Five years, four lessons

Five years ago today Germany’s first national online-only news-“paper” was launched in Berlin. The date was chosen as a potentially good news day. The same morning we would know the name of the new president of the United States. Hence Netzeitung could demonstrate one of its advantages over print media – instant publishing. The news day turned out to be better than we could have imagined, of course. Here’s a headline from 06.45 and here’s one from 08.06. Our editor Michael Maier came late to the launch press conference because the front page had to be re-edited all the time.

The site was redesigned in 2001, but this page lists all the stories published that day.

The lessons that can be drawn from Netzeitung’s career – an incomplete chronicle here – illustrates some major themes in the development of internet journalism and the media industry in the last few years:

  • Search and filter: “Suchen, filtern, aufbereiten” – search, filter, organize – was the headline of a good Berliner Zeitung article about Netzeitung on launch day. This was Maier’s idea of positioning the website, and in retrospect that was an even better idea than we probably realized at the time. Netzeitung couldn’t compete on original news production with the big newspapers and magazines, so the niche would be to search for existing information on the web and present it as an informative package to the reader. One of the best examples was the Altpapier (mentioned here earlier), a daily column commenting on the newspapers’ media pages. Of course Netzeitung also needed original “content”, otherwise the internal journalistic culture could not have been built. But had it been possible to pursue that original idea of “search and filter” with great persistence, there’s reason to believe the Netzeitung would have had a larger presence in the German media world than it has today.
  • Speed as profile: Actually, from the beginning Netzeitung built its profile more on speed than search. The slogan was “Aus Prinzip schneller”. At least back then, speed of publishing really was a way to stand out in the media landscape in Germany. Today any blogger can in essence be just as fast, so can speed be a profile? It can, if its supplemented by the new openness of perspective which was important from day one: Since Netzeitung didn’t carry any historical baggage, it wasn’t connected to any political party or social movement. That was clearly very welcome for many readers. Netzeitung’s journalism had to be open and curious, and Netzeitung as a company had to be a fast company to succeed.
  • Lonely alone: Netzeitung’s ad budget was tiny, and it didn’t have a big partner to rely on for marketing (apart from Lycos, but that’s another story…). If there was one thing the web didn’t eliminate, it was the necessity of marketing. Actually, the web’s diversity makes reach and visibility even more important. In Norway, the media group Schibsted has shown this with the success of their classified ad portal Finn, which has been pushed into a dominant market position by the publicity generated by the group’s printed newspapers. This was not available for the Netzeitung, and that has been a major weakness.
  • Constant innovation: Netzeitung itself was a major innovation in the German media market, which the extensive press coverage indicated. But the company itself wouldn’t have had a chance if it hadn’t kept innovating. Difficult circumstances hampered this, but even so a string of important new features such as a news search service, a job search engine and a personalized pages with news alerts have been introduced over the years.

Netzeitung has had a solid Norwegian owner since this summer. Hopefully that means long-term investments in innovative journalism. Good luck with the next five years!