A lot of positive things are happening
Stephan Dörner has been editor-in-chief of t3n.de, the online portal of the largest and most successful German magazine for digital business, since 2016. The Berlin resident of choice has been a journalist and technology reporter since 2007, previously working for the Handelsblatt, the German edition of the Wall Street Journal, and Die WELT. He has always been fascinated by the overlap between technology, business, and society. We spoke to him about the t3n concept for success, Germany’s qualities as a location (not bad at all), and why we have by no means been “left behind digitally.”
Stephan, when I go looking for information about t3n, almost everything I find is expressed in superlatives: a steadily growing online reach (over 4 million visits a month and +41% in 2018!), posting of new record figures in print circulation (+18% in 2018) on a regular basis, more than 100 frequently played podcast episodes. And on the side, you clean up when it comes to winning respected awards. A noteworthy record in a time when media generally appear to be on the way out. What is the secret of your success?
It starts, of course, with our topic; this is one that is becoming more and more important. From the very beginning, our understanding of digitalization has not been limited to the strictly technical side of the topic; instead, we have always sought to build bridges between business and society. We stand for the topic “digital business” and how technologies are changing business – and we are still unique in our orientation. On the one side, there are the portals devoted solely to IT and technology, and, on the other side, the major business magazines that are devoting more and more attention to technology because they have grasped in the meantime that technology is the most important driver of business. You might say that we have grown up along with this development while wearing our digitalization glasses, and our readers appreciate precisely this mixture of technical, business, and social dimensions. And they value our combination of digital and analog formats. Besides, we have a fundamentally optimistic view of the future of digitalization, and that sets us apart from other media.
You issue a print magazine of 200 pages 4 times a year for a target group with an overwhelming affinity to the digital way. How long will the market still want to have print products?
I am convinced that we will continue to print magazines. Our circulation is growing, and we have just set a number of records relating to the number of copies sold. At the moment, anyway, it appears that this format is still in demand even among digital activists. Daily newspapers, for instance, have a completely different problem here because no one wants to read yesterday’s news on paper. But when it is a question of obtaining an overview of the trends and developments of our time, our readers still value paper. People who have been online all day – on their smartphones or at the office computer – just want to lean back and read a longer article in peace. And print continues to be an outstanding and popular medium for that.
Is that also the case for your young target groups who, by and large, live in a paperless world?
Naturally, our online readers are on average younger than the print readers. The largest group among the print readers is between 30 and 40 years old, while the largest online group is between 20 and 30 years old. But the 30- to 40-year-olds will certainly stay with us for a good long while to come. And as far as the young target group is concerned: the next retro wave is sure to come along. Just as so many people have returned to analog photography today, the smartphone-only generation will perhaps discover analog reading tomorrow. In general, we can say that the reading behavior of our target groups is wonderfully stable. To remain prepared for the future, however, we are investing in new formats – in the audio sector, for instance.
We want to talk to you today about Germany as a digital location and its opportunities in global competition. You devoted a complete print issue to the topic, “Digitalize!”, this year and proposed the thesis that Germany, contrary to widespread claims, is by no means hopelessly behind digitally. Do you regard all the gnashing of teeth about missed opportunities to be unjustified?
Not all of the concerns are unjustified, of course. There are some areas in which Germany really is lagging behind. The expansion of broadband availability and mobile services is frequently discussed in this respect, and many countries are far more advanced than we are. But there are also a lot of sectors in which Germany has strengths that many people known absolutely nothing about. Or perhaps it is simply not a part of German culture to brag about our accomplishments and qualities. Take the great hype topic of artificial intelligence, for instance, an area where Germany has an excellent position within Europe; the DFKI [German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence] is one example. Or the excellent degree programs in engineering, mathematics, etc. The most recent decades have been shaped by consumer technologies in which e-commerce startups have played a key role, and in this field the USA has been a leader. But most of these low-hanging fruits have been harvested. Further progress will be in areas known as deep tech, and research here is in great demand. And Germany is in an outstanding position in this regard.
What are the qualities that Germany has to offer to business founders?
Germany must not be underestimated in this respect, either. We have highly attractive locations that can stand up very well in a European comparison. Berlin leads the way, of course, an extremely livable city. This mixture of an outstanding cultural life coupled with rents that are still relatively affordable in comparison with London, Paris, or Madrid is attracting companies from around the world. Zalando, for instance, has brought thousands of employees from around the world to Berlin. Rocket Internet has also launched several startups from Berlin; all of the support queries, for instance, are processed at a central office here. But other regions with a strong economy, such as we find in southern Germany, offer increasingly fertile ground for startups and technology founders. They value the qualities traditionally associated with Germany, including high quality of life, economic stability, and social security, as well as the functioning public transportation and many other factors. Not everything can be taken for granted at other international digital locations to such an extent as here.
How about the political-regulatory framework that is repeatedly described as being too rigid and highly resistant to reform?
When I speak to entrepreneurs in Berlin, they do not have such a demanding list of requests for politicians. Naturally, startups would always like to have more capital, more involvement of public authorities in terms of venture capital, and so on. When I do hear a concrete demand being made on politicians, then the one I hear most frequently is this: Fewer bureaucratic hurdles to the migration of specialists. And this is where cultural aspects more than political concerns play a great role. For instance, people working in government offices frequently refuse to speak English or do not have this language skill at all. I have friends at home in Berlin who speak only rudimentary German, but they do not have any problems in daily situations. When they call a government agency, however, the person often simply hangs up. Getting around this is not a simple matter of regulations.
This brings up the topic of education. Poor language skills are not the only topic that gives rise to complaints in this area. What is your opinion of the sluggish digitalization in German schools?
We have in Germany the challenge that the cooperation prohibition is still in effect, the principle established in the Basic Law [German constitution] that permits only very restricted support from the federal government for states and communities. Digitalization of schools is making little progress right now in part because the communities frequently lack the essential funds. The federal government, on the other hand, has incredible funds available that it would really be happy to spend, but it is not allowed to do so.
Where university education in Germany is concerned, there has frequently been criticism of computer science degree programs especially, complaining that they are too theoretical. The difference between universities and universities of applied sciences, especially in terms of proximity to practice, was great. I have been told that it was possible for a long time to complete a degree program in computer science without ever having written a single line of code. Instead, complex and abstract mathematical problems were solved as if a career in academics were the professional goal of every student. Fortunately, this problem has become less severe because of the convergence of the types of university and degrees with international standards.
In other respects, there is a lot of discussion about the introduction of computer science as a required subject in schools. To be honest, I do not think so much of this idea. Learning how to use technology to a certain extent should be a part of the curricula. But that can also be integrated into other subjects. For instance, why should there not be a discussion in German class about how we can and should deal with fake news on Facebook? But I do not see any reason why all students should know how to program a computer. The opportunity to become familiar with this topic as early as possible should be there, but I can get along fine without computer science as a required subject. As I said, the integration of the digital aspects of our lives in all courses of instruction is much more important.
What tips would you give your children for their careers in the digital future?
I would tell them that the working world will continue to change and that they should not cling to the idea of a lifelong profession. There is no longer this kind of security enjoyed by earlier generations. I would, instead, encourage them to work on their human characteristics, the ones that no machine has. They include empathy as well as interdisciplinary knowledge. Piling up encyclopedic knowledge that anyone can look up in a matter of seconds will not be the decisive point. It will be much more fundamental to understand the basic principles of a number of fields. A kind of universal education will become increasingly helpful as advances are made in the area of AI. We humans will still have to make decisions, and we will have to make them more and more rapidly. In this situation, it is advantageous to be able to access a large repertoire of knowledge and contexts, but empathic capabilities and being able to put myself in the shoes of other people will also be important. Good corporate leaders must know what people in their companies are involved with and what concerns them.
You at t3n also recruit people who are at home in the digital world. What skills do they have to have?
That depends on the position we are trying to fill, of course – but there are also requirements that everyone must meet, regardless of the position he or she holds in our company. Our people must all be team players and be open and curious, for instance. We stand out because we repeatedly question things in our work procedures, repeatedly ask ourselves: Is there a better way to do this? And we work with one another, not against one another, so every single one of our job descriptions includes the requirement of being a team player.
From the magazine for digital business to digital Germany to digital Stephan: What are the first two apps on your smartphone you open every morning?
I must confess that I really am a smartphone addict; I go to sleep and wake up with it. In the morning, I usually start by opening Slack, an app that we on the t3n team use to communicate and collaborate with one another. I frequently go straight to Twitter from there. I am a news addict and always interested in what people are talking about. Contrary to general trends to audio formats or visual channels such as Instagram, the journalist in me still prefers the written word.
Thank you, Stephan, for these insights and the positive, encouraging assessment of Germany as a location. We wish you and t3n continued success – in the digital as well as in the analog zone.