How Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien is transforming its local editorial offices

What does it take to digitally transform local newsrooms without overwhelming or overrunning them?

Digital transformation is an ongoing process, but it is not just about new technology or tools. The best software is useless if the corporate culture and the mentality of the employees are not also transformed.

In the first Forward Publishing Webinar 2023, FUNKE Niedersachsen showed what the balancing act between subscription and reach has to do with digital transformation - namely data-informed work that determines editorial processes.

Our second webinar with Michael Greuel, member of the editorial team at Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, provided a further insight into the engine room of a regional publisher: How are the local editorial offices of the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger being digitally transformed and what role does editorial culture play in this?

Digital transformation in publishing: Sisyphean labour

The challenge is familiar to many publishers: digital topics initially only reach the head office, where they are discussed and developed. The local editorial offices are only involved much later - or are sometimes forgotten altogether.

"This is of course not expedient, especially for a regional publisher," says Michael Greuel. After all, the target group is largely served by the external editorial offices. The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger therefore agrees that the transformation should take place as simultaneously as possible.

This is not easy, because digital transformation often feels like Sisyphean labour: different and often new stones have to be rolled up the mountain every day. Moreover, this process is never complete. "It is therefore important for all colleagues to realise this: The times when you had to change every five to ten years are long gone."

A cultural change is therefore necessary. This is also confirmed by the Digital News Publishing Barometer 2022 study, which states that it is not just the online mentality that is important, "but a dynamic mentality for change and transformation." A publishing house can only achieve this if employees are taken on this digital journey, prepared for the future and given the opportunity to develop further. This doesn't always have to be a feat of strength: "For me as a manager, this is the most rewarding task," says Michael Greuel.

His tasks in the Rheinische Redaktionsgemeinschaft are centred around five editorial offices at eight locations, which comprise between three and 15 colleagues. In total, a catchment area of around two million people is reached. This also means that distances play a role: some editors are over an hour's drive away. This poses various challenges.

Herausforderungen für Lokalredaktionen

Die unterschiedliche Geschwindigkeit der Adaption der Digitalisierung sowie voneinander abweichende Erwartungshaltungen in Zentrale und Außenredaktionen führten immer wieder zu Frustration auf beiden Seiten, berichtet Greuel. Er ist dabei selbstkritisch: Die Zentrale habe oft Dinge oder Prozesse vorausgesetzt, die in den Außenredaktionen noch gar nicht angekommen sind.

Transparenz und Kommunikation in der Führung brauchten also Anpassung. „Wir haben den Nachholbedarf gesehen, Kolleginnen und Kollegen besser mitzunehmen und in die Transformationsprozesse zu integrieren.“ Dazu kam, dass die Kommunikationswege uneinheitlich waren und viel Mehrarbeit durch Unklarheiten über Zuständigkeiten und Entscheidungswege verursacht wurden. Wieso werden welche Entscheidungen getroffen und wie? Welches Verhältnis sollen etwa Reichweite und Abos haben? Welche Zielkennziffern (KPI) verfolgen wir?

"Wir haben es verpasst, richtig zu kommunizieren, zu erklären, mitzunehmen“, sagt Greuel. Das ist im Verlagswesen oft zu beobachten, heißt es im Publishing Barometer 2022: „Oft ist ein großes Problem, dass den Redakteur:innen das übergeordnete Ziel nicht klar ist oder es nicht gut kommuniziert wird. Warum machen wir das jetzt so?“

"Auch das Interesse an KPIs, Messen, Daten, Auswertung und Interpretation der Daten war in den Außenredaktionen nie sonderlich ausgeprägt“, erklärt Michael Greuel. Der Grund: "Man fühlte sich – zu Recht – alleingelassen mit den Reportings und Zahlen.“

Komplett unterschiedliche Arbeitsweisen, andere Konferenzstrukturen, verschiedene Themenplanung und Ausspielung sorgten letztendlich für eine „Schwammigkeit“ und Ungleichheit, die sich negativ auf die gewünschten Kennzahlen in der Region auswirkte.

The foundations for change in publishing

Together with the colleagues from the external editorial offices, they considered what the new premises of the joint work should be. "There's no special wisdom here," Greuel clarifies. "But this was about important, real basics for successful, joint collaboration."

Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien agreed on the following key points:

Basic assumptions

  • Digital subscriptions are the growth market. Print is spiralling downwards, but printed editions remain an important topic.
  • Younger users can (almost) only be reached digitally
  • Work processes must reflect the importance of digital: Digital focus in everything we do.

Basic convictions

  • Everyone must want to work digitally. This is about a clear digital mentality.
  • Digital production is the core task of the editorial team, print is downstream. This does not mean that quality should be cut back, but that, for example, time is primarily planned for digital.
  • Adjust work rhythms: In the past, the main editorial conference wasn't until around midday - by then, most of the trade fair has already been read digitally.

The cornerstone

  • The topic plan and playout are orientated towards digital requirements
  • Print and publication dates are no longer decisive
  • Fixed text lengths and formats

Change processes are always also communication processes

"The elements mentioned are not the philosopher's stone," explains Greuel. "But it was extremely important for us to write it all down, to formulate it as principles for our joint work and to take the employees with us and pick them up."

Particularly important for managers who want to drive this cultural change: Sensitivity and empathy. "You shouldn't give the impression that everything that has been achieved in local newsrooms in recent years is worthless or insignificant. That's absolutely not the case," warns Greuel. "They are all motivated people who enjoy doing their job and it is the task of managers to support them in the digital transformation so that they continue to enjoy doing their job."

However, a clear path is also crucial: "On the other hand, you also have to bring these premises into the daily routine with a certain vehemence and consistency." Measures are needed to achieve this.

Measures for a successful digital transformation

At Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien, transformation processes have been implemented, scrutinised and improved for some time. This includes, for example, adapting structures and workflows:

  • Introduction of a weekly digital jour fixe for managers: editorial management stays on the ball in terms of technology and processes and management staff receive valuable feedback directly from the editorial teams.
  • Introduction of an internal newsletter
  • Offering work shadowing in the head office: How does the central newsroom work? What structures are in place there? How is topic planning organised? The offer has been well received!
  • Relief from print tasks: "We can't expect editors to take on digital tasks in addition to the high-quality print edition."

A core component of the strategy at Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien is the endeavour to reduce routine tasks so that journalists can focus on good content. Michael Greuel: "We want to ensure that pure production work takes up as little time as possible."

This also influenced the choice of the new editor: Livingdocs (partner of our publishing platform Forward Publishing) is an editing system that ensures significantly greater efficiency. It has already been rolled out at the head office. The editors in the external editorial team have also already been trained in it and will soon have full access to it.

Other measures include

  • Changing the conference structures,
  • introduction of simplified dashboards and reporting
  • and the establishment of clear communication channels.

In addition, a central support team has been set up that is available to employees at all times. Among other things, the team provides support with the

  • Digital distribution of local content,
  • the optimisation of content (such as SEO), including feedback,
  • improved topic planning through stronger networking with the head office and through
  • training courses and workshops to make colleagues more and more digital experts.

These measures did not simply "fall from the sky" at Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien. The publishing house has consistently worked on eliminating previous weaknesses with model editorial teams. This has led directly and measurably to better results.

And what better basis for a successful digital transformation than data that proves its success?

You can watch the entire webinar in the video.