With its 731,000 print newspaper readers and more than 11 million online users, Germany’s major regional daily newspaper Rheinische Post has an enviable nationwide reach.

Like many legacy newspapers, the Düsseldorf-based regional publisher has been focusing on the digital transition over the past couple of years in a quest for a sustainable business model and online revenue growth. It is not easy for a 74-year-old news organisation to change, but the coronavirus pandemic has meant it had to rethink the way it works.

"People are still reading newspapers but they also want to share news," says Moritz Döbler, editor-in-chief at Rheinische Post at the New World Encounters event last week (1 October 2020).

Round the clock engagement

Rheinische Post publishes a range of digital products depending on the time of the day and the specific needs of its audience. At 6:30 am, for instance, readers can access the first edition of the daily e-newspaper to find out the latest news, with the focus on their local area and the latest sports results.

Later in the morning, they can tune in to one of the local radio stations that serve different cities in Western Germany, plus news podcasts. Its audio offering targets work commuters on public transport or those driving in.

The evening version of the e-newspapers is published at 8:15 pm sharp, right after German 8pm TV news wraps up. This way, the readers get an e-paper that provides context to the evening news and, unlike the morning edition, is geared towards international news. Evening podcasts also offer a debrief on the news of the day, especially when talking about the coronavirus pandemic.

Trial and error

To understand the needs of its audience and refine digital products, the publisher tests new approaches across its website, e-paper, digital paid offering, newsletters, video and audio.

Testing means that newsroom leaders spend a lot of time fostering a culture of collaboration, respect, and trust, making sure everyone is striving towards the same goal across departments.

"Most legacy newspapers struggle to get past the newspaper mentality," said Döbler, adding that print reporters tend not to think past publishing stories and meeting deadlines.

"This culture needs to be broken," he added.

Getting unstuck

For Rheinische Post, all newsroom roles have changed during the pandemic. The group has about 300 reporters and editors, most of whom work in Düsseldorf. Before the pandemic, the majority would consider themselves to be print journalists.

Six months later, journalists have adopted a digital-first approach. Variables like format, word count, or article's place in the newspaper are no longer important. The priority is to make the story work in a digital environment.

This has also changed the planning process. Editors do not have to think about the print deadline but focus on publishing stories throughout the day.

Digital audience growth

To work out what makes its audience tick, Rheinische Post took time to analyse its readership data and this has thrown up a few surprises.

For instance, local sports news does not work for digital, despite it being a cornerstone of the print offering. Prioritising the major football clubs - namely Borussia Monchengladbach and Fortuna Düsseldorf - with their own website sub-sections has proved effective to driving traffic. Daniel Daum, chief digital officer, Rheinische Post, puts this down to how local clubs tend to have a core geographical audience, and very little beyond that.

The sports desk developed a schedule for stories throughout the day which follows the fixtures calendar. It runs like clockwork. In the days before a game, fans can read personal or inside stories, analysis, comments and quizzes or other interactive features. On match day, the news site drives engagement through live-blog, punditry, comments and fan voices.

Introducing women commentators has helped to cultivate a female following. But the greatest data-informed change came with post-match coverage.

Traditionally, the newsroom did not pay much attention to Sundays because there was no print paper. But then the editors realised that, as most matches played on Saturday, Sunday was the day fans wanted to discuss the game, read the tactical analysis, social media reactions and interviews. For sports content, Sunday is now central to engagement rather than just being the day where content for Monday's edition is prepared.

Calling all Telegram users: join our journalism news channel to receive an audio update every Monday morning, and our journalism jobs channel to find out the latest opportunities

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).