Swimming against the tide in Hamburg

Die Zeit weekly is gaining readers with an up-market offering that marries serious and up-market popular journalism


For anyone who works in newspapers, Hamburg’s red-brick Pressehaus, home to Die Zeit newspaper, is a harbour of calm from the storm battering the industry.

Inside the weekly newspaper’s conference room, a huge chrome logo for Die Zeit (“time” in German) hangs on the wall; on the floor, there is wine-red linoleum. Around the wooden tables, some 60 staff members critique the edition that hit the newsstands hours earlier – and plan the next.

In this digital age of bits and bytes, tweets and pokes, Die Zeit is an analogue sea of tranquillity: a satisfying wedge of newsprint equal in heft to the Sunday New York Times – but without the endless advertisements. Just as striking as its heft is its circulation: more than 507,000 copies sold each week, the highest level in its 67-year history and up 3,000 on the last quarter.

Most conspicuous, though, is how so many readers are attracted by such an unapologetic, high-brow title. This week’s front page, for instance, has an opinion piece on Pope Francis and a swipe at the Green Party. Inside: the Snowden affair and data protection, Vladimir Putin, the elections in Zimbabwe. The business section has a globalisation micro-portrait, tracing back the ingredients of a frozen pizza to a dozen countries. There’s a compelling long-form piece about a man who killed his family and himself; a glossy magazine with reportage from Rio; and a travel section of dispatches from foreign authors about recent travels in Germany.

Even as the mercury nears 40, and most German journalists follow their readers into mid-summer sloth, Die Zeit bristles with good ideas, researched with care and presented in style. To learn the secret of Die Zeit’s recipe for success, you need to listen closely to an editorial conference discussion conducted with impeccable Hamburg manners – British tact married with German directness.

Politics vs popular
One journalist suggests the political section had too many dry, intellectual articles; another counters that the intellectual articles are important for the mix and that many of the popular articles are exhaustingly predictable.

The conversation moves on briskly, acknowledging a non-verbal, in-house agreement that two hearts – serious and popular – beat in Die Zeit, and each keeps the other alive.

Is that why, as other newspapers haemorrhage readers, Die Zeit is in such rude health? With typical Hamburg modesty, deputy editor Bernd Ulrich tries to sidestep the question. He suggests Die Zeit has been lucky, attracting people who want to remain informed despite the information overload of the internet age.

“Our readers are people for whom a newspaper seven days a week is simply too much and no times a week is too little,” he says. Rather than choose a Sunday newspaper or Der Spiegel magazine, they pick up Die Zeit on a Thursday to set them up for the weekend.

What has finally paid off, he says, is a decade-old reinvigoration under editor-in-chief Giovanni di Lorenzo that popularised the newspaper without making it populist, that made it accessible but intelligent. An interesting quirk of market research, says Ulrich, is how readers view Die Zeit as unchanged despite the revamp.

And so, while other titles are trapped in a vicious circle of dropping readership and shrinking budgets, Die Zeit occupies a virtuous circle: spending money on content to win readers, making more money to spend on content.

Things are more bleak across town at Hamburg’s Axel Springer group, where the blood on the executive carpet is leaking into the Alster lake. Last week the Bild publisher shocked the industry by announcing it was offloading major regionals such as the Berliner Morgenpost and the Hamburger Abendblatt, the foundation stones of the firm.

For years, the digital-first mantra of Mathias Döpfner, Springer’s unsentimental chief executive, has been “We’re in the news business, not the paper business.” The influence of newspapers in the group is dwindling. Even Bild is a shadow of its former self with circulation down 7 per cent in the last quarter to 2.5 million copies – a drop of nearly half since the turn of the century.

To prove their analogue agnosticism, Springer executives have swapped pinstripe suits for the beards-and-hoodies look of Google and Facebook. Springer wants to be a digital-content giant but the wardrobe swap has the desperate air of deckchairs and a large, Belfast-built ship.

Winning anachronism
There are no hoodies at Die Zeit, but quiet confidence in being a media anachronism. Spending money on quality writing for which readers spend €4.50 each week might, these days, be considered going against the digital grain. In Hamburg, it’s called embracing the Zeit-geist.