I registered the domain name on October 5, 1999. So although the website wasn’t launched before a year later (soft launch in September for the Olympics, official launch November 8), in a way you can say that Germany’s first online-only newspaper just managed to reach the 10-year mark. It looks like the current owner M. DuMont Schauberg will keep the domain name, but the website as journalistic product will be history from January 1, 2010. The press release, for the record:

Aus wirtschaftlichen Gründen wird das bisherige Konzept einer Internetzeitung mit eigener Redaktion zum 31. Dezember 2009 aufgegeben. Aus diesem Grund wird sämtlichen Mitarbeitern in Kürze betriebsbedingt gekündigt werden. Bestehende vertragliche Verpflichtungen der Internetzeitung werden noch im 1. Quartal 2010 erfüllt. Es wird geplant, zukünftig die Netzeitung als automatisiertes Nachrichtenportal zu nutzen. Die NZ-Teletextaktivitäten sind davon unberührt und sollen in Zukunft eine stärkere Rolle in der Gruppe spielen. Wir bedauern die für die Mitarbeiter mit der Entscheidung verbundenen Härten. In der derzeitigen Form ist die Internetzeitung wirtschaftlich aber nicht zu betreiben.

I wonder if being “automated” is almost worse than just being closed. A fitting irony: The news reached me via the “automated” news and social media site Rivva.

Obits at Carta and I guess there will be more. But I have some nicer reading for you: Spiegel’s story “News and more” from the heydays in 2000. And here’s the list of my own blog posts mentioning

Back to the roots

The Altpapier column has been resurrected, so the hopeful rumours turned out to be true. The new host is the news site, based on the concept behind a Dutch site, According to the Tagesspiegel, has been successful by bringing short news stories for readers who want to inform themselves quickly about what’s going on… Wait: wasn’t that more or less the concept behind Nettavisen and Netzeitung circa 10-14 years ago? Anyway: a very warm welcome back to the newspaper-dissecters!

Altpapier: The obituary (?)

As I remember it, Thomas Schuler had the idea. The new media column of the Netzeitung would be called Altpapier (“old”, i.e. recycled paper). Eight years and six weeks ago, the first daily commented overview of the German media pages of the day appeared. Crucially, the column would be published early in the morning. Don’t tell it, show it: The Altpapier signalled that we, the web-only newspaper, could not only give you an overview of what was printed in the paper-papers before you had had time to read them yourself, we could even give you a digested, annotated, commented overview. With links.

Netzeitung has suffered for years, especially badly under the ownership of the crumbling Mecom empire, a media company which has chosen to have no internet strategy (one obvious suggestion that they ignored… It remains a mystery why Mecom bought the company at all). Today’s blow is especially painful: The very last Altpapier was published. As could be expected of them, the writers go down in style. The last column is an overview of the year, not the day, and of 2009, not 2008. The result: an abundance of sensational news stories and undercover media celebrity gossip. The visionary merger between Axel Springer Verlag and food discounter Lidl gets top points (and it’s not as crazy as you’d think).

So the resource-starved Netzeitung now must do without the almost legendary column — but with a chief editor that reportedly threatened to sack the remaining eight journalists, as well.

The question mark? One news account of the Altpapier closure gives some hope: Apparently one ponders the possibility of continuing outside the Netzeitung. As it’s stated at the end of today’s text: “Der Altpapierkorb füllt sich an dieser Stelle nicht mehr.” (emphasis added).

(PS: All things considered, I found it wise to archive the last Altpapier at WebCite. Just in case).

Print as vehicle for online growth

As expected, Netzeitung has a new owner yet again, now BV Deutsche Zeitungsholding a.k.a Montgomery. This private equity media empire builder has so far not shown any particular interest in developing online news, only traditional restructuring of established print businesses. So there’s no reason to be very optimistic on behalf of ex-colleagues. But it’s possible to speculate about what could be done. Because now actually for the first time Netzeitung is part of a company which has the marketing clout to produce the kind of audience growth it has always been looking for in its almost seven years’ existence. As I wrote at the time of the five year anniversary, the lack of a strong marketing partner makes you very lonely. Now the Berliner Zeitung and other newspapers in the group should be used to push Netzeitung and other online brands. There are enough examples showing how to do this. Right now Schibsted is using the print platform it has established through the free newspaper 20 Minutes in France and Spain to market their news and other websites there (apparently doing well in Spain). In Norway and Sweden they have for years done the same with their long-established newspapers (a strategy which is analyzed and applauded all over the place). And when a strong traffic presence has been reached, there’s always the possibility to create new online brands very quickly by channeling traffic to the news sites, which Schibsted has done with the E24 business sites in Norway and Sweden. The model exists, but will Montgomery implement it? Probably not, I’m afraid.

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!