Newspapers have long played an important role in German life. But the bankruptcy of the 'Frankfurter Rundschau' daily suggests that many will not survive the onslaught of the digital age.
Germany, the land of newspapers: the delivery people pushing their fully loaded carts through city streets before dawn; families taking their morning coffee, rolls and latest news at the breakfast table.
That's how it was for decades. The newspaper as a daily companion, the number one source of information. Events and flea markets, weather and trivia, sports and supermarket brochures - they were all there. But this is no more. German newspapers are not doing well.
In ten years, daily papers have lost nearly a quarter of their circulation, now down to a total of about 21 million, and it continues to fall. In September 2012, the "Abendzeitung" in Nuremberg went bankrupt. It was Germany's oldest tabloid newspaper, founded in 1919.
"Frankfurter Rundschau" is bankrupt
And now the "Frankfurter Rundschau" (FR), once one of Germany's most illustrious papers, has filed for bankruptcy. This does not mean it will close down - but it's not looking all that good, with shareholders speaking of "continuing high losses."
Next, as industry insiders speculate, it could be the turn of the "Financial Times Deutschland."' Is there still a place at the breakfast tables and in the commuter trains? Do newspapers have a future in Germany?
"I do not think that the industry is dying," newspaper researcher Günther Rager said. "But it has serious difficulties. Ten years from now I do not think that it will look as it does today."
As a journalism professor, Rager has carried out research for the German press. Now retired, he subscribes to three newspapers. The market, he says, has changed: "It does not look as if, in the foreseeable future, a magic solution will be found to win over young people in greater numbers for newspapers so that they subscribe."
The 14- to 29-year-olds read newspapers much less often than their parents. Readers have been migrating to the Internet - and even worse for the newspapers: The advertising industry is doing this as well.
At the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers, no one wants to say anything about being afraid of the future. "But we're also not sure what the future will be," admitted spokeswoman Anja Pasquay. "For the past few years the newspaper industry has been going through a huge transformation process."
Newspapers for connoisseurs
Despite all the uncertainty, the federation is cautiously optimistic: "If you think about how the German newspaper industry will look like in ten, twenty, thirty years, we expect that there will still be printed newspapers that are sold and read," Pasquay said.
Pasquay, who subscribes to two newspapers herself, cites a conceptual model for the future of the newspaper: On the one hand, a few content-heavy, expensive titles in print form for a small elite. On the other hand, low-cost or even free papers for the masses, such as commuter papers for the morning train to work.
"Perhaps the printed newspaper will become something for connoisseurs," Rager said. "Based on the data and developments, I believe that the paper will have a significant long-term audience in that part of the population that is better educated, that can afford a newspaper and doesn't only want to look for information online."
Big political developments and small bicycle thieves
The "Frankfurter Rundschau" probably won't be participating in these developments - the decline of the industry is only one reason for its bankruptcy.
Experts blame the FR's expensive and labor-intensive attempt to be both a regional and a national newspaper. The shocked employees, trying to boost morale, wrote: "We will (still) write about big political developments and small bicycle thieves."
The bitter irony of the bankruptcy is that it hit a newspaper with a long tradition and high standards. The FR managed the shift to the Internet and iPad more convincingly than others. The Kress media service said the FR had checked whether it could carry on as a purely digital newspaper. Answer: no.
"Not a good day for our democracy"
Ironically, the FR's two major competitors are now expressing their concern, illustrating the blow to the German media landscape that the FR bankruptcy represents. At its cross-town, iconic, rival, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," the publisher himself picked up the pen - expressing fears of a bleak future: "When the last decent newspaper is gone, there will remain only chatter."
At the "Tageszeitung", a left-wing national paper like the FR, editor Ines Pohl wrote, "Yesterday was not a good day for our democracy, which thrives when it is protected by critical journalism. The FR was the first quality newspaper to file for bankruptcy in Germany. It will probably not be the last."
Still, Pasquay said, Germany has 1,532 different local newspaper editions. "This is very, very many. In comparison to other countries, this is a large number." Still, there are some 330 newspaper publishers in Germany and around 130 newspapers with full editorial responsibility. The German newspaper market is still the largest in Europe, and the fifth largest in the world. And yet it is growing smaller from year to year.