After a digital overhaul, German national news site t-online remains committed to free online access with no plans to introduce a paywall.
Sven Scheffler, Chief Operations Officer of the site’s owner, Ströer Content Group, believes the media group has a duty to provide free information.
“We have a society that is drifting apart so it’s important to give people access to news, even when they’re not willing or able to pay,” he said.
He believes the key to success is attracting loyal readers and then selling advertising packages on the back of these growing audience numbers.
Of course, this is no easy task given the sheer number of rival online publications, not to mention the millions of people posting on social media platforms.
Major transformation of online infrastructure
This increasingly competitive environment was one of the reasons why the site underwent a major transformation to improve its journalism and website infrastructure.
The goal was straightforward: To produce a high-quality journalistic product that was effortlessly easy for the editors and reporters to constantly update.
This radical overhaul has seen a shake-up of its editorial team and news offering, as well as the introduction of a new content management system from Livingdocs.
“You need to provide great, reliable and trustworthy journalism,” said Scheffler. “If you’re able to build stories that are relevant to people with information they can trust, you will always play an important role in the daily life of your users.”
‘Germany’s most profitable publisher’
It’s an approach that seems to be working, with t-online claiming 31 million unique users every month, as well as around 400 million visits and 800-900 million monthly page views.
“For a general news publisher like us, it’s important to have a solid business model and we have ad-based monetisation,” explained Scheffler. “We are probably the most profitable publisher, at least in Germany, so we don’t see a reason to change the business model.”
The first task was improving the quality of the journalism, including the addition of talented new writers and editors, before attention switched to the technology side.
“Once we were on track and being quite successful with our journalistic efforts, we decided to modernise our technological infrastructure,” said Scheffler.
At this stage, the focus was on introducing a modern, headless CMS and integrating the company’s media library to make editorial department workflows more efficient.
Another priority was a browser-based editor to enable the site’s journalists to work from different locations, as well as a serverless architecture to help future-proof the entire operation.
While a number of options were considered, Livingdocs was chosen due to the ease of implementation and the fact that other services could be easily integrated.
“We knew a very easy-to-use and intuitive system for editors would support great journalism,” explained Scheffler. “It would give them more time to think about the stories they wanted to write.”
Instead of spending ages working out the mechanics of uploading copy, populating it with photographs, then publishing, the t-online team needed to focus on news.
“It has to be as easy as possible and that’s the Livingdocs approach, which is the main reason we went for it,” added Scheffler. “It means we are now a state-of-the-art publisher working with a reliable CMS that has proven to be not only innovative but also a market leader in the DACH region.”
From filing to publication in 44% fewer clicks
The CMS from Livingdocs includes a WYSIWYG editor for articles and pages, based on a collection of components that can be inserted with ease via drag and drop. Moreover, editors can seamlessly browse the integrated media library, as well as crop and resize images to fit, all without having to leave the article they are working on.
According to Scheffler, the number of clicks required to publish a new story has dropped by 44% as a result of the new system, while the time needed to produce an article has been reduced by 37%.
The site also moved from an on-premises approach to the cloud. This will enable it to expand as required, without the need to constantly update servers and the associated technology.
AI fuels headline suggestions and agency rewrites
For example, working with Livingdocs has enabled t-online to integrate various plug-ins, as well as artificial intelligence services used to produce and display stories.
These AI solutions include the use of headline suggestions and the rewriting of news agency copy into house style. Scheffler believes future developments can be easily integrated into the set-up.
Having a reliable CMS infrastructure has enabled t-online to showcase the talents of its editorial team better and establish the types of stories visitors want to read.
The site also takes full advantage of the various data sources that provide insights into the articles drawing readers’ attention. Understanding this behaviour is important.
What kind of stories are they reading? What makes them stop reading an article? Do changes need to be made to the site’s design or the writing?
“It’s heavily data-based as that’s what differentiates digital journalism from newspapers but never 100%,” said Scheffler. “For example, if our editorial team decides to go for a certain article or series of reports then they will do so without looking into the data.”
However, the data element is useful as far as general strategy is concerned because it guides both what readers want to see and how this also meets the needs of advertisers.
“If you’re good at understanding the needs of the users, you can design your content more to them,” he added. “The better it meets their needs, the more likely they are to visit and stay longer.”
There is also the question of striking the right balance between the interests of both readers and advertising clients.
“We don’t go with too fancy advertising,” he said. “Of course, it can grab attention, but the reader is looking for the news update, the comments or the video.”
Ensuring the reader remains the priority, therefore, is crucial.
Readers must really want to use your product
Looking to the future, Scheffler is very much aware that digital publishing is a fiercely competitive industry. The winners, he believes, are those who are properly prepared and supported by a future-ready technological setup.
“You will only be successful if you have readers that really want to use your product,” he said. “If you have a high number of users, you’re well prepared to meet the challenges of the future as you’re not dependent on social media or search engine algorithm changes.”
“Moreover, when your editors are working with the right CMS, they can create content more easily and better focus on the quality of their stories so that readers have access to an engaging product which they want to use time and time again.”
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