Germany's large-circulation newspapers were once a guarantee of high-quality journalism. But with pressure from the Internet, circulations are dropping and so are editorial standards, some fear.
Germany's struggling newspaper industry tries to avert its demise in bold letters: "Print is effective" is the title of a campaign launched by the Association of German Magazine Publishers (VDZ) in an effort to hold on to advertising clients increasingly turning to online media.
Print media circulation is currently in a steep decline. Some newspapers have already disappeared altogether. The daily "Frankfurter Rundschau" faced insolvency, the business paper "Financial Times Deutschland" has folded. Even the venerable "Süddeutsche Zeitung" is planning massive cuts.
Small regional papers are hit most of all; they hope mergers and cutting jobs will help them survive. The reason for the print media crisis is as simple as it is cataclysmic: the younger readers prefer to surf the Internet for free than to thumb through a newspaper they have to buy.
Daily information on the net
Print and digital content have existed side-by-side for at least a decade, enhancing media variety in Germany - but now, a process of selection has begun, said Sven Gabor Janszky, head of the trend research firm 2b Ahead.
"Mass information will be found almost entirely in the electronic media," he said, predicting that publishers who make money in the mass sector will find it difficult to keep up profits.
Print newspapers are on their way to becoming a thing of the past, Janszky said.
"In future, we will want information wherever we are," Janszky said, adding that printed pages are out of place among smart phones, laptops and social networks. Electronic assistance systems that automatically transmit user-specific information to smart phones will continue to become more important, he said.
Janszky said electronic filters in the mass information sector will take over the role of today's journalists. Information can thus be tailored even more closely to a user's preferences, he said: "My newspaper on my screen will be different from your newspaper on your screen."
'Quality journalism reduced to a niche product'
Janszky had a slight reassurance for print fans saying the end of the daily newspaper does not necessarily spell the end to all print information. Instead of a source of immediate news, print media will in future become more of a luxury article that puts information into a context of opinion and analysis. There will no longer be a daily print edition, Janszky predicted, but a glossy magazine for the wealthy information elite - weekly, monthly, or quarterly.
Printed background stories and analyses would thus complement the interactive information, updated daily, from the net. An example of this is the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit," which has been ringing up new print circulation records every week, despite the industry trend.
Janszky said the rest of the sector is facing a wave of newspaper closures. This will affect the quality of reporting.
"We will see that quality journalism will be reduced to a niche product that is very expensive, but for which there is a target audience," he said, adding that readers will have to say goodbye to mass-market products that are still steeped in quality journalism.
Janszky means to provoke people like Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (FAZ), one of Germany's best-known papers. Schirrmacher is engaged in a pathos-laden struggle against the creeping full digitization of the news industry.
"What really happened to the democratization of information?" he asked in an editorial in his newspaper. His answer was unsurprisingly unflattering to the internet: From the "beautiful new information economy," primarily large companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple had emerged.
Paywalls as a way out
The newspaper crisis has also become a political issue in German politics, fueled by trends in Britain and the United States. Most recently, the US-based magazine "Newsweek" buried its print edition after 80 years due to poor circulation, and from 2013 will only be available on the Internet.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her concern at this trend. She hoped that the well-known newspapers and magazines would have a good future, she said in her weekly video message that the chancellor's office distributes via the Internet.
Journalism professor Klaus Meier, a cross-media specialist from the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, believes the lamentation for the print media is inappropriate. "I do not think that we will have more newspapers completely close down in Germany in the near future," he said.
Even daily newspapers have changed markedly, Meier said, "If we put newspaper of today and 20 years ago side-by-side, we can see immediately that we are graphically much more advanced." Four-color printing, information graphics and clear layouts made reading more pleasurable, as do text written with a reader-orientation, focus topics, and reporting with a greater concentration on the local region.
For Meier, this will result in a long-term coexistence between online media and a sharply reduced but still powerful print sector, with the border between them even more blurred. "Newspapers will only appear once or twice a week as a print edition, but will publish interactively and up-to-date on the Internet."
How such a change will affect high-quality journalism will be decided by which business model comes to be adopted for reporting in the future, Meier said. Paywalls for digital content on newspaper websites will be used more frequently, he said, calling the system introduced by the newspaper "Die Welt" groundbreaking.
"On the other hand, we will see more and more that journalism is not 100 percent marketable, but that we must think instead about foundation models, perhaps also through state investment," Meier said, pointing to nonprofit foundations such as "Pro Publica" in the United States that provide grants to individual journalists or entire editorial staff to perform in-depth research.
Whether this would be sufficient, to ensure the place of print media in the media landscape, as promised in the "Print is effective" campaign, is not something he said he would be willing to predict.