This article was originally published on the TSE Best Practice Showcase, WAN-IFRA’s resource centre that features case studies from Table Stakes Europe on how to accelerate the transition from print to digital, reach new audiences and better engage your local communities. All case studies included in the TSE Best Practice Showcase are available in English, French, German and Spanish.

By Hannes Vollmuth,
Senior Editor for Digital Strategy and Innovation, Süddeutsche Zeitung

We had barely started when the anomaly emerged.

The SZ Table Stakes team – four editors, two designers, one analyst – was eager to learn from the program. We were impressed by the methodology, the From-Tos, the Power Opinion Matrix, and the framework of audiences-first journalism executed through experiments and learning. We loved the tools, the trainers, and the spirit of the program.

But we hit a wall when we tried to apply what we learned to our newsroom. No matter who we approached, we could hardly get anyone to agree to an experiment. Whenever we suggested specific ideas after a workshop session, the desks, the teams, the editors backed off. And there we were, stuck with all the Table Stakes theory.

Inventing the SZ Abo (subscriptions) Shop

We didn’t realise what was going on until a couple of months later, in March, when the 2023 cohort of Table Stakes Europe met in Brussels. At the start of every transformation, of every Table Stakes challenge, there is the need for dissatisfaction. Without the recognition that you have a problem with the status quo – no transformation.

By March 2023, the SZ had reached 250,000 digital subscribers: a big success. But there was a problem hiding behind these subscriber numbers. Our brand is strong, our digital products are good, and we have already achieved a lot in terms of being digital-first. But we hadn’t yet made it to audiences-first. In other words, our newsroom was quite comfortable writing for a general SZ readership – now with digital tools and workflows.

Then, in Brussels, the head coach Doug Smith said something very important to us: “You are the SZ Abo Shop.” And he explained why.

There are four ways to get people to participate in a cause:

The boss tells you, that you have to (the classic way)
A team dynamic makes it possible (the emotional way)
A group follows it scuriosity (the avant-garde way)
A team buy sin because it gets something in return (the quid pro quo way)

The last way was (and still is) our way. Quid pro quo. Like a business. So we went into business – and “opened” the SZ Abo Shop. (Abo is short for “abonnement,” German for “subscription.”)

What did we do as SZ Abo Shop? Simply put: Reaching out to desks, teams or just editors and asking them if they would be interested in growing an audience for their content. We didn’t have a magic wand for success with digital subscribers, but we do have a framework that works.

Going into business: The Technology Desk

One of our earliest “clients” – alongside the Political Book-section and the Education team – was the Technology Desk, a team of editors who covered artificial intelligence and had been working hard since ChatGTP went live.

We had a 15-minute meeting where we explained what we could offer them and what we needed in return, namely some time and some content – that was our price tag, so to speak.

After that, we had two more short calls where we agreed on how much time and effort they would pour into this first experiment – you could call it a brief negotiation phase. Finally, we decided to do a 45-minute (!) workshop where we worked on the following five topics:

Which SZ audience did we want to reach with AI related content in this experiment?
What user needs did this group have? (educate me, help me)
Which format was suitable for these user needs (Explainer)
How much content do we want to give them per week (1 piece) and what was the angle of each?
What is the deadline and length for every piece (something that in our editorial department is usually decided at the very beginning and not at the end of each assignment – in other words, in exactly the opposite order compared to us).

Once we had the piece, we edited and produced it – taking care of every single curation aspect on all possible platforms by talking to the editors of the homepage, and the people in charge of the social media desk and the newsletter.

The result was: a five-fold increase in subscriber reads – compared to the average tech article. And when we then refined our method even further: a seven-fold increase.

In the end, one reporter gave us one of the most beautiful blurbs we got in our SZ Abo Shop year: “The text would never have been written like this. … I have a vague picture of an average SZ persona in mind, whose interests and level of knowledge I orient myself to. The fact that our readers are much more diverse and that it’s also worthwhile to address specific audiences is something I rarely take into account.”

The SZ Abo Shop Service list

This was the SZ Abo Shop approach at its best: You could use our services, but you didn’t have to. However, it was hard to resist. Especially because the service came in different package sizes. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things we offered and did with various internal “clients,” always with the goal of creating audience-first content that would increase readership.

Workshops on audiences and userneeds
Data analytics services
Content development
Format development
Editing, production and curation
Stakeholder management
Lessons learned sessions
Inspiration and material on audiences and audiences’ needs in all forms
Support and change consulting

For the most part, the teams that took part in an experiment had great successes to celebrate. The articles and stories, which were created for the experiment, were so well received by the different SZ audiences that at the end of the year we had to say to new, potential teams: “Take your time and consider whether this approach would be something for you, but bear in mind we are almost fully booked.”

What the SZ Abo Shop struggled with

One thing about the SZ Abo Shop should not be overlooked. It is a rather unusual, quite exhausting way to be in the transformation business – with many highs, but also some lows. Here is another non-exhaustive list of our challenges:

Some editorial teams and editors weren’t interested in our service, often because they were involved in other change projects
Some accepted our service, then hesitated and finally declined
One-off deals were not sustainable
The excitement about our product – audience-first experiments – was always high at the beginning. But the cost – time and content – discouraged some editors and reporters.
Scaling our client base was very slow, the take-off only happened after 10-11 months


However, quid pro quo is a tool that every transformation leader should have on their workbench. Our SZ Abo Shop worked! It should not be the only way to push a newsroom towards an audiences-first mindset in the long term, but it is especially effective in the kick-off phase and for specific teams and desks.

At the end of our SZ Abo Shop year, we talked to our editor-in-chief about our experiences (another pitch). He understood right away and proposed that two desks should work with this framework in 2024. This wouldn’t be a quid pro quo anymore, this would be: The boss wants you to do it.

Maybe that was our biggest business deal: turning the SZ Abo Shop into an institution.


This article is an extract from “Change agents: Using audience needs to unlock digital transformation,” our report based on the 2023 round of Table Stakes Europe (TSE), a WAN-IFRA programme in partnership with the Google News Initiative, in which 24 news publishers undertook specific change management initiatives to address key challenges in their digital transformation journeys.

The report is available free for download in English, French, German and Spanish Here.

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