Case Study

Transparency during transition: A German newspaper's plan to communicate with staff and readers as it moves away from print 

By Hayley Slusser

January 6, 2023

When the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung, commonly known as taz, made the decision in 2018 to work toward eliminating its daily print edition it knew it would face a range of difficult challenges.

As part of the process, it decided upon three conditions, which require a plan, focus, and attention, that must be met before it stops the presses: 

  1. It must reach 30,000 subscriptions in a mixture of digital and weekly edition and 40,000 contributing to its voluntary payment model
  2. Products must be improved upon to support increased digital readership
  3. It has to have its internal processes organized so employees can best support the products and audiences

The initial challenge was getting staff on board with the transformation and showing them that despite recent news industry trends, the organization still had a bright future. Taz has published a weekly Saturday edition since 2009, and its plan is to encourage subscribers to accept the once-a-week print edition with daily coverage across its digital platforms. 

To do this, the paper’s former managing director created a model showing how taz could survive in 2022 with increased digital and weekly print subscriptions, but without its daily print paper. 

“This was a totally new thought for us, for taz, and for daily newspapers in general,” taz CEO Aline Lüllmann said. “It was important to convince everyone at taz that we could do it and give them a sense of how we could do it.”

Lüllmann shared insights into their journey toward a digital future with the Beyond Print program, which is led by the American Press Institute and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and aims to guide four participating news organizations through their shift toward digital. 

“All people on deck”

Still, taz does not yet have a set date for when printing will cease completely. 

The paper’s leadership has made sure that its staff and readers know that these three conditions are the priorities and that the team is working toward a common goal. 

“We had to learn it the hard way that it’s not useful to set and communicate a timeframe for the transformation because many believe that the point in time only has to be reached so everything will settle down,” Lüllmann said. “But we need all people on deck to make this transformation.” 

Determining which products will best serve audiences

Communication was crucial for taz because it is a cooperatively-owned news organization, and unlike many publishers, it has primarily relied on reader revenue since its founding in 1978 to fund the majority of its operations. Less than 10% of revenue comes from advertising. There are about 22,500 co-op members who have paid at least 500 euro to purchase a share of the paper, which allows them to participate in the decision making processes at regular member meetings. 

In 2022, taz had around 46,400 print and digital subscribers, with more than half of them still receiving its daily print newspaper. But as years of subscription declines, printing cost increases, and delivery challenges added up, taz’s leadership approached digital transformation with added urgency and continued to accelerate efforts to end its reliance on a daily print edition. 

Once taz’s leadership communicated the plans to move away from daily print to its staff, it began surveying its readership to better understand which products they valued and their likelihood to convert to a different product after daily print is discontinued.

Lüllmann said the survey results were actually reassuring, as taz originally expected to lose about half of its print readers, but survey data only suggested around 25% would abandon the organization completely. 

Taz also determined that maintaining a daily ePaper was also important. Not only is the translation of Die Tageszeitung “The Daily Newspaper,” but Katrin Gottschalk, deputy editor-in-chief, said having a curated product every day helps readers feel more engaged as opposed to clicking on random, unrelated articles online.  

Changing internal processes

Once it better understood their stakeholders, the taz team identified six core focus areas across the organization, with three focused on developing new processes and three focused on product development. The process groups focused on community management, working structures, and strategic marketing.  To encourage people to switch from daily print, the product groups worked to revamp the weekly print edition, which was redesigned this year; the taz app, including the daily ePaper; and its website.

“We did not want to get bogged down with the development of new products that might not turn out to be profitable in the end,” Gottschalk said. “We are really focusing on the stuff we know we can earn money for.”  

Taz uses the “godmother model” to organize its workflows, where the product developer and the project managers for these three products meet weekly with the CEO and vice editor-in-chief to get regular input and give them the autonomy to move forward. Those working directly on the six core areas also make an effort to engage all divisions of the company by visiting different departments, sending an internal newsletter with regular updates, providing training for new coworkers, and producing quarterly presentations on the status of their work. 

Newsroom leaders are also cognizant of how the digital transformation might change certain roles and regularly discuss areas where certain employees might benefit from new training. 

External communication is also a key focus, with taz hosting an annual cooperative assembly via YouTube, writing updates on its blog, including a page of updates in the weekly print edition, publishing press releases, and even hosting events celebrating their successes with their supporters. 

“It’s very important to have a simple story that everyone can understand, remember, and tell friends about,” Lüllmann said. “It is also important to celebrate every success, even the small ones, because the transformation is a long journey over years, and otherwise you will run out of breath.” 

Beyond Print is funded by an anchor donation from the Andrew and Julie Klingenstein Family Fund with additional funding from The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a joint initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute, a key design and program partner, has been publishing lessons and best practices from the Beyond Print cohort to help share resources with other news organizations working to create digital-first revenue streams. You can find all the updates here. If you would like to receive upcoming insights and updates, please complete this form.

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