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Defining a content strategy for a journalism start-up

Defining a content strategy is the hardest part when launching a new journalism start-up, according to the title of a speech at a recent journalism event. So just how do you go about creating a successful one?

Sebastian Horn is the founding editor and head of Ze.tt - a new online journalism platform by the publisher of Die Zeit and Zeit Online in Germany.

According to this piece by Nieman Journalism Lab, German legacy publishers are chasing millennial audiences by launching brand new, more targeted products. “We didn’t want to alienate core loyal readers with sudden content for younger audiences. So we started a whole other product to cater to young people where we can try new things, ‘move fast, and break stuff.'”

Horn, a former community and social media editor at Zeit Online, was brought in to create and manage one such brand: Ze.tt, launched in beta in July 2015. At the annual conference of the Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) recently, he shared some of his insights from building a journalism start-up and defining a successful content strategy.  

What we have learned at Ze.tt:

  • Deciding what NOT to do is key. E.g. We’re not on Snapchat Discover
  • Look at the data and use the insights for continuous development
  • Make sure your team understands your content strategy
  • Keep engaging with your users
  • Do what you love
  • Defining your content strategy is the hardest part.

Some of the questions your content strategy needs to answer:

  • What is your target audience?
  • What topics do you cover?
  • How do you excite your audience?
  • How much content do you publish?
  • How do you engage with your community? You should not ever launch anything without thinking through how you are going to engage with your users.
  • What is your voice as a brand?
  • What is your revenue model (this obviously influences your content strategy) ? At Ze.tt we’re still pretty old school, our revenue model is built on reach.
  • Who’s on your team – this should influence your content strategy heavily. The youngest on our team is 22, I’m 32 and one of the oldest on the team.
  • Who are your competitors?
  • Who is your inspiration?
  • How do you measure success? It’s important to define what success is: visits, influence, numbers, reach, engagement etc.

A successful story for Ze.tt

“With every story, we try to relate it to young people’s lives and what are they supposed to feel emotionally when they read the story,” Horn explained.

He added that stories about love, friendship, relations etc are the kind of stories Ze.tt is most successful with – and stories related to happiness “as there is a lot of anxiety in our society”, but Ze.tt sometimes also has success with political stories.

If one of its journalists has a good idea for a project, the management will often clear a week for a person to work with the project - e.g. to create a podcast.

A person in the audience, NRKbeta’s Anders Hofseth, asked Horn how being owned by an old, traditional publishing group was like.

“They are very happy with what we do, as so far we have been successful. As a start-up, you need to prove there’s a path to profitability, and, so far, we’ve proven that so they leave us alone for most of the time now,” said Horn.

He added that the biggest advantage with Ze.tt’s owner set-up, with being part of a big publishing group, is that you have all the support you need and can rely on an existing infrastructure and lots of expertise within the publishing group.  However, it is so important to protect a small, young team such as Ze.tt’s when it is growing, and Horn felt the best way to do that was by being separate operation (as Ze.tt is).

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