Like Die Welt, newspapers need to see print as just one piece of the puzzle


Not long ago, Jan-Eric Peters and Carsten Erdmann — the young editors-in-chief of two leading German newspapers, Die Welt and Berliner Morgenpost — visited The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to see how the Americans are doing their job in the newsroom.

It wasn’t easy to get an appointment there.

More and more journalists, even editors-in-chief, now travel around the world looking for the one solution to ready their newsrooms for future challenges. The questions they ask are always the same:

  • How to integrate the online part in the print workflow?

  • What about video, Twitter, and Facebook?

  • What kind of education is needed to help the elder journalists work in this changing environment?

  • Is there any hope to survive?

Whatever they see, they don’t find what they’re looking for. Because there is no one and only solution to organise the workflow of news. The best you can expect to find are ideas to modernise the newsroom at home.

That’s the entrepreneurial approach of running a newspaper: to see the status quo as just a step to the next improvement. “Online first” and “mobile first” are phrases for marketing guys and have nothing to do what happens where the content is produced.

Ten years ago, journalists from all over the world traveled to Berlin to study the then-state-of-the-art newsroom of Die Welt, which had recently undertaken a big innovative step.

Five years later, the newsroom worked in the same way because people thought anything would still work as fine as initially planned. They didn’t re-evaluate the workflow or compare their processes with that of other newsrooms.

Nowadays, in terms of digital change, the newsroom is ahead of competition again. I describe this approach in my book, “The Heart of a Morning Paper Beats Online.”

But how can you change?

Let’s have a look what happened in 2009. Die Welt, a national daily that first appeared in 1946 and was taken over by Axel Springer in 1953, appears Monday through Saturday. In 2009, in conjunction with its smaller format version, Welt Kompakt, Die Welt had an average circulation of 266,140 copies sold and readership of 670,000. It sold at €1.70 on weekdays and €2 on Saturdays.

In 2009, then Editor-in-Chief Thomas Schmid was responsible for Welt Kompakt, the Sunday newspaper (Welt am Sonntag), and Welt Online ( Welt Online had coverage of 3.3 million unique visitors in 2009. Among German quality newspapers, Die Welt competed with Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Comparison with the observed reality in the newsroom

Close inspection via on-site visit revealed that, in the case of Die Welt, one editorial team operated both media channels, print and online. The bulk of the print content was simply put online with at best marginal alterations.

Channel-specific enhancement happened to a low degree, usually via galleries or polls. Headlines were adapted for search engine purposes. There was no provision for target group-oriented enhancement of content. Licensed content material from third-party suppliers — for instance, from news agencies — was used in cost-efficient ways.

It followed from this set-up that the technical integration of print and online in a single content management system was not viewed as of paramount importance. Fault lines between print and online were bilaterally condoned.

Since material composed for print release was manually put online according to the principle “online first,” staffers were aware of the two-platform utilisation of their texts. No topics were suppressed, and copyright issues didn’t arise from this.

The general acceptance that texts were inevitably published by the online sector led to passivity, and indicated that the Web reference from print to online was not running satisfactorily.

Conversely, the online dependence on print led to a higher frequency of references to print, as I point out in my book.

The case study of Die Welt and other newspapers was described in detail. Thomas Schmid singled out two reasons why he considered online integration unsuccessful at dailies.

For one thing, he said there was an established perception among print journalists that the online sector represented “something dodgy, a place where hackwork rules, not the environment where news is originally created.” For another, he perceived a lack of media-specific formats in the online sector, which might exceed the speedy reproduction of the events of the day.

As a result, Schmid saw a danger in integration, namely that “under the hegemony of online, the fact will be disregarded that the several media possess different rhythms and temperatures.”

Online was only beginning to formulate format specific offers. Thus the proper strategy, according to Schmid, was to try and reduce the remaining reciprocal reservations and to familiarise the cultures with one another in a prolonged process.

Schmid wrote of four measures designed to make cross-medial modes of operation successively lead to online integration:

  • Die Welt evades the pressure of implementing online integration because the Internet was perceived as supplementary, something that Schmid called “not inherent in the DNA of print.” Time was needed to adapt to online.

  • Part of the process of adaptation was the overcoming of reservations, such as “the mildly scornful disdain of the Internet among print journalists," Schmid said, adding “on both sides, hubris needs to be removed.”

  • The distinctions in the workflow of print and online were kept increasingly “fluid, so that nobody may ignore the net anymore,” Schmid said. While it was currently possible to confine one’s work to the print sector, there had to emerge awareness that online existed.

  • Die Welt wasn’t considering a system that rewards convergent operations, yet there was no way of getting past “establishing a regime which would sanction whosoever did not think in online categories,“ Schmid explained. These sanctions are understood to take the shape of an internal kind of shaming.

Conclusions about the convergence evaluation model

In its measures to promote online integration, Die Welt favoured the time factor and backed soft factors in its bid to bring about a change of attitude.

Since the decision by Schmid’s predecessors in 2005 to produce various publications that utilised the synergistic effects of a shared newsroom, comparable structural measures have been wanting.

The assessment of the status quo reveals a need for action if the aim is to promote integration. The editor-in-chief acted as a mediator between two separate worlds striving to unite their cultures under a single brand of quality journalism. 

However, structural measures would have to include tasks and people and would need to be shored up by hard factors such as a renumerative system and operational merging.

Nowadays, by the improvement of structures and cultural understanding that online is a part of the journalists’ job, like print, photos, and more, Die Welt managed the change and sees the printed issue just as a part of the workflow, not as the centre.

The efficiency of a newsroom can be measured in terms of structure, culture, people, and tasks. The slides below — presented in 2010 by Dietmar Schantin at WAN/IFRA, in Kuala Lumpur — explain the shift needed to integrate the online products in the daily workflow. 


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