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March 31, 2016, 4:05 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Is Der Spiegel’s leaked Innovation Report one of the key documents of this (German) media age?

A stern self-analysis: “We inflate our importance. We can’t confess to weaknesses and certainly can’t show them. We don’t surprise often enough. We try too little that is really new. We set the wrong priorities.”

An eminent legacy news organization’s innovation report has leaked!

No, we’re not back in May 2014, when The New York Times’ Innovation Report first leaked to BuzzFeed. (Our analysis of it remains, by some distance, the most read Nieman Lab story of all time.) This time, it’s the German giant Der Spiegel, a weekly print news magazine with a highly separate online presence in Spiegel Online. First reported by German public broadcaster SWR, the 61-page leaked draft was based on a staff survey and interviews with both former Spiegel editors and industry experts and management consultants. By all accounts, it’s painfully honest, self-aware, and contains lessons (and warnings) that radiate far beyond Hamburg.

The language being used around the report recalls much of the reaction to the Times’ report, with words like “crisis” and “revolution” being thrown around. The report doesn’t mince words when it comes to the company’s weak spots. From the report, as quoted in the German outlet Kress:

— Wir überhöhen unsere Wichtigkeit.
— Wir können Schwächen nicht eingestehen und erst recht nicht zeigen.
— Wir überraschen zu wenig.
— Wir probieren zu wenig wirklich Neues.
— Wir setzen falsche Prioritäten.

(Roughly:
— We inflate our importance.
— We can’t confess to weaknesses and certainly can’t show them.
— We don’t surprise often enough.
— We try too little that is really new.
— We set the wrong priorities.
)

The report was commissioned as part of a larger initiative aimed at a comprehensive restructuring of Spiegel-Verlag. That’s according to a joint emailed statement from Der Spiegel executive editor Klaus Brinkbäumer, Spiegel Online editor-in-chief Florian Harms, and Spiegel-Verlag’s head of sales and marketing Thomas Hass. (Note: Spiegel Online and the print Der Spiegel are separate entities, with separate editors and writers, and there is limited crossover. Spiegel Online is a wholly owned subsidiary of Spiegel-Verlag.) From the statement:

With the SPIEGEL Agenda 2018 program initiated during the middle of last year, we began a process of transformation that will result in major changes inside our company. We started a comprehensive restructuring of SPIEGEL-Verlag, while at the same time setting in motion numerous growth-oriented projects. Among other steps, we also commissioned a team from our editorial, business and research staffs to conduct a critical survey of the entire company. The result of this initiative is the draft of an Innovation Report.

We welcome the commitment and work of the participating colleagues, because it is our shared objective to guide SPIEGEL into the future as a modern, multimedia company. The project group is free do its work — without any form of censorship, of course — because this is the only way to make true innovation possible. Even if we do not necessarily agree with every point of criticism, we do consider openness and the ability to give and receive criticism to be an essential part of process of change we are seeking. We look forward to the final report, which we will discuss with the entire company as soon as it has been submitted.

The report highlights how rigid organizational structure stunts any serious innovation:

Der Grund: jeder Einheit kämpft für sich, “Verantwortung wird nicht gemeinsam wahrgenommen”; “jede Einheit hat eigene Maßstäbe und optimiert den eigenen Erfolg teilweise ohne Rücksicht auf die anderen.”

(The reason: Every unit is struggling on their own, “Responsibility isn’t shared;” “every unit has its own benchmarks and optimizes their own success without considering the others.”)

The innovation report suggests that the organization has not properly grasped the magnitude of change in the print and digital markets, and that digital staff are still second-class citizens. It also acknowledges brand confusion: The publisher has 37 different logos for all of its various properties.

In December, Spiegel-Verlag announced it would be cutting nearly 150 jobs, including reporters and fact checkers devoted to the print magazine, in an effort to reduce the publisher’s annual costs by €16 million.

When I visited company’s Hamburg offices last fall, several staffers were excited by a new digital project called Bento, aimed at younger audiences — Bento was a big deal, not just because it was a new digital product aimed at millennials, but because it was something new from the Spiegel family. Ole Reißmann, one of Bento’s lead editors, told me at the time:

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. But when you looked at those between 18 and 30 years of age, we didn’t have a specific product for them…

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. 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.”

The leaked report recommends more significant restructuring, including moving the company’s headquarters away from its five-year-old canal-side towers in Hamburg, where the floor plans don’t always encourage collaboration. From Kress:

Aber nicht wenige “Spiegel”-Mitarbeiter haben etwas zu verlieren. Im Kapitel “Personal” stecke enormer Sprengstoff, nicht nur weil “Führungsebenen reduziert” werden sollen, so der SWR-Bericht. Ein neuer Stil soll einkehren: “Die Führungskräfte auf allen Ebenen praktizieren eine partizipative Führungskultur. Sie verstehen ihren Job als permanentes Lernen, als ständige Anpassung im Sinne des adaptiven Wandels. Als Change Manager unterstützen sie (…) auch eine Kultur des Scheiterns, Ausprobierens und Lernens.”

(However, many Spiegel employees have something to lose. There was a lot of dynamite in the chapter on “personnel,” says the SWR report, not only because there’s supposed to be cuts in the management ranks. A new management style will come: “Executives at all levels will practice a participatory management culture. They see their jobs as [involving] constant learning, constantly adapting, in the sense of adaptive change. As Change Managers, they also support a culture of failing, trying, and learning.”

(Many thanks to Kim Bode of NYU and Tobias Schwarz of Oberholz for their translation assistance and help understanding the report.)

Photo of the Spiegel building in Hamburg by Bine Herzog used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 31, 2016, 4:05 p.m.
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