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Oct. 3, 2013, 11:25 a.m.

The newsonomics of the German press’ tipping year

The United States isn’t the only place where mainstay newspaper companies are realizing it’s time to reduce their reliance on print. One recent deal in Germany has gotten the nation’s media circles buzzing.

— Angela Merkel’s resounding reelection may have ushered in an era of unexpected political stability in Germany. If only the German press shared in that sense of calm. Instead, the German daily press seems to be unraveling at a faster rate than its U.S. counterpart. 

Print advertising loss is reaching into the double digits, several points higher than the United States. Two of the nation’s leading dailies, in Hamburg and Berlin, have just been sold by the largest publicly owned publisher in Europe, Axel Springer. Paywalls are in rapid progress, up at more than 10 percent of the country’s dailies, yet Germany’s strict pro-privacy, anti-cookie regulations will make the metered approach now sweeping the world tougher to make work. Leading newspapers are talking about going ad-free and relying almost entirely on reader revenue.

There is strong sense of a turning and tipping point. Springer’s totally unexpected sale to Funke Mediengruppe elicited a parallel shock here to the Graham family selling The Washington Post.

“In fact, all print journalists feel as if someone — in this case, the country’s most powerful publishing house — had slammed a door shut with a loud bang. The death knell is beginning to sound, quietly, behind that very door,” said Cordt Schnibben of the highly respected newsweekly Der Spiegel, in the wake of the announcement. His five-part story laid out the marked decline of German newspapering.

Meinolf Ellers, in the midst of media change as managing director of the DPA (the German equivalent to the AP) infocom and DPA media technology units, put the news in historical context. “The old world is gone…[company founder] Axel Springer was the biggest personality in post-war journalism.”

“2013 will probably prove to be the pivotal year in Germany’s newspaper decline,” says Ulrike Langer, one of the foremost analysts of the German digital news landscape. “Within the last twelve months, the Financial Times Deutschland has folded, the Frankfurter Rundschau has been sold and shrunk massively, and the regional paper Westfälische Rundschau is carrying on only in name (with duplicate content from other papers).”

Let’s look, then, at the German press experience, and, tomorrow in part two, where it’s headed in 2014, with big changes planned. We’ll look at the newsonomics of the German press change, comparing it to the U.S. experience, trying to tease out the cross-continental lessons.

The sense of decline and chaos here stands in sharp contrast to even four years ago. Then, when you talked to German publishers, they’d commiserate with their American counterparts, expressing disbelief at the more than dozen bankruptcies that were sweeping chains well known to Europeans. They couldn’t belief that U.S. law would allow clowns like Sam Zell to sweep up such titles as the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune using phony money. The German business had slowed, sure, but it wasn’t in free fall.

Now Germany, like its counterparts in Europe and more recently Australia, has found itself subject to the same hurricane forces of digital disruption. Even South American “quality” publishers have been forced into layoffs, after years of believing their markets were somehow “different.”

Germany’s crisis is resonant with the one in the U.S. Both countries have long, proud traditions of a thriving quality — as compared to celeb-fueled tabloids — press. Both are affluent, educated, large, and geographically diverse. While the U.K.’s quality press woes have tracked along with America’s, its geography is so different — a smallish island so totally dominated by the cutthroat-competitive national press in London. Germany’s 80 million people form a market more like the U.S., with more than 10 metro areas of at least 2.5 million people spread across a wide geography.

The slope of print ad loss is growing, reaching double digits for some papers this year; it was down 9 percent in Germany last year, the same as in the United States. Over the past six years, German publishers have lost about a third of their ad revenue, faring better until recently than American publishers who’ve lost 55 percent of it over the same period. Currently, circulation volume is dropping at a 4 percent rate.

German publishers, of course, didn’t expect this world. These institutions backed by family pride — most newspapers are still held by long-established, mainly privately held, family-directed institutions — have long disproportionately invested in their newsrooms.

“Commonly, in Germany, 30 percent of overall expense goes to the newsrooms,” says media consultant Gregor Waller, a former Axel Springer executive. Layoffs, now picking up pace, have been far less severe than in the U.S., which has lost about 30 percent of daily journalists in less than a decade. Even with that large investment in news staffing, Germany’s 300-plus papers are down about 20 percent in daily circulation over the last decade — only a tad better than the American loss of about 24 percent over the same period. German dailies have priced up markedly, as have U.S. papers, and in the process traded many higher-value print readers for lower-value digital ones.

The Springer–Funke deal sent all kinds of messages to the markets and industry. Though some in Europe incorrectly cited Springer’s need for cash — for digital classifieds and services business expansion and investment — as the reason for the deal, CEO Mathias Döpfner instead saw the same kinds of numbers and trends that Don Graham saw at The Washington Post.

In addition, Springer saw a new opportunity to leverage the audiences of what will become former properties, through an unusual new business partner, Funke Mediengruppe. The deal makes the two partners in a new business that will combine and streamline both of their “existing operations and their resources for the marketing and distribution of print and digital media offerings.” To make it all work, Springer is providing a 260 million euro vendor loan to Funke, making the 920 million euro (or $1.2 billion) acquisition price work.

The future simply was not sustainable on the models of the past. Springer believed that consolidation and major cost-cutting through restructuring was essential. It couldn’t be a buyer, though. Its ownership of the dominant national tabloid, Bild, precluded it from buying competitive press and consolidating. So it sold its original Hamburg property — Hamburger Abendblatt, established by Axel Springer himself out of the ashes of World War II — and Berliner Morgenpost, along with television program guides and women’s magazines, to Funke. (The sale must still be approved by German regulators.)

Springer selling? The news electrified media across the country.

Funke Mediengruppe is an ambitious media owner that looks like it’s planning a last-man-standing print strategy, now newly overlaid with digital investment thanks to its Springer partnership. It owns more than 30 newspapers, 170 special-interest and trade magazines, 100 advertising papers, and 400 customer magazines. Its strategies in consolidation — centralization and regionalization of business processes and editorial reorganization to focus reporting resources on local, while packaging national and topical news — will seem quite familiar to anyone who has followed the moves of Digital First Media and Gannett, as well as the early moves of early cluster king Dean Singleton.

It holds on to its national quality voice, Die Welt, and its prize, Bild, Germany’s largest selling daily, a tab-sized “boulevard” product that shares DNA with both the U.K.’s Daily Mail and USA Today, but with a distinctly German personality. Whereas less than half of Springer’s revenues pre-sale come from outside the newspaper business, well more than 50 percent of them will post-sale. That’s the kind of arithmetic long espoused by Springer’s northern cousin, Oslo-based Schibsted (“Schibsted’s stunning services and classifieds business”), which is increasingly a digital competitor, having moved profoundly away from depending on print revenues.

Springer is becoming a global company, with its growing Silicon Valley programs and investment focus. That’s a tall order for non-English-product-producing companies overall.

Germany, producing some of the world’s top journalism, can’t easily tap those markets, with its language reaching a potential audience less than a tenth of what English can. (Two German dailies, Springer’s Die Welt and Suddeutsche Zeitung, are translated into English by Paris-based startup Worldcrunch.)

English-language media own a massive upper hand, as digital disruption favors those who can reach global audiences at practically no incremental distribution. Almost a sixth of the globe — and that’s a disproportionately educated, affluent sixth — can communicate in English. That’s why we see The Guardian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the BBC making global growth a top priority.

But the Springer–Funke deal — with its business partner twist — deserves attention outside the German-speaking world. While ownership moves to Funke, the new partnership will be focused strongly on technology, partnering on a next-generation ad platform based on harnessing data. That’s right — data mining, ad targeting, and analytics are as much a rationale for this agreement as is the change in ownership. Getting closer to state-of-the art audience and ad analytics, with greater audience scale, is essential for German media — whatever the ownership — if they have any hope of competing with Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and soon Twitter, for advertising euros.

That’s the same kind of consolidation/technology strategy we see with the new Local World company, partly owned by Daily Mail and General Trust, Yattendon Group, and Trinity Mirror. It’s what Gannett is trying to do companywide in the U.S.

Both of Springer’s dailies in Hamburg and Berlin are profitable — the publications sold overall throw off a 18.5 percent EBITDA margin — but the company wants to move on with its future. Both papers implemented paywalls very early on, in 2010, but haven’t adjusted them sufficiently in the years since to take advantage of lessons from other publishers. For Springer — which like Schibsted wants to radically reduce its dependence on print revenue — it was time to jettison the properties.

The idea here: free yourself from legacy constraints, whether labor contracts, company culture, or sheer inertia — and get ready for a mainly digital audience and marketplace. 

Tomorrow: What 2014 looks like for the German press, as paywalls go up across the country, and how one major daily is strategizing an ad-free, reader-paid product.

APN photo by Winfried Rothermel.

POSTED     Oct. 3, 2013, 11:25 a.m.
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