Extra, Extra! Newspaper Crisis Hits Germany

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.


By Cordt Schnibben

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.


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1. One way German news industry can adapt: analytics
Major US publishers with a long print tradition have adapted to the changing tides in digital publishing by taking a very web-first view of their journalism.
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