How A 380-Year-Old Newspaper Reinvented Itself Almost Overnight

Our reach has extended dramatically, and our users are our target age group, 20-29. Are we still a newspaper?’
Katharina Schmidt

A government-owned national daily founded in 1703 in Vienna, Austria, Wiener Zeitung had faced the possibility of closure for most of this century. In October 2022, the threat was realised when a new law was adopted by the Austrian parliament that effectively cut off the main revenue stream of what was the official government gazette until 2020.

Government job ads and companies’ annual financial results – required by law to be published in the paper – had largely funded WZ’s roughly €20-million annual revenue.

That would be stripped away by the end of 2022.

This led to, arguably, the fastest, most radical transformation in newsroom history. “It was super quick; we had to do it in no time,” acknowledges Editor-in-Chief Katharina Schmidt.

“The law made us a publicly-funded news outlet in May 2022; we started the product development process in December 2022 and, by 1 July 2023, everything had changed.”

Wiener Zeitung is now WZ, an about-face from its roots in print and an aging audience. WZ has  a dedicated website, several newsletters, podcasts, and a growing following on TikTok and Instagram.

Schmidt, the paper’s first female editor, shared the company’s challenges and learnings with a packed audience at WAN-IFRA’s recent World News Media Congress in Copenhagen. 

Factoring a new foundation

In October 2022, Wiener Zeitung’s newspaper subscription totalled 8,000, within a population of about 9 million. “Most of our 8,000 subscribers were over 90 years old – and we had more who were over 90 than under 40 years old,” says Schmidt.

Drastic times call for drastic measures and, with a 30 June 2023 shutdown deadline, the newsroom underwent a major reorganisation in 2023, reaching out internally with an interdisciplinary development team, and externally, by joining WAN-IFRA’s Table Stakes Europe in January.

Along with revenue loss, the newsroom faced multiple challenges in its reconstruction, as it fought for sustainability. They not only had to reduce staff by 60 percent (from 55 to 20) – and overcome internal resistance to this – but were also restricted by law in the topics they could cover.

“We really had to focus because, of course, there were so many ideas that we really wanted to put in practice, but we couldn’t. So we just focused on constructive journalism, and our target audience: the 20 to 29-year-olds.

“So we completely changed the audience from the very old ones to the younger ones.

And of course, we checked out their needs. We had many focus groups and usability testing so that we could really focus on, on the needs of our audience.”

The development process was also a reiterative process of testing and developing, then adapting to needs. “This is very important in this process; you cannot fixate on some framework,” explains Scmidt.

“For example, we started on the 1st of July with a podcast and a YouTube channel. But, we had to stop both of them because we saw that the followers weren’t good enough. And we redid them, half a year into the project.”

Rapid results

Within weeks of the launch, they saw positive results: WZ had 750,000 unique monthly users, and Instagram figures increased by a third in the first three weeks. In September, they launched a newsletter dedicated to politics; subscription is at 12,000, with other topic-focused newsletters in planning.

By November 2023, WZ’s relaunched and refreshed website has had up to 3 million users; their new TikTok channel had 11,500 followers, and Instagram followers went up by 46 percent from July to November 2023.

Here’s how they did it.

WZ’s 7 steps to newsroom transformation

1)     Make friends in high places – get the publisher on your side

2)    Form a core group, comprising an interdisciplinary team – but don’t underestimate the number of editors you need

3)     Renew your news product following a development process – learn from other areas to adapt to your need 

4)    Focus your journalism: stay on track, and find your audiences. 

5)     Involve the rest of the editorial team in the process. Over-prepare yourself. Be kind. Let the motivation of the core group carry your load.

6)    Lead by example: say goodbye to hierarchical leadership, and find allies in-house, and externally, within the industry 

7)  Know that change takes time – this relates to new editorial direction, as well as mentally

Art

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