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German newspapers fight to rise from ashes of virus crisis

  • Isabelle Le Page

    Agence France-Presse

Berlin, Germany   /   Fri, August 7, 2020   /   06:15 pm
German newspapers fight to rise from ashes of virus crisis A stack of newspapers near Bixton Station, as the spread of the COVID-19 continues, London, Britain, April 3, 2020.The coronavirus pandemic may have sent advertising revenues plunging worldwide, but Germany's beloved newspapers expect to emerge winners from the crisis thanks to accelerating digital development and renewed trust in the media. (Reuters/Hannah McKay)

The coronavirus pandemic may have sent advertising revenues plunging worldwide, but Germany's beloved newspapers expect to emerge winners from the crisis thanks to accelerating digital development and renewed trust in the media.

"The newspaper industry has so far come through the crisis relatively well," said Monique Hofmann, a media specialist with the Verdi trade union in Germany, where more newspapers are sold than in any other European country.

"We believe that readers' demand for information will remain high," she said, predicting that if it takes advantage of new developments, the industry can "not only survive the crisis, but emerge from it stronger".

According to the Association of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV), there are some reasons to be cheerful about how the sector was affected at the height of the crisis in March, April and May.

A recent BDZV report showed that only one in 10 members suffered a dramatic drop in circulation numbers. A quarter said sales were stable and around half managed to limit the decline to between one and five percent.

 

Digital 'through the roof' 

Despite a steady decline in sales in recent years, Germany still sells some 14 million copies of 327 different daily newspapers every day, according to BDZV figures from 2019.

This puts daily newspaper sales well ahead of Britain, for example, which has just over nine million, or France  which has six million.

On top of that, the country has 17 weeklies and six Sunday editions.

The crisis has certainly left its mark: advertising revenues have collapsed, sometimes by as much as 80 percent, and about a third of employees have been laid off, according the BDZV's Anja Pasquay.

But "German newspapers were printed and delivered on time every day", she points out.

And digital subscriptions, which have long lagged behind print sales, have gone "through the roof".

"Publishing houses unanimously told us that projects -- especially digital ones -- that had been under consideration for months or even years were suddenly successfully implemented within a few weeks," Pasquay said.

Friedrich Kalber, a spokesman for the Axel Springer group, reported record digital subscriptions in March and April for the conservative Die Welt daily and the Bild tabloid, Germany's best-selling newspaper, though he was unable to give figures.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung sold 150,000 new digital subscriptions in March alone, a level that the center-left Munich newspaper had previously only hoped to achieve by the end of 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a hunger for credible information and a renaissance for traditional media, according to Frank Thomsen, editor of the Stern news magazine.

In a survey conducted at the end of May by the ZMG media institute, more than 90 percent of 4,000 respondents rated the news from daily newspapers as "particularly reliable" and best able to guide them through the mass of information on the pandemic.

 

Hybrid offers 

But although the crisis has provided a fillip for digital technology, experts stress that a complete move away from physical sales is not going to be possible in the immediate future.

"There are still too many readers who want to hold a newspaper in their hands," said Frank Ueberall, president of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV) -- mainly older people, who make up the majority of newspaper readers in Germany.

According to the DJV, only 22 percent of over-50s can imagine getting used to reading their daily news online.

This is the nub of the problem for publishing houses: ideally, they would like to do away with physical sales because of high distribution costs, but they depend on them for revenue -- and meanwhile they can only attract new, younger customers with digital products.

"Delivery of printed newspapers early in the morning will become increasingly expensive and in the medium term, in the worst case, will lead to certain regions in Germany no longer being able to supply local newspapers," predicts Pasquay, estimating that 40 percent of municipalities will be affected within five years. 

To retain subscribers, the solution will probably involve hybrid offers, she says, with digital editions during the week and a paper edition at the weekend.