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Feb. 14, 2018, 9:08 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Comfortable in its first language, this German business publisher hopes to build a global audience off its English edition

Part of Handelsblatt Global’s strategy is trying to be ruthlessly practical about its position in the market: “If you get an American reader, nobody would ever switch from The New York Times for us.”

Every so often, an English-language news publisher tries to set up shop in Germany. Or a German news publisher tries its hand at an English-language edition.

Both directions are difficult. On its road to internationalization, the business and finance-focused German outlet Handelsblatt has seen the slimmed-down English-language edition efforts of other German news outlets. The sticking point, according to Andreas Kluth, who is leading Handelsblatt’s English-language efforts, is the same for everyone: translation.

“I feel like a pastor giving speeches sometimes, but I’ve banned the word ‘translation.’ Translation never works: We adapt, remix, splice, turn upside-down, and we do our own stories even without recourse to our German colleagues. And when we lay out the English version of German stories on our site, they’re new articles loosely based on the German articles,” Kluth said. “There’s a completely different tradition for the structure of a story — lede, nutgraf — in France, in Russia, in China, in Germany, in the U.S.”

“We try and get the right balance of assuming they are interested in Germany, though not necessarily knowledgeable about all the differences between their country and here,” Allison Williams, an editor at the Global section, said. “In general, we add context information for readers, whether about the size of the German company, or naming its U.S. rivals, to give readers a reason why the story is interesting and relevant.”

Part of Handelsblatt’s strategy is exercising restraint when it comes to publishing. The Global effort first launched in 2014, and that site at one point churned out around 20 to 25 stories per day by way of quick translation. After Kluth took over last year, he slowed the total number to between six to 12 per day, with fewer on weekends. Roughly a third of the stories it publishes are original to the English-language site, a third are taken from Handelsblatt or sibling German publications WirtschaftsWoche or Tagesspiegel but significantly changed (including with additional reporting), and a third are slightly more direct adaptations, though even those are often restructured. (“Translation” = banned, Kluth reminds me. Bylines on stories make that philosophy clear.) The team lands on an overall “cheekier” tone. Eight full-time employees are dedicated to the Global edition, with around 20 freelancers on top of that, including people based on U.S. East Coast time.

“Culturally, linguistically, you can think of this as an Anglo-Saxon startup inside this very large German group,” Kluth, who’s based in Berlin, said. There’s a lot it can draw on: The German side of Handelsblatt, based in Düsseldorf, is about 10 times the size of the Global team.

Handelsblatt is owned by the German media conglomerate Holtzbrinck, the parent company of weekly publications like Zeit and WirtschaftsWoche. Zeit, too, offers a biannual, attractively presented print magazine for audiences outside Germany that compiles English versions of its stories from the past six months. It also translates a selection of stories for a modest online English-language section. (You can feel the translation: “This President is Dangerous To One’s Health,” “You think, hunger is just someone else’s problem?”) The well-known German weekly Der Spiegel first launched an English-language international section more than a decade ago, with a mix of stories from the latest issues of its print magazine and stories appearing only in Spiegel Online (its announced intention was to bring Spiegel’s “unique voice” to English readers).

Is there enough of a readership to make English-language coverage of German-centric issues worth the investment of resources? Part of Handelsblatt Global’s strategy is to try to be ruthlessly practical about its position in the market.

Its immediate target audience is the narrow group of professionals with a business interest in German industries, who want to hear about it from a German perspective. (Warren Buffett’s asset manager Ted Weschler is a reader, according to Kluth, and a go-to example of the type of reader the site caters to.)

“If you’re an American reader, nobody would ever switch from The New York Times for us,” Kluth said. “I can make the pitch that you should add us to your media diet maybe once a week, to get a German point of view on the euro crisis, on Vladimir Putin, on currencies, on banks, if you don’t speak German. That’s the angle.”

Around 29 percent of readers of the global site are coming from the U.S., according to a recent breakdown of readership. Another 21 percent are from Germany — presumably non-Germans living and working there — and another 21 percent from the U.K. Nine percent are from Canada; the remaining 20 percent come from other countries all over the world.

Kluth wouldn’t disclose any additional numbers, such as engagement rates or subscriptions sold. Handelsblatt is a subscription news outlet that operates on a freemium model; select articles are free to non-subscribers, others offer a few paragraphs, then show a box to subscribe (a full year costs $169.99, or $84.99 for students).

The German site, like many others, also blocks any visitors who have adblockers turned on, though the global site doesn’t. For an established site like Handelsblatt, which got 21.7 million visitors in January, according to recent figures from the German audit organization IVW, that works. For the global section, which is still trying to grow readership, that model of paywall can restrict growth.

“We have the problem many sites have. We are a subscription site that has some free content: Do we want to damage our traffic if we make something premium, or sacrifice a subscription? We can’t be both at the same time,” Kluth said, adding that he wished that paywalls were a little less blunt. Sometime this year, the English section will be integrated with the main Handelsblatt website and app, but “how that affects our English-language freemium model remains to be worked out.”

Figuring out what to translate — sorry, adapt — from the German side, and the scope of coverage more broadly, is a constant work in progress. Some choices are obvious: This paywalled Handelsblatt scoop, for instance, that Robert Mueller’s team had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for records involving the Trump family’s dealings with the bank.

Williams also offered a case study on a tale of two railway company stories, one on the struggling Deutsche Bahn, the other on engineers from the company who had a contract to architect a California high-speed rail. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the latter article was “much more successful” among U.S.-based readers.

The English-language stories Handelsblatt publishes need to satisfy paying subscribers and give people new to the publisher a substantive taste of its reporting. Williams pointed me to an explainer series the team has been building out, which touches on topics like “Why Germans take their vacations so seriously,” “Why Germans are so private about their data, or “Why Germany has 34 political parties.” Another free story that did well was a feature Kluth wrote on Angela Merkel’s body language; another was about an ancient battle that has had rippling effects all the way to the Germany of today. These are stories that attract via social media people who are unfamiliar with Handelsblatt, who probably aren’t interested in business stories about German companies and won’t subscribe, Kluth noted. Then “we need to feed our core readership with, say, an in-depth portrait of Deutsche Bank, or interviews with executives at German companies the FT or Wall Street Journal don’t have access to,” Kluth said. “Those are the people who subscribe, because they need to know what these CEOs are thinking and saying.”

Balancing all those things is an ambitious act.

“The goal is first to make our English-language site a journalistic success, then a business success, and then to internationalize the entire group, and as that brand grows, it also influences the German edition. That’s the vision in the long run,” Kluth said. “The short run is just to try to get the brand better known.”

Photo of German newsstand by Andreas Wecker used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 14, 2018, 9:08 a.m.
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