Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung succeeds by focusing on reader needs

2024-02-21. The German publisher created a successful new brand for food and gastronomy content and transformed its approach to covering local music festivals. These and other audience-focused efforts have dramatically improved their performance metrics and paved the way for future digital revenue growth.

Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung’s Table Stakes Europe team [L-R]: Thomas Radtke, Head of Product,Christin Himmel- mann,Publishing Manager Reader Market / Head of B2C,Jana Hintz, Head of Digital,and Christian Wolters, Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | February 21, 2024

This article was originally published on the TSE Best Practice Showcase, WAN-IFRA’s resource centre that features case studies from Table Stakes Europe on how to accelerate the transition from print to digital, reach new audiences and better engage your local communities. All case studies included in the TSE Best Practice Showcase are available in English, French, German and Spanish.

The story of the Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung shows how a long history can help an old publishing house on its digital journey and transform itself into a modern news operation that addresses the needs and interests of its readers.

The Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung (HAZ) was founded in 1705, making it possibly the oldest newspaper in print in the world. Based in Hildesheim, it is the leading newspaper in the German state of Lower Saxony with a print circulation of 26,500 and 6,300 digital subscribers.

As part of its participation in the fourth round of Table Stake Europe (TSE), the publisher took important steps to increase engagement with its loyal readers and lay the foundation for digital subscription revenue growth.

Designed primarily for local and regional news organisations, Table Stakes is a programme to help drive digital revenue growth by re-focusing on audiences. Now in its fifth year in Europe, it is a collaboration of WAN-IFRA and Table Stakes architect Doug Smith in partnership with the Google News Initiative.

TSE insists on a Design-and-Do mentality where constant experiments help check hypotheses and speed up learning through experience. From the word go, the HAZ team launched new content, new formats and new products around cyclists, food lovers and young families.

TSE favours multidisciplinary teams that mix skills and perspectives to achieve better results. In Hildesheim, by June 2023, they had created a multi-skilled mini-publishing team around food. Their newsroom, data, marketing and product teams were all represented.

Crucially, TSE is about measurable performance. In January 2023, almost 50 percent of all their website readers were one-off fly-bys. By November 2023, these were down to 26 percent. At the start of TSE 2023, the HAZ’s very loyal users (more than eight visits a month) represented only 15 percent of their users. By the end of TSE, they were 40 percent.

How did they do it? Here is a quick summary of their inspiring journey.

Rooted in history – Future focused

The Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung is the leading daily newspaper in the area of Hildesheim where around 280,000 people live. The family-owned publisher employs more than 150 people, and its newsroom consists of 29 journalists and editors, four of whom were digitally focused at the start of Table Stakes Europe 2023.

The company has a truly historic past: founded in 1705, Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung is now thought to be the oldest newspaper in the world with a print edition. The HAZ has been on its digital transformation journey for a while though.

While its daily print circulation is around 26,500, it also has 29,000 unique users on its digital content, 80 percent of them coming via mobile. It has 42,000 Facebook fans and more than 23,000 Instagram followers. Its top newsletter is the daily Chief Editor’s pick with 13,400 subscribers.

This looks healthy enough. However the digital growth has not made up for the print circulation decline yet. Far from it. Their original ambition in Table Stakes Europe was to build digital revenues by focusing on specific audiences.

Break taboos and focus on urgent gaps

By their own account, HAZ had to start breaking some taboos when it came to digital transformation. Some key issues were either not identified or not discussed.

Their first TSE steps were around naming some of these, by looking at their internal strengths and weaknesses. For example, could they scale down the volume of the printed paper? Could they base editorial decisions on data rather than gut feelings alone? Nothing can replace genuine journalistic instinct, but is it enough? Is there one single audience in and around Hildesheim, or could they identify a variety of audienceS with complex and complementary user needs?

HAZ then identified and focused on a limited number of critical gaps, the most obvious weaknesses in their operations. Then they agreed on some key strategies, formulated with clear “From/To statements,” including:

  • FROM filling the printed edition TO fulfilling the needs of their audienceS
  • FROM working in a familiar environment (organisational structures) TO working in challenging cross-departmental projects
  • FROM simply collecting data TO carrying out data analysis and applying the results to improving the daily journalistic output

At this point, genuine experiments started.

What are we doing on Monday? Or, experimenting as an acquired taste

Food and Gastronomy are often picked by TSE participants as low hanging fruit for digital growth. It often pays off.

HAZ not only focused on the needs of local food lovers. They also created brand new Instagram videos, which were shot and edited on smartphones by their journalists. A “low-tech” (but smarter) iteration of their previous attempts at video production. They created a monthly topical newsletter with exclusive content. That might be about strawberries, BBQs or cocktail making depending on the season … and on what was available on local market stalls!

They not only created new content on new platforms via new products, but they also built a new brand: “HAZ-geschmeckt,” a German pun based on the newspaper’s name, became a multidisciplinary project, run by a small mini-publishing, cross-departmental team.

The HAZ Table Stakes team agrees this is still not perfect and needs some tweaking. At the same time, they were originally aiming for 750 newsletter subscribers; they acquired 1,700. The newsletter’s opening rate is around 40 percent, and click-through rate 30 percent.

Their success was based on collaboration, goal setting and focusing on reader needs. Their modus operandi influenced other desks and other topics.

For years, covering local arts festivals had become a predictable chore. Jazztime, a spring jazz festival, and M’era-Luna, a gothic-rock music festival, used to concentrate editorial efforts on concert schedules and reviews, with limited results on the website. Under the guidance and leadership of the TSE team, the culture team pivoted and focused on audience needs, local stories and impact of these art festivals on daily lives. Pageviews and engagement rocketed up.

Worse, journalists said they had fun doing it!

Increased engagement – by loyal readers AND newspaper teams alike

One of the HAZ team’s main KPIs is media time, a combination of pageviews and engagement duration. Among its loyal fan base (or “heavy users”), they doubled their performance on that criteria alone across the duration of the programme.

The rate of fly-bys on their website decreased significantly (from 47 percent to 26 percent). Over the same time, the proportion of loyal fans (over eight visits a month) increased considerably – from 15 percent to almost 40 percent.

Crucially, from a “pioneers” stage the HAZ has now moved to the “movement” phase. A constantly growing number of HAZ colleagues are building on the original TSE momentum. They think about audienceS needs when it comes to creating content, developing platforms or launching new subscription offers. They design experiments, learn and extrapolate from them.

It’s true that this does not represent new digital revenues yet. But such dramatic increase in loyalty and engagement from users and colleagues alike is a powerful predictor of what will happen next, i.e. conversions of loyal fans into paying subscribers.

By their own admission, the next challenge for the team is about cutting their churn rate. TSE tools and philosophy should be handy in that respect in 2024.


This article is an extract from “Change agents: Using audience needs to unlock digital transformation,” our report based on the 2023 round of Table Stakes Europe (TSE), a WAN-IFRA programme in partnership with the Google News Initiative, in which 24 news publishers undertook specific change management initiatives to address key challenges in their digital transformation journeys.

  • The report is available free for download in English, French, German and Spanish Here.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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