Times are hard for Germany’s newspapers. Last year, they laid off a record number of journalists, and this year, many are erecting paywalls to see if they can earn back a bit of money. And starting this fall, another new competitor joins the media scene: the latest foreign edition of The Huffington Post.
Launched in 2005, the AOL-owned Huffington Post has grown into the largest online news portal in the US, with 45 million unique monthly users. Now, it is bringing its model of blockbuster headlines and brash blogs to the world: Canada, Japan, UK, France, Italy, and Spain. Last week, a French-language HuffPo Maghreb, targeting readers in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, made its debut.
This fall, just before the German elections, a German-language site based in Munich will join the lineup. Its readership is meant to encompass Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg. HuffPo German partner Tomorrow Focus AG reportedly will invest three million euros over the next three years in the venture.
In advance of the site’s launch, CJR spoke with the general manager of Huffington Post Germany, Oliver Eckert.
Why do you want to bring Huffington Post to Germany?
Because we are deeply convinced that Huffington Post will be successful here in Germany. The Huffington Post is very successful in the USA, and it has had very successful launches in other European countries. We think the German market is ready. The German market also needs a new journalistic model.
Why is that?
The Huffington Post is more than a news portal. It’s more a news platform—an engagement platform. It connects unique news from our own journalists with content from bloggers, and the whole thing is linked to social media. That is new. It is something that doesn’t exist in Germany.
That may be hard. According to a recent Reuters Institute survey, “Given a well-established, diverse, and trusted set of information sources, Germans seem to be less likely to change their patterns of news consumption than media users in other countries.”
I don’t agree with that. Everyday, we get other feedback from users. We hear from so many users that they are not happy with the German online media landscape, that they want a new, fresh voice, and that’s why we think Huffington Post will fall on fertile ground. In particular with young people who have grown up differently; who haven’t grown up with a newspaper, who have grown up with digital, new media, who are active in social media. And in particular in this user segment, we think The Huffington Post will have big demand.
Huffington Post’s business model is to mix original news from a small staff with a large stable of unpaid bloggers. How many journalists are you hiring and how many bloggers are you hoping to garner?
We will have 15 journalists at the start. We want to start in fall, and we want to have between 50 and 60 bloggers. They will cover all themes—politics, business, culture, sport, to entertainment. All the areas people are interested in, we will have a good mixture.
Is it ethical for a for-profit media corporation to financially benefit from unpaid work?
First, the bloggers aren’t being forced; they are joining us voluntarily. Second, we like to compare it with a TV show, a political TV show, where guests come and give their opinions and ideas and, naturally, they are not paid. Rather, they come to express their opinions and ideas. That’s exactly what we will be doing. For decades in German newspapers, it’s been the case where guest authors get no money for their comments, essays, or other articles, which they write as guest authors. There is not a contradiction to common practice worldwide.
Germans tend to prefer longform journalism to short pieces. Will Huffington Post Germany alter its approach?
No. The German Huffington Post will carry the DNA of the American Huffington Post. That means the model will be the same. But even in the American Huffington Post, there are longer articles. Over time, that has also changed a bit. There are short pieces, long pieces, politics, entertainment: There is something for everyone. In Germany, that will also be the case.
How much money is Tomorrow Focus putting into this venture, and how much capital is Huffington Post adding?
It is not a joint venture. In other countries [ed. note: and Hawaii] it has been a joint venture. But in Germany it is not a joint venture. We have founded a company that belongs 100 percent to Tomorrow Focus, and we have signed a long-term licensing agreement with The Huffington Post. It’s no joint venture. We aren’t going to comment about investment volumes.
What are your financial milestones? How will you define success?
We have two milestones that are important. The first is we want to have, within the next year and a half, roughly between 3 and 3.5 million unique users. And we want to be profitable within two years.
As for readership: We want in five years to be among the five largest German news outlets. In five years we want to have as many readers of Huffington Post as Focus Online (also owned by Tomorrow Focus), which has just about 10 million unique readers. Our goal is that Huffington Post Germany will also have reached that.
What makes you think you can be profitable within two years?
France started end-2011 and, by spring 2013, they had 3.5 million unique users. That’s the number we are going for. Italy has had a good start as well, but the country is smaller. I don’t know the exact numbers, but they are still going better than planned. Even in Spain, they are going better than planned. We were all very surprised, but from the beginning, every country has come in better than planned.
To what do you attribute those successes?
We visited our French colleagues in Paris. There was a very intensive exchange—we were there to learn from them and the feedback from France was, that it was a new portal. It was simply a new portal that brought fresh wind to the market. That was one point.
The other point is, the anchor personality in France, the editorial director, Anne Sinclair, the ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Anne Sinclair brought a very strong presence to the portal. She also gave The Huffington Post very good publicity. That was a very important building block to success in France.
So are you going to do the same?
Yes, we are looking for the German Arianna Huffington. It can be a woman or a man. We are in the process of identifying who it will be. Italy and Spain also have anchor personalities as editorial director, a person who is well know from television, possibly had a talk show, or something along those lines.