The New Österreich

Wolfgang Fellner’s New Daily: A Colorful Potpourri of “Not Enough”

Wolfgang Fellner: Hoping to satisify the information-hungry, MTV generation | Photo: Courtesy of Österreich

It’s the “new Austrian” that Wolfgang Fellner, publisher of the new Austrian daily Österreich, wants to target with his paper. But after a study of the first issues of the paper, it is far from clear whether he has any idea who this new Austrian is.

After even a cursory glance, the range of Österreich is impressive, a rather thick and heavy paper that feels substantial in your hand. And the highly praised, vivid new format does, to a large extent, keep its promise. Although folded together like a normal paper, the tabloid-size Österreich is read like a magazine, with headlines crossing over the gutter that usually separates a spread or a centrefold.

But let’s start at the beginning, with a front page dominated by one huge photo and two headlines. On page two we face a collage of quick hit news briefs around the lead stories in the center, leaving enough space for the wreath of surrounding trivia, and the page-two story is accompanied by a promo editorial by Wolfgang Fellner.

From there the paper tumbles forward with high-energy business and visual clutter. All the pieces are punchy and short, nothing more than 3/4 of a page shared with splashy photo layouts, no lengthy texts and no jumps. In the middle, we reach the sports section. And we stay there for the rest of the paper, with more big glossy pictures and superficial reporting.

Fellner has described this target group as 20 to 49-year-olds, a “no reading generation, but a show generation.” He believes that the modern Österreich reader is so accustomed to Internet banners and split screen commercials that the paper had to be formatted to these standards. The result is a colourful potpourri of information, held mostly in red, blue and white, with the imagery to text space ratio almost 50:50.

Fellner’s approach is that if TV and internet deteriorate to “junk food” like products, print media could pick up there and satisfy the information lusting MTV Junkie when he’s in the metro on his way to work. In an interview with the German daily paper FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Fellner makes no secret out of the fact that in reality, Österreich indirectly targets the lower–middle class, the type of office employee or construction worker who is too tired to consume pages of black and white and typically not interested in the intricacies of the Kyoto protocol.

Fellner knows that the people reading his paper want to be informed, but foremost, entertained and surprised.

The weekend editions of Österreich includes three inserts, TV&People, Lifestyle, and a regional supplement of 5-8 pages, thus covering the range of several other Austrian papers combined.

The staff of the new paper was siphoned off from earlier Fellner creations such as Woman or FORMAT, as well as several key Fellner loyalists from NEWS. All three Fellner startups are now, as part of Verlagsgruppe NEWS, majority owned by the German publisher Gruner & Jahr. With a staff trained in sensationalist news and popular profiles in the newsroom it’s no wonder that Österreich is pushing its way up to number two of the daily newspapers, right behind the top-selling Kronen Zeitung.

The question is whether meaningful journalism is possible in such brevity. Portioned like a commercial to gain your interest, stories excite with one highlight before dropping to a quick conclusion that usually ends nestled up to another ad. The headlines enforce the sensationalism, superlatives go hand in hand with global issues and every now and then a “death of a baby” human-interest story fills the leftover space in the upper left hand corner.

Still, Fellner has been right before, and his new pitch, “4 – Newspapers in One,” may reflect the same populist instincts that made the mass-market monthly NEWS the most successful launch ever in post-war Austria. Having now sold the Verlagsgruppe NEWS family of periodicals to Gruner & Jahr, Fellner is feared by the competition as much for his hit-and-run tactics as for his innovative conceptual approach.

And the “4 in one” idea seems aimed at competing head on with nearly all the other existing Austrian dailies at once, from the well structured, informative Der Standard, which reports in depth on local, national and international news, to boulevard-style weeklies like Seitenblicke, the “Everyman” dailies like the middleclass Kurier and the working class Kronen Zeitung.

Whether he will succeed or not is an open question. Questions arise whether Fellners goals are set too high. Seitenblicke, for example, is wrapped in a sensational pink that far exceeds the quality and reading comfort of Österreich’s boulevard section.

Fellner’s consortium of partner banks invested €50 million in the launch, enabling him to start off with 250,000 issues in the first print run, and 600,000 for the first weekend edition, thus catapulting the paper to the number two spot  in Austria-wide rankings. He even had the German manufacturer MAN design and build him an entirely new printing press, enabling him to print at least the title page on glossy paper for the weekend editions and on high quality newsprint for the remainder of the week.

It is apparent that the enormous budget and the skill of the experienced staff create the best imaginable basis for a powerful and competitive newspaper.

The first issue of Österreich sold out just hours after its release, largely due to a massive promotion campaign preceding the launch. Not even malfunctioning printing presses, which prolonged the release for a couple of hours could stop the euphoria at the newsstands. Fellner also encountered problems with the delivery service, and some subscribers had to wait several of days for home delivery; as of this writing, others were still waiting.

Some time will have to pass to let the initial moments of excitement wear off, of course, before Österreich’s impact on the print media market can be accurately assessed, or where it falls in relation to other papers.

Media experts generally predict only mild success for the new paper; it’s simply neither informative, nor glossy enough to become a market leader in one of those segments.

Fellner’s publications have, by European standards, an unusually high percentage of paid content to editorial, what his competitors term “Fellnerismus,” a phenomenon that allows him to promote aggressively, despite the questionable objectivity.

And as to that “show generation” of MTV readers, let’s just say that Fellner may have underestimated us. Yes, our lifestyles may be accelerated, and our concentration spans shorter. But it may also be that we are simply less tolerant: We do zap around when bored.

And the problem for Fellner may be simply that, when zapping around, we are likely to find a better program than the one he is offering.

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