Funke Mediengruppe fights for good journalism, regardless the platform, with 4 strategies

By Julia Becker

Funke Mediengruppe

Berlin, Germany

These are great times for good journalism. This is partly because of current circumstances; the ongoing accumulation of seemingly never-ending crises makes people desperate for reliable information.

However, it is also directly related to digital transformation.

It is increasingly clear that sustainable digital business models in journalism are based on quality. Users are only willing to pay for news products online if they receive real added value: exclusive news, in-depth background reports, cleverly structured content, useful services, and intelligent entertainment.

Our data analyses show that the vast majority of our users want carefully researched and well-prepared stories.

For example, we were surprised that reporting on the arts and culture is in particular demand in some of our regional titles. Reviews of theatre productions or musical events interest many readers, especially if these reviews are well-written and published shortly after the performance — ideally within a couple of hours. For this, many people are willing to take out subscriptions.

We have also learned that our users expect topics that we have not addressed in the past. And they want them to be reported on differently than before.

Users want to be kept updated on news but also want to see events and topics covered differently than in the past.
Users want to be kept updated on news but also want to see events and topics covered differently than in the past.

For example, for decades, in Bad Segeberg near Hamburg, the Karl-May festival has drawn crowds of thousands during the summer. In the print-only era, we used to report in our Hamburger Abendblatt at the start of the festival, perhaps taking stock after a few weeks, and concluding at the end on how successful the season was.

Now our editors report continuously on the event, introducing the actors playing characters like Winnetou, Old Shatterhand, and Nscho-tschi, discussing specific events, letting readers hear from the audience, and using pictures, video, and audio in addition to text.

This form of reporting has been a tremendous success, and our digital colleagues report on how the topic is trending. Our reporting satisfies the readers’ interest that we now (finally!) know of.

Digital transformation opens up vast opportunities for us. However, there is still a long way to go before we can really take advantage of all of its possibilities.

These two strategies are what is important right now to foster good journalism into the future:

1. We need a clear strategic focus on digital products and consistent digital transformation

This much is clear: The future of journalism is mainly digital. You only need to look at the media consumption habits of our children. Do any of them still read a printed newspaper?

In the digital world, we need to be data-driven, although not data-obsessed. It is about tailoring content to the interests of readers while choosing topics our journalists believe are relevant. This strategy also means always learning and constantly rethinking, readjusting, and trying things out. Digital transformation is a great time for innovators!

At Funke, we call this strategy “user first.” Ultimately, however, it is about “subscription first.” We need the loyalty, dedication, and subscriptions of our users to finance good journalism in the future.

For example, our local markets play a central role in our regional coverage. We maintain around 100 local newsrooms because we know how important local presence is in the regions. (It is precisely this local presence that makes local and regional journalism so time- and resource-intensive.)

We regard each local newsroom as an individual market. That’s because people in Hamburg-Blankenese tick differently and have different expectations and habits than those in Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr, or Olpe in the Sauerland, or in hip Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Analysing these individual markets in detail and addressing them with appropriately tailored measures is the key lever for accelerating digital transformation in our regional media and raising it to the next level.

Focusing on news teams at the local level allows Funke Mediengruppe to approach markets differently and find what each one needs.
Focusing on news teams at the local level allows Funke Mediengruppe to approach markets differently and find what each one needs.

In this approach, local editorial teams are accompanied and closely supported by a coaching team for several months. The focus is on the consistent orientation of content and sales based on the interests and needs of users.

The close specialist support in the areas of online, data analysis, SEO, social media, and sales provide the editorial teams with additional orientation. Editorial teams are motivated by the positive impact, which usually sets in quickly. They reach a larger audience with their content, and that is what every journalist wants. Users access the content on a more regular basis.

Our success is encouraging: Market penetration is growing and the number of users we call “fans” — those who access our content more than 20 times a month — is increasing. All this has a positive effect on subscription figures. This is the right approach and, as we now know, is also sustainable. It lets us increase our subscription rates over longer periods of time.

2. We need smart concepts for the transitional period we find ourselves in

Many people still want only the print version or do not have access to digital media. We don’t want to lose these readers but rather keep them as long as we can. And we cannot afford to lose them either, because ultimately they are the ones who are financing the digital transformation.

Despite the focus on the digital products that the future belongs to, we must not neglect print. Printed newspapers should not be regarded as a waste product but must continue to be produced as a format with great passion and a drive for high quality.

Otherwise, we are not only squandering a great heritage, but we are also endangering our future. Print-based journalism is indeed finite. The task is now to build a bridge between print and digital. In this context, the e-paper plays an important role as a bridging medium.

I am increasingly aware of two cultures in our group — those who are fully digitally focused and those who cling to the printed product, even if they know and fully work toward a future for journalism that is digital.

We have to do everything we can to avoid a culture war. This is above all a leadership task.

Good leadership in digital transformation means building bridges, bringing together the strengths of the respective cultures (“leading together” would be a good motto), and using them to produce the highest-quality journalism.

Good leadership should never forget journalists are one thing above all: producers of content — no matter where it is displayed. This is why it isn’t difficult to bring together the “mental furniture” of editors who tick digitally and of editors who tick in print. Together, they create exactly the kind of power we need to lead good journalism into the future.

3. We have to invest in the quality of our media

We’ve seen that our products are only in demand if they meet the high and specific demands of our users, especially in the digital space. I’ve already said a few things about this. For good journalism that people are willing to pay for, we need the brightest minds, the cleverest sleuths, the most talented storytellers, the smartest analysts, and the bravest commentators.

Whoever says “subscriptions first” must also say “best content first.”

This includes becoming more diverse, more female, and younger in our editorial teams and content, and moving closer to the lived experience of our users.

At Funke, we have accomplished a great deal in recent years, but are still some way from reaching our goals. Nevertheless, the majority of our management team is female, more and more women are moving into leadership positions, and the number of employees with a migrant background is increasing.

I have come to think that digital transformation is only possible with diversity. Testosterone plays a noticeably subordinate role, and old-boy networks and political infighting take a back seat. It’s simply not about gender, background, or sexual orientation — it’s all about expertise, content, business management, and technology. And, where possible, a combination of all of these.

When I picture the ideal central editorial office, I think of journalistic, technological, and entrepreneurial expertise working in tandem to lead the medium, ideally headed by an individual who combines all three fields.

4. Last but not least, we need the best technology; without it, all our efforts are in vain

The profession of journalism has always been linked to technology — just think of the development of printing, without which there would have been no journalism. In the digital age, however, journalists themselves need to be increasingly familiar with technology to be able to develop and display their text, videos, or audio.

At the same time, our users expect simple, convenient, and reliable solutions so they can access their information without delay and in as many places throughout the world as possible.

This requires enormous and, in view of the rapid pace of change, ongoing investment in convenient solutions.

Taking a stand for the future

The media industry often lacks the courage and consistency to really bring about change, create new processes and structures, develop creative ideas, and establish a new culture. We have to be much more compelling with our products and services today because there are so many alternatives and we are all fighting for people’s limited time budgets. And we can only do that with quality and innovation.

If we tackle these four tasks courageously and consistently, if we focus on digital transformation, devise concepts for the transitional period, and invest in first-rate and innovative technology, then we will lead high-quality journalism into a promising future. Because, and here we come full circle: These are great times for good journalism. We need it today more urgently than ever.

About Julia Becker

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