Extra, Extra! Newspaper Crisis Hits Germany

Posted on August 14, 2013

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Newspaper Crisis Hits Germany

By Cordt Schnibben

It came to Germany almost a decade later than America, but the newspaper crisis is sweeping the country, with plummeting circulations and revenues. The German news media must reinvent itself in order to retain readers.

Three decades ago, the editors of the Munich daily Abendzeitung produced a newspaper each day for 300,000 buyers. Fast forward 30 years and its circulation has declined to 107,634. One of of three desks in the large newsroom next to his office is now unoccupied, so when Editor in Chief Arno Makowsky uses a ballpoint pen to add a sharp upward curve into the next year on the chart in front of him, all he can do is laugh.

Makowsky knows that he can’t get the curve to move upward anymore, and so do the top editors of other German newspapers, like the Berliner Morgenpost, Tagesspiegel, Berliner Zeitung, Hamburger Abendblatt and Hamburger Morgenpost. They only thing they can still do is slow the decline. In Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, local newspapers have lost about 30 percent of their readers in the last decade, with readership declining at an ever faster clip.

The fact that Axel Springer this month announced the sale of the Hamburger Abendblatt — the very first paper the publishing house established — and is largely pulling out of the regional daily newspaper market, came as a shock to both its editors and others. In fact, all print journalists feel as if someone — in this case, the country’s most powerful publishing house — had slammed a door shut with a loud bang. The death knell is beginning to sound, quietly, behind that very door.

Makowsky, 52, knows that the kind of reader loyalty German newspapers were able to depend on for decades is waning. The Internet, money and death are all factors that work against newspapers. Many papers are seeing circulation drop because their readers are literally dying off. Many readers feel that newspapers are too expensive and have instead turned to the Internet as their most important source of information. Advertisers are also spending less on print ads, which were long a staple of advertising campaigns.

In the last decade, the daily newspaper has largely lost its role in shaping public opinion. Which piece of news penetrates into the public consciousness, and which news is considered scandalous or worth debating, is now the consequence of a rapid back-and-forth between magazines, websites and TV, as well as social media like Facebook and aggregators like Google.

The small regional newspaper still has a monopoly on information. The national daily newspaper can make its mark with big scoops. Local newspapers in cities like Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, on the other hand, suffer the most from the digital competition.

All editorial departments, whether at local, big-city or national newspapers, face six major problems:

  • What do we need daily newspapers for?
  • How low can circulation figures go?
  • What can editorial departments do about it?
  • Does a paper’s own digital presence cannabilize the printed version?
  • Can online readers be counted?
  • What does the newspaper of the future look like?

The head of one of the largest media agencies bluntly described a seventh problem at a meeting of industry leaders in the western city Wiesbaden in June. “Get used to the fact,” he told the assembled publishing executives, “that newspapers will have to make do without advertising revenues in the future!” Media agencies distribute the advertising money of companies to TV stations, Internet providers, radio stations, newspapers and magazines. The advertising money allocated to daily newspapers has declined by more than half since 2000, because businesses either prefer to address consumers directly or would rather use TV and the Internet.

It’s a vicious circle: The more daily newspapers lose circulation, the faster they lose advertising revenues. And the publishers’ hope that funds flooding into the Internet will lead to rising advertising revenues for newspaper online sites has only been partially fulfilled. Millions are going into Internet advertising, but not to the print media’s online sites. In the United States, for example, Google sucks up four times as much advertising money as the websites of all print media organizations combined.

The Internet

Daily newspapers are threatened economically by the Internet, but journalistically even more so. In recent years, the news media organizations that have been successful online are those that satisfy their readers’ need for information and classification more quickly, in a more differentiated way and, above all, at a lower cost.

The websites of the print media, aggregators like Google and Flipboard, social media like Facebook and Twitter, dozens of new news apps such as tagesschau.de (the prime-time news program of Germany’s main public television station), the Huffington Post and BBC News, supply the interested reader with current news. Users can get a more in-depth and differentiated look at the news through blogging services like tumblr, web media like the German political blog Carta and Perlentaucher, a site that provides digests of German cultural reporting and a platform for intellectual debates, as well as local sites like Ruhrbarone, a blog created by journalists providing coverage of the country’s Ruhr region. Football fans can get more substantial information on specialized sports sites than in the sports pages of many daily newspapers, and the same applies to doctors, lawyers, architects and journalists — at least once they have tracked down their niche online. And those who seek the truth about the state of newspapers, following the debate over Springer’s sell-off of its publications, can get more intelligent information in expert blogs and forums than in newspapers.

The Internet is creating a kind of counter-public to the classic media by plundering them and depriving them of control and their aura. It forces the print media to refrain from showering its newspapers and magazines onto readers like care packages. The Internet turns readers into participants in the conversation, editors, inspirers and nuisances, schemers and agitators.

A Changing Debate at the Süddeutsche

Since the online editors of Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s leading national newspapers, began informing their colleagues in daily editorial meetings about how many clicks the articles on their website receive and how often they are recommended, debates among the editorial staff have changed, says Stefan Plöchinger, the head of the Süddeutsche.de website. Many print journalists have stopped learning to be interested in the topics that interest readers, Plöchinger notes. For some editors, it is an “experience that is gratifying and at times horrifying” to see “how directly measurable” the response “is to what they write,” says Wolfgang Krach, deputy editor-in-chief of the print edition.

At Süddeutsche, print and online editors work closely together, but with different missions. The online editors create a live medium, Plöchinger stresses, whereas the print editors create a paper that closes at 5 p.m. and still has to be capable of inspiring users the next day. The online version, he notes, is real-time journalism, whereas the print version is daily magazine journalism. Two news desks, within shouting distance of each other, coordinate the collaboration on the 22nd floor. The everyone-does-everything notion that every print editor does online, and every online editor does print, says Plöchinger, is a way of thinking “that we abandoned long ago,” because “the two forms of media require different talent and different qualities.”

Those who treat online journalism as just another distribution channel for print journalism “misunderstand both mediums,” says Krach. Every evening, 10 to 15 articles from the next day’s print edition appear on the online site, with the exception of texts “that embody the unique character of the newspaper.”

It was a mistake, says Krach, “that all newspaper publishers believed that they had to offer valuable content online for nothing.” This was the result of two fallacies. First, the hope was that the online sites would generate new buyers for the print product, and second, the websites’ advertising revenues could offset editorial costs — a goal that very few publications have achieved.

For the last 10 years, publishers and editors have been astonishingly patient in trying to fix this design flaw of online journalism — to the delight of readers, who now no longer understand the differences in content between websites and print products.

Practices vary considerably from paper to paper. The Munich Abendzeitung posts all articles from the newspaper on its website, as does Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, whereas Berliner Zeitung posts about 80 percent of print articles online and Donaukurier, a local newspaper in the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt, keeps its online and print versions completely separate. Neither Plöchinger nor Krach believes in allowing a paper’s website to cannibalize the print edition. “Only about 15 percent of those who read Süddeutsche Zeitung are also users of Süddeutsche.de,” says Krach.

The Money

Of course, all online news media collectively cannibalize daily newspapers, which is why 46 of 332 German newspapers are now charging money for certain articles on their websites (BildHamburger Abendblatt, Lübecker Nachrichten), or for all articles (Die Welt, Badische Zeitung, Saarbrücker Zeitung) when readers read more than 20 articles a month.

In the United States, 450 of 1,380 newspapers now plan to offset the revenue losses of daily newspapers with paid content, but only two to 4 percent of readers are currently paying for online journalism. Although the New York Times, which is arguably the world’s best newspaper and boasts a global readership, now has more than 650,000 digital subscribers, it has managed to convince less than 3 percent of its online readers to pay for content.

Frank Schirrmacher, the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), says he is “absolutely frustrated” over the success — or, in fact, the lack thereof — of the New York Times. “We are confronted with the issue of what intellectual work is worth.” This is the key question, he says, when it comes to deciding how much to charge for online journalism. “Giants like Google are trying to exploit intellectual work to boost their bottom line.” Schirrmacher believes that it is now time to ask society: “Are you willing to pay for the work of journalists when it’s something worth paying for? If society says it doesn’t want to do that, it’ll be our own fault.”

Tablets Create Hope for Industry

Germans buy a total of 380,000 e-papers of German newspapers a day. Although this is almost twice as many as last year, it remains far too little. Tablets are seen as a new opportunity for newspapers. About 5 million are in use in Germany, and in the United States one in four citizens already owns a tablet computer. They are portable TVs, websites and print media rolled into one, bringing together the glossiness of illustrated magazines with the in-depth reporting of newsmagazines and the moving images of television.

But most of all, tablets, like smartphones, enables users to be constantly online. This changes the user, the Internet, journalism and society. The reader is no longer just reading, but is now constantly feeding text and photos into the web, transforming the Internet into an archive of the present. Journalists avail themselves of this archive and develop new forms and new media, while users of the new media impose demands on the print media that they cannot satisfy. An editorial society of online citizens is slowly taking shape, a society that no longer needs newspapers to be able to have a say and help shape things. The hunt for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing shows how powerful, smart and forbidding this form of journalism without journalists has become.

Like the police, Twitter reporters interviewed witnesses of the bombing and posted photos from the vicinity of the bombing site on the website reddit. The photos depicted people with conspicuous backpacks, especially people who, in other photos, were suddenly no longer carrying backpacks. In this fashion, a young man wearing a baseball cap was identified as a possible suspect, and his name quickly ended up on the cover of the New York Post. As it turned out, both the new and the old media contributed to an innocent man being identified as a possible suspect.

Is BuzzFeed the Future?

Only hours after the names of the real bombers were revealed, the website BuzzFeed had already posted the life stories of the two brothers, as well as their sports interests, their views on the United States, their school experiences — and just about every detail of the last few years of their lives. BuzzFeed had used much of the information available online to compile an illustrated history of the brothers.

Reddit and BuzzFeed are popular websites in the United States that aggregate and sort news articles, and now have more users than the New York Times. Their secret is interactivity. Readers are both producers and consumers, feeding news, photos and questions into reddit. The most popular category is called “Ask me anything,” in which Bill Gates, along with other experts and celebrities, answers all kinds of questions. When US President Barack Obama used reddit in his last election campaign, the site crashed when 13,000 users posted comments within half an hour.

Executives with the Axel Springer publishing group like to cite BuzzFeed as a model for potential new digital media, a model in which millions of Americans have become addicted to categories like best-of lists of Egyptian protestors, legends about the “Titanic,” and morning gossip stories.

They apparently like this mixture of necessary and unnecessary news, which ultimately explains the success of almost all new sites on the Internet. They are reader-controlled, because click rates reveal what readers want. Newspapers are controlled by editors and tend to focus on what they think readers should be reading.

The Newspaper

Finding a balance between what readers should read and what they want to read is the difficult job all websites of the German print media face. But editors can’t prevent readers from assembling their own online newspaper from what the websites offer, and it — often to the disappointment of their highly political editors — usually ends up closely resembling a tabloid newspaper.

Based on the traffic patterns of users of Die Welt’s website, the “Panorama” section is the most popular, with articles about bras and a book about sex in Arab countries among the articles that receive the largest number of clicks. According to the industry site someedia, the website’s Sudoku game is very popular, which points to a commonality with the readers of Zeit Online, the web presence of the weekly Die Zeit, who after the home page spend most of their time playing Sudoku. Other top draws include a report titled “The World’s Most Tender Pornography” and a story about actress Angelina Jolie’s breast surgery.

Dangerous Accomplices

The online user is more dangerous for any journalist than the reader of the printed newspaper. The journalist can hold the print reader captive as soon as he has paid for a newspaper or magazine, often in the form of a lifetime subscription. The online reader is picky, moody and volatile, since the next website, the next video or the next song is always only a click away. And the online reader has two dangerous accomplices: aggregators and social media.

Aggregators like Google or Flipboard comb through the web for articles, photos and videos that interest users. They lead potential readers and viewers to the websites that offer what they are looking for. “And with each click on Google, I provide the search engine with information about me, which they can monetize,” saysFAZ publisher Schirrmacher.

Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, are becoming more and more important for online media. They have become significant collecting points for news stories, now that millions of users recommend and email articles about them.

Some 20 percent of all Americans, twice as many as two years ago, get most of their news through social networks. The number jumps to 35 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds. For the global digital elite, Facebook and Twitter have become the media outlets of record.

“The social media provide newspapers with even more feedback from readers,” says Süddeutsche Zeitung editor Krach, “and we get information to which we never had access in the past.” Facebook and Twitter are like a “permanent market test,” says his online counterpart Plöchinger. “For us, the recommendation numbers are key, not the click numbers.”

The structural change within the public is, however, reversible. It is driven by the giants that derive income from it, the publishers that see it as the saving grace of their business models, the new media, which only exist because of it, and users, who don’t want to do without the toys of the digital public.

Uninterrupted Participation

Smartphones and tablets facilitate uninterrupted participation, but it functions differently from the mass-media public of the 20th century. The digital citizen communicates in niches, in interconnected groups and in blogs, among followers and friends.

The netizen is a media diva, spoiled by the possibilities of the new digital media, bored buy analog bundles of text, and by newspapers, which are too expensive for many people’s tastes and stuffed with content that is of no interest to them. The netizen wants a customized product rather than something off the rack, and the digital citizen also wants it to be cheap — or preferably free. The netizen likes Flipboard, Zite, the Huffington Post, tumblr, TED and taptu.

The digital products of newspapers aren’t sufficiently innovative for the media diva, because they are hardly distinguishable from the print versions and take too little advantage of new possibilities. This explains the modest success of e-paper editions, especially as the culture of reading, which also derives satisfaction from the feeling of paper, continues to have an impact today.

Many people feel that tablets enable them to read longer articles, in particular, more effectively than on paper, especially because they can be supplemented with videos, graphics and additional information. Nevertheless, the evolution of the human being is still slower than the evolution of its inventions.

The number of tablets in Germany has doubled in 2012, and by 2016 some 24 million Germans are expected to be using the devices. The millions of downloaded apps from German newspapers and magazines testify to the interest in journalism among their owners, and yet daily and weekly purchases remain underwhelming.

The publishers’ expectation that they could gain new readers for their printed newspapers through digital distribution channels is proving to be a fallacy. “We have to start telling new stories and taking advantage of the possibilities that tablets offer,” says Süddeutsche deputy editor-in-chief Krach. “Three-hundred-sixty-degree images, videos, interactive graphics, all the things we can’t do in the printed paper.”

Print journalism that hopes to market itself in the digital world has to learn from online journalism, from the dialogue with readers, from the forms and from the language. Words must make way for photos, videos and graphics in places where words are inferior. Simply managing mountains of words is not the way to showcase the quality of journalism.

Data journalism, audio slideshows, animated graphics — all the things that online journalism has produced — has to merge on tablets with print content to form a new digital journalism. “With these new forms, we can achieve a depth of detail that isn’t possible on paper,” says Süddeutsche.de editor-in-chief Plöchinger.

The Resistance

Many daily newspapers have depended on being something akin to a family member for users. Once adopted, they were always there, on time, reliable and a known entity. Their readers wanted the familiar, and that’s the way newspapers were structured. “There was a meeting of the town council yesterday, something has to be written about it, and today it’s in the paper,” says Süddeutsche.de chief Plöchinger. “This schematic tallying influences the style of many newspapers, in all departments.” But the second condition for keeping readers is that “this is no longer enough for them today; now they want the unfamiliar, not the familiar.”

The third condition for survival is that every editorial office must figure out what makes it indispensible. It has to sharpen its self-image and its newspaper. In the future, readers will replace everything that is replaceable with something similar that’s floating around on the Internet. “Gone are the days,” says Jan-Eric Peters,editor-in-chief of Die Welt, “when you could publish newspapers that reached almost everyone. Today we have to offer custom-made products.”

Peters is convinced that economic pressure on editorial offices will continue to grow, because the competition on the Internet reduces the value of news nowadays. “In the last few years, the emphasis on journalism has decreased, and we are writing more headlines.” For that reason, every editorial office — and this is the fourth condition — has to focus on what its paper does better than other papers.

The fifth condition is that what makes newspapers outstanding are its authors — that is, the journalists, who function like brands. “They’ll be very important in the future,” says Krach.

Beyond the editorial offices, journalists distinguish themselves on the Internet, where bloggers with tens of thousands of readers become brands and embody independence. The sixth condition is that not seeing these people as adversaries but as debating partners will be just as important for editorial offices as having a relaxed relationship with all of the local blogs and Internet media, which supplement and challenge newspaper journalism.

“We haven’t demonstrated what we can really do online yet,” says FAZ publisher Schirrmacher. “We’ve kept important things out of the newspaper, because we had the feeling that we were harming ourselves.”

“The biggest fear among print editors is that the Internet will create quota journalism,” says Süddeutsche online chief Plöchinger. If all it does is focus on how a story is doing, that is, how many clicks it gets, then every website and every newspaper will sacrifice quality.

The Future

Making more money, developing new distribution channels, producing at a lower cost, improving quality and reinventing themselves — the survival program for German daily newspapers sounds about as cold and bold as the restructuring plan for the German steel industry decades ago. The only comfort is that German newspapers can’t be written in China at rock-bottom prices.

At the Donaukurier in Ingolstadt, every editor is familiar with the concerns, and yet they seem far away. Editor-in-chief Gerd Schneider doesn’t want to heap too much praise on himself and his paper, and yet circulation has been stable for the last decade. In fact, the 0.8-percent decline in circulation that the publication is now experiencing is enough to trigger a self-critical discussion.

The Donaukurier is a good, old German daily newspaper. The average age of its readership is 54. There is very little unemployment in the so-called golden rectangle, made up of Munich, Nuremberg, Augsburg and Regensburg. Reliable, cautious and not about to make any radical changes — that’s the way Schneider describes his newspaper. There are no free print articles on the website, and the paper sells about 1,000 e-paper editions a day.

Warning Bells

Many of the publishers who are convinced that the future isn’t nearly as grim as some predict like to cite the success of regional papers like the Donaukurier. Some 18 million newspapers are still being sold in Germany. Some 332 individual newspapers still remain. Around 13,000 people are employed as journalists with them. And newspapers still generate €8 billion ($10.7 billion) in total revenues. “Still” is the word that the appeasers use to comfort themselves, while “already” is the word the admonishers use as warning bell. More than 50 newspapers have gone out of business in the last 20 years, newspaper circulation has already declined by 5 million in the last 10 years and advertising revenue has already declined by €1.3 billion since 2006.

Bill Gates once said that printed newspapers would no longer exist by the year 2000. It’s the kind of statement that gives hope to the editors-in-chief of Berlin’sTagesspiegel, Lorenz Maroldt and Stephan-Andreas Casdorff. They have been with the paper for a long time and “still” talk about their work with the passion of pioneers, citing such achievements as the expansion of the weekend section, their reinvention of the obituaries page, even more pages with local Berlin reporting and, most of all, “not publishing a cold newspaper that merely produces a flow of news.” When they rattle off rankings in which their newspaper is at the very top, it sounds a little like the agricultural success stories the old East German newspaper Neues Deutschland used to print. And yet the more you listen to these two passionate newspapermen, the more you understand that publishing a daily newspaper today is a permanent revolution. In fact, that’s the word Casdorff uses to describe what his paper is trying to do: constantly thinking in new days, constantly trying things out, and yet recognizing that circulation is shrinking, albeit not as rapidly as with other Berlin newspapers.

Nevertheless, everyone is untiringly betting on the notion that readers will come around and realize that good journalism, even on the Internet, has to cost money. But what if, as is currently the case, only 3 percent of readers are willing to pay for this quality?

High-quality newspapers will no longer be financially viable unless they manage to achieve significant earnings online, says Süddeutsche deputy editor Krach. Then the current cutthroat competition, says FAZ publisher Schirrmacher, will turn into a desperate battle for market share, into a “Darwinism of stories.”

The Munich Abendzeitung was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010, and 22 reporters and editors had to be let go. The paper still isn’t in the black today, and yet it isn’t losing as much money as it used to. “I can’t make any guarantees, but I can say that we’re doing everything we can to keep things going.”

She feels bad about every journalist she has to let go, says Berliner Zeitung editor-in-chief Brigitte Fehrle, “but from a journalistic standpoint, Berliner Zeitung can still handle the most recent layoffs.” If they fail to generate new revenues online in the future, newspapers will go out of business, she adds, “and eventually we’ll have a desert of wild information floating around the world, information that is no longer sorted, organized or checked by anyone.”

In the end, says Tagesspiegel editor-in-chief Casdorff, it’s a question of “fighting for a cultural asset, a constituent element of democracy, the diversity of the press and the diversity of opinions.” This, he says, justifies every effort, and is more important than yield expectations, business models and publishing strategies.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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