Newspapers in Crisis?

The Financial Times Deutschland, the FT’s German sister paper, published its farewell issue on Friday. Its cover read “FI  N  AL TIMES Endlich schwarz” (Black at last). Some are now speaking of a “newspaper crisis” in Germany. Photograph: Olivier Holmey

The Financial Times Deutschland, the FT’s German sister paper, published its farewell issue on Friday. Its cover read “FI N AL TIMES Endlich schwarz” (Black at last). Some are now speaking of a “newspaper crisis” in Germany. Photograph: Olivier Holmey

On Friday, the Financial Times Deutschland published its final issue, having sustained a cumulative loss estimated at €250m. On November 12, the Frankfurter Rundschau, another major newspaper in Germany, filed for bankruptcy.

These two closures are perceived by most here as part of a larger trend, and as rooted in the same difficulties experienced by news media elsewhere in Europe. In France, both France Soir, a national daily, and La Tribune, a financial newspaper, dropped their print edition to focus solely on their respective websites. In Spain, dozens of small newspapers have already closed, and El País, the country’s highest-circulation news publication, is set to axe a third of its staff. Cuts in government subsidies to newspapers in Italy could lead to the disappearance of many papers, and eventually the loss of 4,000 jobs. All across Europe, major titles have ceased operations or been saved in extremis from bankruptcy by new investors.

Most commentators of traditional newspapers recognise two main reasons for these difficulties:

1) The spread of free and easily readable news sources, both online – blogs, social media – and in print – short papers distributed on the street or in public transport and paid for exclusively by advertising – which suit the fast pace of today’s everyday life.

2) The broader financial crisis: if the public’s purchasing power diminishes, then it is more likely to rely on cheap or free media for regular news updates.

Yet such broad explanations, although useful in identifying key trends and struggles which plague all traditional news media, fail to acknowledge the specific character and editorial strategy of each publication.

The collapses of the Financial Times Deutschland and Frankfurter Rundschau have, to a large extent, little in common, and are not equally as useful in assessing the overall state of the printed press in Germany.

The FT Deutschland was, indeed, hardly representative of the German press as a whole. As opposed to a large majority of the country’s most respected newspapers, which were founded over sixty years ago, shortly after the end of the war, the FTD only came into existence in 2000, and failed to gain a broad and regular readership.

In a piece entitled “The Financial Times Deutschland – Angela Merkel’s Latest Victim” published on Thursday in the Social Europe Journal, Thomas Fricke, who was the chief economist for the FTD, identified German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the euro zone crisis as one of the primary reasons for the general economic gloom in the euro zone and in Germany, and therefore also for the demise of his newspaper. Such claims are, however, hard to substantiate, as the FT Deutschland not once made a profit since its foundation twelve years ago, long before the start of the euro zone crisis and Ms Merkel’s election.

In reality, the fall of the Frankfurter Rundschau has come as much more of a surprise to many here: first published on 1 August 1945, it had at its peak a circulation of 400,000, where the FTD rarely exceeded 100,000. Moreover, even in its final years, it remained the fifth highest-circulation newspaper in Germany.  As such, many fear that the FR’s demise may be symptomatic of a greater ill permeating the whole of Germany’s press: the Tageszeitung, for instance, soberly announced last month that “the FR might be the first quality paper to announce bankruptcy, but it won’t be the last.”

Yet these recent drawbacks, if spectacular, do not tell the whole story. The quality printed press in Germany is among the liveliest in Europe, and many of the country’s most respected newspapers are finding ways to keep their print readership, while expanding their presence online.

Data on the circulation of the four most read quality newspapers in Germany indicate stability, if not expansion. Die Zeit registered an increase in circulation over the past decade, with sales rising from 446,000 in 1998 to 537,000 last year. The Süddeutsche Zeitung has managed to maintain its circulation at the same levels as in the late 1990s, at just under 428,000. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung circulation has fell since 1998, but only by 60,000, and in 2011 remained at over 380,000. The fourth most read paper, Die Welt, still attracts a readership of 251,000.

As for news magazines, the major ones still attract a broad and devoted readership: the Spiegel, Stern and Focus magazines account for a cumulated circulation of over 2,300,000.

In parallel, all of these publications have massively expanded their presence online and attracted large quantities of traffic: in November 2011, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for instance, recorded over 35 million visitors on its website. The number will no doubt be even higher this month.

Such resilience is striking when contrasted with the fate of other traditional newspapers in the rest of Europe, and puts into perspective the recent collapse of the Financial Times Deutschland and Frankfurter Rundschau.

The disparity between the German press and its European counterparts has much to do with their differing responses to the current economic slump. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and as more and more readers turned away from the printed press to read free publications or short news pieces on easily accessible online platforms, a number of traditional newspapers across Europe opted for a radical shift in their editorial strategy. Success was perceived to reside in imitating these innovative news sources: shorter, snappier, and when possible cheaper, papers were produced. Sometimes, these changes had little to do with a new editorial line proper, but in fact only reflected a slow contraction of activities resulting from the gradual tightening of budgets. Where a clear distinction in quality between traditional and new media existed, the lines have become blurred.

An opposite view was taken here in Germany. Rather than follow a trend set by newcomers on the news scene, many traditional papers decided to maintain a breadth of news and depth of analysis that would set them apart from bloggers and short, freely distributed dailies. The reasoning behind this approach was simple: the gap between both media should be wide enough to warrant a few extra euros spent.

Consequently, on an average weekday, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is nearly twice as long, and twice as expensive, as the British Guardian, French Le Monde, Belgian Le Soir, Portuguese Jornal de Noticias, Italian La Repubblica, and Austrian Der Standard, to give but a few examples.

This decision, whether fully conscious or not, is proving to be both financially and editorially shrewd. In Germany, breaking news, meticulous investigation and exhaustive analysis are still associated with the printed press. By contrast, in France for instance, websites such as rue89.fr and mediapart.fr regularly steal the limelight from traditional media. The Economist, a vigorous British newspaper with a global audience, has followed the same approach, expanding rather than retracting both its print and web editions.

Taken within this broader context, the recent folding of the FT Deutschland and Frankfurter Rundschau cannot be said to reflect a larger, inherent problem with the German printed press.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung attributed the Frankfurter Rundschau’s demise to recent changes in the paper’s layout and content, which, rather than increase its audience, alienated much of its traditional readership: “The paper’s switch from broadsheet to tabloid format was not its only major leap. It was an equally major leap when the paper that used to be the favourite breakfast reading of left-leaning West German civil servants reinvented itself as a trendy big city paper.”

Perhaps the most accurate analysis of this downfall came from another left-leaning paper, the Tageszeitung, which argued that “the reasons are a dearth of young readers and more significantly, the drop in advertising revenue. But the roots of the demise of this once mighty left-leaning daily lie much deeper. Those responsible missed the opportunity to modernise it. The Frankfurter Rundschau stood for a fossilised, pro-union brand of journalism that neither reflected the times nor invited debate.”

Other newspapers are avoiding these pitfalls: by building on their strong print tradition while simultaneously developing their online offer, major titles still appear to be modern and relevant; that is, essential reads in spite of the economic crisis. As a result, Germany remains home to Europe’s largest and most stable print media.

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