Axel Springer finds content that evokes fear also evokes cancellations

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


For many legacy media organisations, the pull of print remains strong. So strong, in fact, that it can impede their ability to dedicate more resources to digital or to publish based on audience needs rather than print deadlines.

But some companies have found ways to reduce the amount of time they’re spending on print.

At Aftenposten in Norway, print production is automated. The Schibsted-owned newspaper now has far fewer resources assigned to print production. Meanwhile, Politiken’s newsroom significantly reduced its print production time and staffing by adopting a model that requires specific story lengths at the outset of the process. 

Learn about how they’re doing it in the Newsroom Transformation Initiative’s next Webinar, Reduce the Time You Spend on Print to Focus on Digital, on June 26. We’ll talk about ways to streamline print production and unlock capacity to dedicate elsewhere in your newsroom.

Hope to see you there; register now

And in this week’s newsletter, I share a unique insight from Axel Springer on retention based on story type, as well as some thoughts on the importance of middle managers in making cultural changes. Would love to hear your thoughts:


P.S.: Have you downloaded my new report, Strategies for Continuously Transforming Your Newsroom? It focuses on how to position your newsroom for the future and how to instill the concept of transformation into the muscle memory of your organisation.

Axel Springer analyses stories with immediate cancellations

Are your readers more likely to cancel a digital subscription after signing up to read a story with a fearful or a hopeful tone?

It’s an interesting question and not one I’ve seen asked before. 

Janis Kitzhofer, senior manager/editorial insights and development for Germany-based Axel Springer, recently dug into immediate cancellations to see whether they showed any patterns. Specifically, it was fairly easy for his team to look at readers who subscribed based on a specific story — Axel Springer has a freemium paywall where 20%-30% of stories are subscriber-only — and cancelled within the same session.

“This is easier to track than consumer lifetime value,” Kitzhofer explained. “It was not a scientific approach, but we wanted to look at positive or negative articles.”

While his analysis included multiple topics, the most clear finding related to content published about the Ukraine war. The analysis covered content published from June 2022 to November 2023. 

At the time, Bild — within Axel Springer’s portfolio — was publishing a lot of content on the war. Some of those stories evoked feelings of fear: stories about nuclear war or the latest from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Other stories had a more hopeful tone, highlighting the successes of the Ukrainian army, efforts to win back villages and more.

While both types of premium content got roughly the same volume of conversions per story, there was a stark difference when it came to cancellations: Stories with fear as the prevailing emotion had far higher immediate cancellations. 

“If we have an article that makes a lot of subscriptions in absolute numbers but people cancel right away, it is not probably the best premium article,” Kitzhofer said. “There was a very clear picture that those who sign up for articles that are more hopeful will have much lower immediate cancellations. Those aimed for fear did not have a lot of value.”

That finding is closely aligned with the user needs model, which aims to understand the motivations of readers. Kitzhofer said data shows people will read to the end of “help me” and “inspire me” stories, an indicator that positive stories work.

At Axel Springer, reach is the most important metric. 

“Readers feeling bad is not of value,” Kitzhofer said. “This ties back to user needs and negative ‘update me’ stories.”

The key is to find balance, he said, adding he’d like to see cancellations beyond the immediate session analysed in the same way.

“The editors said they never thought about it, and it’s a very valuable insight,” Kitzhofer said. “They work at much more of an operational level than we do.”

What’s next: Kitzhofer’s team is working on a live analytics tool that would show in real time how negative and positive their Web site is using AI.

“It would say, hey, if the Web site is 70% negative, we should publish some more positive news,” he said.

His advice for other media companies? The more focused you are on a subscription model, the more important it is to be conscious about the psychological meaning of value.

“Most people don’t want to spend money on something that leaves them with a negative feeling,” Kitzhofer said. “It doesn’t have to be all about solution-journalism that is aimed at changing lives in a mid- to long-run, but it can simply be something entertaining that makes you feel good right away for a short period of time.”  

What have you done to focus on retention? Do you have similar insights? E-mail me

Middle managers: the secret sauce to cultural change 

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about cultural change in the Newsroom Transformation Initiative and the need for top leaders to set the right tone, be transparent, and measure results. 

All of that is true, of course, but another important component that gets less attention: the role of middle managers in enacting change.  

I recently came across this New York Times piece titled, “The Quiet Magic of Middle Managers.” And while it’s not about cultural change, it does touch on how “these managers are the frontline workers who try to resolve tensions and keep communities working, their teams united, and relationships afloat.”

It got me thinking about middle managers and how they are the important link between upper management and frontline journalists. A journalist deals with their direct supervisor far more often than the top editor; if the middle manager isn’t bought into the cultural change, it won’t be successful. 

That led me to some interesting articles on the topic:

  • In How Your Middle Managers Can Make or Break Your Culture, by Odgers Berndtson in Washington, D.C., the author writes: “In most organisations, the c-suite takes the lead in establishing a vision for the company’s culture. However, in order for that vision to be realised, it needs to be operationalised in practical ways across the enterprise, at all levels. That is where middle managers play a significant role. Whether or not they realise it on a conscious level, middle managers are vital to turning the concept of culture and values into action. Since they arguably have the greatest number of interactions with the largest number of people in the organisation, they make a substantial impact on how your culture comes to life every day.”

  • Middle Management: The Crucial Architects of Workplace Culture, by Alpha Consulting Group KK, notes: “Historically, middle managers were seen as mere conduits for executive mandates. Today, they are the linchpins that hold the organisational fabric together. Their role has evolved from policy enforcers to culture cultivators, especially in an era where remote and hybrid work models could fray the threads of company unity.”

  • And this piece on the World Economic Forum, To fix workplace culture, fix middle management. Here’s how, said: “The most logical role for middle management is to serve as the vital cog in the alignment of strategy and people — better known as culture. Traditionally, executives set the long-term vision while rank-and-files execute on it. The connection point between the long-term plan and the day-to-day plan can be middle management, where culture is shaped.”

There’s more, but the point is the same in each: Cultural change can succeed or fail on the basis of your middle managers. So what do we need to do to ensure that layer of management is helping us succeed? 

My takes:

  • Involve them. If you tend to have meetings that include upper management but not middle managers, widen the circle. Bring them into the decision-making process.

  • Set the tone. Equip middle managers with the information they need to communicate about cultural changes. Make sure they don’t feel as though they can’t explain changes because they weren’t part of them.

  • Check in. Middle managers are the only ones in your organisation that must manage up and manage down at the same time. Make sure you are accessible and available to answer questions, quell concerns, and hear feedback.

  • Hold people accountable. If you have a middle manager who is resistant or working against your goals, address it head on with performance management. Working at cross-purposes is detrimental to the entire company.

  • Recognise the advocates. Make sure to provide positive reinforcement and celebrate your managers who are bought in and helping to further the company’s goals.

What would you add to this list? E-mail me:

Mark your calendars

Upcoming INMA events that shouldn’t be missed:

  • June 19: I’ll be moderating this Webinar on “Unlocking Loyalty: Data-Driven Tactics to Keep Your Audience Engaged,” presented by Sam Quirke, enterprise account executive at Chargebee, and Bram Steijns, growth product manager at Cafeyn. Register here.

  • June 26: In this Webinar for the Newsroom Transformation Initiative, we’ll talk about how to reduce the amount of time spent on producing a newspaper to focus more on digital. Hear case studies from Aftenposten and Politiken. Register here.

  • July 31: “A Solution for the Sticky Subject of Commenting” will focus on making comment moderation easier and less time-consuming. This Product & Tech Initiative Webinar is presented by Laura Badura, product manager at Spiegel. Register here.

  • September 23-27: INMA’s next in-person event, Media Innovation Week, takes place in Helsinki, Finland. I’ll be there! And we’ll talk about future-proofing sustainable news brands in the sustainability capital of Europe. Learn more and register.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Amalie Nash, based in Denver, Colorado, United States, and lead for the INMA Newsroom Transformation Initiative. Amalie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of bringing newsrooms into the business of news.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Transformation Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Amalie at or connect with her on INMA’s Slack channel with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Amalie Nash

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