Jubilees in conversation
On the occasion of our 40th anniversary, we invited another jubilarian companion to look back on the past of the newspaper and media industry.
Jens Emmerich, CEO of alfa Media, in conversation with Ullrich Villinger, CEO of Zeitungsverlag Waiblingen.
alfa Media celebrates its 40th birthday in July 2021, while the year 2021 has already brought “the big 50” for the Waiblinger Zeitungsverlag. The ZVW has its publishing roots back in 1839 in the Intelligenzblatt, and the merger came 50 years ago. How does it feel to have such a history?
Ullrich Villinger: I have the advantage that my family was not immediately involved. My great-grandfather really wanted to be in the state parliament. And he was told, “if you want the job, you need a newspaper”. So he did it in partnership with his brother-in-law and cousin – and later bought them both out. Bought them out step by step. But he still didn’t make it into the state parliament. His grandfather then lost the newspaper during the Third Reich. In 1951, the newspaper was bought back as part of the reparations.
On my father’s side, we have always been in Waiblingen, since 1763, first as soap boilers, then later with a fashion shop on the market square. The newspaper was not so successful around the war years, so our fashion business “saved” the newspaper economically. My father then took over the newspaper. He rebuilt it, changed to the Rhenish format and finally, in 1971, the merger was carried out to form the ZVW. This was a new economic milestone. We were able to do a lot and as a result we can do more than some other colleagues.
The last few decades have been exciting years in terms of media technology, a lot has happened in the industry. To what extent has the industry changed or developed during this time?
Ullrich Villinger: In the 1980s and 1990s, publishers – as the saying goes – made their money while they slept. Nowadays, you’re much more digital; and if you sleep through that, that ship is sailed. Uncertainty about the future has increased in publishing houses. You can see that the smaller publishing houses are suffering more from the change because they are unable to do a lot of things.
In previous times – if you wanted to sell your car, for example – you couldn’t avoid placing an ad in the local newspaper’s car ad market. But the (small) ad business has largely moved away from the newspaper and into the digital world. We as a publisher didn’t understand the business model. We were doing great, so why should we do anything different? We get money for classified ads, why should we abandon that? We couldn’t cope with the problem, it was beyond our horizon. These were changes in the publishing business that hit at the base, but everything is evolving. We have adapted to this and we are well positioned for the future.
Jens Emmerich: I joined alfa Media in 2002. I had found an old presentation of mine from my time before alfa Media, from the year 2000 to be exact. There I explained how “digital” can be approached. In other words, how publishers should adapt to the digital age. Even then, there were only intended to be SaaS models! Barely 25 years later, the time has actually come. At alfa Media we already had many SaaS solutions back then. Maybe we were too early. The ideas existed, but we didn’t implement them all together. Now, however, we are catching up again.
From your point of view, what was a key milestone in the digitalisation process?
Ullrich Villinger: At the beginning of 1990, there were only a few computers in the editorial office, the green alfa monitors. An incredible achievement at that time. Shortly afterwards, however, the fax machine appeared, which once again changed a lot. The question arose: do you buy them? And if so, how many? In the end, each of our offices had its own fax machine. But the faxes of our advertising department were so busy, with 500 to 600 faxes over the weekend, that the machines broke down every fortnight. And then the internet became relevant. Is one PC with access to the internet enough? These were conversations and discussions that one can no longer imagine today. As we all know, faxes have become e-mails and if the internet is not available today, there is chaos in the office. Everything comes by e-mail, without the Internet the publishing house practically falls apart.
When Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone, that was also a key development. Today we no longer have phones with buttons, we could never have imagined that. But this development also led to great opportunities for publishers.
Jens Emmerich: In 2007, I went to the USA on a work-related trip and went straight to the shop to see the new iPhone. I still remember how I immediately tested whether our ePaper app would work on the smartphone – and it did, which amazed me a little. I called up to Germany from the Apple Store and said: we need that. What I had in my hand was a digital revolution, that’s where the future lies, and still does!
Has alfa Media been able to help keep up with progress here?
Jens Emmerich: At alfa Media, we chose the slogan “Passion for Innovation” for our 40th anniversary – that’s also what I personally stand for. Maybe it”s not the most economically prudent thing to do when you’re one of the first movers, but that’s what I really do enjoy. I assume that we as suppliers have hopefully inspired in some ways. We usually are rather ahead of the game.
Ullrich Villinger: I can certainly confirm that. There are always new ideas coming into the house. What steps do I take, what do I have to implement? In the past, booking advertisements for our sales force was very time-consuming. You had to click your way through 3 to 5 screens. Today it’s all in one screen, in one app, where everything you need is right there. Digital job folders also work very well for us now. Here, someone with experience in the publishing industry has thought things through for us publishers.
Jens Emmerich: Especially in discussions with our customers, we are always learning new things that are relevant to our products. We have to pull in the same direction. Without feedback, this would be a tough process and not as promising.
What would you like us to do?
Ullrich Villinger: That’s difficult – in some cases I’m just not deeply involved any more. But the problem that all publishers have is that they have this dream: one programme that can do absolutely everything. In the end, I have many more programmes in the company, because they are all specific and necessary. But alfa is the right programme for us.
This also brings us to the question: What would you have wished for 20 years ago that we take for granted today?
Ullrich Villinger: The assumption that I don’t have a computer, or rather e-mails, has become unimaginable. My mobile phone is the one thing I could do without. But we no longer function without e-mails. Even when I’m on holiday, I check my e-mails so that I’m not overwhelmed by the amount of e-mails when I return. The alternative would be to ignore everything. But one always checks it. Actually, that also makes me wonder.
Jens Emmerich: I agree with that. In the meantime, there are also increasingly more companies, even big companies, that switch off email traffic after 6 pm. So that people can have a proper rest. In the media and publishing industry, of course, this is more difficult to implement. News and reports come in around the clock, there is no night’s rest and there is always something happening somewhere in the world that needs to be reported. In the end, you would simply miss a lot. A difficult and at the same time exciting subject.
With the pandemic situation starting in early 2020, a lot has happened in Germany in terms of digitalisation. How have you experienced this?
Jens Emmerich: All of our employees were able to start working from home in their home offices right away. We had already played through a home office scenario and set ourselves up accordingly. When it became reality through Corona, we had no technical problems implementing this “change of operations”. Conveniently, we switched to Microsoft Teams at the turn of the year 19/20 and thus had a home office infrastructure that we could use throughout the company. I would even say that our communication has improved. Our four company locations have also come closer together as a result. Suddenly there is no distance to cover between Rödermark, Kiel, Munich and Koblenz and we see each other much more often thanks to video calls.
Ullrich Villinger: At the time, we were faced with the question of whether to change our software or purchase new hardware. Fortunately we made the right decision. So we were able to implement everything step by step and then also make everything operable for our employees from home. The home office rate in our editorial department was about 80 per cent in some cases. And we were quite strict about it, we didn’t want to take any risks. Despite the introduction of Zoom and teams, communication among each other unfortunately suffered somewhat. Especially for editorial apprentices, when questions or problems may arise. but also within the editorial team, which thrives on discussions with each other. What I consider very positive is that meetings are now much shorter, because there is no longer any need to travel.
Jens Emmerich: This is something that I also noticed as incredibly positive. I think that meetings in the future will increasingly take place online. The time that is saved is enormous, but Teams has the disadvantage that you “can’t look each other in the eye”. It’s quite different from a face-to-face meeting. In my opinion, a healthy mixture of both worlds is a practicable solution.
Thank you very much for the interview!
The interview was conducted by Nadine Kaiser