Editor’s note: This is one of 17 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “How Media Companies Embrace the Process of Innovation,” released in November.   

The story of Axel Springer’s Die Welt is one of innovation. Perhaps the most important condition for its change from print to digital media was that all the leading figures in the organisation were ready for innovation — on the editorial side as well as on the business side.

At Die Welt, every story is a digital one right from the beginning, presented in different ways and produced by different teams. Faster. 

In 2002, Die Welt committed to innovation and a digital transformation. In 2006, the company built the first fully integrated print-online-newsroom, where work took place according to the “online first” principle, greatly increasing its Web site traffic. It is now No. 1 among its competitors, up from No. 3. 

In 2012, Die Welt introduced the first payment model for digital offerings in Germany (today 40% of all of its subscribers are digital subscribers). That same year, it: 

  • Adopted an “online to print” structure.

  • Adapted its content management system to the new model.

  • Designed a new newsroom to be opened at the beginning of 2014.

But despite the “online first” strategy, editors still thought along the traditional lines of the print platform. The stories the media company published online were basically made for a printed newspaper, and they had printed newspaper timing as well. They were finished in the afternoon only — contrary to the needs of online users.

“Online first” was a good preparation for the path to full digitisation, but the newsroom had to get rid of all the old workflows of a printed newspaper to be successful in the digital world.

One part of that was building the new newsroom, to break with tradition and follow new principles. Moving to this newsroom also represented a fresh start and was the most important step to accelerate the change of mentality in the editorial team, says Jan-Eric Peters, editor in chief.

Peters outlines three steps Die Welt followed:

  1. The newsroom digitised its way of thinking: Digital media now determines the rhythm of the newsroom’s work. In daily meetings, staff doesn’t discuss “some random headline on page seven” of the newspaper, instead talking about the homepage story that will go up in an hour. The digital products have become better because the newsroom edits for digitals needs. 

  2. The newsroom is faster: Changes in the physical nature of the digital newsroom make the production process faster. It is easy to form new teams from different departments quickly. But the time gained is invested in doing a better job of editing existing stories, not simply producing more stories. 

  3. Even the printed edition profits: It’s obvious not every online story works for the printed newspaper. But media companies now have a larger content pool and a much wider variety of topics than before. The print team — 12 people — chooses what it needs. Printed editions have become more efficient because  they are produced by a small and specialised team, but still look pretty much the same.

    “We have not heard a single complaint from our readers so far,” Peters says. 

The newsroom now operates 24/7 in a modern, custom-built, three-speed space (digital, daily newspapers, weekly newspapers and magazines), with updates every few minutes for online, daily updates for print, and the weekly cycle of the Sunday newspapers.

1. The fastest pace: digital media

Digital media is the newspaper’s main focus, especially when covering live events. Stories are updated every few minutes.

2. Medium pace: daily print

Online flows into the print product. The print team is not allowed to assign stories. That prevents the printed newspaper from dominating the entire process again. 

3. The third pace: Sunday newspapers

They are the only products that don’t work in “online first” mode. Stories for the Sunday newspapers are exclusively researched and written for print. At some later stage, some of them will also appear on the Web site.

4. The fourth pace: Social media

The entire editorial team must focus on digital reporting. It needs to be in the center of their thinking — and ideally in the physical center of the newsroom as well. 

Peters believes the basis for long-term success is the radical focus on the demands of the digital readership without neglecting the economically relevant and complex production of the printed edition. 

This year, Die Welt is hiring more than 40 journalists for new tasks (especially video reporters, social media experts, investigative, and data reporters). The new model has contributed to a better economic situation as well an increased market share in advertising. Die Welt has transformed its editorial culture and developed a digital mindset. It has launched both new digital and print products.

In 2014, Die Welt purchased N24, a TV news channel that provides new storytelling opportunities. The next challenge, Peters says, is to integrate TV into the system and into the newsroom.

Peters makes these recommendations for those who are considering taking similar steps towards digitisation: 

1. Integrate. Do not allow print and online to compete. It is very important that all staff work together and share the same goal: producing the best possible results for the brand as a whole. The editor-in-chief and department heads must be responsible for all content, regardless of whether it’s print or online. Period. 

Hardware and software must be able to handle changing workflows. Die Welt spent almost two years re-thinking its content management system to make it fit changing needs. Today staff can work for both print and online from every single desk in the newsroom.

2. Be radical. While it is impossible to turn everything upside down at once in a large news organisation, in the end, evolution will not accomplish what must be accomplished. Take radical steps to get rid of the old habits and traditions. Keep in mind that new competitors such as Politico and BuzzFeed don’t have to deal with a tradition of printing. They can do whatever they want.

It really helps to reflect the changes in physical ways as well. The real breakthrough at Die Welt came only after the move to the new newsroom. Create a new environment where no one can avoid the new way of doing things.

3.  Communicate. If you do not want to lose your people on the way, you must convince them to go along with you. What does that mean? You must explain what you are doing and why you are doing it, again and again. Your staff needs to understand what’s going on. Die Welt’s experience was that the staff went along with the changes from the beginning because they knew then, and know now, that there is no reasonable alternati