In Germany, the price of journalism

BERLIN -- Germany's news media landscape has long stood as one of the world's most thorough, critical and disciplined of its kind. Will its standards surmount the digital divide?
Written by Shannon Smith, Correspondent (Berlin)

BERLIN – As Newsweek moves online-only, The New York Times catches up to USA Today with digital subscribers, and Lex Fenwick successfully revives The Wall Street Journal, it would seem the news media industry is growing up – in a sense coming to terms with the realities of a brave new world dominated by the web.

In Germany, however, the first casualties of the medium shift from print to digital are setting off alarm bells – along with soul searching – in the industry and the rest of the country, as old favorites begin to disappear from kiosk shelves.

The multi-regional daily Frankfurter Rundschau (FR) filed for bankruptcy last week, and it was announced that the Financial Times Deutschland (FTD) would be completely discontinued as of December 7th.  Meanwhile, two of the country’s highest-profile national dailies, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, have announced millions of Euros in losses and planned drastic budget cuts for the coming year, respectively.

From a global perspective, these initial signs of struggle in Germany could signal the beginning of the end for the last print media bastions in the western world. Australian futurist Ross Dawson predicted in 2010 that while the lights on print are perhaps due to go out in the U.S. 2017, the UK in 2019, and Australia in 2022, Germany’s print publications will probably hang around until 2030.

Though the factors influencing the trend (improved digital offering, advertising trends, mobile phones, etc) seem obvious today, widespread conversation about the consequences of the shift are fresh and multilateral.

Language such as “drama” and “dire” are used repeatedly, as media outlets weigh in on the conundrum created by an awkward rush to serve digital audiences with what many view as disregard for the virtues of the discipline:

“Not another industry in Germany so eagerly and fatally mauled itself as many publishers, business managers and journalists of the print media have done,” wrote national weekly Die Zeit.

“They approached the introduction of their online content so manically, you’d think they were on coke. Most of the papers at the time were pure money-machines; and [these responsibles] were (and still are) stakeholders in one of the best media landscapes in the world – marked by diversity, sobriety and independence.”

Andrew Gowers, Editor-in-Chief of the Financial Times Deutschland told Der Spiegel that the FTD, which appeared a decade ago, was the last onto an ailing scene:

We were the last start-up paid newspaper in a western industrial land. That says it all. Print media is a dying industry, which is much clearer today than it was in the year 2000. Over 50 percent of our British subscribers are getting the paper digitally. Few newspapers can achieve that, including the Financial Times Deutschland.”

The left-leaning taz accuses the businesses behind the country’s newspapers of giving up on journalism too soon and threatening an indispensible institution:

“[The problems of the FR and the FTD] show that important news media are in the wrong hands with private-sector publishers: a profitable company has taken the FTD under. A “large publisher-patriarch” finally sunk the already-struggling FR with its petty ego games. That’s not a responsible, long-term plan for the future.”

But in a conversation divided between whether the print medium should survive and how to maintain journalistic integrity regardless of the medium, Die Zeit posed a future-orientated question:

“The fundamental question is: how can high-quality, profoundly analytical and well-researched journalism – the free news coverage around the world, in its critical guardian role – be financed?” Die Zeit asked. With a round-up of questions for the country's leading publishers, it asked about lessons from the past and plans for the future.

When asked about the mistakes of the publishing sector in the past five years, FAZ publisher Frank Schirrmacher told Die Zeit:

“How can you talk about mistakes, when an entire industry has concluded that intellectual work has no material value?”

Stefan Klussman, Managing Editor of the Financial Times Deutschland shared his own regrets with the paper:

“We didn’t think radically enough and tried to defend quality journalism in its traditional form for too long. We need better branding. That requires more mobility – both mentally and technically.”

When asked about good journalism surviving the transition, Managing Editor of successful print magazine Landlust Ute Frieling-Huchzermeyer spoke of sustainability:

"If you're talking about long-term growth and not a quick turnaround: you need creative editorial oversight and curious, enagaged and self-critical journalists, and publishers who let the editorial department do its thing."

In the end Die Zeit painted the country's print media a respectable, aging pillar of society with a potential self-esteem problem:

“Above all, we need readers who, in all facets, understand the value of good journalism,” the weekly wrote.

“This requires, however, that the publications and their publishers earn this devotion literally. Those who do not value themselves, cannot expect valuation from others.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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