When you know everything is predictable

"We do not know it"

"The Corona crisis showed us where our future and that of quality journalism could lie," says Jochen Wegner. (Photo: Andreas Chudowski)

Jochen Wegner is in a comfortable position. The reach of Zeit Online is exploding, and despite Corona, Zeit is better off economically than ever before. No reason for arrogance. Wegner speaks of humility and devotion. Even after all these years, it is still surprising which contributions lead to many subscriptions and which do not.

 

journalist: Mr. Wegner, in 1998 you wrote your diploma thesis in physics on the chaos theory of the human brain.

 

Jochen Wegner: About a small detail, that's true. The term Chaos theory is not used that much by physicists. At the university clinic in Bonn I was able to work in a great working group on the so-called non-linear dynamics of the brain. It is about systems that are too complex to precisely calculate their behavior, but that still show certain regularities.

 

That would be a very good way of describing the multipolar mess of our days, which is created by Covid-19, Donald Trump and the climate crisis alike. As a journalist, can you recognize structures in this chaos with the help of the non-linear dynamics?

 

Many scientists are researching to find rules in the confusion, as a journalist I have little to contribute. Knowing about the pitfalls of the complex helps at most to approach situations like the current one with a certain humility. And to appreciate this humility in others and in other situations.

 

Whose humility do you mean?

 

The humility of epidemiologists and virologists, for example, who explain to us that a pandemic is not as predictable or controllable as we would like it to be. But also the humility of many politicians who know that there can be no clear announcements and rules that apply for all time.

 

And for you as a journalist?

 

A certain devotion helps here too. We cannot very well foresee the future of the media until it comes over us. We don't know which new Facebook, Google or Apple is being born somewhere. Worse still, even when the next big thing is around, we have a hard time understanding its impact on our work, see Twitch or Tiktok. Sometimes it takes decades, like podcasts and newsletters, and suddenly it changes the industry. That is why we think in the shortest possible cycles and adapt to the situation. Especially in times of an unpredictable pandemic.

 

But this humility is in competition with the demands of the audience to let you explain the world to them. How do you resolve this dilemma?

 

By saying more what is and less what we mean. By giving our readers the most valid and comprehensive information possible to understand the situation, but holding back with theories and speculations. We try to avoid the impression that someone knows exactly what to do in an unprecedented situation. Unfortunately, even some scientists succumbed to this temptation. The physicist Angela Merkel, however, was noticed at the beginning of the pandemic that she wanted to communicate: We don't know either. And we still have to choose one way to find out.

 

The scientific principle of falsification that many first heard of in this pandemic ...

 

Yes, Karl Popper is trending. Time online is usually a very opinionated medium, but at least in the first few months we tried not to enter the competition of points of view straight away, but rather of facts. That's why we first invested in news and science journalism and data visualization.

 

"We cannot foresee the future of the media very well until it comes over us."

 

Is this investment the reason for the economic development of time and Time online? While print media in particular recorded increased demand but declining advertising revenues during the pandemic, your figures are excellent.

 

As cynical as it sounds: The Corona crisis has also done good. It showed us, for example, where our future and that of quality journalism could lie. The good development of Time online certainly has to do with the approach of strengthening up-to-date, evidence-based reporting.

 

In the phase of the greatest possible imponderability, of all things?

 

I still clearly remember my own astonishment and that of my colleagues in our group of department heads a few weeks before the first near-lockdown. We had - quite hypothetically - asked ourselves what we would do if this extremely unrealistic case occurred and we all had to work from home, as in China.

 

Crazy idea.

 

Which has been caught up so radically by reality that now many good developments no longer seem reversible. Our knowledge of the possibilities of networking outside of the newsroom, for example. The crisis has also given our journalism a direction that we want to pursue further. I didn't think that we would serve as some kind of primary source for infection data, intensive care beds or vaccination quotas. The corona dashboard of our data visualization team, for which we research the figures for the 400 urban and rural districts several times a day, is now used, as we hear, by the federal government, authorities, many media and the Johns Hopkins University as a source. We almost provide institutional services because they are precisely what is important for society.

 

And that also had an economic impact?

 

The visits to our homepage are growing against the trend, we also explain this with the people who sometimes visit the Corona dashboard there several times a day. The detailed graphic behind it recorded more than 50 million views in 2020. Overall, our daily reach quadrupled in 2020. All of this has contributed to our revenue increasing by half compared to the previous year - in the middle of a global crisis. Nobody expected that from us, we expected the worst in March.

 

Can this also be explained by the fact that, as an online medium, you are endemic in the digital space, where large parts of the working population now reside?

 

Everyone is online during a crisis. If we want to get nerdy, we can now go through our digital revenue models that contributed to that growth. The classic display business, for example: On the one hand, we are lucky enough to be able to jointly market with others - I don't really like the term - quality media such as S.üddeutscher Zeitung, FAZ, Handelsblatt and Daily mirror to be. Our marketer iq digital gained market share during the crisis. Obviously, advertisers are also increasingly looking for reputable media. In addition, that zeit.de has also gained market share in reach. Both are reflected in advertising revenues, which we have grown by 20 percent compared to the previous year. The second main revenue pillar, digital subscriptions, has developed even more positively. They are up 80 percent. Fortunately, we had experimented a lot with our subscription model in the publishing house and editorial team in recent years. When the number of readers suddenly multiplied, we pretty much knew what to do.

 

And what?

 

The print articles of the time were the only pillar of our subscription model at the beginning. The sheet is very extensive, but we have found that we can offer online readers even more closed content, they show unbroken interest. There are now a few colleagues who work full-time with paid digital content. These worked particularly well during the crisis - for example in the areas of education, family, work or psychology. In October, two thirds of the digital subscriptions were generated through articles that only appeared online. And that although we have left those topics freely accessible that are particularly important for orientation in a pandemic - the current pieces of our politics department and those of the knowledge and medicine editors, for example.

 

Book the proceeds of the digital subscriptions with Time online or in the entire publishing house?

 

you will be Time online included, but we are paying a growing share to the entire house. Hopefully we will soon be able to repay the substantial advance we have received over two decades. It's only been a couple of years Time online profitable.

 

Time online has a triple offer of different types of access: freely accessible, chargeable and for the consideration of personal registration.

 

Right. The proportion of articles subject to subscription that are marked with a red “Z +” was perhaps two percent at the beginning of the year, and just around ten percent at the end of the year. For texts with a gray "Z +" you only need a log-in and do not have to pay, the proportion of which is likely to be significantly lower today. We originally introduced this variant in order not to offend our many young readers in particular with a paid model and to be able to offer them some self-contained but free content. But the concern was probably unfounded, there was and is not very much critical feedback on our subscription limit.

 

Doesn't the audience consider content less valuable if it doesn't cost money?

 

That sounds plausible, but I don't think so. Most readers eventually come to us because of the valuable open content - and stay as subscribers thanks to the valuable closed content. We don't make a difference in quality, that wouldn't be rational even from a cynical, purely business-like point of view. Finally, the subscribers also read the open stories. Sometimes when a contribution is being made, it is also still unclear whether it will be "red" later. We deliberately leave a lot of our most elaborate content open, and more and more often we change our minds during ongoing operations.

 

Who ultimately makes the decision as to what remains freely visible and what does not?

 

Every week there is a round between print and online, in which our CvDs determine the color of the print contributions. It has worked itself out, takes ten to twenty minutes. The final decision is then made in live operation by the so-called conductors; they are, as it were, chief editors on duty, are still above the CvDs and control the entire newsroom, the homepage and all channels.

 

Could the process also be automated?

 

We can say with qualification that this is not easy. We have a larger dedicated team working on such questions, including a mathematician. So we tried with all conceivable statistical methods to find rules in the chaos, so to speak, with which we can predict the number of subscriptions from the numerous properties of a contribution, we even trained a neural network. Nothing worked. Ironically, that reminds me a little of my thesis.

 

"I find it reassuring that journalists' feeling for topics cannot simply be delegated to machines."

 

And why is that?

 

We do not know it. Possibly also because the perceived value of a certain type of content can change quickly. Topics have a temporary boom. Maybe it's like on the stock exchange, whose individual stock values ​​are so difficult to forecast because the boundary conditions are constantly changing. I find it reassuring that journalists' feeling for topics cannot be delegated to machines so easily. We have found other rules for this.

 

Namely which ones?

 

We can say with amazing precision which users will subscribe to our website today. A so-called user journey of a few days is enough to say where the journey is going tomorrow - if we know what someone is on Time online read when, how often and so on.

 

When classic media houses set up or split off online editorial offices three decades ago, they often served as a showcase for the print sector. Does content on this side of the paywall serve as a showcase for those on the other side of it today?

 

In a house in which print and online are developing equally well, it is perhaps more likely that we are mutually a showcase for one another. The fact that the digital is growing is also due to the times, the growth rates of the printed time but are completely counter-cyclical. As a member of both editors-in-chief, I commute between worlds and have the impression that we inspire each other. We work closely together in many areas, but we are quite self-sufficient in others. We can also do our thing online quite well.

 

So different from the printed one Time?

 

On a large scale no, on a small scale yes. It is very important to our readers that what they expect from their time is fulfilled equally on paper and display. In detail, the expectations of a medium, the content of which can be updated every second, are of course different than when you lay down on the couch with it on Saturdays and spread out the paper over a green tea or through the - just lavishly redesigned - Time app scrolls. Younger people in particular know exactly how the mechanics of digital media work. The feedback from the recipients shows that they perceive us in our complexity. It's not like it used to be when online traffic popped up on Thursdays when the paper came out.

 

So do I hear that Time online not the way of the Mirror go and be reunited with the print editorial team?

 

Who can know? We will work together even more closely and move closer together. The way of the Mirror, who has completely united his departments, does not seem to me to fit so well in many places with our culture and with our model, which is already working very well. In contrast to some other stores, things are not only going well online, but also in print. Individual sales have increased significantly this year, and our total circulation is at a record level. The print advertising business also recorded a certain decline during the crisis, but it is significantly lower than in the industry.

 

The time has been reliably in the top 5 of the leading German media for years. Becomes Time online Is it simply taken into account, or from the point of view of society do the geeks and nerds who are too young, too cheeky, too modern for paper work here?

 

You'd be amazed how many young geeks you can meet at the leaf. If Time online was ever a pure nerd project, it isn't anymore. The promise for which the time for almost 75 years now, we have been trying to redeem it online for almost 25 years. The number of names in the imprint has tripled since I had my first day at work there almost eight years ago. The online editorial team alone has around 150 people today.

 

Is there still potential upwards or rather savings secretions downwards?

 

Time online started late. The editorial growth was therefore more due to the fact that at the beginning we were simply too few to be able to meet our requirements for 24/7 journalism, which is the foundation for our good development today. There are no savings secretions, but our house traditionally thinks frugally.

 

Frugal?

 

We will work even more closely together wherever possible. Many of our departments are already closely interlinked, which has become even easier thanks to the pandemic communication via video and slack - the online editorial team is largely based in Berlin, the print editorial team in Hamburg. The investigative teams from print and online have joint leadership, which makes sense because they work on the same topics in the same rhythm. Print and online can still learn a lot from each other.

 

With the risk of getting in each other's way?

 

It is therefore important that the individual beat is retained and that it can be thought of in appropriate cycles. I know both spheres very well and see how different stories sometimes emerge and how wonderful it is when editors think for their respective medium. Take the aerosol simulator off Time online, with which you can interactively recreate your living room, classroom or restaurant in order to calculate the specific risk of infection. Something like this would never happen if we first asked ourselves whether it could also be printed out

 

So, apart from the frequency, does the beat also denote a different type of rhythm, musicality, entertainment?

 

On the one hand the frequency, on the other hand the journalistic approach. The core of a digital general interest medium is almost inevitably up-to-date news journalism. The network lives in the now. If the RKI press conference or the US election takes place now, we have to report about it now. Immediately afterwards we should classify the situation. The day after the US election, for example, we had nine million visits, more than ever before.In the now, the many people were looking for the current data from our visualization team, for the classification of our political department and our correspondents, and perhaps also for a kind of home during these dramatic hours. The moderators of our news podcast together with the politicians, the video and the social team offered a twelve-hour video live stream, something we had never tried before. And yet it was probably one of the most successful streams of the year, Facebook explains to us today. Such offers attract new recipients.

 

"Part of the media has discovered for itself a business model aimed at dividing society."

 

What beat does an author like Rezo who got a column at the end of 2019 - was that a journalistic or a business decision because he is incredibly popular with young audiences in particular?

 

We find him important as a voice and are impressed with how precisely such a Youtuber can research and write. I also thought it appropriate that he should be awarded a Nannen Prize. Incidentally, Rezo's columnist contract ends while we speak; it was for a year. But he remains connected to us as an author. We didn't contact him at the time either, we got into each other casually.

 

At a cocktail party?

 

Neither he nor I are there very often, but Rezo was our user before. Maybe that also says something about our target group.

 

End of 20th

 

We have many young, often student readers. There's the magazine Time Campus Online, our publishing house offers comprehensive information on courses up to and including university rankings. we also have Zett.

 

The online magazine of time for young adults.

 

... that just closed Time online has moved. Rezo wasn't a cold business decision.

 

You can also make warm business decisions, but how does a reputable online medium like yours prevent the risk of clickbaiting? After all, you too are dependent on range.

 

This danger has existed in online journalism since it was founded; the direct feedback and live data nowhere else develop a comparable suction. Journalists have to learn to work with the numbers, but not to surrender to them. I have a feeling that recently a kind of dichotomy in digital journalism has become even more prominent. Part of the media has discovered that a business model is aimed at dividing society and strengthening it.

 

You speak of Picture?

 

Not only the Springer media, but also others use social and political friction as a source of energy. And if there are no conflicts, you just stage some. Another group is more likely to be rewarded for solution-oriented journalism, for reliable information and assessments, for dialogue and exchange. In this sphere we see each other.

 

As a moderator of social boundaries?

 

At least not as the ones who reinforce borders and create bogus conflicts. But as those who offer society a trustworthy platform for self-talk. Arguing can do a lot of good.

 

"We find Rezo important as a voice and are impressed with how precisely he can research and write."

 

Conversely, does this mean that Time online is less susceptible to the arousal culture of the Internet through this middle position, so does less hate and shit storms?

 

Sometimes like this; sometimes like that. Even if we do not pursue the goal of polarizing at all, we will of course receive opposition.

 

But doesn't this open up a dilemma that a strong-minded medium has to position itself, for example on the angry side of lateral thinkers and conspiracy ideologues?

 

In the word position resonates that there are different conceivable viewpoints. But in these cases there is seldom a both-and. One can ask the question and also research whether SARS-CoV-2 was designed in Chinese laboratories. If everything speaks against it, we cannot accept this thesis as an opinion that must be heard and disseminated on an equal footing. Journalism seeks to find out the truth and tell it on. For this reason alone, it must appear like activism to some populists.

 

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

 

Reporting on him was difficult because you could spend all day explaining what was factually wrong about his claims. This is wrong. And that. And that too. From the Trumpist point of view, the impression must inevitably arise that New York Times run the witch hunt that your president keeps talking about. This effect can hardly be avoided.

 

Not even after January 6, when he indirectly called for a coup, which some of his fans followed by storming the Capitol?

 

Even Fox had emancipated himself in the end, others are now filling the gap. Facebook and Twitter also reacted very late and blocked Trump. But Trumpism is much bigger than Trump, and the approval ratings among Republicans for what is happening are worrying. I'm afraid we didn't see an end in horror, but the beginning of something terrible. Some media are partly to blame for this, and the network plays a central role as a platform. But it is the many people themselves who leave the common discourse. No algorithm can do that. Journalists, too, can change much less than they sometimes hope. It is important that we do not spread nonsense without comment as an equal opinion just because it is expressed by opinion leaders.

 

So balanced reporting has nothing to do with arithmetic?

 

Not for the last time: quality journalism. Journalism worthy of the name is committed to the search for truth, even if that is of course only an ideal to which we strive. Unfortunately, this also includes the finding from research that confronting facts alone rarely moves people to change their point of view, regardless of level of education and conviction, for social democrats as well as for AfD voters. We don't like to change our points of view.

 

What do you think, looking roughly into the crystal ball, another eight years later as editor-in-chief: Will we get the trenches filled up again?

 

Fortunately, if the sociological data are correct, Germany's rifts are not that deep. The foundation of civil society consists of 80 to 90 percent people who are willing to continue talking. It is different in many of the countries where we are active with our projects. That is why I am confident for Germany and large parts of Europe.

 

Jan Freitag works as a freelance writer in Hamburg, occasionally also for the time. Andreas Chudowski is a photographer in Berlin.