Germany: Print Barons Fight Back

A declining readership is inspiring innovation in the German news market, as Jason Deign finds.

Is Germany's newspaper market about to get exciting? Despite worries about the economy, more titles have launched in the country in recent months than in the past 60 years, according to the World Association of Newspapers.

Never mind that this apparent surge translates to just a handful of new titles. This is rousing stuff for a market where one of the leading players, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, only started putting photos on its front cover a few years ago.

The conservatism of Germany's newspapers extends to the people who read them, which is what has prompted the recent launches.

Publishers are waking up to the fact that their readers, while still making up one of the largest and most loyal audiences in the world, are nonetheless a gradually dying breed.

Reader numbers and ad revenues have been declining steadily for years, Dirk Engel, the head of research and marketing services at Universal McCann in Germany, says. But the drop is most evident among young readers.

Newspaper reach in the country as a whole is extremely high, at 80 per cent, but this falls to 50 per cent among adults under 30, and has been dwindling for 20 years.

Universal McCann research has found younger readers dislike the traditional broadsheet format of German papers. However, a Times or Independent-style redesign is not an option for most German publishers.

The average newspaper reader in Germany, Engel says, "subscribes to their local paper, reads it every day over breakfast, never changes it and never wants it to change".

This unwillingness to tinker with the existing formula has not always been a problem for publishers. In Germany, there is only one truly national paper. Axel Springer's Bild Zeitung, Europe's largest daily, has a circulation of around four million copies a day.

Elsewhere, the market is dominated by regional and local titles; 70 per cent of all adults read one. It is a nightmare for media planners and buyers, who have to factor in up to 300 publications when putting together national press campaigns.

Until recently, the papers themselves, of which there are usually one or two in each city, could all count on relatively little competition, loyal, subscription-based readerships and a steady flow of revenue from local and regional advertisers such as supermarkets or auto traders.

Besides failing to capture new readers in the coveted 18-to-30 age bracket and a general drop in ad revenues since the 2000 boom, classified advertising in particular has largely switched to the internet and the industry has had to invest in new printing technology.

Publishers have tightened their belts by laying off staff, buying in more syndicated content and, in the case of Suddeutsche Zeitung, producing brand spin-offs in the form of classic book, movie and music collections.

Then there are the launches, principally, 20 Cent from the East German publisher Lausitzer Rundschau, Direkt from M DuMont Schauberg in Cologne, News from Handelsblatt in Frankfurt and Axel Springer's Welt Kompakt.

With these, publishers have largely tried to recycle existing editorial content in a more youth-friendly tabloid or "compact" page format, with shorter stories and more pictures, listings and reviews. Thus, Direkt draws on the resources of DuMont Schauberg's Kolner Stadtanzeiger, and Welt Kompakt shares an editorial team with Die Welt and Berliner Morgenpost.

Jan-Eric Peters, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the three Axel Springer titles, says about half of Welt Kompakt's readers are aged between 18 and 35, and more than half did not read a paper before. Many of its readers take Kompakt as a second paper.

Axel Springer does not separate out figures for Die Welt and Welt Kompakt, but Peters says the combined circulation is 240,000 copies, up from 200,000 for Die Welt before Kompakt was launched in May 2004. "And we have attracted new advertisers," he adds.

However, many media bosses have yet to be convinced of the attraction of compact editions. "I doubt this will be a success because the content needs to be different from that of the parent paper, and it's not," Paul Vogler, chief executive of MindShare Germany, says.

While any launch activity is welcome, what media agencies are waiting for is not compact versions of existing papers but an entirely new animal: a free newspaper with nationwide distribution to provide a tabloid, younger alternative to Bild.

Rumours abound that the Nordic free paper groups Metro International and Schibsted are planning to enter the German market in partnership with one or more of the country's established newspaper publishers.

But it won't be easy. Schibsted tried to pull off a similar stunt in 2001 with 20 Minuten Koln. German publishers retaliated by launching free newspapers of their own, which were pulled as soon as Schibsted's title folded.

"We know all the big publishers have concepts for free papers on their desks," Engel says. "If they use them, it's not clear whether it will just be to fight off a competitor such as Metro, or whether they really believe in them as a concept with a future."