, as Rosenthal points out, Bulletin is an immigrant-founded venture. One of the founders, Iran-born economist Tino Sanandaji, “felt that there was no news organization in Sweden that did what he considered to be the traditional mission of the New York Times,” Rosenthal said. “They want to create a newspaper that covers the country in a way that everybody can see their lives in it.” Bulletin has also faced internal strife: It has gone through two top editors in the past two months; a slew of employees recently quit, seemingly due to disputes with management; and plagiarism has reportedly been a problem. But it’s currently in the process of restructuring—most recently getting a new CEO and, now, a seasoned editor. “I know journalism and I know exactly what they need,” Rosenthal told me.
At the top of his to-do list is instituting an adequate division between news and opinion, an ethos Rosenthal was brought up in. “My father,” he said of the late Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, “was batshit crazy about the separation between news and opinion. He was draconian about it.” Bulletin’s current news operation mostly relies on content from wire services, but it wants to produce original journalism. It has hired a news editor, and it has a handful of reporters, but they lack basic building blocks for a live news desk, which is where Rosenthal comes in. “What I want to do in three months is get them a functioning, turnkey news operation that a good editor can just take over,” ideally someone based in Sweden. “Once the thing is running like an actual news machine, then you really need the local people, because I couldn’t possibly know what’s happening in the town council of Malmö.”
Rosenthal will be running the show remotely from his home in Montclair, New Jersey—a suburb teeming “with about 300 other journalists,” he joked—and doesn’t see much of a difference between working with the local weekly there via Zoom, as he’s been doing, and managing journalists in Sweden using the same technology. “I also love the idea that Mr. Establishment—which, let’s face it, I am—is working for this weird internet start-up, started by immigrants, in Sweden. It’s crazy in every possible direction,” he said, adding: “I kind of believe that journalistic principles are applicable in any democracy, and it’s time to find out.”
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