TSE participant perspective: interview with Tiroler Tageszeitung

The Austrian publisher had already made the strategic decision to focus on digital subscriptions when it joined Table Stakes Europe, and this year they launched a freemium paywall. In this interview they discuss how the TSE experience helped them engage their audience and increase their digital subscriptions.

Interview with Matthias Krapf, Head of Digital, Moser Holding.

How did you become aware of Table Stakes?

Matthias Krapf: I became aware of the term and format ‘Table Stakes’ two years ago, during a study tour to the USA. Someone – I don’t remember who – made reference to it during a presentation. Though I didn’t quite understand what it was all about at the time, I did take due note of it. And then last summer there came an invitation from WAN-IFRA to a presentation of the second round of Table Stakes Europe. I had in the back of my mind that this is somehow exciting, nothing to do with big words or strategies for 2028, but something that is very concrete and that gets very quickly to the question as to how to further develop one’s journalism and business model so that they are sustainable.

What were your expectations or hopes that decided you to participate?

Krapf: Our expectation was that we would get into a development mode. That we would not have the feeling of participating in an event where only fine words were spoken, leaving us afterwards wondering ‘what do we do now with this?’ Instead, that it would bring us forward for the entire year and that we would gain a direct benefit for our business. Our expectation proved to be justified.

With how many, and which, colleagues did you participate in Table Stakes?

Krapf: The core team, i.e. the ‘owners’ of the project to use the Table Stakes terminology, comprise four persons, including myself. These are the General Secretary whose focus is on legal and business strategy, then one of my colleagues who has vast experience of project management and major authority in the product area, and one of our chief reporters as a representative of the newsroom.

That is the core team that maintains constant contact with Table Stakes and the coaches. Setting out from this basis, we began to get as many people on board as possible. Not all are directly involved in the Table Stakes project, but we incorporate them in the sense of the Table Stakes methodology or philosophy – people from the newsroom, sales, or technical personnel.

A total of 24 publishers participated in your TSE round, including German, French or English-language newspapers. Was the contact with all of them equally rewarding? Or did you benefit especially from certain contacts?

Krapf: Naturally, one does not have the same connection with all media. But by this I don’t wish to say that, for an Austrian media house, only the German-speaking market is of interest. It is more a matter as to whether the other media house is at a similar development phase or finds itself having to deal with the same issues. For example, we had a very fruitful contact with the Nordkurier newspaper from Mecklenburg, though also held discussions with a very small French-language newspaper from Switzerland. We even had an online meeting with a Scottish newspaper that was actually a participant in the previous year’s programme. Our coach arranged that.

When you say that it is especially rewarding to exchange views with other newspapers that are at a similar development phase or has to deal with the same issues: at what stage of development was Tiroler Tageszeitung when it decided to participate in Table Stakes?

Krapf: A big help for us in relation to Table Stakes was that the basic decision had already been taken to head in the direction of digital subscriptions. It meant that there was no need for us to sell the idea in-house that it would make sense for us to orientate ourselves accordingly. The awareness for this already existed, so that we launched into the project with major verve.

The concrete situation as of last September, at the beginning of the current round of Table Stakes, was that we did not yet have a paywall. We only had a relatively complicated log wall. The user had to register to be able to read specific articles. Now, since 1st March, we have a Freemium model. A large share of the articles is free of charge, but a considerable share is behind the paywall. These are tt.com plus articles. To read these, you need as a minimum requirement our tt.com-plus subscription that costs € 4.90 monthly, therefore a very favourable price that was also a subject of much discussion in Table Stakes. With this offer, we have succeeded in attracting 1500 subscribers since 1st March, all genuine first-time paying users. We aim to double this figure by the end of the year.

And aside from the paywall, what projects did you launch in Table Stakes ?

Krapf: That is not so easy to say, as many projects were perhaps not launched because of Table Stakes, but were strongly influenced by Table Stakes. We have started to live the mini-publisher approach, therefore the idea of forming cross-functional, interdisciplinary teams that take on a type of publisher responsibility. In the case of our newsletter TT am Morgen, which is not free of charge but distributed exclusively to paying subscribers, we have applied the mini-publisher concept from the start. This was a project that we were considering already before Table Stakes but that we implemented within the framework of Table Stakes. With its now nearly 10,000 users, this is a highly successful offering.

Perhaps you could use this example to describe clearly what exactly 'mini-publisher' means?

Krapf: Allow me to make a preliminary remark. There is the absolutely necessary and sensible principle of a strict separation between ad selling and the newsroom. But bringing together colleagues from the newsroom, technical personnel and sales people and tasking them with ‘making the best product for our readers’, that makes sense. There will be no conflict of objective. And that is precisely what is meant by ‘mini-publisher’. That content such as is offered in a newsletter is regarded as a product which is compiled and taken forward in a common effort. The mini-publisher is not one person, but a team that should as far as possible act autonomously and on their own initiative.

What else in Table Stakes is of special importance to you?

Krapf: The ‘Audiences‘’ concept very much appeals to me. It is something that Doug Smith strongly propagates. Basically, it draws attention to the fact that newspapers today – whether online or print – do not simply address one mass audience, in our case all inhabitants of the Tyrol region, but that very special target audiences exist. For example, outdoor enthusiasts who like to read our tour tips, or supporters of specific football clubs, or persons who like to cook, or young parents.

It is an elementary point for a newspaper to consider its content from the point of view ‘for whom are we producing this content? And how can we best serve our readers?’ Though this leads us directly back to the mini-publisher approach, for me it is a core element of Table Stakes.

Which audiences have you discovered for your newspaper?

Krapf: Although we did, of course, report about culinary matters and cooking before Table Stakes, we now have a special newsletter (‘Gaumenfreuden’) for people who themselves like to cook. Published as a weekly newsletter, it aims to provide a certain inspiration and create a type of community. It is a challenge to stand out from the masses of cooking recipes on the Internet. We do so by including contributions from bloggers or chefs from the Tyrol region. We do not simply publish three recipes, but instead attempt to incorporate interesting persons from the region into our articles.

Judged on the basis of newly gained subscriptions, the most successful article of the Tiroler Tageszeitung was a dialect quiz. Is that by chance? Or did the idea for this quiz result from the Table Stakes project?

Krapf: Here also, we experimented with quizzes before Table Stakes. It is certainly no invention of ours. Some years ago, during a visit to the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung), they told us how much success they had had with quizzes.

Initially, our quizzes were ‘hard programmed’. With Table Stakes we have provided a small content management system through which the newsroom can use to create quizzes independently.

Table Stakes has helped us to pursue the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) policy, i.e. put things quickly to the test instead of first planning everything down to the final detail. Thus we now have a tool that is used intensively.

The current Table Stakes round is still running. But do you perhaps already have a lesson or conclusion drawn from it?

Krapf: It is important to develop a certain persistence when moving towards digital subscriptions. It is good if you achieve objectives you have set yourself. But that is not the end. Life goes on. Especially in relation to the ‘churn’ aspect, you must be willing to continue to learn and improve.

I don’t believe in sure-fire success. We have achieved successes, e.g. our newsletter TT am Morgen. It has been very well received, as evidenced by extremely positive feedback. But that does not mean we can now rest on our laurels. It is essential to never stop considering where it is possible to improve further. And that must be institutionalised so that it is not just a matter of reflecting every three months on what could be done better, but rather doing this on a continual basis. This represents a challenge for the entire organisation.

My favourite plea in Table Stakes is 'Stop doing things'. What did you stop doing?

Krapf: I must be quite honest about this. In Table Stakes we did many things a lot better than ‘Stop doing’. But one thing that we certainly achieved was to stop getting lost in petty detail, take into account every edge case, e.g. the question as to what happens when user XY calls up our offering on a 17-years-old mobile on the other side of the border in Kiefersfelden. We now have much better control over such very special cases that otherwise only hold us back from really important matters. Table Stakes has reinforced our resolve to abstain from wanting to do everything to perfection.