A grand experiment in the future of news is succeeding. Pity most of you can’t read it, since it’s in German. But thanks to an accident of school scheduling that plopped me into a German class, I’ve been able to follow Netzeitung.de since it was founded in Berlin in 2000 as a net-only newspaper. It’s not a blog, a search engine or an aggregator. It is a newspaper without the paper, but with 60 journalists reporting the news. Netzeitung has not only survived the internet bubble and a ping-pong game of corporate sales, it has acquired other media properties; it is starting an ambitious effort in networked journalism with citizen reporters; and it is set to be profitable this year. Ausgezeichnet!
Dr Michael Maier, Netzeitung’s editor-in-chief and business head, is an experienced and respected journalist: former editor-in-chief of the Berliner Zeitung, Stern and Vienna’s Presse. No blogger, he. When I met him after he and his partners brought the concept of a netpaper from Norway – where its big sister, Nettavisen.no, is still in business – Maier was adamant that he would have his own staff producing news. I tried to push my populist agenda of interactivity and citizens’ media, but he would have none of it. He was starting a newspaper, dammit, and newspapers have reporters.
In the years since, Netzeitung was bought by Lycos, then by Bertelsmann, then by Maier and a partner, who sold it to Scandinavia’s Orkla, which itself is being acquired by the press baron David Montgomery. Maier says he is glad none of his many masters was a traditional German newspaper, for he doubts he could have developed Netzeitung under its roof. I agree. I got nowhere trying to convince American publishers to try a paperless paper. They are addicted to ink.
Netzeitung remains impressive in the breadth, depth and the timeliness of its reporting. It is among the internet’s most cleanly designed news sites. Maier says the service now serves 1.2 million readers per month. It reportedly will earn â‚¬8m this year. It has acquired other large German sites for technology, health and cars. It recently took over a Berlin radio station, and so the online site produces both radio shows and podcasts (what’s the difference?). And it produces online and videotext news for German TV. This experiment in online news has become a budding media empire.
But what brought me back to revisit Netzeitung is its latest effort: Readers-Edition.de, an online paper by and for das volk. True to form, Maier insists that the people must report: “We don’t publish commentary.” So citizen reporters submit news and photos on politics, sports, technology and business. Netzeitung, the parent, puts the best on its home page and then pays the contributors.
Maier says his online journalists were at first afraid of these interlopers. But he also says his reader/writers are better at working with links than ordinary reporters, are fast (helping him scoop competitors), and are smart (they gave him an exclusive on a revival of the 60s radical group the SDS).
One reason we bloggers like blogging is that we have no editors. But the Readers-Edition contributors do: a team of fellow reader/writers act as volunteer moderators with the help of one Netzeitung journalist. They get together in meetings across Germany to share tricks of the trade. They even share rejected stories so contributors can learn what it takes to make the grade. Now that’s transparency.
I wonder whether this model could work elsewhere. The other citizen-written online newspaper of note, South Korea’s OhmyNews, has had difficulty replicating itself in other countries; its political and media landscape may be unique. And when I ran online sites in the early days, I tried to copy what I saw on German sites by having volunteer moderators keep peace in chatrooms. It worked in Germany, where users respected rank, but not in the US, where moderators got power-mad and users revolted.
I would love to see both Netzeitung and Readers-Edition spread, for we need more answers to questions asked at nearly every journalism conference I attend, namely how will we support journalism in the future? What are the business models for news? How does journalism survive post-press? I hope the answers lie in creating vibrant and successful newspapers that do not depend on paper. I hope the answers lie in creating networks that allow professional and amateur journalists to work together. And I hope the answers are also in English, since I didn’t pay much attention in that German class.