“There’s a whole lot of movement in the German media landscape — this is an incredible time,” Sebastian Horn told me. Horn heads Ze.tt, a project from Zeit Online that first debuted in beta in July. He runs the site from a separate small office space in Berlin, tucked away behind a kitesurfing shop.
Leadership at Zeit first approached Horn with an idea to build a new site, with some support from the publisher, that would target younger audiences. (Horn had been was a community and social media editor at Zeit Online before moving to Source Fabric, a nonprofit group that helps produce open-source software for news organizations).
“They called me up and said, do you want to do this — create this new brand, run it like a separate product, shielded from the rest of the company?” Horn told me. “A couple of months later, there I was, sitting with my laptop.”Die Zeit is one of the most widely read newspapers in Germany, and allegiance to traditional news media is still relatively strong in the country. But Germany is also dealing with a number of challenges that are familiar to any U.S. publisher: It has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world, interest from advertisers is waning, and social media and YouTube are increasingly a source of news for young people.
Under these conditions, many German publishers have begun to think seriously about their plays for younger audiences, though “young” can refer to an age range anywhere from mid-teens to early 30s. In that way, the sought-after age group maps onto the American term “millennials,” though German publishers tend to use generational terminology like it sparingly.1
These publishers are trying to anticipate something very difficult: What a large and diverse population is somehow uniquely interested in reading. In the U.S., fatigue has set in over sites that presume to know what young people “want,” and in Germany, a lot of similar criticism is already surfacing. But with U.S brands like Huffington Post, Vice, and BuzzFeed also circling the E.U.’s largest economy (and its 14.68 million millennials), and viral sites like Heftig.co swallowing up online traffic, it’s no surprise the once-cautious German publishers are looking to experiment a little on their own.
In addition to Ze.tt, there are BYou from Axel Springer‘s flagship national tabloid Bild (hosted as a vertical on Bild.de); Bento, a project out of Spiegel Online2; Orange from the Düsseldorf-based business newspaper Handelsblatt, and likely more to come.
Already in the market since May of last year is Kompakt, a project of Axel Springer’s national daily newspaper Die Welt3 It was not created specifically to target younger age groups, but to reach audiences on mobile. Still, it turned out that that audience mostly fell within the “millennial” age group, according to a survey of the app’s users.
“Most of the news apps in Germany, at least that I know of, are still extensions of their existing websites,” said Kompakt managing editor Hans Evert. “But we thought, without any legacy, without print legacy, what should a good news site with an app look like? What does good mobile news reporting look like?” (One successful feature for encouraging users to return to Kompakt stories in the app, Evert said, is keyword commenting: users can choose labels to describe how they felt about the article, view labels other readers have chosen, or enter their own.)
The Kompakt (web and app) team sits in the airy Die Welt newsroom at the Axel Springer headquarters in Berlin and attends the larger Welt’s editorial meetings, so its members have insight into the stories that Welt journalists are covering.
“Even though we’re more than a year old, we’re still experimenting,” Evert said. “We’re experimenting with a mixture of, first, covering the most important news of each day, and then we have this focus on stories on science and tech. We’re trying some experiments on Facebook to attract a broader audience we can’t reach with our app.”
“But our focus is specifically mobile,” Evert added. “We use Google Trends, try to see what’s interesting in terms of science and technology and what’s going viral, and then create a menu for our readers. We are shorter — we haven’t got any long reads. We try not to sound so newsy.”
Bento, Spiegel Online’s youth venture, launched this month (accompanied by an Android app). Spiegel brands are in the enviable position of being both widely respected and widely read (Der Spiegel, for instance, retains one of the largest fleets of fact checkers of any news organization, while Spiegel Online is one of the top news sites and news apps — in Germany). But Spiegel’s editors still saw a gaping hole.
“At Spiegel, we had a product for our older readers who subscribe to the print magazine; we had the website [Spiegel Online], which is hugely successful throughout Europe; we had a print magazine for younger readers,” Ole Reißmann, one of Bento’s lead editors, said. “But when you looked at those between 18 and 30 years of age, we didn’t have a specific product for them.”
Development on Bento began in January of this year, said Reißmann, who had been working at Spiegel Online when management gave him and a couple of colleagues the green light for the new editorial project. In the following months, Reißmann and his team conducted mountains of research, pouring over academic studies as well as traveling all over Germany to interview people in their target age range. They asked the test groups about their lives, reading habits, and even for screenshots of their mobile phones (to determine the favorite apps among this group). In the early stages of development, the Bento team considered producing content exclusively for Facebook, but decided that wasn’t a sustainable idea.
Overturning the familiar few categories into which traditional news stories fall became an important part of Bento’s development.
“When we talked to people, we asked them about their level of interest in these regular categories, like politics or business, and they said, ‘No, I don’t have an interest in that,'” Reißmann said. “But then we asked if they followed the Arab Spring or the refugee crisis — when we got rid of those old categories — they said yes.”
Bento benefits from being housed in Spiegel’s massive harbor city offices in Hamburg. Spiegel’s journalists are just a few floors away, and they sometimes come to Bento with suggestions, story ideas, and even sources. But the dozen or so people working at Bento maintain editorial independence.
“We chose our own CMS, we chose our own advertising model, and we have our own editorial strategy,” Reißmann said. “Nobody from Spiegel is coming in and saying, ‘Oh no, no, no, this is not how you do that.'”
Horn described a similar relationship between Ze.tt and the Zeit mothership — complete independence most of the time, freedom to experiment with stories without fear of damaging the Zeit Online brand, but assistance when needed. His experience was still largely startup-y: “I had to find and rent our space. The other day I was helping carry furniture for our office up the stairs. I was looking for a cleaning company. I just bought some toilet paper. This is quite new for journalism in Germany — normally it’s, ‘Here’s your desk, here’s your phone.'”
Unlike Bento, Ze.tt opted to open its site up to the public first and collect comments during its beta phase. The team is 6 or 7 people and growing, with some freelance help, and publishes only a handful of pieces a day.
“It took us maybe four to six weeks to get the website running, and then we went live and encouraged people to give us feedback,” Horn said. “At first I thought, who’s going to do that? I never fill out those forms. But hundreds of people have given us feedback.”
Ze.tt has a detailed vision of its target audience in mind. Horn said, “In the U.S., you’re saying millennials. We say, these are people who are close to finishing high school and changing jobs for the first time; it’s that period in your life when you’re still seeing where you want to go, you’re looking for orientation, you’re going through university maybe, getting your first job. It’s the people who grew up with the Internet and who consume a lot of their information through Facebook.”
Ze.tt is also going for more positivity overall in its coverage, with an injection of activism and strong viewpoints into the stories it serves up — “constructive news,” as Horn put it to me. He points to Ze.tt’s video of hairdressers in Hamburg cutting refugees’ hair, which was viewed millions of times, shared and liked tens of thousands of times on Facebook, and prompted many commenters to volunteer similar haircutting services across the country.
“We have this German word, Lebenswelt, that roughly translates to the world you live in, your immediate surroundings,” Horn said. “Imagine, say, people living in a flat together, sitting at a kitchen table, are they vegetarian, what they’re eating; they discuss the world around them, their friendships, relationships, but also what’s going on in their world. At Ze.tt, we’re trying to cover topics that are derived from these everyday experiences of our audience.”
As for the eternal question of how any of these sites might move toward sustainability, the answer was largely the same everywhere: experimentation with native advertising, video ads, and sleeker, less offensive display ads.
Beyond visuals and surface-level differences in coverage and mission, what is truly different about all of these new sites? Sooner or later, they may face some of the same criticisms their U.S. counterparts have received — that, despite launching to great fanfare, they end up moving toward sameness, vying for traffic on the same stories and videos (for instance, some takes on the forthcoming Star Wars movie). It’s too early to see how this competition for young audiences will play out. But for those working on these new efforts, it’s nice to be afforded a little room for pure experimentation.
“We could have plans to promote posts on Facebook, which is entirely new thinking for Spiegel. We are looking at native advertising, which is also new for the Spiegel brand,” Reißmann said. “But we didn’t want to alienate core loyal readers with sudden content for younger audiences. So we started a whole other product to cater to young people where we can try new things, ‘move fast, and break stuff.'”