The Reading Room

Can Germany’s newspaper empire strike back?

It’s always tempting fate to make predictions – look at how financial and economic ‘experts’ consistently get it wrong, got it totally wrong about the 2008 banking crash and have continued to get it wrong about its aftermath and when the illusory recovery will kick in – but that hasn’t stopped some observers casting the runes about Germany’s mighty newspaper empire.

There’s a good dozen national papers, with circulations admittedly lower than their British counterparts, impressive names such as Handelsblatt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, in all 298 newspapers with a total circulation of 16.5 million copies sold, as well as 13 weekly newspapers with approximately 1 million issues sold, says the BDZV, the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers.

According to observations in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times, repeated by our estimable Roy Greenslade in The Guardian this week, Germany has defied the Europe-wide trend of paper circulations going into decline, while seeing some compensatory customer switch to online versions of these offerings.

“On any train, plane or bus, readers unfurl broadsheets that still do justice to the word, thick with advertising. More than 72 percent of Germans who are older than 14 read newspapers regularly”, observes Eric Pfanner in his IHT/NYT piece.

But against this doughty backdrop he casts the understandable shadow of fear with the observation of a string of bankruptcies and closures that have hit long-standing German news institutions over the last quarter, including DAPD, Frankfurter Rundschau and Financial Times Deutschland. Pfanner quotes analysts who reckon those specific casualties were due to their unique weaknesses, and that it’s not indicative of the state of the nation or of newspapers in Germany generally.

A downturn in advertising there has to some extent been offset by a rise in cover prices and perhaps even further by apparently successful lobbying by publishers of Chancellor Angela Merkel to grant them fees from search engines and internet aggregators who post links to source their news from these papers and profit from passing it on. But that battle isn’t over yet, as Google and others are counter-lobbying to resist this stealth tax. It will be an interesting battle as they all fight for market share, a copyright on original material and the primacy of ideas and the spread of information.

Süddeutsche Zeitung at 559,287 copies is Germany’s best-selling daily, which is fewer than the UK’s Daily Star, but certainly more than The Times or the FT. So it’s all relative, but even if the UK’s nationals on average sell proportionately more than their German counterparts, it just means they have further to fall in the inevitable print circulation dive.

Whatever the outcome in the short to medium term, I can’t see Germany bucking the trend by permanently halting a decline in print. Rather, it is likely to go the way of other newspapers globally, with the print edition ultimately becoming a rare niche product, like vinyl is to music these days, while the majority get their future news online off their tablet, computer or streaming to TV at home or work.

The market needs to stretch to go where the demand is – music is no less healthy these days by virtue of being available in a variety of formats – CD, MP3 and vinyl to name just 3. Successful providers of news, music and entertainment are those who invest in new technology and channels for carrying this information and who flex to meet the demand from novelty-hungry consumers, disinclined to demonstrate brand loyalty in a fast-paced, throwaway information culture.

Personally, I look forward to getting on the train, plane or bus in a few years time and unfolding my superthin 18 inch ‘subscription cellophane’ touch-sheet to read a variety of national and local papers, watch the latest film and surf the internet. And all for pennies. Now that would be progress. AW

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