Bridging the gap between depth and immediacy

Text: ceo magazine editorial staff | Photos: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Customer focus – January 2019

Dr Felix Graf, CEO of NZZ Media Group, uses new tools and formats to render clarity from the digital media world’s flood of information – and in doing so, wants to inspire his readers anew each day.

At the dawn of the Internet, pundits were already predicting the demise of the printed newspaper. Yet it’s still around. Why?

People tend to be conservative in the way they go about things; they don’t want to change at the drop of a hat. The printed word has a certain beauty. A newspaper leads the reader elegantly through the content: you can separate the sections and share them with others over a cup of coffee. This kind of reading experience is not easy to transmute into the digital domain.

How has digitalisation changed media consumption?

Digital transformation and the spirit of the times have engendered new ways of accessing and enjoying media. Audio and video are coalescing. And whilst overall media consumption remains essentially unchanged, it has become more granular and is now spread across several devices and types of medium. Hardly anyone still reads a newspaper for 40 minutes at one go.

“Digitalisation has forced the media world to become more customer-oriented.”

What do your customers think?

Many of them struggle with today’s surfeit of information. They’ve neither the time nor the inclination to deal with the daily barrage of breaking news snippets. And so they appreciate the fact that our medium provides context, orientation, and walks them through the labyrinth of information.

How is your company responding to these changes?

By designing and offering novel forms of use for various devices. We’ve given birth to new formats where we relate content 
and context via video clips, audio files, livestreams, photos and written reportage. Another example: condensed overviews, such as our e-mail newsletter with recommended daily headlines. We’ve also developed an app that actually reads the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” to you when you’re on the move. And then there’s our personalised newsletter: in addition to the latest news from the reader’s areas of interest, we make recommendations for reports that we, as media professionals, consider relevant. In this way, we combine artificial and human intelligence to create added value for our customers.

Our challenge is to bridge the gap between depth and immediacy. In terms of print, the change is of a less fundamental nature since traditional newspaper readers have not radically altered their consumption behaviour. But certain content – such as sport results – has been fully shifted to the online channel, simply because it’s more adequately and flexibly presented there than on newsprint.

Dr Felix Graf (1967) has been CEO of NZZ Media Group since 1 June 2018. Previously, he was a member of the Executive Board of Centralschweizerische Kraftwerke AG (CKW) from 2012 and became the company’s CEO as of 2014. Simultaneously, he also had a seat on the Executive Board of Axpo Holding. From 2002 to 2009, he held various management positions at Swisscom after having worked for McKinsey from 1998 to 2002 on industry-specific and worldwide consulting assignments. Felix Graf studied physics and chemistry at the ETH in Zurich and earned his doctorate in physics. In 2007, he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF). He is the father of two children and lives in Zurich.

How close are you to your customers?

Almost joined at the hip. Data analysis enables us to determine which articles users read, in what depth, and how much time they spend on them. We can gain a sense of where they come from and where they go. Some of those findings we pass on to our journalists. At the same time, we continuously optimise the customer experience.

But our discourse with customers isn’t just data-driven. We organise events where we can exchange thoughts directly with our readers, for instance during the “NZZ History” tour or at the NZZ Swiss International Finance Forum. Our customers value and seek out these opportunities for face-to-face dialogue.

As for me, I like being on the road and sharing ideas with our readers and advertisers. I’m interested in hearing not only positive but also critical voices.

The digital world is multichannel and fast-paced. What is the significance of high-quality journalism in this envir- onment?

Customers are of course free to decide what they prefer to read and from whom. That’s why we want to convince our readership each day of what we bring to the breakfast table. This isn’t to say that we write what they want to hear all the time. But we do want to know what they’re interested in. So we add the occasional controversial topic as part of our journalistic mission.

Digitalisation has clearly disrupted the previously oligarchic structures of the media landscape, and it’s forced the players to become more customer-oriented. Communication today is increasingly pyramidal. At the very top is the essence – in other words, the headline. The deeper the reader goes, the more comprehensive the information becomes, and we want to deliver superior journalistic quality all the way down that communication cascade.

Be it in print, online or via social media; during the week or on Sunday – NZZ Media Group offers high-quality journalism with a liberal worldview. The Group’s portfolio currently comprises eight print products and a diverse offering of digital and mobile information. It also encompasses various renowned events, including the Swiss Economic Forum, NZZ Live and the Zurich Film Festival. With its workforce of close to 800 employees, NZZ Media Group generated revenues of CHF 428.2 million in 2017, resulting in a consolidated net profit of CHF 28.7 million.

What advantages do you see in digital applications compared to good old-fashioned ink?

Print media are finite – in other words, they can only carry a limited amount of content, determined by the number of sections, pages and characters. Online media are infinite. The decisive factor here is not so much the length of the text but rather the form in which it’s prepared and the storytelling per se. In online media, we can supplement new content with previously published reportage, refer to related material, provide audiovisual evidence or incorporate others’ opinions. In certain instances, though, the content flow gets derailed. This naturally is avoided with the sections and rubrics of a tried-and-true newspaper.

Consequently, I’m pursuing the vision of a “print-plus” product, meaning an innovative online publication that offers the diversity of digital, yet the look and feel of print.

What will media consumption look like ten years from now?

Tough question. I believe that content quality will gain in importance. With today’s vast profusion of information, a lot of hogwash ends up being published. That’s why we need media and formats that help us to separate the meat from the offal. This ability heightens people’s trust in a brand. In ten years’ time, many things will be even more digitalised, and user behaviour will be entirely different. But the NZZ will still be here – as will a print edition.

You’ve been involved in a number of other industries during your career. What does that diverse background mean for you today?

I find it enriching. Moreover, it gives me perspective as I come to understand the logic of the media industry and deal with the various issues. Granted, that’s hard work. Here at NZZ Media Group, I’m immersed in an enormous pool of intelligence, passion and sense of purpose. It’s indeed a unique experience for me.