Axel Springer CEO, Mathias Döpfner: Focus, passion and the future of media

Mic CEO and Co-founder Chris Altchek sat down with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer, on Thursday in Mic's New York City office. Axel Springer, the largest publishing company in Europe, owns a number of print and digital publishing companies including Bild  Europe's largest print paper with over 12 million readers per issue. 

The following is a transcript of the interview with an accompanying video excerpt:

Chris Altchek (CA): Refugees and the rise of Trump in the U.S. has been a very hot topic. Bild is the biggest newspaper in Europe, if I understand that correctly, and has taken quite a controversial stance on refugees in Germany. Maybe not controversial, but it's caused a lot of discussion. How do you think about the journalism of Bild and how do you think about the responsibility of Bild to Germany?

Mathias Döpfner (MD): Well, Bild is clearly a mass market brand, it's reaching 12 million readers with its print edition, it's reaching almost 20 million unique users with its online edition, it has 300,000 paying subscribers to its online edition, so it is a very popular brand. So usually people would expect that such a popular brand is taking a more kind of populist position when it comes to refugees, but Bild was very supportive for the influx of refugees and had this kind of welcome gestures. And it was in a way a kind of controversial discussion, but I think it was absolutely the right approach. I mean you can debate the refugee policy and there are good reasons to criticize elements of it, but I think there is no alternative that Germany needs to be a modern and open minded country that is helping people that are coming from war zones and I'm very glad that Bild took that position

CA: Awesome. And on the business, Axel Springer is now 85% digital across the board. In 2002, when you started it was ...

MD: 0.2%

CA: 0.2%, so that's an incredible transformation. How did it happen? What did you learn? Before we talk about America.

MD: Well, for me it was people asking me how could you see this coming and so on, but to be honest it was so obvious that digitization is going to change the world and is going to change publishing probably in the first place. So I said at the very beginning when I became CEO in 2002: We have to embrace that development and we have to transform the company into a digital publisher. And so step by step, we either sold print assets where we didn't have perspective to digitize it, we sold most of our magazines and all the regional newspapers. We transformed the two biggest brands that we own, the mass market brand Bild and the premium brand Welt into multimedia brands which have a print element and a digital element. We launched digital content projects like Upday that we are doing for a very young, millennial audience. We have bought content companies all around the world in Eastern Europe, in America, in Germany, in Switzerland, everywhere. So, we simply did all these things, but the most important underlying precondition for that is a deeply rooted cultural change, and that was the biggest challenge, and that's perhaps the thing that I'm most proud of.

CA: And do you think that the American media conglomerates that I know you're very close to: The Time Warners, The Viacoms, The Disneys will be able to have a similar transformation that Axel Springer has had, and what can they learn from what you've accomplished?

MD: So, first of all, I'm on the board of Time Warner, so I'm biased, so I cannot talk about Time Warner. But talking about the industry in general, I think it's a kind of global phenomenon that most of the traditional legacy media companies are struggling with digital transformation. They simply try too long to protect their legacy business, they have these cultural issues, so it's a huge challenge. There are different approaches to doing it. I think some are doing better, some are doing worse. In general, I think the fascinating thing for me about the digitization of journalism is that we have new players. We have Vox media, Vice media, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, NowThis, Mic. We have a series of completely new companies like Business Insider, which we completely acquired. This is a brand that has the potential to be the leading business brand worldwide. It has the most attractive readership among young business people and business elites, and decision makers. I find that tremendously encouraging. My bet in the long run would be that most of the legacy companies will disappear or are in trouble, but new players show up, and that is going to change the landscape, and perhaps one of these companies is going to be one of the new Viacom of the future, and this is tremendously exciting. What a privilege to be somehow part of that transformation.

CA: Last question: What advice do you have for up and coming aspiring journalists who want to leave their mark on the world?

MD: Well, the first thing I said is follow your passion, and that means also you should rather specialize. Don't try to be a generalist who knows a little bit about everything. I think it's more important to focus on something. That can be investigative reporting, that can be writing editorials, that can be soccer, that can be business and in business, telecommunication industry or whatsoever. I think we are living in times where people who know something much better than others and have very convincing ways to get this information across, who are good story-tellers, they were make the difference, and not the generalists. So focus and passion, those are the two most important things.