Bold transformations at Diário de Notícias, Tamedia, Der Spiegel — and how they worked out

By Dawn McMullan

INMA

Dallas, Texas, USA

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Fail fast is not new advice. Of course, news media companies do not always need to fail ... but they can’t be afraid of it. This is especially true right now as the industry transforms to a reader revenue model. 

Three leaders at European newspapers shared a few hits and misses along their recent transformation journeys at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit. The big takeaway: Try ... keeping your connections to readers always top of mind.

Diário de Notícias’ print mistake

The first edition of Diário de Notícias came out in 1864 in Lisbon. Readers in Portugal are not subscribers; the business model has always been centered on the local news stand, explained Catarina Carvalho, the news media company’s editor-in-chief. Diário de Notícias was the second media company in the country to create a Web site. And, of course, it was free.

Then things went badly.

“We lost the connection with whoever could pay us,” she said.

Catarina Carvalho, editor-in-chief at Diário de Notícias, warned about prematurely ending print publications.
Catarina Carvalho, editor-in-chief at Diário de Notícias, warned about prematurely ending print publications.

So two years ago, she was invited to lead a team heading the company’s digital transformation. On the company’s 150th anniversary, it ended the paper edition on every day except Saturday.

“This was a very bold move, a very painful move,” she said. “But it was the decision of the management.”

To try keeping the daily connection to readers, editorial staff put out a daily false front page in a newsletter, published every day — even on print Saturdays.

“But the fact is, we did lose it,” Carvalho said about the connection to readers.

Trying to gain that connection back began in the newsroom. Editorial staff, brought in at the beginning of this process for feedback, pivoted quickly. Out of these changes came three shifts: a breaking news team, exclusive team, and follow-up team. The publishing schedule changed to reflect audience reading schedules. The company added a paywall (which wasn’t very successful because of the loss of the paper edition).

The company is finding its way but Carvalho has advice:

“If you are thinking of ending your paper edition, please think twice, three times, four times, seven times,” she said. “It’s a marketing tool. Every time you go on the stands and show your newspaper, you are showing it not only for people reading it, but for everybody else. It’s a powerful tool.” It takes time to transition an audience to digital editions.

Diário de Notícias is working to find its way back to its Lisbon readers as part of the Table Stakes project in Europe: “If we want to be a reader-focused newspaper, we once again have to reconnect with the city.”

Tamedia finds success with voluntary log-in page

Marc Isler, chief revenue officer/digital paid media at Tamedia, took the INMA audience back two decades.

“We had a fantastic situation. We knew all of our customers because we had their addresses. Every morning, we brought our product to them in their mailbox. They were fantastic times.”

Marc Isler, chief revenue officer/digital paid media at Tamedia, explains what log-in pages have done for digital engagement.
Marc Isler, chief revenue officer/digital paid media at Tamedia, explains what log-in pages have done for digital engagement.

Those times, obviously, are history. And today, Safari and Chrome have an 80% market share among Swiss users, controlling what news media publishers can do there with cookies (the Internet address of the times). Isler and his team sought ways to immediately identify more of Tamedia’s users, which are 66% of people in Switzerland.

“We changed from metering to premium in 2017,” he said. “Every journalist every day knows how many subscriptions they brought in with their articles. We came to nearly 90,000 subscribers last year and sold 250,000 day passes. So we know if we turn the right wheels, we can make something happen. We are happy about the growth and the number of subscribers. We’re reaching +50% revenue growth with every new goal but we think that will go down.”

In October, 2019, Tamedia started an optional log-in front page for free and premium articles. Registration is simple, requiring only an e-mail and password (the latter isn’t immediately required). This information isn’t used for marketing e-mails — it’s used for onboarding based on content history.

“We have so much content. We need to give people a broad view of the offer within a two-week period. Within these two weeks, we create a habit. After four to five times using our content within this two weeks, they converted to another trial offer or even a monthly subscription.”

Within three months:

  • The number of logged in users grew 10%.
  • The e-commerce conversion rate was six times higher.

Another help with the cookie situation has been a Swiss alliance of news media companies that created a single log-in technology and introductory marketing announcement to introduce it to readers. This creates a voluntary log-in wall for audiences of the companies.

Der Spiegel changes everything with premium product

Der Spiegel’s transformation started well into the company’s story. The publication started as a weekly news magazine in 1947 and became the first online magazine Web site in 1994. When the magazine couldn’t get past 60,000 subscribers, it decided to make a change.

Der Spiegel launched its premium model, Spiegel+, in May of 2018.

“That really changed everything for us,” said Wiebke Meeder, head of subscription growth.

Wiebke Meeder, head of subscription growth at Der Spiegel, shares the company's year of transformation.
Wiebke Meeder, head of subscription growth at Der Spiegel, shares the company's year of transformation.

From 2018 to 2019, subscriptions grew 57.4%.

Another change took place as the company changed from silos to networks, taking a step back to look at transformation at the organisational level. The magic came from a product development team that started a 90-minute conference every Thursday.

“This still happens,” Meeder said. “They talk about what they’ve done, about what’s going on next, what’s their timeline. They share goals.”

The team now has about 100 people from different teams throughout the company.

“We will never be finished,” she said. “The subscription business is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” 

About Dawn McMullan

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