The German local newspaper landscape is unparalleled. Despite the market concentration, there are still over three hundred regional and local newspapers. However, the total circulation of daily newspapers sold in Germany has been continuously dropping for years. Around 12.5 million copies were circulated in 2020. Regional and local papers accounted for around 80 per cent of this. In 1991, the total print run was 27.3 million copies.
Not only are fewer and fewer people reading local newspapers. They are also getting increasingly older. According to the German trade union for journalists DJU, the average reader of a local newspaper is 55 years and older. The younger generation mainly uses the Internet as an information source. Is the local newspaper becoming an obsolete model?
In this article, we examine the question of how local journalism has to change in order to have a future.
The traditional newspaper model has run its course
Let’s look at the current situation. In today’s media world, the repertoire and usage habits have changed. Everyone has access to news through the internet. Alongside TV and radio, Google and social networks are now among the most important news providers.
The business concept of the daily newspaper with news at its core has become obsolete. Every newspaper competes with a multitude of offers on the World Wide Web – just a click away. The strength of the past, as a generalist to offer orientation, has now proven to be an impediment. A standardised, one-size-fits-all product can no longer do justice to today’s differentiated life styles.
The advertising industry sees it that way too. It is looking for new ways to bypass print products, especially in the advertising market. Print advertising and print sales revenues of newspapers are declining year by year. An increasing number of budgets are being shifted to digital channels.
New sales opportunities for local newspapers through e-papers and apps
Digital transformation is therefore the order of the day for newspaper publishers. Not least because of the massive prevalence of tablets and smartphones, e-papers are read by a growing number of users. In 2020, digital editions sold in Germany exceeded the two million mark per publication day for the first time. Daily newspapers sold most of e-papers with 1.48 million copies; by contrast, there were only 1.14 million local and regional e-papers. According to a trend survey, however, the entire newspaper industry expects e-papers to grow by 44 per cent in 2021 compared to the previous year.
After all, e-papers open up completely new possibilities for addressing readers and also for marketing content and advertising formats. Apps that are equipped with additional functions and do not just appear as a simple copy of the printed product are particularly successful. This includes, for example, memory and reading functions, podcasts, interactive puzzle pages, zoom functions and much more. Creativity knows no technological limitations here.
This is also demonstrated quite clearly by molo.news – a local news and information app for Bremen and the surrounding area. The target group is the young, mobile generation who can use the app to gain access to the most important news from regional media, official institutions and various collectives from Bremen (Germany) and the Bremen area.
The app is designed as a news sampler, which is fed from a wide variety of sources. Molo.news – molo is short for ‘moving local’ – bundles four questions that each user can decide for themselves: What is it about the city that moves me? Where am I moving to? How do I move? What can I help move? The basis for the development of molo.news was usage habits and customer demands. Editorial considerations and concepts then played a secondary role. The empirical communication and media research has been combined with creative software development here.
You can find more examples in our blog post ‘How the digitisation of local newspapers can be successful’ as well as in this post (in German).
Local newspapers need a multimedia strategy
Every day, the editors of regional and local newspapers face the question of what interests the readers, how can my content gain attention in the media conglomerate and for which digital content are readers willing to pay. A study by the Hanover University of Applied Sciences looking at ‘What is an attractive newspaper today’ offers an indication of what is popular with young adults: These are well-researched local reports, expressive opinion pieces, suggested solutions and perspectives. On the other hand, they reject articles on national or international topics in regional newspapers. According to the study, they rate the Internet, TV or radio as a better source of information.
‘Freistunde’ – a project by the Straubinger Tagblatt and Landshuter Zeitung – is a good example of how a regional publisher can implement local journalism for young people. Here, an independent youth editorial team determines the topics of the online newspaper ‘Freistunde’ and the content strategy for the various social media channels. The content is prepared in a media-friendly manner for the online newspaper as well as for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Spotify, etc. Software applications help to steer activities and react to user interactions.
The portfolio of ‘Freistunde’ also includes its own podcast series and the poetry slam event ‘Freischnauze’. Cross-financed by Straubinger Tagblatt / Landshuter Zeitung media group, the digital “Freistunde” formats are free and without ads for young readers.
Local and hyper-local portals involve their community
The winner of the Netzwende Award 2020 RUMS shows how local journalism can also work independently of the publisher. The RUMS makers write about the city of Munster, ‘what is changing, where there are obstacles and how things could improve – about the connections and background stories in politics, business, culture and ecology’. In addition, RUMS offers its readers a chance to take part in events in which the editorial team picks up on topics from the letters, stories and podcasts and develops these further. RUMS is ad-free and financed through subscription fees. After a free trial month, readers can choose between a ‘standard’, ‘idealistic’ or ‘generous’ subscription fee of 8 to 40 euros.
The success of the independent hyper-local portals also shows that there is a great need among people for good local journalism. Marred streets, a lack of daycare space and unaffordable housing space – these are issues that are pressing in the citizens’ minds and are picked up by the makers of hyperlocal portals such as prenzlauerberg-nachrichten.de, neukoellner.net in Berlin or ‘Meine Südstadt’ in Cologne. Here people and debates in the district or neighbourhood are reported on in an unadulterated manner – not just about the streets, but virtually right from the street. The connection between the editors and readers is particularly strong here, too. Often enough, not only the residents themselves benefit from the on-site reports, but also the major daily newspapers. Most of these portals, like RUMS, are financed by membership fees from the community and are free of advertising. Others are additionally supported by local sponsors.
Policymakers launch support programme for newspaper publishers
To allow publishers to invest more in the digital transformation, the federal government launched a 200 million euro funding programme in 2020. It is designed to ‘give publishers a second, lasting pillar for the future’. Subscription newspapers and magazines as well as advertising papers with an editorial content of at least 30 per cent are eligible to benefit from this.
Press funding of this magnitude is a novelty for the German Federal Republic. In other European countries such as Austria, France and Sweden this has been quite commonplace for years. The German funding programme still requires the approval of the European Commission. But this year, publishers will be able to draw from the 180-million euro programme – for example, to set up online shops, classified ad portals or apps, as well as their own or cross-publisher platforms to distribute content.
A cultural change is necessary for the future of local journalism
Let’s draw a conclusion: The classic tools of sales and media revenue no longer suffice to sustainably finance newspapers. However, there is a great need for local reports and stories. Well-researched, well-founded and constructive local journalism has a future. However, a change in culture is necessary in the local editorial offices. Because in order to achieve great reach, the content must be prepared in a multimedia and target group-specific manner for the various digital channels, including social media channels.
The regional and local newspapers have to become more agile and use technological possibilities in order to be able to compete for user attention on the World Wide Web. The one-to-one transformation of print media into e-paper must only be a first step in this process. After all, publishers have to expand their digital portfolio and services beyond the simple e-paper so that they can be successful in the future in the reader and advertising market.
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