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12 Minutes To Malmo

MALMO—The cobbled streets of Lund were shining with early morning rain. We hurried to the station to catch the 8:33 train to Malmo, dodging green city buses, bicycles and the other damp pedestrians heading to work or class or whatever errands brought them out at that hour in the cold, grey Swedish December.
The offices of Lena Philipson’s newspaper, The City, were in downtown Malmo, population 290,000, Sweden’s third largest city after the capitol, Stockholm, and Gothenburg. Lena had been working for the new daily tabloid as a news writer since The City had been started this past September. Outside of the Lund station she took a copy from a newsboy and leafed through it as we waited on the platform, examining the layout and the stories she had written the day before. The City is a free paper funded entirely by advertising, a relatively new concept in Swedish print media. It is a subsidiary publication of City Stockholm, itself only four-years-old.
It was a 12 minute ride to Malmo and a short walk through downtown to the building housing The City. I had first met Lena almost five years ago in Honduras. At the time I was working as Documentary Director for Orrville, Ohio based Central American Medical Outreach and she was researching an academic paper on domestic violence. We had done some work together then and kept in touch off and on, but the last time I’d seen her was outside of Copan. Before the bus took her away she’d said, “Goodbyes are always long in Central America…” In the intervening years I have had a long, continuing series of returns and goodbyes with that strange isthmus of crumpled land between continents, most recently for four months this past winter. I’ll be returning to El Salvador to continue a documentary project in March, but for now it was time to be in Sweden, see Lena and find out how the Swedes ran a newspaper.
At a door off the street she swiped a card and entered a code. We walked up a flight of stairs and at the end of a non-descript corridor she performed the same operation at another door. I was half expecting to enter the inner sanctum of the Swedish Secret Service but the door opened to reveal The City’s newsroom. It was a wide-open, well-lit space with blond wood floors and matching tables topped with new, large-screen i Macs. We put down our bags, she tapped her terminal to life and assigned me an unused workstation. Hanging over the news department was a long-handled toy battle axe and sword, perhaps to fend off critics and repel hostile news organizations but possibly a Damocletian editorial reminder that the blade may fall at any time.
Soon Jenny Nirfalk, the Local Editor in Chief swept in, calling Philipson and photographer Mörton Svemark in for the morning news budget meeting, graciously inviting me as well. We all energetically took notes though mine were on the decor as I understand Swedish about as well as I understand Quantum Mechanics and the mating habits of albino reindeer.
With the meeting done we drove to a local school. At first there was some tension between Svemark and myself. When first they meet, photographers are often rather like ill-tempered fighting cocks with their feathers put out-of-whack by the presence of another rooster, ie: how dare he be carrying a camera when I’m here!?!; Would you look at the size of his f2.8 400mm image stabilized lens, I don’t need that, I get close!; Oh, he uses an old Leica, well la di da…and so on and so forth. Svemark got it out of the way while we were walking through the parking lot.
“I’d never use a Nikon,” he said, “I can’t stand them.”
“Yeah, well I don’t like your Canon either.”
And with that established we got along just fine.
Lena was writing a story about the costs of vandalism to the schools and how the schools are working to overcome it. She interviewed the principal, a teacher and several students. What has struck me over and over is that Sweden seems the least foreign foreign place I have ever been, almost as if it were some part of Ohio with oddly named cities and an uncommonly high frequency of confidant blonde people practicing a strange language. The female principal looked very, well, principal-like, even down to her gestures and the Christmas tree lapel pin on her sensible-yet-stylish suit, speaking what even in Swedish sounded like soothing-to-the-media soundbites in polished Educationese.
I was told that this was one of Malmo’s poorer schools wherein about 80 percent of the students spoke Swedish only as a second language. Malmo has a large number of immigrants, many of whom are from the Middle East and parts of Africa. In fact for once I saw no blondes and a number of the girls wore Muslim head scarves. But for a school described as one of the poorer and more troubled it was almost spotlessly clean with no evident graffiti and nice wood floors in the common areas. The students Lena spoke with were eager to talk, slightly goofy in the way of 14-year-olds and polite and well spoken even if I couldn’t understand a word they said.
We returned to the office, had lunch with Tara Moshizi the stylish entertainment reporter and I sat down to interview Nirfalk.
“The challenge,” she said, when asked about running a new paper, “is to find a unique voice. The news-flow is the same for everyone so we have to do it our way, The City way. Our goal is to have direct contact with the readers, to find a real person behind each story. It should never feel like it’s written from some lofty point above. Metro, for example, is considered the serious paper, a lot of credibility, the middle aged man-in-a-suit, predictable and not quite boring…but almost. Then there’s Punkt.se that was also started in September. A reader’s survey we did described them as a teenager who skips school and doesn’t know what he wants. We’re serious but if there’s room for a smile we’ll give it to you…”
Her cell rang and she listened for a moment. “It’s Mörton, he wants you to go on assignment with him. It will be fun; we can talk later.”
I grabbed my camera bag and headed downstairs. As he drove, Svemark explained that local college students had built a 14 person, wood framed canoe as an interdisciplinary project and were launching it at 2 p.m. There would be photographers from other papers, Svemark said, but he had his own small fishing skiff moored nearby. We would do the competition one better, he explained with a fiendish smile, by shooting the action not only from an angle no one else could get but one that would put him, and by extension The City, in any photo taken of the canoe while it was in the water.
After bailing out accumulated rain we motored down to where the canvas-hulled craft was waiting on a pier. Soon, with much cheering, it was lowered to the frigid, dark green water. True to Mörton’s word there were several other photographers shooting photos of the launch and unhappy looks across at us. We smiled and waved. Fourteen students wearing warm clothes and homemade life-vests, climbed down a ladder and carefully into two rows. Even fully crewed the canoe had a high freeboard and appeared unsteady. And while the Swedes may be descended of Norse raiders, these 14 seemed less than Viking as they paddled awkwardly down the pier and back. We’d been out in Mörton’s skiff for over an hour, it was getting darker and colder and the wind had come up, raising choppy waves. Most of the crowd and other reporters left. We were putting our cameras away and getting ready to leave as well when the canoe suddenly flipped over, sending its crew into the icy water. Most, even heavily clothed, floundered to the dock but one girl called out for help. Mörton handed me his camera and gallantly pulled a cute blonde from the waves while I recorded it all. We deposited her on shore, retrieved the abandoned paddles, seats, hats and gloves then towed the capsized craft to the dock and headed for home laughing like madmen.
Back at the office Nirfalk looked at the photos, “You only save pretty girls, Mörton?”
“We let the ugly ones drown,” he deadpanned.
“Better pictures this way,” I added.
“Well, The City saves the day. Front page tomorrow. Andrew, you write the story, we’ll translate it into Swedish and you’ll get your Swedish byline. OK?”
“You got it,” I replied, sitting down at the i Mac.
I thought about my lead and took a drink of cold coffee. I typed a sentence, erased it and wrote a better one. I looked up. Lena smiled across the newsroom at me. I smiled back then finished my article. She finished hers. When we walked outside the nighttime streets of Malmo were shining with fresh fallen rain.

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