The Local's founder and CEO Paul Rapacioli talks about the birth of Sweden's News in English, conversational silences and his inherent lack of coolness.
On April 2nd, 2004, a select few members of Sweden’s English-speaking community received a curious email entitled, “Alleged drug smuggler was ‘a good policeman’”. And with that, The Local was born.
As a way of marking the fifth anniversary of the birth of The Local – we sit down with Paul Rapacioli, Managing Director and founder of The Local to hear a bit more about the early challenges of producing Sweden’s news in English.
The Local: What brought you to Sweden in the first place?
The same old story. I fell in love with a Swedish woman.
What did you set out to do when you arrived?
I left London in early 2003 and saw coming to Sweden as a chance to do something different after running the internet business at a large UK recruitment company for many years. While pottering around in Stockholm I sort of stumbled into writing English lyrics for Swedish musicians, but wasn’t convinced that was where I belonged long-term.
What do you mean?
Basically, I wasn’t cool enough. I mean, it was fun up to a point, but I felt myself being “outcooled” at every turn. After a while, I was yearning for a day job. You know, a desk, a phone. Sales meetings. Monthly accounts.
How did the idea for The Local originate?
When I was socialising with Swedes I would find that conversations would just sort of dry up after the "who are you and where do you come from" standard. When they started talking about the news and other current events, I felt totally clueless. I realized then how important the daily news is as a social lubricant. As they say in the Läkerol ads: it makes people talk. But when I looked around, I really couldn’t find any good sources of news about Sweden in English.
So what was the original concept?
The original plan was to create a sort of review of Sweden’s news in English. I was inspired by these spunky and sort of funny email news round ups from British papers. I thought it would be interesting to try something like that for Swedish news.
Sounds easier said than done.
It was hell. I was still learning Swedish at the time, and I would spend hours looking up every other word and then trying to piece it all together. Embarrassingly slow, especially when I see how quickly and efficiently we produce news articles today.
That’s an ambitious way to teach yourself the language.
I suppose so. I had thought early on that doing a news review would be a good way to practice my Swedish. What really bamboozled me early on were all the compound words in Swedish. I literally spent hours, days, weeks, unravelling all those compound words.
So, who got that first newsletter?
Twelve people. A bunch of them were in my SFI class, and I remember going around and asking them all for their email addresses. In the first one, I included eight full articles which were basically reviews of stories taken from the Swedish press. After that, I would only include a preview of each article along with a link back to the website—which was pretty bare-bones at the time.
And how did you settle on the name, The Local?
Finding a name took quite a bit of reflection. I told myself early on that, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right and try to think it through. I had a whole page with possible names, but settled on The Local because I thought it encompassed everything I wanted the site to be about.
What do you mean?
Well, in England, when people refer to “the local”, they usually mean the local pub—that neighbourhood gathering place where you can bump into people you know, catch up on local gossip, and find out about the community. “The local” can also mean the local newspaper where you can read about local news, check out classified ads from people looking for flats or unloading used furniture. And, of course, "the locals" are the people who know what's what in their area.
When I thought about what The Local would be as a website, I imagined something that not only had news, but also had sort of a community feel and could be a tool for bringing the English speaking community in Sweden together.
So in those early days, sitting for fifteen hours a day on your own in a grubby basement apartment in Stockholm...
Hang on there - it was never grubby. We were always very good about washing up our coffee cups and vacuum cleaning.
OK. But were you ever tempted to throw in the towel?
No. Partly because I didn't really have a plan B, but also because the feedback from readers was so positive right from the beginning.
Those early articles have a different feel than what you read on The Local today. Why?
Basically, not enough people were laughing at my jokes.
Well, originally, I wanted the stories to be funny. There were a lot of puns, the tone was somewhat sarcastic, and we had a lot of licence to include commentary on the way in which stories were reported in addition to the stories themselves.
But shortly after [Managing Editor] James Savage came on board, we decided that there was more of a future for The Local as a news site than as a humour site. As our readership grew more diverse, getting the humour right was just too tricky. No matter how funny we thought we were, there was no guarantee that anyone else would laugh in the same way. And actually, looking back, we weren't that funny.
Was there a big news story that put The Local on the map?
The first great leap forward came courtesy of Knutby. I'm sure many readers will remember the extraordinary story of the children's nanny who killed the wife of the pastor with whom she was having an affair after being guided by text messages from God. Well, we put considerable effort into explaining the details of that case, and that attracted a lot of attention from readers and other news organisations around the world. That established our reputation as a reliable news source.
So fast-forwarding to April 2009 - there's a German edition of The Local, we've taken over a site in Switzerland, we have over a million readers a month - where next for The Local?