It’s rare for true media industry leaders to give genuine insights into their strategies beyond the snippets you get on earnings calls or heavily orchestrated speeches.
When a media leader is also a journalist then it’s worth us mortals listening for signals about our own strategies when a big beast talks. That’s why I’m sharing remarks from chief executive officer and major shareholder of German publisher Axel Springer, Mathias Döpfner.
Axel Springer has endured bad press for an allegedly overly masculine culture, but it has also made some of the most spectacular big bets in media in recent years. The culture and strategy clearly sit with Döpfner in his determination to set his own agenda on issues from corporate culture to climate change and to reinvent Axel Springer and in a sense media itself.
“We have defined [a] clear strategy for the publishing group and that is that we want to become the leading digital publisher in the democratic world [and] that we focus on a digital-only strategy, and that's why our growth strategy, the organic or inorganic, would focus entirely on digital-only assets,” Döpfner said on a recent episode of the Media Confidential podcast.
The venue for his remarks was itself intriguing. Media Confidential is a new vehicle for Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian and now editor of UK magazine, Prospect, and Lionel Barber, the former editor-in-chief of The Financial Times. I might not normally extract an article from such a discussion, but I found it compelling and Döpfner unusually forthright.
That quote about investing in digital-only was a response to a question as to whether Axel Springer was a genuine bidder for the auction of The Telegraph Media Group where a range of media and investment names are associated with what is essentially a mortgagee sale of the British media group by the Lloyds banking group which never recouped the original loan it gave the secretive Barclay twins — Frederick and David — to buy the media outlet in 2004.
Standby for more news on that one since the Barclay family — David died in 2021— is apparently working with Abu Dhabi investors and investment firm Red Bird, led in part by former CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker, to repay the loan and regain control of The Telegraph.
It may be a feint by Döpfner to emphasise the commitment to digital-only investments and therefore not commit on The Telegraph, but Axel Springer has paid what were seen at the time as eye-watering amounts for nascent or well-conceived digital properties from Insider to Politico and the newsletter group Morning Brew. Each fits with his digital and democracy strategy.
Axel Springer bought Business Insider (founded by legendary and controversial equities investment analyst Henry Blodget) for US$450 million in 2015. It doubled that to buy Washington start-up Politico in 2021. It used Insider to buy Morning Brew in 2020 for a reported US$75 million.
“Business Insider was a very good acquisition and the development since the acquisition, led even skeptics who said at the beginning … based on the US$400 million valuation, that we overpaid, they admitted a couple of years later that it was actually a very reasonable if not cheap price … we are super happy,” Döpfner told Rusbridger and Barber.
Politico was a similar story, Döpfner said, a claim I was interested in when on the recent Newsroom Initiative Master Class Politico Europe Editor-in-Chief Jamil Anderlini said he now had 100 staff in the Brussels newsroom — a huge investment for any organisation.
The Döpfner take on Politico was exactly what you might expect a journalist-as-CEO to say: “I think the interesting phenomenon is the brand is 15 years old. If we look to the respect, to the relevance, that it has gathered in political news reporting, and also breaking news and scoops. I think that’s remarkable.”
It is also an object lesson about brand development under a benevolent parent it seems.
“So Politico does well. But I think in general, the most important thing is that you avoid any degree of complacency and Politco is still at an early phase of development,” Döphner said, noting new investments in California, the growth of Politico Europe, and ambitions to launch new Politico-led products in France and Germany.
One thing that struck me having watched publishers invest in startups and fail was that Döpfner said he had little interest in creating synergies between the new digital investments and the traditional core assets of Axel Springer like the German tabloid Bild.
“In general, we are not big believers in corporate synergies and all these cerebral structural thoughts about cost efficiencies,” he said. “It’s all rather how to empower the central entrepreneurial energy and journalistic charisma that is very often pretty much the opposite of corporate homogeneity. That’s how we run our portfolio of … media assets.”
Given the controversy over leaks of Döpfner’s e-mails to rival German publications, it was interesting to me at least to hear his take on the need to be clear about the difference between commentary and reporting — again something big in the Newsroom Initiative Master Class series right from the trust session to business models and leadership.
“We would claim for the entire portfolio to be as non-partisan as possible, as unpredictable as possible, not neutral. Journalism is never neutral,” he said. If in the world of news Axel Springer publications varied from that then, he said, “it's a mistake, then it’s not good journalism.”
And finally, as they say on television, you might find the Döpfner view on newspapers — or newsprint at least — to be refreshing and challenging all at once. It is one of the clearest views I have heard from a news industry leader about why the move to digital has to happen faster.
“It is very clear that the print reading habit is a generational habit. Younger cohorts only very occasionally do that or not at all. And I am not very sad about that,” Döpfner said. “It is since many many years very clear that we have to emancipate the idea of a newspaper from paper. If we say that great journalism and newspaper journalism is totally bound, linked, to paper out of trees then I think we make a terrible strategic mistake.”
And he didn’t end there: “Our business is information. We want to inform readers and if we can do that on digital distribution channels way better than ever on analogue distribution then that is actually great news. I have to say that his whole debate and slightly depressing tone [that] the future of journalism is so bad because print is dying, I just don’t get it. I think really the brightest future of journalism maybe ahead of us if we learn the right lessons and do the right things.”
I do recommend subscribing to Media Confidential and especially listening to this episode.
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