From print to digital: 5 steps of transformation


meta is a German-language magazine that focuses on the intersection of journalism and science. With this thematic spotlight, it's unique in the German (if not European) media landscape. The idea is to provide a critical view of the science journalism scene, to monitor trends, and to analyze the relationships between journalists, scientists and public relation officers. Furthermore, meta provides trenchant views and insights into the theory as well as the praxis of science journalism.

It's a non-profit magazine, completely based on the volunteer work of journalism professionals who take care of meta in their free time, backed up by the German science journalist association WPK.

Although it was a digital publication when it was founded 12 years ago, it also became a print publication shortly thereafter. From then on, its digital component was used to publish the pdf online in a reader that allowed you to flip through the pages. As a result, lots of its unique content went mostly undetected by search engines and potentially interested readers.

Key element: Don't transform all by yourself

I became part of the existing editorial team specifically to accompany the shift from print to digital. What I believe is crucial to such a transformation is that all team members are involved in the process from day one: because ideally you'd hope to induce a change of mind with them included instead of having a few people labelled as "the internet people" responsible for anything digital.

Run by journalists who all have full-time jobs, our change took place at a lower speed than it would have in a fully staffed and paid newsroom. However, elements of change are nonetheless similar. Looking back, these were the five steps we took:

1. Examine the existing product: What do you want to keep? What do you want to change?

At the first meeting, we analyzed the print product and carved out which features we liked about it and which features could be improved. Even if you are print-passionate, there are elements of your product that you would like to see improved. For us, it was a very rigid layout, limited space for pictures (they were often sacrificed to have more space for text) and no cross-links to existing pieces on a similar topic, for example.

Almost naturally, print-first colleagues came up with ideas that would be automatically improved just by publishing digitally -- an eye-opening experience for them. At the same time, they realized that the features they liked about print could be preserved in a digital publication. These realizations led to a shift in perception: rather than differentiating between print and digital, all team members started seeing the content first -- irrespective of what publication channel it was produced for.

2. Start looking outside of your box

With their input, I sat down and started working on technical features and layout suggestions. I shovelled the content into a new framework (Wordpress) and tested several different designs with it. We discussed the pros and cons of different design choices with all interested colleagues because, by discussing your decisions, I believe that others can more easily understand why you decided for and against something – and in an ideal case knowing about the reasoning would enable them to ‘defend’ a decision towards other (outside) people.

3. Examine the new product: What has changed?

The next meeting was all about the new product; again, we assessed which features were good and what needs further improvement. We also drew back on the first session, highlighting how wishes and concerns about the print product have been taken into account digitally.

Ideally -- if your time resources allow for it -- you should have such sessions on a regular basis as the only constant about digital media is change – and that requires constant adaption.

4. Work on new workflows together. And make them as transparent as possible.

Starting with the final product, we defined all the steps it would take to get it to this end stage. These ranged from defining what a digitally published article needs (SEO-optimized tags and headlines, subheads, hyperlinks to sources, links to related content, tweet suggestions) to a clear scheme of who is responsible for which kind of task and whom to ask when in doubt. Also, we totally revised our communication channels to streamline workflows by splitting up tasks more easily or handing work over to the next person in the line.

At that time, I was not really savvy about the existing print workflows -- something I would make sure to know about in advance next time. It would have made it easier to highlight how the shift to digital not only increases the magazine's reach, but also can decrease the workload of some people in the production chain.

5. Let people have their own learning curve

Most rules and routines are in place for a reason, so you are naturally confronted with skepticism towards the new and unknown if you plan to change them. Going digital questions arose like: will authors still deliver on time if they know there's technically no deadline anymore? How do we have to deal with user comments? Will we have too little content to make users come back? Can we keep the print product?

Of course, you could just answer these questions by referring to the experiences others have already made. But I think it's more valuable for a team to see for themselves what happens. So, for most of the questions, we decided to just try and see what will happen.

Where we stand now

We tried, and we watched what was happening -- it all went fine! Today, the magazine runs on a Wordpress-powered site and is no longer published on paper. The audience reach increased, the number of newsletter subscribers continues to grow, as does the number of followers on the introduced Twitter channel. The editorial team embraced the direct digital channel to connect with their readers and to trigger important discussions among the German science journalist community.