Die Zeit: A newspaper and a lifestyle

This was a big week for Rainer Esser.

His newspaper, Die Zeit, had a major scoop and then the German weekly was profiled alongside its biggest competitor – and came out on top.

“It’s still a bit more than just publishing a newspaper – it’s an idea, a vision.” 

Die Zeit formed after World War II by well-to-do people with almost no journalism experience. The goal was to foster the development of media in the newly emerging German democracy – and Die Zeit was one of the publications in progress.

“They treated their readers with a lot of respect – not just to make money — and this passion of the old days still exists in our publishing house,” said Esser.

At Newspapers Canada’s annual INK+BEYOND conference in Ottawa Esser spoke to delegates about the elements key to Die Zeit’s success.

First, regardless of their success, Die Zeit still acts like it’s facing sudden death at any moment. “We behave like we’re in a crisis even now. We are very, very stingy; our offices are very small; we fly second-class.” The paper’s business approach is to start small and grow slowly but surely.

The striking layout of Die Zeit sets the publication apart from its competitiors. One week a nude man posing sprawled on their front page, the next the dissection of giant tattoo on a man’s back spanning an entire page. “In Germany, a page full of infographics is unusual but it turns out that our readers love it,” says Esser.

And Die Zeit is all about its readers.

“We always go for the reader.” The publisher recounted how the campus editor brought back a cover proposal that flew in the face of the fresh, clean-cut student image he envisioned. “She said, ‘Right, I see what you mean but there’s just one problem – you are not our target age group.’ And what can I say? She was right.”

Part of giving readers what they want means having reporters who experience the everyday reality just like everyone else and that means diversity. “You have to have a diverse staff,” says Esser; “Gay writers, young writers, old writers, writers who are immigrants.” “At other publications, they pretend to attract a diverse staff. At Die Zeit we have the most diverse staff.”

Die Zeit is also accessible in a diverse numbers of places – newstands, online and in school curriculums. “It’s an overall approach,” Esser explained. “If you grow up in Germany, it’s likely you’ve met our brand five or sixes times, by the time you’re a ‘reasonable’ person; when you’re looking to subscribe to a newspaper, who are you going to choose?”

But it’s not just about the money and the sales; “We try and provide everything our readers need to have a nice life, including camps, conferences and job-finding resources.”

He also spoke about the paper’s propensity for risk taking and ongoing creativity. “It’s more important that we cannibalize ourselves than stay in a shrinking business without innovation.”