A three-day beard, a hoodie, and baggy jeans: Stefan Plöchinger may not be a trendsetter when it comes to fashion, but the online chief editor is taking the website of German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung into a new era – like no other person has done on the media scene in Germany.
Right now, there is no better job than being an “onliner”, explains Stefan Plöchinger, and conveys such a feeling of confidence that you wouldn’t want to disagree with him. The 36-year-old head of
Süddeutsche.de is wearing a hoodie jacket. His office at the headquarters of the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) in Munich is tidy, simple, and laid back. There’s a computer on his desk, but not much more. After working at the Financial Times and Spiegel, Mr. Plöchinger came to the Süddeutsche Zeitung three years ago to restructure the publisher’s online presence. From that day on, the digital pioneer has wasted no time in implementing his forward-looking mission.
DIGTATOR: Mr. Plöchinger, you wrote in your blog that “a strong brand is a brand that is aware of its qualities – meaning that it does at least one thing better than any other brand.” What exceptional qualities does Süddeutsche.de have?
STEFAN PLÖCHINGER: The significance of a story is the distinction for us. That is our goal. We strive to be more reliable and more accurate than other platforms and are trying to break away from industry practices that are void of any content. We frown upon photo galleries that lack substance and which only entice the user to click, just as much as we dislike live update pages that cover events where there is no longer anything live to report. Our responsibility is writing high-quality articles – the highlight is in presenting those pieces in an unprecedented way. Though I wouldn’t say that we’ve achieved our goal yet completely.
What does this model of digital reporting look like?
A good example is our
special on the NSU trial, covering the case of the neo-Nazi terrorist group National Socialist Underground, which was published at the turn of the year. This was cross-media reporting in its most literal sense. My SZ colleagues recorded the proceedings in the courtroom, and all the records were published in an edition of . In the process, my colleagues came up with the idea of asking filmmakers whether they could SZ Magazin turn the records into a film – and it really worked out. Our digital editors developed an additional “scrollytelling” story with graphics, 3D recordings, and audio features that told the story of the trial interactively. Taken as a whole, this combination provided many more insights into the NSU trail than just plain text would have done.
Stefan Plöchinger conversing with Digtator Author Michael Stadler: “I am so eager to look ahead.”
Are there any other examples of this kind of digital storytelling?
Two years ago we launched the
that visualized train delays live and evaluated the data in a structured form. That was really fascinating. These kinds of projects are feasible in the digital world: First, you secretly record data stored on Zugmonitor (train monitor) Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) servers in a databank. Then you render the data to a real-time map and analyze the gigantic dataset. Finally, you search for stories based on the facts that have only come to light via Internet technology. None of this can be achieved in print media, on television or on the radio. Classic media is quite simply unable to cope with such complex narrative approaches.
This sounds like a wonderful digital USP. But are these projects profitable for Süddeutsche.de on a long-term basis?
They improve our reputation, and this alone makes them profitable for us. These new opulent formats are precisely what you need to try out in order to find solutions that work and to integrate elements from them into daily business without much effort. Take
scrollytelling for the NSU trial report as an example: This story essentially combines video and audio elements with interactive graphics – elements that we already use on a daily basis. They have simply been put together in a different, dramatically composed way. The main reason these pieces are so effective is because they are programmed on separate microsites rather than being incorporated into a traditional content management system. The logical conclusion would be to extend the layout of our site in a clever way to continually make use of those possibilities.
Apart from modern, dramatically composed digital narratives, what added value must a successful journalistic online service have?
The reader must feel at home. He or she should always want to visit the website. News websites in Germany were, for a very long time, optimized to reach the masses in any way possible – and I really mean in any way possible. But this does not necessarily lead to a lot of readers who return regularly. I believe that it’s more important for us in the long-term to gain loyal readers who know precisely what we do better than other platforms. We have to provide them with a service they feel comfortable with. We can achieve this with articles, videos, interactive graphics, and other features – but, above all, with a modern and structured layout. If your website looks shabby because you didn’t put enough effort into its visual appearance, your readers will not feel comfortable with it.
This means that premium visual design is also a must.
Yes, that’s right. It’s a point that many people continue to underestimate, and even at
Süddeutsche.de not everything is perfect. The New York Times has just re-launched its website. A lot of what they have improved are also things that we have been working on or are planning to do. One example of what premium means to me happened two years ago, when we significantly reduced the amount of advertising space on our website. We designed the remaining ads to appear bigger, and now we earn a lot more money. Reduction is profitable. Creating a clear structure, defining information architecture that is comprehensible and making sure it’s tidy – that is what it’s all about. You can only gain a core readership when users feel comfortable. This principle also applies beyond online journalism. Facebook is the best example of that.
What do you mean by that?
You believe that readers are willing to pay voluntarily for journalistic content in the medium-term. At the same time, you reject paywalls. How does that fit together?
I simply don’t like the word paywall. Walls separate. But exclusiveness cannot be a journalist’s goal and it is not a positive attitude in a literal sense – we, however, have to be convincing to our readers if we want them to co-finance our work. It’s better for journalists to talk about reader clubs or subscriptions, while managers can talk of paid content if they want. As a journalist, I think these are good and clever ideas, because they can help guarantee our independence in a fundamental way. So you have to give it a try. Sure, each month we have more than seven million unique users on
Süddeutsche.de, and not all of those readers will be willing to pay overnight. But our most loyal readers are interested in one thing in particular: good journalism. The makers of Süddeutsche Zeitung are interested in good journalism too. That’s where we overlap. If we do our job really well, people will also be willing to help us.
And how do you manage to convince both digital natives and silver surfers of Süddeutsche.de?
Well, the digital world is second nature to huge parts of our society – across all age groups. It won’t take us long to reach all of society on a digital device of some kind. One has to keep in mind that the 1968 generation has now retired. This older generation knows how to stay agile and flexible. We do not have a problem with this generation, nor do we have a problem with younger ones, since our brand is present across all generations. While our core readers are between 30 and 45 years of age, we have a huge range beyond that group. It seems that the biggest challenge is to reach the youngest generations, who are growing up with a completely different way of informing themselves. Our brand is not necessarily familiar to them, possibly because their parents have also stopped reading newspapers. We have to consider how to reach those people in the future – because I am convinced that there is an appetite for good information across all generations, and perhaps even more so than there used to be. For us, this means that we have to publish a good digital edition of the
Süddeutsche Zeitung every day, as this is the best way to advertise ourselves. If we succeed in getting the attention of a large number of people for our website and in convincing them, then the rest – i.e. the economic factor – will take care of itself automatically.
This also implies that print and online services must be more closely linked to attract the reader with a consistent brand promise, independent of the channel.
Yes, we should no longer differentiate our brand strictly between print and online.
Süddeutsche.de is, of course, perceived by the public as Süddeutsche Zeitung. If we suddenly came up with a program that was different to what people expect from SZ, we would not be remaining faithful to the promise our website has made. This newspaper is now far more than just print. We are an editorial team with a live news website, a daily digital edition, and a printed newspaper, which, by the way, still has very good sales figures. Only a few media companies in Germany can boast a portfolio like that.
With this diverse portfolio, it would surely make sense to involve the online managing editor with the print edition’s managing editorial team.
In legal terms, we are fortunate to be a publishing house with an editorial charter. This means that the editors whose names appear in the
SZ masthead decide on these kinds of issues, and we shouldn’t jump ahead of ourselves and make any assumptions. The senior editorial team of print and I have been discussing the digital strategy for a couple of years. It is, of course, a logical step to appear as a united chief editorial team.
That would be new in the industry. What does that mean for the publishing house in general?
Regarding its digital strategy, the
Süddeutsche Zeitung has been sharpening its profile for several years. Our society is currently redefining how people will inform themselves in the future: for free or against payment, with high-end content or with content aimed at the masses. Fully-fledged media competition has finally emerged between several big news websites. This is a good thing – and we can only survive in this competitive environment if we represent what the print version of the Süddeutsche Zeitung has always been: a medium that offers direction in a complex world. We started with an institutionalized exchange between print and online departments years ago – and that was the beginning. Now we have reached a level with more cooperation and integrated work. This is the logical next step.
Since the end of 2010, Stefan Plöchinger has been in charge as the Editor in Chief at Süddeutsche.de. Within the next couple of years his goal is to establish a robust online payment model.
How will you be developing Süddeutsche.de further in the coming years?
From an economic perspective, we want to establish a robust payment model that helps support our work as journalists on a long-term basis. But we must never lose sight of considering things from a media perspective. How do we develop the live component of the website to meet modern demands? How can we involve our readers in a meaningful way? How do we establish new digital news formats? This has to be a continuous process, since the Internet is always changing and changing and changing.
How do you deal personally with this ongoing change? Do you see things as an opportunity or a risk?
As an opportunity, of course. And as a risk, too. But what’s the point of worrying? My generation of journalists has grown up with permanent change and also with the feeling that there’s a constant threat of losing the status quo and journalism as we know it. This has both a positive and a negative impact. I guess that half the people I studied with at journalism school no longer work in the profession. We can blame two media crises for that. I have realized that there are no guarantees for the status quo to persist and that you always have to be on the ball. I am so eager to look ahead. And I hope that this feeling stays with me – until I have retired.
Text: Michael Stadler
Pictures: Conny Mirbach
Translation: & Katharina Leonhardt Toby Skingsley