Die Zeit’s paper and online editions are better off as independent entities, said Wolfgang Blau, editor of Zeit Online. The weekly print paper is run out of Hamburg, while the website is based in Berlin. Blau was speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, on a panel on the future of weeklies.
Many European newspapers are moving towards a more integrated structure, but Blau argued that the culture and reporting structures are different in print and online, and hence it makes sense to keep them somewhat separate, although of course with collaboration between the two. As the paper’s circulation is growing and revenue is still going up, the approach seems to be working for Die Zeit.
One third of Die Zeit's editors frequently contribute articles written exlusively for Zeit Online, Blau said, a number which is much higher than at the paper’s competitors. The Economist’s website, for example, is full of content produced by the print journalists, who embrace the opportunity to write blog posts and more, said the paper’s social media editor Mark Johnson.
Five of Zeit Online’s editors are based in Hamburg with the print team to make sure that there is enough cooperation between the two sides of the publication, and make sure that the two are not producing duplicate interviews, for example.
Zeit Online was rebuilt in 2008 and editors had to consider what their priorities were in the digital sphere, Blau said. With just 100 million German speakers worldwide, the potential audience was limited, he added, and therefore the clear challenge was how to become a primary medium online, where people could find breaking news each day, while staying true to the paper’s long-form roots.
Die Zeit, found that for its audience, as a quality weekly, the paper stands for a high threshold of relevance, Blau explained. Its readers know that its content is highly relevant and there is no “news noise.” It is also appreciated for its sharp design, critical rather than cynical journalism, and strong liberal position, he said.
“None of these qualities are bound to paper or to a weekly rhythm,” said Blau, and Die Zeit realized that its digital offering could and should be consistent with all.
The paper’s site now has 4.7 million unique visitors, and 40% of these are under 29, Blau said. As previously reported, rather than building separate apps for smartphones and tablets, Die Zeit has created an HTML5 app that works in a browser.
Online, Die Zeit encourages reader interaction in the form of commenting, and comments are frequently of a high quality. “Sometimes they are longer than articles, and sometimes they are better!” Blau said.
The single most important element in promoting constructive, civilized discussion online is the involvement of editors in the discussions. “There is always surprise when an editor participates,” Blau said, and even incredulity. Editors’ contributions are branded differently so that readers know they are genuine, and they have profile pages on the website so it’s clear how much they contribute.
Zeit Online is not yet profitable in itself, Blau said, be he expects to reach profit soon, with revenue up 60% last year compared with the year before. He stressed that, although editorial and business should remain largely separate concerns, editors should understand the business of online advertising if they are to succeed on the web.
Hear more from Wolfgang Blau about the advantages of keeping independent print and online newsrooms at the International Newsroom Summit in Hamburg, 10-11 May.
Correction: This article orginally stated "One third of Zeit Online editors write only for the web". In fact, it should read "one third of Die Zeit's editors frequently contribute articles written exclusively for Zeit Online".