This story first appeared in the June 2017 issue of the German Journalist magazine. Publication on Medium with the magazine’s generous permission. You can read the German version here.
It was a couple of Post-it notes that changed my approach to journalism. They were pinned to a bulletin board in Phoenix, Arizona, shortly after the U.S. presidential election. As every year, journalists and media executives gathered in the city for off-the-record discussions about the future of the industry. The “un-conference” is called Newsgeist and is organized by the Knight Foundation and Google. There is no agenda: Anyone can stick possible workshop topics on the wall.
Usually, the topics proposed focus on digital issues, but this time, four weeks after Trump’s election, priorities had clearly changed. Hardly any of the 100-plus notices posted were about social media strategies, the ethics of drone journalism or the importance of blockchain. Instead, the notes suggested workshops called: “Why couldn’t we stop him?;” “Is this the end of democracy?;” and, for real, “What if he is Hitler?” Some of the most influential minds in the industry, responsible for newsrooms with hundreds of journalists, seemed to be at a loss, numb, even devastated.
It may sound strange, but the extent of the shock that had gripped my American colleagues was almost more horrifying to me than the results of the election itself. What now?
As has since become clear, the shock was beneficial. Half a year later, traditional media outlets in the U.S. — once all but left for dead — are producing the best journalism in their histories. Despite being controlled by a new efficiency-obsessed owner in Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post — just a shadow of itself a few short years ago — is investing well-nigh extravagant sums in new reporters and delivering scoops on a weekly basis. Because traditional journalism pays. Donald Trump is also pushing the “failing New York Times” to even greater heights, with each of his hate-filled tweets expanding the paper’s subscriber base. One is almost tempted to thank this U.S. president. He has woken up an entire generation of journalists and, without intending to, illuminated the way forward.
What now? The many crises of democracy — Trump and Brexit, Europe and the new right wing, the debates over “fake news” and “Lügenpresse,” or “lying press” — have inspired the ZEIT ONLINE newsroom as well. (ZEIT ONLINE is one of Germany’s leading digital news organizations.) Germany and the world are changing faster than at any time since 1989 and we, too, have recognized the need to do things differently. Our response has been a series of experiments about democracy.
We certainly haven’t discovered the future of journalism, but we have discovered a future or two that work for us.
The infrastructure available for our undertaking is modest: Eighty journalists (not 800) work in our newsroom along with 11 developers. And only now, in the 21st year of our existence, have we become profitable, a state of affairs we prefer not to endanger. As such, we killed some projects prior to launch due to the time and effort we feared they would require. Some never got off the ground or went completely pear-shaped. Many of them, though, have done surprisingly well. So well that our editorial meetings increasingly begin with the question: “Why is that actually working?” We certainly haven’t discovered the future of journalism, but we have discovered a future or two that work for us.
We would be gratified were our experiments to motivate others to try something new. If little ZEIT ONLINE can do it, so can many others. What follows are the laboratory notes from some of our experiments. And: Thank you Trump!
Germany Talks: a dating platform for political debate
The filter bubble is in our minds. It isn’t merely the product of Facebook algorithms. As studies have repeatedly shown, we are quick to doubt the veracity of facts that contradict our own convictions. Or we simply ignore them. Journalistic efforts to clearly present information and correct “fake news” are necessary — but they are apparently not sufficient to get a divided society to reengage in effective political dialogue.
That is why we conceived “Germany Talks” (“Deutschland spricht”), a dating platform for political debate. Current research shows that one of the few ways to get a completely new perspective on the issues of our day — to really see things through somebody else’s eyes — is by way of intensive dialogue with someone who holds a different view. Our project, known in the newsroom as “political Tinder,” is exactly the kind of experiment that we like best:
A. It derives from an ambitious idea.
(“We want to get people with contrasting viewpoints from across Germany to engage in real face-to-face discussions as a way of initiating a new political discourse.”)
B. It is something we’ve never done before.
(“Two complete strangers who hold opposing viewpoints meeting somewhere without supervision? That could go badly wrong.”)
C. The first version is extremely simple.
(“We’ll put a contact form online, collect the data in a Google Doc, and then we’ll see.”)
D. It could get big, but it doesn’t have to.
(“If we get fewer than 50 registrations, we’ll just cancel it. We can process 500 by hand. If we get 5,000, we’ll have to come up with a different strategy.”)
“May we introduce you to someone?” In early May, we posted this question at the top of our homepage. After just one day, 2,000 people had already registered in the hopes of meeting someone in their area with a different political perspective. All of them had answered five yes-or-no questions about their political views, designed to differentiate political attitudes to the greatest degree possible. (Examples include: “Did Germany accept too many refugees?” and “Is the West treating Russia fairly?”) Respondents also entered their postal codes, email addresses and mobile phone numbers. As I write these lines, it has now been two weeks since we began collecting registrations and we now have 8,000 of them. By the time we start matching people up, we expect the total to be close to 15,000. We weren’t expecting that.
Now we are in the position of having to build the airplane even as we are in the process of taking off. Because we can’t possibly process so many registrations by hand, our data scientist programmed an algorithm that will automatically determine the best pairings: Two people who answered our questions differently and who live as close to each other as possible. And because we can’t manually send texts and emails to so many people to verify their existence, we quickly found affordable services that automate the process. Essentially, though, our new political platform “Germany Talks” still consists of a simple Google Doc.
We are solving problems as they present themselves and are defining many of the details as the project develops. Such a thing used to be called dilettantism. Today, it is referred to as agile development.
At 3:30 p.m. on June 18, 2017, if everything goes as planned, thousands of twosomes will meet up across Germany for a political face-to-face. We hope that, for many of them, it will be a memorable afternoon full of new insights.
Media outlets are perfectly positioned to become platforms for open societal discourse. For that to happen, though, journalists must take a temporary break from writing the first draft of history and become polite hosts focused on bringing people together. And then step out of the spotlight. Such a thing can be extremely powerful — which we learned from a previous experiment.
Z2X — Festivals for young people to improve the world
Often, remarkable projects start with no concept whatsoever. In our case, it was the persistent lack of ideas for how to celebrate ZEIT ONLINE’s 20th anniversary. We really only knew what we didn’t want: a gaudy evening full of self-important speeches or, even worse, a conference on the future of the media. Within just one year, though, this notional void has given birth to multiple festivals for young adults — an event series that we may now spin off as a unique brand. This is how it started:
“Why not invite other 20-year-olds to our 20th anniversary?” we thought as the date was rapidly approaching. It was a simple idea, but it quickly gained traction. And it ultimately developed into a two-day summer festival called Z2X, with guests aged “2X” — between 20 and 29 — and a program of events (again, for lack of inspiration) that would be developed by the participants themselves. Only one thing was sacrosanct: In the dark days after the attacks in Paris and with Britain on track to leave the EU, we wanted the gathering to be radically constructive. We asked all of those interested in the conference to apply with an idea “to improve the world — or your own life.”
The ambition could hardly have been greater, see point A above. Point B, novelty, was also fulfilled: 20-somethings, according to the cliché, are difficult to mobilize, especially for political issues. So we started by posting a simple note (point C) on our homepage. It read: “Z2X — the Festival of New Visionaries. Got an idea that could make life better? ZEIT ONLINE has the festival.”
The rest is ZEIT ONLINE history. More than 5,000 people between the ages of 20 and 29 applied before we took down the application form (point D). Our jury then invited the 600 people with the best ideas to Berlin. Check-in was 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Only a quarter of those who were ultimately invited were from Berlin, with the rest hailing from elsewhere in Germany and Europe, including countries as far away as Romania and Russia. The allegedly so noncommittal Millennials arrived as promised — so punctually that our WiFi and registration system collapsed.
For two days, the Z2X generation spoke to itself — in workshops, in “Ask Me Anything” sessions and in five-minute “blitz talks.” Issues addressed included unconditional basic incomes, how we want to work in the future, how to make our anonymous cities livable again, life without money, the benefits of laziness, aid for refugees and electromobility. Digital projects were sparse and party politics made no appearance whatsoever.
At the end of festival, the 600 participants voted for their favorite projects from among 80 workshops. Jugend Rettet (Youth Saves) runs a ship financed by donations and has pulled thousands of refugees from the Mediterranean. Köln Spricht (Cologne Speaks) is a kind of Speakers’ Corner for the politically disinterested, regularly attended by hundreds of people and now expanding to other cities with the help of crowdfunding. And #FreeInterrail, a plan to present all 18-year-olds in Europe with a free Interrail ticket as a way of promoting European solidarity — and which helped inspire a (now controversial) European Parliament test project just a few months after Z2X.
The primary result of Z2X, though, is the platform, which essentially came into being on its own. The constructive young men and women found each other and are now sharing ideas among themselves, completely free of our input. Even in the night following the first Z2X festival, local Facebook groups began forming and the participants have since been meeting regularly. Hundreds are still in contact via WhatsApp and Slack and we too have added an improvised communication tool to our quickly improvised Z2X website. This generation, allegedly so difficult to reach, apparently wants one thing above all else: to converse with itself. The best we can do is to be their polite hosts.
We will take ourselves out of the equation.
Now, Z2X has become a series. At the request of participants, we held three local events in April in the cities of Leipzig, Stuttgart and Essen. All three of the festivals were booked up. September will see the second large Z2X event in Berlin. And next year, we are hoping to spin it off so that it can continue to grow and become a truly independent platform. We will take ourselves out of the equation.
#D17, Überland and Heimat Reporter: Emphatical local journalism
We’ve learned something: It is possible for journalists to lose sight of how large parts of a country tick. They sit in Paris, London or on the two coasts of the U.S. — and don’t know enough about what moves people in other areas of the country. And closer to home? Germany isn’t as divided as other countries; it has many strong regions that speak with a strong voice. But we wanted to leave nothing to chance.
That’s why, nine months ahead of parliamentary elections in Germany, we started a kind of pop-up section that aims to “explain Germany to Germany — again, from scratch” (A). It is called #D17. The section went live in February under the leadership of two experienced colleagues and with exactly two stories ready for publication (C!). And it continues to receive gratifyingly positive feedback from both our readers and other journalists.
The idea is simple: We don’t want to just obsess over public opinion surveys and election forecasts. Rather, we want to seek out Germans where they are, in small towns across the country like Calw, Oberscheld and Wismar. Most people in Germany don’t live in gigantic metropolises, they are home in mid-sized cities and small towns. That is where they gather their information, where their viewpoints are formed and where they talk with friends and coworkers. These myriad towns and villages make Germany what it is. In various #D17 series, we approach our country from its many sides and try to gain a completely new understanding of the land we live in.
For the series Heimatreporter (“Hometown Reporter”), for example, journalists from our print edition DIE ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE are visiting the places where they grew up — the places they know best and which have a special spot in their hearts. We are hoping the format helps us avoid the kind of narrative that can occur when journalists from national publications report on regional developments: They land like an UFO in the countryside and, like xenologists, describe the strange aliens that while away their time in small towns.
I have referred to it as the pug-effect, ever since Alexander Smoltczyk, a reporter for whom I have nothing but respect, once wrote about my hometown of Bretten in the southwestern German region of Baden. He landed there to report for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel about the extremely controversial construction of a mosque in the town — a serious issue. But in his piece, Smoltczyk made light of us Bretten natives for having put the pug dog on our coat of arms. (The choice actually has a proud history.) I am certain that Bretten residents felt as though they had been misunderstood by Smoltczyk, even though his story was an effective portrayal of the issue at hand. The Pug is what people remembered. I am certain that I would have told the story differently and I plan to soon visit Bretten as a Hometown Reporter.
The first 10 articles in the series have already been published — and almost all of them have been among the most read stories on Zeit Online. That, again, is something we didn’t expect. We have run pieces about the public pool in Oberscheld that was saved by pensioners; about the seedy quarter of Lehe in Bremerhaven, which is now on the road to recovery; and about the decades-long conflict surrounding TSV Laufdorf, a regional-league football team. All of the pieces did so well after being posted on our homepage — despite our general focus on national and international issues — that we decided to expand our commitment to emphatic local journalism (D).
Our most successful journalistic experiment in 2017 has been the introduction of local journalism. We are still in the process of determining what that means for us.
We have also asked seven experienced local reporters, many of whom have received prizes for their work, to report from the regions where they come from. In the Überland (“Overland”) series, they are writing about problems with the swimming pool in Gartow, about the young men’s club in Brenig and about the new fancy restaurant in Erfurt. A story about a lonely man living at the end of a road in a village in Saxony, symbolic of the shortage of women in eastern Germany, has been one of our most-read pieces of the year. The upshot is that our most successful journalistic experiment in 2017 has been the introduction of local journalism. We are still in the process of determining what that means for us.
With the resources we have available, we won’t, of course, be able to cover all the important stories out there. But there is plenty to indicate that we should continue with #D17, perhaps with a #D18 series that picks up after the German election. The first symptoms of new political currents, after all, tend to be felt far away from the large metropolises, initially invisible to the national media. When, for example, pundits in Berlin were still praising politicians for their courage in cutting public spending, many in the hinterlands could already see what the consequences would be of slashing police jobs. The fact that open EU borders wasn’t just cause for celebration, but also made it easier for criminal organizations, was more rapidly apparent in smaller towns and villages than in Berlin. We want to make sure that we don’t miss these kinds of stories — instead of once again scratching our heads over how we could have lost touch with a significant portion of the country.
“How are you doing today?” — A Gauge of Germany’s Mood and Views
Do innovations have to be so big? Not really. In March, we added an easily overlooked box to our homepage, and it asks the easiest question of them all: “How are you doing today?” (“Wie geht es Ihnen heute?”) Readers can answer by choosing between two buttons: “good” or “bad.” It’s hard to be more minimalist than that.
And yet, the idea behind it isn’t nearly as modest (A). It came out of a #D17 brainstorming session: What would happen if we were to measure Germany’s mood in real time in the period leading up to the elections? Would we notice significant emotional swings? Is it dependent on the news? Would it correlate with public opinion surveys? How is the country’s mood affected when the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) rise in the polls, or the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD)? Or if Trump threatens North Korea? Though we had no idea what the results might be, we thought it would be an interesting experiment and wanted to see where it took us (B).
Since the end of March, we have been collecting data about the shifting moods of our readers. More than a half-million responses (D) have already piled up, with between 7,000 and 11,000 people clicking on “good” or “bad” every day — and more than 30,000 on the day we launched our mood barometer. Once readers have answered, they have the opportunity to more precisely describe their mood by choosing an adjective, such as “energetic,” “enthralled” or “concerned.” We have already collected more than 160,000 words and neologisms. (All entries that aren’t already part of our glossary must first be checked and approved.)
For us, the most surprising result so far has been the remarkable stability of the country’s mood. No matter what the weather is like, how Trump is behaving, who has won the most recent state election or how Borussia Dortmund is playing: Germans — or our readers, at least — are completely emotionally stable on average. A relatively constant 70 percent are in a good mood, no matter how strongly the election surveys might fluctuate from week to week. Whether the value might one day shift significantly upward or downward if something extremely important happens: We don’t know. We also don’t know what our readers might consider to be extremely important — and fear to find out.
The adjectives mentioned likewise don’t often change much from day to day, despite a high level of participation and thousands of entries, some of them quite creative. The majority of those in a good mood say they are “content” (“zufrieden”) or “relaxed” (“entspannt”), with the two words alternating as the most chosen. Those whose mood is poor tend to report being “sick” (“krank”) or “tired” (“müde”). The only outliers so far came on Sunday, April 23, when a majority reported being “hungover,” and on April 17, when “sad” was most often selected. There is a bit more variety when one looks at the words that are trending day-to-day. When readers are in a good mood, the words “wochenendvorfreudig” (“looking forward to the weekend”), European, lazy, sexy, satisfied, spring-inspired or sun-kissed make an appearance. Never mind such creative inventions such as “marzipany.”
Additional trends can be found deeper in the data: Moods on Monday are particularly bad, and they are a bit below average on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We tend to be slightly happier than average on Fridays and Sundays and happiest of all on Saturdays. In other words, we like the weekend — hardly a stunning finding.
But we have discovered an unexpected effect in the data, observable every night between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. During that period, moods sink substantially, by up to 20 percent. Early on, we thought the result was random and then began wondering if it was a systematic measurement error. But once we took a closer look at the adjectives used by respondents in the early morning hours — “depressed,” “sleepless” and “stressed” — it became clear: It isn’t the happy partiers who reply to our question in the middle of the night, but those who suffer from insomnia.
With almost 10,000 readers using the mood barometer every day, we have decided not to switch it off after the election. Rather, we want to develop it further. And “How are you doing today?” has already inspired our next experiment, in view of the rekindling debate over Germany’s so-called Leitkultur, or leading culture.
Until proven wrong, we are assuming that there is no such thing as a single Leitkultur, but rather 80 million different leading cultures, each of which changes on a daily basis. Soon, we will be able to measure that too. Before long, we plan on posting a question on our homepage that isn’t quite so easy to answer: “What belongs in Germany?”
In the meantime, we are waiting with a certain amount of apprehension for the day when the moods of the otherwise even-tempered Germans appreciably sour. And we hope that our studies in democracy contribute slightly to staving off that day for the foreseeable future.
What, then, have we learned from our experiments? Somewhere between Brexit and Trump, we somehow lost track of all the debates about the purpose, aims and business models of journalism — despite endless digital conferences and myriad articles. Journalism is not at an end. It is at a new beginning.
This story first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Journalist magazine. Publication on Medium with the magazine’s generous permission. You can read the German version here.
Photo credits: Z2X — Phil Dera and Alexander Probst for Zeit Online; #D17 — Nicolas Armer for Zeit Online