by Riley Stevenson
Earlier this year, the German news organization ZEIT Online decided it wanted change the way it communicated with readers—especially readers with diverse opinions. Following a surge of populist movements in Europe, the need to engage with the public felt acute. The team wondered, “Could someone develop a dating platform for political debates?”
To find out, ZEIT Online launched a project called Germany Talks. It wasn’t quite Tinder; rather, ZEIT Online organized a mass meetup event, where participants sat down with people from different ideological beliefs to talk politics. By the end of the project, 1,200 people engaged in face-to-face conversation with someone they’d never met before.
Project Goals: The goal of Germany Talks is to “get Germans talking to Germans – a true dialogue involving the open exchange of opposing views and arguments. Face to face, across the country.” ZEIT Online staff recognized the dangers of political polarization, often fueled by Facebook algorithms, fake news, and contentious elections, and knew they wanted to help bridge divisions in Germany. ZEIT’s newsroom is small, with 80 journalists and 12 developers. “We didn’t think we had the infrastructure for this,” Philip Faigle, editor at Zeit Online, says. “But we thought, let’s just do it.”
Tools and Technology: To send out announcements about the project, Zeit Online used MailChimp. To keep track of participants, they also used Google Docs.
Impact: Around 1,200 people participated in ZEIT Online’s meetup event in June. “People are still writing and asking when is the next time,” Faigle says. “It was a good way to find a new way of communicating with our readers.” Beyond the event’s participation metric, Faigle feels the event was successful in upholding ZEIT Online’s mission of “not being only a sender of information, but also being a platform for political debate in general.” Many newspapers in Germany have disabled the comment sections on their online news stories, but ZEIT Online has retained it. “It’s part of our idea of journalism,” Faigle says.
Organization Background: ZEIT Online is an entity of Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper published in Hamburg, Germany. The paper was founded in 1946, and has a circulation of around 520,000 copies. ZEIT Online is one of Germany’s leading digital news organizations.
Project Resources: Three editors, two developers, and one data scientist led the Germany Talks project. A team of thirteen reporters, editors, and video editors (some of them freelance) helped cover the event. The external costs associated with the project were low.
Here’s how it happened
Prior to launching Germany Talks in May, ZEIT Online had already been working on engagement projects through its pop-up section, #D17. Once the team decided to pilot Germany Talks, they wrote an article with the headline “May we introduce you to someone?” and featured it on the top of ZEIT Online’s homepage. Readers interested in participating were prompted to answer five questions:
- Did Germany accept too many refugees?
- Is the West treating Russia fairly?
- Should Germany abandon the euro and return to the deutsche mark?
- Should same sex marriage be allowed?
- Was abandoning nuclear energy the right move?
In order to avoid pranksters and bots, participants were also asked to provide their cell phone number and answers to questions like, “What do you do after work?” The team said they wouldn’t follow through with the project if they received less than 50 submissions, but were soon surprised to find nearly 12,000 applications–with 2,000 of those arriving within the first few hours of the launch. Although the team used tools like MailChimp to send emails, they also spent a lot of time responding and monitoring emails from participants. To match people, however, a data scientist at ZEIT Online created an algorithm that matched people based on their answers and geographic location. The ideal pairing was people with opposite answers living as close as possible to each other. Not everyone could be matched, however, due to the similarity of their responses.
Ultimately, ZEIT Online paired more than 5,000 people together. Leading up to the meetup event, which was hosted on June 18, ZEIT Online editors continued corresponding with participants–some of whom didn’t respond and would thus be taken off the list. The number of people was narrowed down to 1,200. Each pair was asked to arrange a meeting and discuss politics. Some of the conversations were observed by Zeit Online reporters, but the rest of the participants were asked to send a selfie and a summary of their experience. Following the event, ZEIT Online released a series of videos and articles documenting several of the pairs before and after their meetups.
Here’s what worked
1. Rinse and repeat
In order to weed out unreliable or fake participants, ZEIT Online sent various rounds of emails asking participants to confirm. At every iteration they lost people, but ultimately, this ensured high-quality and committed participants.
2. Cast a wide net
“We had problems finding people with different worldviews” Faigle says. “So we sent letters and emails to big organizations like the firefighters association, which is big in Germany. They have members from all over and we asked them to ask their members to participate.” This helped broaden the scope of participants, which initially were ZEIT Online’s predominantly liberal base.
3. Keep safety in mind
ZEIT Online asked a lot of questions to help mitigate safety concerns. For women, for example, the questionnaire gave them the opportunity to say solely be connected with another woman. “Although nothing happened, violence is possible every time,” Faigle says. “That’s why we were so careful.”
4. Move step by step
The team started off with a Google Doc and an idea, but built infrastructure around the project as interest soared. “We built the airplane as we were in the process of taking off,” Faigle says.
Here’s what could work better
1. Partner with diverse media outlets
Because ZEIT Online tends to have a liberal readership base, in the future Faigle might consider partnering with media organizations that have readers with more conservative political opinions.
2. Spend more time on the questions
In the future Faigle says they might revisit the five questions and spend more time developing ones that would prompt lively debate.
Here’s what else you should know
- The one meetup that did sour was between a man engaged in a populist movement and a liberal woman. “They live in two different worlds” Faigle says. “Each tried to convince the other that they were wrong. They talked for three hours without finding a common ground. Most other people came to a compromise.”
- One of the stories that came out of the project was written by ZEIT Online’s editor-in-chief, Jochen Wegner, about his meeting with a neighbor. The story went viral and can be found here.
Get in touch with Philip Faigle to learn more about this project.
Riley Stevenson is a multimedia journalism master’s student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.