Newspapers are still important

Newspaper death - Why we still need the paper press

When Wolfgang Riepl wrote his doctoral thesis on human communication since Roman times in 1913, the world was in a state of profound upheaval. The first films rattled across the screen, telegraph messages flew wirelessly across the Atlantic - the birth of radio. Riepl, then editor-in-chief of the Nürnberger Zeitung, would have had every reason to worry about the future of his industry in view of these innovations.

In fact, however, he came to the opposite conclusion: the oldest forms of media use, if they were only sufficiently tried out and naturalized, would never be suppressed, even if progress produced a newer, more sophisticated news medium. And indeed: the good old daily newspaper, invented around 1650 in Leipzig, survived - despite radio, film and television.

Today, a century after Riepl, the world is changing again. But when the digital revolution is discussed, media representatives and network activists like to quote this "Riepl's law". Accordingly, the daily newspaper will not disappear with the Internet. There is only one catch to this assumption: the Internet is not just a new medium, i.e. a channel through which messages are spread. Rather, it is a suction filter that absorbs everything that has existed in traditional media up to now: radio, television, the Internet. There are also new forms of peer-to-peer, blogging, crowdsourcing, and self-rotation. So it's not just a more modern news medium, it is the Everywhere medium par excellence.

And suddenly it looks very bleak for the daily newspapers.

When German journalism celebrates its 50th birthday this month, one might not only believe that Riepl was right about the good old paper press. One might even be inclined to believe that it was this genre that pushed freedom of expression the most in Germany.

But first things first: The free press, which the Germans have come to love so much, manifested itself in the Spiegel affair in October 1962. At that time, seven editors questioned the Bundeswehr's readiness for action - and went to prison. The charge: treason. Wrongly, as it turned out later. In the decades that followed, newspapers and magazines repeatedly uncovered scandals or found themselves exposed to pressure from the authorities. Be it when Hans Leyendecker unraveled the Flick affair, later took out the CDU black accounts at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, when the Bild-Zeitung denounced the bonus miles practice of numerous politicians or when the editorial offices of the Cicero were searched because the magazine was made up of confidential files of the Federal Criminal Police Office had quoted: These media reports often triggered political earthquakes, led to resignations or committees of inquiry. In the regional as well - where visibility is not so great, but democratic control is just as important - the press has been a guardian for decades.

If Wolfgang Riepl were still alive today, he would be horrified by the events in his previous paper, the Nürnberger Zeitung. This is because it is in dire financial straits, advertising and sales figures have been shrinking for years. By the end of the year, the publisher wants to cut a fifth of the editorial positions.

[gallery: Farewell pictures - emigrants from Oppenheim to Adorno]

If Riepl had followed the latest reports from the media market, his law would probably cause him a headache. A quick review:

June 20: The Cologne publisher DuMont Schauberg is considering selling the Frankfurter Rundschau (FR). The crisis-ridden paper will also be in the red in 2013, according to the company's management. The FR has been in the red for years, parts of the paper are stocked by the group's own Berliner Zeitung.

July 25th: Statisticians report an alarming downward trend in the daily newspapers. Compared to the previous year, the nationwide readership has shrunk by around one million to 48 million, as reported by the Media Analysis Working Group. The situation is dramatic for the regional newspapers, which are posting double-digit losses. But national newspapers like the Financial Times Deutschland (minus eleven percent) and the Handelsblatt (minus six percent) are also in free fall.

July 28: The Financial Times Deutschland announces its thinning plans. The weekly edition is to gradually disappear from the Internet. All that would be left would be a weekly newspaper.

September 20: The Berlin publishing house announces job cuts in an advertising paper. According to the union, 50 jobs are threatened at Berliner Abendblatt, Berliner Kurier and Berliner Zeitung.

September 29: Germany's oldest street newspaper, the Nürnberger Abendblatt, appears for the last time in 93 years. The Münchner Abendzeitung had already sold the paper in 2010, at last it had a circulation of only 14,000 copies.

October 2: The news agency "dapd" announces its insolvency. Eight companies from Germany's second largest press agency file for bankruptcy. The company couldn't even transfer September salaries to its employees. "Dapd" delivers news to dozens of regional newspapers every day.

October 6th: The left-wing daily Junge Welt appeals to its readership with a rescue appeal. The existence of the newspaper (circulation: 17,000 copies) is at risk if further subscribers cannot be found quickly. The minus since the beginning of the year amounts to 100,000 euros.

Page 2: Fewer and fewer journalists feed more and more media products

But the trend is not limited to Germany. Abroad, the situation is sometimes even more dramatic:

September 29: The last regular issue of Times-Picayune appears in New Orleans, USA. The newspaper is moving to the Internet, there is only a printed version three times a week, 200 editors are to be fired. New Orleans is now the largest US city with no daily newspaper. The Times-Picayune reported spectacular details during Hurricane Katrina and received the Pulitzer Prize for it in 2006.

The website newspaperdeathwatch.com documents the death of newspapers in the United States. Since March 2007, 14 sheets have disappeared. Renowned metropolitan newspapers are also deeply in crisis: the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, even the Washington Post. In 2009 the New York Times faced the abyss. A generous Mexican billionaire of all people rushed to rescue him - Carlos Slim.

October 10: The Spanish El País announces radical austerity measures. Around every third job is cut, salaries are reduced by 15 percent. In the second quarter the loss was 53 million euros.

Of course, there may be numerous reasons for each of these cases: outdated business models, the economic and financial crisis. Bad speculation and mismanagement could be added with a look at the press agency "dapd".

Are these all coincidences? Inevitable market adjustments?

In any case, there is one thing it is not: a lack of demand. Because while the media analysis cited above only reads the printed Newspapers were recorded by the newspaper marketing company at the end of September all Forms of distribution counted, including those on the Internet. Lo and behold: Almost 80 percent of Germans - 55.7 million - read newspapers accordingly.

Riepl would laugh and say: Well, I was right! Good journalism continues to sell well!

[gallery: Crash course of local language culture]

However - and here the problem comes - no longer on paper. A fifth of users only read the news online. It is above all the younger people who grow up with the Internet, for whom social networks and Wikipedia are part of everyday life. You are already largely foregoing subscriptions. When the newspaperless boys get older and make up the majority of society, things get very tight for the print houses, which still rely on the old cohorts today. Then the Internet could actually be the gravedigger of the print press.

And that would be bad if the trend of the last decade in the industry continued like this: more and more media, more and more bling-bling, but less and less people who also assemble it, deliver the content. In 2000 there were 15,306 editors at daily and weekly newspapers in Germany who produce news for both the web and the paper. Last year, however, there were only 12,966, according to statistics from the Vocational Training Academy of German newspaper publishers. They now have to do everything at the same time: writing for the print edition, for the web, blogging, posting.

If the press dies, Guardian journalism could suffer too. Because neither the blogosphere nor online journalism in its current form fulfill the function that the print media have performed up to now.

All you need to do is take a look at the laureates of the most coveted German journalism award, the Henri Nannen Prize, which expressly allows online applications. Awards this year: the time for the best report, the mirror for the best documentation, the image for their investigative work on Christian Wulff's personal loan. Or 2011: the Weser Kurier for the best research, Die Welt for Hans Zippert's “outstandingly humorous and entertaining” glosses. Only one online project has been recognized since 2005, a live ticker at kicker.de.

It is mostly the paper press that inquires critically, is investigative, and exposes scandals, both large and small. Which is the only one who still has something to oppose to the local princes in the country.