By Fernando Belzunce, Editor in Chief, Vocento, Spain
He joined the Süddeutsche Zeitung when the large Bavarian daily had hardly any tradition of investigative journalism. Twenty years later, the newspaper he runs with Judith Wittver is a world authority on the subject after the publication of dozens of scandals, some with great international impact, such as the ‘Panama Papers’. Wolfgang Krach, an expert in the field, is proud of this turnaround as he shares his concerns about the dizzying reorganisation being tackled by the major international media. His newspaper is the largest in Germany and probably in Europe, with 500 journalists, about 40 foreign correspondents and more than 400,000 subscribers who follow its daily developments. Krach is following with concern the war in Ukraine and the tremendous consequences in his country, and is looking forward to the return of his staff, who have been teleworking since the pandemic, to the central editorial office in Munich.
-You run the newspaper that many German journalists dream of working for one day. How do you manage to maintain this attraction?
–Süddeutsche Zeitung is a very seductive brand. I worked for years at the magazines Stern and Der Spiegel and I have never experienced such a strong identification with a brand and product. The working culture is very good. The employees are very proud because they know it is the best newspaper.
-Two years ago, 35 people were made redundant.
-The economic projections coming out of the pandemic were bad and the owners decided to cut those jobs. It was clearly a mistake. Our newsroom, like so many, is in transition and in this situation you know you need people with new skills. It may be normal to address some replacements, but you can’t just make cuts.
-What did you do?
-Months after the layoffs we managed to convince the owners that downsizing was a problem and that we had to hire. We gave very concrete examples of what we were losing by not bringing in these profiles and what we could gain. Otherwise, we would not be able to do what we have to do at the newspaper. So far this year, 50 new professionals have been hired. This is quite good.
-What kind of journalists have you recruited?
-They have different skills. Three or four years ago we had hardly any professionals to do sound journalism, visual investigations, interactive developments, open source or artificial intelligence approaches. We had a small but insufficient team. This is a business based on quality. And quality requires resources.
-Do you get the same quality with most of the editorial staff still working from home?
-Teleworking works better than I expected, but we want journalists to come back to the newsroom because the exchange of ideas and emotions doesn’t work. The creativity of our journalistic work is suffering. Journalism sometimes emerges in a casual conversation in a corridor. And there are many casual conversations and many corridors in a newsroom. Brainstorming is at the core of our creative process and the optimal space is our central newsroom. I hope to see progress in a few days.
-Are there no conversations in video conferences?
-Conversation through Zoom doesn’t work. They are set meetings and we notice that the context changes. There is less sharing, people can be more aggressive and the discussions are completely different.
-The pandemic did at least lead to a sharp increase in subscriptions.
-When the pandemic started we already had a very strong science section, so we did extremely good coverage of the virus and its consequences. We have a team of about ten people, some of whom have backgrounds in medicine, physics, chemistry, biochemistry and geology. From the beginning we published articles on our website that nobody else had in Germany. The readership skyrocketed and so did the number of subscribers we got. In the last two years we have gained almost 100,000 new digital subscribers.
-Didn’t they unsubscribe after the pandemic?
-We kept them. We didn’t experience the same situation as The Washington Post after Donald Trump left the White House, when their subscriptions dropped. We are still at a very high level of subscriptions and we are still growing. Slowly, but we are still growing. To be honest, I do fear that they are going to fall, but not because of our news coverage, but because of the economic situation in Germany as a result of the war in Ukraine.
-What are your plans for the paper in the coming years?
-We want to remain the best newspaper in Germany. That’s easy to say, but it’s a huge ambition. We have to think about where to invest in the newsroom because it is too big and I don’t think it will grow any bigger.
-Where do you see room for improvement?
-We have to strengthen our offer at the weekend because we see that there is a great desire to read, also in digital. We also see that the interest in popular science topics is not only maintained, but increasing. There is a boom in science in a very broad sense. We must explain in a very rigorous way issues that have an impact on us, such as climate change, or the relationship between food and disease. We also need to boost political coverage and, of course, research issues are crucial. We will continue to invest heavily in them.
-Your newspaper is a world reference in this field.
-That’s true, but there is something very important. We have managed to create this spirit of vigilance and tireless pursuit of information step by step. It didn’t exist before. We made a spectacular leap when we published our big exclusive on the ‘Panama Papers’ in 2016. It was a story of worldwide impact, a global money laundering scheme, and many other media amplified it.
-How do you approach these issues?
-We have two principles. We absolutely protect our sources and we don’t hesitate to investigate the most complicated issues. People who want to report irregularities trust us, so they come to us and many issues arise. On the other hand, apart from social whistleblowing, we have a team dedicated to tracking down issues that we think it is important to investigate.
-Do the new professional profiles you have incorporated improve the traditional investigation capacity?
-Absolutely. This mix of classic journalists, so to speak, and specialised professionals is spectacular. Data journalists have managed to extract key information, as have programmers. In the case of visual researchers, who are able to check the veracity of audiovisual material, their work is proving decisive in the coverage of the war in Ukraine. New ways of investigating things are emerging, new problems are being found and new solutions are being proposed that we didn’t count on before.
-How do you combine your local focus with the national and international dimensions?
-We are the only newspaper in Germany that is local and national and for me it’s perfect. We have two legs. We have about 100 journalists for local coverage, which is very strong in the Bavarian region, and at the same time we have a global perspective. Our reader has the most comprehensive offer possible.
-Do you consider your international coverage to be truly differential?
-We think so. We don’t want to reduce our correspondents because it is extremely important to get our own information. The war in Ukraine reflects the importance of having had correspondents there before it broke out. It is vital to have someone to generate your own news. We are looking for journalists who know Russian and Chinese precisely to strengthen our qualitative coverage in highly newsworthy areas.
-How do you work to maintain the quality attributes of the masthead in what you offer in different formats and media?
-This is a very important issue and we have not solved it. It is a work in progress, to put it kindly. It is crucial that the professionals who, for example, work in social media have been trained as journalists in our newsroom. We must have the same quality standards, but with adaptations to the language of those networks. It is not easy but we have to try.
-Do you think social networks are good for journalists?
-I don’t have Twitter or Instagram. But I know it is important for many journalists to have a presence on social media. The response they get for their work is very quick. Still, social media dwarfs the world. They are bubbles. The danger is that journalists take Twitter as a reality.
-Do they influence some decisions too much?
-Certainly. When reactions on Twitter to a news item are very fast and aggressive, there is a risk of ending up being conditioned by a certain climate of opinion. You have to know how to wait.
-How do you prepare your professionals for the future?
-The selection of journalists and the training we give them has changed completely in the last ten years. Before, the main criterion for choosing a journalist was whether he or she wrote well. They all received the same two-year training in the newsroom. Now we look for professionals with specialised knowledge and they are trained in related skills. We look for specialists in data, audio, video, programming, local journalism …. .
-Does the editor also need different skills now?
-I think the role of the director has changed completely. It used to be that one of the best reporters in the newsroom was chosen. That’s still an important criterion, but now you also need to understand technology, data, social media, audiovisual storytelling and even human resources. Before, you didn’t need all that. A director must now be the leader of a transformation process that never ends. And it is not just a journalistic task. It is also a big management task to move an organisation with 500 people to an unknown extent.
-You form an unusual professional partnership with Judith Wittwer, with whom you share the management of the newspaper. How do you work together?
-It’s a great solution for running a newsroom like ours. We have separated some tasks and, for example, I manage the areas of Research, Business, Sports and the team dedicated to the audience. But we are both responsible for everything. Any boss can consult you. It’s an unusual model, I understand, but it works.
-You’ll have a very close relationship.
-Yes. We talk about ten times a day. It’s a very, very trusting relationship. It only works when you give the other person the opportunity to decide something on their own and you take that decision as your own. We discuss a lot of things, but there are decisions that can’t wait and that one has to make only at a specific moment. We both know that whatever decision the other person makes is right.
-Why did you want to become a journalist?
-Because I was curious. I was very curious. I thought that being a journalist gave me the opportunity to meet people and have experiences that were impossible to have in another profession. It also has to do with the language skills that are intrinsic to this profession. I am passionate about literature.
This interview, first published in ABC and El Correo in Spain, is republished in English with permission.
The author, Fernando Belzunce, Editor in Chief of Vocento Group, is a Board Member of the World Editors Forum.
The image is by NATALIE ISSER / SZ
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