Everything about Germany’s Die Zeit is decidedly different. The legacy brand, a weekly broadsheet, is “unwieldy,” says Zeit Online Editor in Chief Jochen Wegner – with detailed, longform articles running over multiple pages. Yet just last month it was voted best designed newspaper in the world by the Society for News Design in New York – for the 15th time.

Brand offshoots, too, are different. Individual podcasts, for instance, are unusually lengthy – hours long. In fact: “Our record episode is nine hours and 20 minutes,” adds Wegner. Yet: “Today, we publish 25 formats and are the market leader in downloads, recording around 20 million downloads per month – the most popular being News, and What Now.”

Wegner detailed Die Zeit’s “unusual” successes as he outlined “the slowest newsroom transformation in history” at a World Editors Forum session during WAN-IFRA’s recent World News Media Congress.

 “We still haven’t transformed at all,” he admits, citing perhaps the biggest difference of all – its structure: it has two different locations for print (Hamburg) and digital (Berlin) newsrooms, separated by a two-hour train ride. Its editorial teams are separate too, with each operation led by an independent Editor in Chief.

This year, 20 years after The New York Times merged its print and online teams, Die Zeit is finally, slowly, following suit, says Wegner. “At the end of last year, for the first time in our nearly 80-year history, we all gathered in person to discuss our shared future.”

Die Zeit’s winning entry in Best Designed Newspaper in the World category. The Judges comments: ‘This is print storytelling at its very best. Every move made by the team at DIE ZEIT is rooted in intentional decision-making, restraint and surprise.’ Source: The Society for News Design

‘Anders Anders’: daring, differently

Die Zeit has grown its paid circulation by 40% over the past two decades. Print circulation has, in recent years, been falling, “but rather slowly.”

 ‘We now operate the most profitable medium for digital reader revenue in Germany. This is due to the fact that our digital subscription, against recommendations, costs exactly the same as the print subscription. There’s no discount.’

Wegner has been steering Zeit Online since 2013, and a member of Die Zeit’s editorial board since 2019. He gets to the crux of a newsroom transformation characterised largely in terms of the scale of its growth – at a time when newsrooms have been fighting to survive.

‘The central reasons are probably somewhat simple: they lie in a certain way in which we understand journalism, and they are based on the fact that we have often done the opposite of what we were advised to do.’

Their marketing slogan, Anders Anders (different), signals: ”This site is different.”

Bucking trends – and setting records

Die Zeit never stopped investing in, and maintaining, their print portfolio – and still doesn’t have an online-first policy, says Wegner. Yet its newsroom has a reputation for being innovative: “Of course, we have AI projects; we built a lot of AI features ourselves – but these are probably not the main reasons for our growth.”

What they did do…

Invested in digital-only editorial teams: “Our online team has grown almost five-fold over the past 10 years.”
“Massively expanded” the data journalism team since the pandemic: “Data journalism is the most important pillar for our subscription growth.”
Established various purely digital departments: “Science, medicine, we work family psychology, personal finance and even cooking.”
Expanded digital magazine journalism: “Most recently with Zeit Unboxing and Zeit Weekend.”

‘Tinder for politics’ – building communities with NextGen events

Wegner attributes Die Zeit’s digital growth to its political impartiality, and its core identity of being so open to discussion that they never restricted or limited reader comments: “Each week we actively review around 80 to 100,000 user comments on the site.”

This has generated an increasingly loyal community. “Friends of Zeit, the exclusive subscriber community, is 350 000 members strong, “and they really show up at our events,” says Wegner.

“We have come to understand, as Jeff Jarvis would say, that we are not actually in the business of selling information. Anyone who subscribes to the site becomes a part of something bigger.”

This was proven in 2016, when they set out to launch  Z2X, their first ‘Ideas Festival’ in Berllin, to commemorate Zeit Online’s 20th anniversary.

The aim was to invite 1 000 20- to 29-year-olds to discuss topical issues.

“Tens of thousands took part in the first test; since then, hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries have participated,” says Wegner.

See his Ted Talk on the experience of pairing dissenting strangers to talk politics.

Plan D: Seeking solutions

Several highly successful spin-off events followed: My Country Talks is now an award-winning non-profit organisation that “helps societies around the world to connect over the issues that divide them.”

The fourth iteration of Europe Talks, launched in 2018, is underway, as is Project Plan D, which was piloted last month.

“It’s just starting and while we are still in the test phase, we collected more than 3 000 problems and 400 solutions. Now we are bringing people together, and will probably organise a problem-solving festival.”

SEE: Does Contact Reduce Affective Polarization? Field Evidence from Germany is a 2023 study by economists Adrian Blattner of Stanford University and Martin Koenen of Harvard University that found that just one My Country Talks conversation between political opposites can significantly reduce affective polarisation. 

The post How Die Zeit’s go-slow strategy defied the odds appeared first on WAN-IFRA.