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Newspaper woes

August 7, 2009

Germany's newspapers are fighting for survival. Online news sources offer stiff competition and are free of charge, while the advertising market is shrinking. Especially younger readers are not buying a daily paper.

A young couple sits reading newspapers
Are newspaper readers a dying breed?Image: dpa

For decades, newspapers were as much a part of a German breakfast as a cup of coffee or a bread roll, but now the Internet boom – coupled with the economic bust – is threatening to make them a thing of the past. Young people, in particular, are shunning a visit to the newsstand and are logging on to computers instead.

According to a survey by the German paper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, only four percent of Germans under the age of 20 still read a daily newspaper. The Sueddeutsche's headline read simply: “Why a newspaper?”

Crisis of content and circumstance

German magazine Spiegel, open on a breakfast table, next to a cup of coffee
Nowadays, a laptop would fit on the breakfast table, tooImage: AP

It's a question many consumers are asking themselves as well. German newspapers have lost one fifth of their subscribers over the past decade.

To make matters worse, the current recession has led to a dramatic decline in the advertising sector, further threatening print media. Less advertising income means lower budgets, smaller papers and fewer reporters, leading inexorably to reduced content and a loss of quality.

Completing this vicious circle is the drop in quality, meaning less news content for the same price. The result drives even regular newspaper readers to seek better value for their money from other sources.

Cutting costs

Several newspapers printed by major German publisher Axel Springer Verlag
Writers for the Axel Springer publishing house are working shorter shiftsImage: dpa

Nevertheless, major German publishers are being forced to react to their changing revenue streams. Late in July, such major players as Gruner & Jahr and Axel Springer introduced shorter shifts for many of their employees and, prior to that, the German editions of the lifestyle magazines “Vanity Fair”, “Amica”, and “Tomorrow” shut their doors for good.

Germany's biggest local paper, the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung made the biggest headlines earlier this year, though, laying off over 250 employees and closing two regional offices.

Even insiders, like the editor-in-chief of Financial Times Germany, Stefan Klusman, are prophesizing the death of the newspaper industry. He said that the daily paper would be “killed by the I-Phone” within the next five to 10 years.

Embracing the Internet

Three elderly people sit reading newspapers on a lawn
Newspapers need to attract readers of all agesImage: dpa

However, there are editors that see some hope despite the rise of alternative media. Bernd Ziesemer from the German business paper Handelsblatt – which now has its own website – points out that most popular news websites rely on their newspaper, radio or television station editorial staffs to provide their content.

The answer, Ziesemer believes, is to find a way to generate new revenue via the Internet to make up for losses in the print medium.

But he also stresses that serious newspapers cannot afford to lose their identities and must not cut costs so drastically that they can no longer maintain their reputation as original sources of exclusive content.

“Just sitting at a keyboard and throwing an article up on the Internet by no means makes you a journalist,” he says. “And, we [journalists] should be proud of that, if you ask me! A really well-written article – regardless of whether it ends up online or in a newspaper – will always play an important role in our society.”

Author: Gisa Funck (msh)

Editor: Susan Houlton