Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kumbaya Print and Online

I guess they must like me, because I got invited to a Bild party last night. Oh my! Bild girls, corporate execs, and the hundreds of grunts who churn out information for both print and online. Print folks got a button that said "Kiss me, I'm Print" and online "Kiss Me, I'm Online".

Let the healing begin. Apparently, this was the first attempt to socialize print and online departments. As Stefan, who just started working in the video section 6 weeks ago said, "This would have been unthinkable a year ago."

So what's changed? Things have settled down after the big office move; the ship is gliding into the waters of digital nirvana which are not as choppy as many thought; and oh yeah, the bosses say if you don't like it, you can go somewhere else.

But here is one trend I have noticed, well, a couple, I took away from last night. One is hopeful that it could mean a change in the content of the trashy, splashy, unabashedly provocative and political Bild; the other fears a backlash. So here is trend numero uno:

The Bild has hired a bunch of young people who have either worked at small web designer companies or alternative online products. I talked to Thomas quite a bit last night - terribly interested in how the web is being used to distribute information. Clearly a guy with an eye towards the public interest. Needs to pay his rent - so he applied for a job at Bild Digital. He wants to go to Paris to shoot in the fall, is skeptical however that Bild will get him accredited and all that. He says he'll do it anyway - and this is the thing that makes me hopeful - the change going on with the website makes it possible. It gives people like Thomas, a guy with ideas and vision and a conscience, the opportunity to pursue his passion. And as long people are clicking away on, I don't think the execs really care.

The young folks are quite critical of Bild - surprisingly open about it, too. But on the flip side of them you have what I fear may be the backlash: the ex-public broadcasting folks wooed to Springer, I guess with better pay, because I don't think the working conditions are that great with the constant pressure. These guys are very cynical about public broadcasting, the politics of the fee structure used to support it (Stefan told me last night it was a "hidden tax") and the cozy relations between politicians and public broadcasting. You have a group of former public broadcasters who are pretty pissed, and could check the youthful idealism of the younger webbies (the ex-public broadcasters are late 30's, early 40's.)

What to make of all of this? I suppose it's the reason for the party. How do you get these people to work together? I haven't mentioned the old, crusty print guys either - Elmar was quite poetic when I talked to him. An inspiration.

Management understands for this integration to work, to "harmonize" (that's the official corporate speak in the memos), everyone has to get along. I'm rather amazed that things run as smoothly as they do. Sure, there are some kinks (see below), but they got the money to figure it out and apparently the power. Everyone tells me it all comes from Diekmann (Kai Diekmann is some high up executive. Imagine a Sulzberger, or a Graham, or a Murdoch.)

I suspect more parties are coming. And perhaps a button that reads "I bat for both teams."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Working Out the Kinks

The Springer Machine moved its headquarters to Berlin late last year (2007). In those months, the company has been pouring resources into their online department, in particular video.

Because it is such a massive publishing factory of information, it has 3, count them 3, video departments: ASDTV, and It's set up this way so they compete with each other, according to Stefan Tappert, one of the top editors in the video department of ( I guess that means they have 4, count them 4, separate video departments. Whew!) Obviously a sign that Springer is figuring out how to integrate video on the web for its myriad newspapers and magazines. (Springer owns tabloids in Poland as well as niche publications like Bild Frau, for women. I could list all of them but sufficed to say, it's a long list.)

I've noticed a few kinks in the couple days I've been in the division.

So let's go down the line.

Kink #1: Access to Video

Bild has an account with the Associated Press Archive, but it had never attempted to access its video archive until they needed it for a Bush piece (he had dinner with Chancellor Merkel Tuesday evening on his final European tour as president). After an hour or two, poor Sylvia (who I had been shadowing) ended up going with photos googled and youtubed (or geklaut, or stolen as one of the video editors termed it.)

Bild of course doesn't have its own video archive - traditionally a newspaper, not a broadcaster. Clearly an issue for them, but it's a small kink and they will work it out.

Kink #2: Uninformed Video Editors

Sylvia is a video editor - no journalism training. Sure, everything goes by Daniel and Stefan, the heads of the department. She wondered why they needed the Bush piece. I told her because Bush was coming to Germany for his final tour. She didn't believe me, knew nothing about it (it had been on the front page of all the German newspapers, that's how I knew.) That's a problem. Which leads me to the next kink, which I think is part of the problem why Sylvia didn't know Bush was coming to town.

Kink #3: Poor Communication

Part of me wants to blame the passive aggressive German psyche (I do so love to harp on the deep, dark night of the German soul), but in this case I think it's a factor of the managers (Daniel, Stefan) under constant pressure to churn out content for the website. Sylvia told me it's not unusual for her to splice together 4 videos in a shift.

Another person writes the text - I find this odd. Which leads me to the next kink.

Kink #4: Lack of Teamwork

The video section hasn't quite figured out how to effectively combine the video editors with the information side. So you have a reporter or an editor writing text without knowing if there are any pictures, still or moving, to go along with it. I'm not trained in TV, but in radio it's usually a pretty good idea to know what audio you have to work with.

On the flip side there are things that are amazing about this video department, and when you think about the potential this organization has to mobilize its resources, it's like being on the front lines of a world war, or an invasion (and it is war, Bild is gunning for Der Spiegel Online's impressive advertising revenue and ability to draw traffic). They're doing tedious, grunt work, digging the trenches, holding the line.

And the goal you might ask? Well, maybe you won't, because it's obvious, but the goal is always to generate more clicks, more eyeballs, which translates into more revenue coming from advertisers. So the video I worked on yesterday (click on the Truck Weitsprung updated at 11.06.08 at 17.26 Uhr) was produced to do exactly that: get people to hit the site and play the video.

Stefan shows me the stats (they check them at 11:40 and again at 4:40, the peak times.) He also tells me that the video player link on the front page of used to be at the bottom of the page - now it's further. As soon as they did that, he said, they started generating more clicks. If you build it, they will come. If you put it up top, they will click. So simple.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Showing Off the Bild Digital

Manfred, head of Bild Digital, was showing off the Video Department today to a couple guys from BMW. (BMW is giving a presentation this evening.) He kept saying "Das ist die Zukunft" and the BMW suits kept nodding, and smiling, rocking out to whatever cheesy pop bed of music was playing under the graphics.

Some things are changing...but rich guys in suits will always stay the same.

Bild: and covering the European Cup

If you live in Europe, or if you are a diehard soccer fan in the US, you know the European Cup is gripping everyone’s emotions. A good opportunity to talk about how the Bild, and other news outlets are using multimedia to generate clicks on their website.

This is an interesting case study, because of course the realm of major sporting events belongs to TV. Multimillion dollar exclusive contracts signed to networks in the US – like NBC to broadcast the Olympics or in the case of Germany, host of the mammoth 2006 World Cup, negotiating between public and private broadcasters.

Private media outlets, like the Bild, are of course interested in figuring out how their website can generate revenue. The pursuit of the goose that lays the golden eggs. The print version of the Bild is still the economic engine, but last week, the deputy of Bild Digital’s head dude, came down to congratulate everyone on a record 70 million hits on within the last month.

‘Congratulations,’ he told the online staff, ‘and keep it up.’ Lucky the European Cup is going on. It’s the perfect time for the Bild to cultivate online habits of their users.

If you look at their website, what’s interesting is how they keep it to an archive of the past game. So last night, the Germans not surprisingly beat Poland. The Bild’s website incorporated brief video clips, not much more than a minute, embedded with the article.

It’s done in very Bild style, with the bolded text, short sentences, but it uses video to maximize what the Bild already does: simplifying information in a very short space to make it easy for the user to digest. Only now it’s on the web.

I can’t see soccer fans replacing the television with their computers. The same way I can’t see Americans giving up the tradition of sitting around a wide screen TV with friends and family to watch the Super Bowl or the World Series. But I was impressed by the outdoor rig set up by a group in Kreuzberg. They had set up their wifi computer, connected it to a machine that displayed the images on an overhead projector and sat in their garden, grilling, drinking beer, playing a little music in the background. In much the same way that portable radios allowed people to take their media with them, that might be the wave of the future...and it might pose some competition to television broadcasters.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Digression, Brief

Stepping outside of my experience at the Bild newspaper: had the unfortunate experience of reading a headline from the Tageszeitung. If you don't speak German, yes, it is what it looks like.

The paper called the White House Uncle Barack's Cabin, a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin". It's generated much discussion in the blogosphere.

I'll just say upfront I am disappointed in the Tageszeitung. And not even because I think they are abandoning their liberal/left credentials. It's the hypocrisy. Germany doesn't get American sensitivity to race. They think we're racist, they think we're backwards. The other side of it is they think we're too politically correct. But most Germans don't know black Americans, and most Germans live in a homogenous society. And yes, Germany is still very homogenous, despite enormous growth of immigrant communities, they still lag behind the US. The largest minority, Turkish migrants, runs at about 10 percent. And most of them are unseen outside of the country's metropoli (though on my last visit to my hometown, Pohl-Göns, where I grew up in Hessen, I saw a huge Turkish wedding take place. PG is a tiny, conservative village. I bumped into a former neighbor of ours who talked about 'the coloreds' moving into town. He seemed resigned that the Germany he knew, a mostly white, Christian Germany, was gone.)

Even if communities of color were a significant part of the German landscape, the history is still different. Turks, or recent African immigrants, or Russians were not brought to this country in chains, enslaved, tortured, exploited. They were compensated for their labor at the very least. We have never paid our national debt to progeny of those who were a part of building America, who suffered great injustice and indignity, and who died in American wars for a country that didn't even recognize them as a human being.

I don't think the German press would like it if a Jewish chancellor (how awesome would that be?) were elected in Germany and an American paper ran headline that read "There's a new Führer in town" above an image of the Reichstag. These things are sensitive.

So I'm disappointed in the taz because they claim to be small, they claim to have a conscience, and then they publish something that implies Barack Obama is a sell out to the white establishment. That his achievement as an African American running for president is the result of catering to white sensibilities. There is certainly a place to have that discussion - his ability to attract white voters, Latino voters, etc - but to play on the darkest period of American history - from 1776 until 1863 when slavery stained the fabric of this new experiement - spits in the eye of Senator Obama's campaign. It also sadly shows to me that Germans, even on the left, have a long way to go when it comes to being sensitive about living in society that is the majestic colorful tapestry of the United States.

It also another reminder to me that the American Left hero worships European liberalism (liberalism in the American sense!) without truly understanding the lack of depth missing in German intelligentsia about the United States. American Studies departments are growing in Germany - I think this is a great indication that Germans are curious about the US (I wish more Americans returned the curiousity!) But the same way Germans would like to see more American sensitivity to their issues, the press, as agenda setters, need to scrutinize their own insensitivity - and perhaps learn something that will improve integration in Germany?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bild: The Will and the Money

I opted to do a later shift Friday. I had talked to Alex, from the 16th floor, about shadowing him. He's in the print section, and one of the many who are learning how to use the software to build web pages. I asked him if he had volunteered or if the department told him he had to do it. The order came from above, although he did say that he wanted to learn it, he just wasn't planning on doing it at this time.

Too me it's interesting to see how a clear office structure is set up, in this case, top down. I haven't figured out who is a permanent full time employee and who is a stringer, or temporary, hourly worker. In public broadcasting if you're Festangestellte as the Germans call it, it's almost impossible to be removed. I don't think the online folks are permanent - I think they're contract, but I will have to look into that.

I don't sense a certain fear in the online department. Everyone is quite collegial and chatty and focused on getting the work done. The will to change course of this massive publishing ship is internalized in every editor in the online department. And most importantly, which I think a lot of people forget, the organization has pumped money into creating a space and providing the tools so that they can do the work.

It sounds simple, perhaps even simplistic. But it got me thinking that perhaps the reason public broadcasting in the US is slow to change is because they see they don't have the tools to pull off a comprehensive content shift to online. In this case, money is key and might even open the door to the will to change things.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Attended a larger editorial meeting on Wednesday. All the print people sit at their terminals in a circle while the online team surrounds them in an outer ring. It reminded me of how traditional elections are held in Switzerland where the men stand in a circle with their swords (1 sword, 1 vote), while the women stand silently looking on, excluded.

Inge tells me the goal is to merge online with print. The latest drama is requiring print to spend a 2 week internship in the online department to learn how to use the system (CMS) to build their own stories onto the website. At the moment, the online department is taking stories from the print side and reconfiguring them for the website, adding video and galleries where appropriate.
I told Inge this is what I refer to as putting lipstick on a pig in English. She tells me the goal in the end is that the online department develops its own content, independent of what’s printed in the paper, though this is certainly years down the road. She even laughs and says "Maybe in 10 years?!" But the print staff is much older, while the online department is quite young. At the editorial meeting there were suits and bowties. The online department is dominated by jeans, and loose t-shirts, a few of the young women careless about bra straps showing. It’s clearly a divide.

But what I’m impressed by is they are even taking steps forward to integrate with print and online, however painful it may be. At RBB and Deutsche Welle TV (both public broadcasters), the online team never contributed anything at the editorial meetings. In fact, at Deutsche Welle, I think the online team is relegated to the basement in some confined space where they just update the video on the a regular basis and make sure the live streams are working. And when Deutsche Welle debuted a new program about globalization, there wasn't even a web page built for viewers to log onto. I'm not even going to tell you what the annual budget of Deutsche Welle is, but even at my little community station, KFAI in Minneapolis, where we don't even have an online department (annual budget: 1.3 million dollars) we made sure the website was updated with a page about new content. So to say that German public broadcasting is oh, like, back in the 90's when it comes to web content would even be charitable. More like, they're acting as though the Internet doesn't even exist.

So the question is how will large news outlets, like the Bild, organize their staff to compete online not only for readers, but now listeners and viewers with the ability to post photo galleries and videos and podcasts. It’s clear they are taking the initiative, while German public broadcasting is remaining stagnant.

This is why I'm excited to start the MA in Public Broadcasting Management at Ohio University in the fall. There is such a gap in what commercial media is doing and public broadcasting. Yeah, I can hear the champions of German public broadcasting ( I would even count myself one of them) talking about how their content is so much better and they do news in the public interest...but what about their responsibility to cultivate a new generation of educated citizens? What about their responsibility to the public interest by providing information on all channels? And to pull this snobby "our content is so much better, that will keep people coming back" is weak. I love public broadcasting, and I still go to the web first. I listen to the radio and watch television, but I'm using it in tandem with my computer. That's how PBS keeps me coming back. That's how Bild keeps people coming back to their site, and getting more unique clicks. A lesson for German public broadcasters to take note of.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bild: From the Top, All the Way Down

You really know who's running things when the phone rings, and someone says "I want a story about how inflation is hurting the German pocketbook."

I was sitting on the newsdesk with Inge (remember Inge? Caught in the middle of integrating the print people with online?) She's one of the online editors. A hard worker. Reworking copy from the wire services. Knows the system inside an out. Answers all my questions.

I do a little research for her. I find an IMF study about inflation in Germany to provide what we in journalism like to call context.

This isn't useful, she says. She needs to write about how inflation is hurting the German consumer. Period. She's going off some study by a guy who says the consumer price index tally of 3 percent doesn't reflect "the feeling" of true inflation, which he adjusts at over 12 percent.

The purpose of this blog is not to write about the news values of the Bild. But I want to add a small comment about how the web as a powerful tool.

The reason its such a powerful tool for Bild is because they've spent decades building their brand. Unlike myself who intermittently blogs and has no audience. The ability of a higher up to make a phone call and tell the minion to distribute something, the veracity of which is dubious, is nothing new. But she did it in about 15 minutes.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the power structures are still the same. We can talk about the Internet and how it makes us more hysterical, and less community minded. But the truth is, there will always be people who abuse the medium. There always HAVE been people who abuse the medium. We call it propaganda. Only now it's faster and further reaching.

I meditating on some thoughts I have about the potential there is at the Bild to change core values because of competition from online news outlets. More on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Bild: Tag 1 (Day 1)

Bad omen: they forgot I was coming. And the lady who set the whole thing up...on vacation until June 10. It must be nice to take 12 day vacations.

But they very graciously fetched me and brought me upstairs. It turned out 2 of the 3 big time editors were also on vacation, and the third hadn't arrived yet (it was 9am). It must be nice to wander into the offices of Europe's largest distribution newspaper sometime later in the morning.

Daniel soon shepherds me. He talks very fast, very authoritatively and it isn't long before he's stopped by a tall, slender woman ( I later learn her name is Inge - more to come on her later). There's trouble brewing, according to her.

Here's the thing: Bild just moved their headquarters to Berlin (formerly had been in Hamburg, media capital.) But Berlin is symbolic, especially for the Axel Springer publishing house. Springer put his building defiantly facing East Berlin. The publications are committed to a few basic principles: a unified Germany, support Israel, a unified Europe, embrace a free market economy, and reject all forms of political extremism.

You might say they have an agenda. In fact, they set the agenda for Germany on several occasions.

But the Bild, and all of its other publications are facing what every printed publication is facing: fewer readers. More folks are going to the web. They've started pumping millions into their online departments. And they're in the process of integrating the print department with the online department.

There's trouble brewing.

Inge in short order informs Daniel that a print guy doesn't want to take part in a session on how to build a web page. Bild Digital has a slick computer system - and its awesome, I want one to play with - where they can build a web page using a template that allows to upload, video, audio, photo galleries, surveys (what they call mini-voting). It's incredibly efficient (what else would we expect from a German media outlet?)

Some of the print guys don't want to learn - they want to turn it over to the online folks. But that's not a very efficient use of resources - Bild wants to free up bodies to generate more original content for the website rather than dedicating resources to reformatting the print content for the website. In short, they want the print reporters to do more work. Capitalism is such a cliche.

Daniel's job is to integrate online with the print department. He's organizing all these seminars. And he tells Inge they have to learn it. Period. That's the order from up high. And it will happen. But he points out they don't have to learn video, they don't have to shoot footage. What they're being asked to do is quite minimum.

They go back and forth. I can tell Daniel is a pit bull. Inge gives up after all, but tells him she's caught in the middle. I feel bad for her - she's on the front lines of the battle to change internalized practices. Short of dragging the print people to the 3rd floor (the print department is on the 16th floor) there's not much anyone can do.

But this is classic. I've heard stories like these before. Tension between online and print. Fear of being asked to do more with fewer resources. Fear that journalism is going to be sacrificed. (This is not much of a concern for the Bild.) But clearly a fear of change.

20 Days at the Bild

The Bild. The mere mention of the Bild in Germany immediately causes eyes to roll into the back of heads, tongue clucking, and an exasperated sigh.

"You're doing an internship at the Bild?"

My poor German friends. It's not their fault they live in a digital wasteland of poorly constructed news websites, no comprehensive blogosphere, and fat, lazy public broadcasters with too many employees, too much money and not enough ideas.

For my American buddies: the Bild is a tabloid newspaper. It's about as trashy as you can get. Barebreasted women tease readers with dull, stupid stares. 24 size font headlines scream catastrophe and doom for the German consumer. To which my American friends may ask:

"You're doing an internship at the Bild?"

To be more specific, I'm doing an internship at Bild Digital, the online department. (By the way, if you want to know why everyone has health insurance in Germany, it's because if you want to do anything in this social welfare state, you have to show proof of health insurance, even for crummy, unpaid internships at sleazy tabloids.)

So for the next month, I am going to blog about what I see there. A modern day Guenther Wallraff if you will. Well, not quite. I'm there under my own name. But I'm hoping it will provide some insight as to how a large news outlet is steaming ahead, pouring resources into online and integrating its bread and butter - the publication - with the digital frontier.