Braving an early train ride and constant rain, participants in the two-day, dual-city INMA study tour left Hamburg and pressed on to Berlin as part of INMA’s Media Innovation Week. Visits to Funke Mediengruppe, Axel Springer, Deutsche Press-Agentur (DPA), and t-online.de by the 33 news media executives revealed a variety of approaches to success in the Berlin and German media markets.

Funke Mediengruppe: Data-driven newsroom

At Funke’s central office, Carsten Erdmann, head of digital transformation, described Berlin as a competitive, fragmented media market. There are six local newspapers, three national dailies with a Berlin section, four regional subway papers, and three weekly free sheets for a population of 3.5 million.

No brand has managed to position themselves as a leader for the whole population, Erdmann said.

Study tour participants learn how the Funke Mediengruppe newsroom uses data dashboards.
Study tour participants learn how the Funke Mediengruppe newsroom uses data dashboards.

“I think Berlin’s media landscape is very dynamic,” he said. “Anyone visiting again in some years will find a totally different landscape, I think.”

To power its position in the market, Funke, like most publishers, is trying to build data into its decision-making processes. To manage content, Funke relies on dashboards to understand how articles perform. Embedding data junkies with a deep understanding of journalism is crucial, Marie-Louise Timcke, head of the interactive team, said.

“Bundling this know-how in the newsroom can have the advantage beyond content generation,” she said.

Timcke’s team is working on data-driven stories and interactives. Recently, the team embarked on a project to better understand what topics are performing well in terms of reaching audiences, driving conversion, and increasing retention. Funke evaluated its content by keywords in articles appearing in each category, then broke those clusters down by cross-topic marker words. Instead of evaluating content by broad clusters, like crime, the algorithms grouped articles that mention keywords like “police” or “illegal.”

Inspired by a previous INMA Study Tour to Amedia, Timcke then created a topic-modeling algorithm to map the frequency of these content clusters in relation to how many articles in those clusters are read. This reveals what audiences are interested on a deeper, more actionable level.

Funke can now inform editors where they may want to increase or decrease content production, prompting a re-evaluation of its portfolio. These categories are not broad, like sports, but break down into soccer, soccer gossip, or interviews with soccer players. The algorithm did not produce actionable results in the beginning, Timcke said, but it has improved with constant iteration. The efforts are worth it, she added: “For us this kind of approach is helping us get closer to our readers and better perform in reach, paid-content, and retention.” 

This data-modeling experiment is one of many digital initiatives at the company. Funke Digital began five years ago at a time where there was no clear path for digital development. The company-wide disconnect was expensive, Stephan Thurm, chief digital officer, said. Funke Digital now spearheads the development and management of the publishing platform, products, and investments. More than 13 acquisitions have helped Funke build capabilities that support innovation in its core business.

Digital initiatives attempt to support Funke’s efforts to remain competitive. Funke wants to remain local heroes in a market where the threats are not limited to news media companies but also Google and Facebook, Thurm said.

When most publishers were moving toward fully paid-content strategies, Funke split its efforts between its traditional brand portal and a new, free reach portal. Executives were hesitant, concerned a free portal would canniblise Funke’s audience and revenue. Funke was already losing its position in the market and ad revenue that comes with that.

That was not the case, Thurm said. Now, two-thirds of the company’s traffic comes from the reach portal while the brand portal is still growing its audience. Funke has retained its market status: “We are still a local hero.”

Axel Springer: Continued digital growth

Sitting in the famous Journalists’ Club at the top of the Axel Springer building, Lars-Broder Keil explained that the company’s namesake and founder chose the location, across the street from the Berlin Wall, partly as a nod to its history as a publishing district — but also because he was convinced Berlin would again be united. A new building is now being built directly on the historic wall line.

“Today our new house is being built directly on the Death Strip,” Keil said. “This building is a statement on the future of our business.”

Among the details study tour participants learned at Axel Springer: The company sends a daily newsletter to editorial staff that includes digital engagement scores.
Among the details study tour participants learned at Axel Springer: The company sends a daily newsletter to editorial staff that includes digital engagement scores.

Under current leadership, Axel Springer is setting a goal to be the world’s largest news media company in the world in the next 10 years. In terms of audience scale, daily tabloid Bild is already on its way. At 450,000 paid subscriptions, Bild ranks as the fourth largest in the world, Patrick Markowski, chief managing editor said. Bild sells 1.5 million print copies per day, surpassing most titles around the world.

In terms of publishing strategy, Axel Springer’s Welt puts digital first. Welt never saves exclusive stories for print, Oliver Michalsky, editor-in-chief, said: “We know what is growing, and we also know what is not growing.”

To optimise engagements, Welt sends a daily newsletter to editorial staff that includes to scores around engagement: free articles and plus articles. The latter is again divided, measuring how successful an article was in converting subscribers and another measung how subscribers interact with articles. Michalsky said they learn from this data every day.

“There is a big difference between articles that are very much triggering and other articles that make subscribers happier,” Michalsky said.

Springer actually predicted the rise of digital, Lars-Broder Keil told participants in the Journalists’ Club. In 1969, Springer was certain that mass information would be readily available. In 1981, he said printed products will be less important “very soon.”

“That’s the reality today, and Axel Springer has been proved right,” Keil said.

Deutsche Press-Agentur: Focus on fact checking

Stefan Voss, chief verification officer at DPA, made a prediction about journalists: Fact-checking and outing deepfakes is their new job.

“It’s our work, but I think it’s the job of the journalists of the future,” Voss said. “We can be first, yes, but we need to be first to be right.”

Fact checking is a key part of the job at DPA.
Fact checking is a key part of the job at DPA.

DPA requires every member of its staff to monitor everything relevant on platforms. The company is a paid fact-checking partner for Facebook and also uses a verification unit and the RADAR framework in its fact-checking strategy. Reducing false information on the Internet is journalistic in nature and it requires teamwork. Deepfakes are especially difficult to address, Voss said, but it is important work.

“Deepfakes are difficult,” Voss said. “It is real difficult. I would like to tell you we know everything about deepfakes, but we don’t. But we are trained, we are training more people, we are getting external training. Deepfakes is one of the challenges of journalism because who in the future will debunk deepfakes. It won’t be YouTube. It won’t be the police. It will be us, because that is our work, and I guess we should be paid for that.”

t-online.de: Free content

At the only purely digital media brand of the day, t-online.de shared an aspect that makes its business model different: focus on free content, not a paid content strategy.

“We definitely are a journalist brand, but our platform is an advertising platform for advertisers,” Daniel Fersch, head of news, said.

The focus at t-online.de is on free content.
The focus at t-online.de is on free content.

That does not mean the company is unconcerned with maximising the potential of its content. Over the past two years, the company has been focused on building data tools that support content optimisation. The algorithms are not measuring reach, but are instead focused on quality, Bjorn Schumacher, head of audience development, said. Quality is measured by bounce rate, exit rate, and reading time.

A Slackbot, built in-house and named Buddy, helps editors participate in the journey of the content, Schumacher said. Buddy lets them know if an article’s bounce rate is high or if readers comment on an article so the editors can participate. Keeping editors in the loop is crucial to success, Schumacher said.

“This helps that every editor knows everything about the success an article had, and it helps that everyone wants to do the best to optimise the content.”