Zeit Online took one lesson about implementing new media processes and products from The New York Times: drafting its own version of an innovation report to set the right tone and priorities for its digital publishing staff.

Beyond that, however, the way CEO Christian Röpke explained it on Monday afternoon, the Zeit Online strategy for “continuous innovation” borrows more from Nike: Just do it!

Christian Röpke explained how Zeit Online has completely embraced innovation in its company culture.
Christian Röpke explained how Zeit Online has completely embraced innovation in its company culture.

“People always ask me and I tell them there is no separate innovation process or innovation team,” Röpke said to the audience during INMA’s Media Innovation Week in Hamburg. “I’d say that innovation and growth are deeply ingrained in everyone at Zeit Online. Ideas are promoted by stakeholders and/or teams. We go agile, take the minimum-viable-product approach. And then, if it works, just build and build and build and build.”

At one point during his presentation to the more than 200 people from 25 countries attending the event, Röpke showed a picture of two large flip-chart pages filled with black marker scrawl outlining nearly two dozen product ideas. The lists came out of brainstorming sessions.

“And we’ve pursued every one of them in the past two to three years,” he added with obvious pride. “People have these ideas and … we make these things happen.”

The list included:

  • Gatherings for people of differing political views (nicknamed Tinder for politics).

  • Festivals for local Millennial visionaries.

  • A specialised job market and active matching service for young people transitioning from university academics into the commercial sector.

  • Podcasts of several varieties, including a crime podcast that draws thousands to live streaming events. “We really think podcasting is a great means of reaching people,” Röpke said.

  • A number of approaches to increasing Zeit Online’s reader-generated revenues.

Röpke noted at least two of the projects had been sufficiently successful to merit being presented as best practices in other sessions of the INMA conference this week.

He also noted some of the pitfalls Zeit Online has faced.

Some projects require a more venture capital/investment-based approach, especially when they require substantial technology.

“And we have no playground,” he said, where ideas can be fine-tuned before being dropped into the real world to succeed or fail.

The idea of “failing fast” — to clear the road of weak ideas so that new projects and experiments can be tried — gets stalled by decision-making that can take too long.

And then, Röpke said, there is the basic fact in the media space these days that new business models appear so suddenly and grow so quickly that the company’s internal organisation cannot evolve fast enough to manage them well.

Veera Siivonen explained the impact Helsingin Sanomat’s “Land of the Free Press” campaign had across the world.
Veera Siivonen explained the impact Helsingin Sanomat’s “Land of the Free Press” campaign had across the world.

In addition to Röpke’s comments during the final session on Monday of Media Innovation Week, the INMA audience got a recap on Helsingin Sanomat’s “Land of the Free Press” campaign, which won the Finnish publisher the INMA Global Media Awards Best in Show award this year.

The project confronted U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin with hundreds of billboards and headlines challenging their harsh criticism and tough treatment of news media they brand as unsupportive. Marketing director Veera Siivonen said the signage blanketed the leaders’ motorcade routes from the Helsinki airport into the city in July 2018 for a summit. 

The campaign sparked an international conversation about the role of the free press, reaching more than 1.2 billion people and generating more than 2,500 articles in 47 countries and more than 1 million social interactions. Google Trends data suggests a massive spike in interest about the free press, and hundreds of news organisations around the world joined an effort to support a free press.