22 May 2009

Death of Newspapers? Not in Europe.

A LOT HAS been made in recent months about the dying American newspaper industry. Big city papers in Denver and Seattle (to name two) have closed their doors and stopped publishing altogether. Others have eliminated print editions and are now only available online. And the two most prestigious papers -- the NY Times and the Washington Post -- are losing money at alarming rates.

So is this the end of traditional journalism as we know it? Not if you ask publishers in Europe.

As the death toll in the American newspaper industry climbs, the German publisher Axel Springer, which owns Bild, the biggest newspaper in Europe, reported the highest profit in its 62-year history. Papers in France, Spain, and even Britain are reporting similar numbers.

At Springer’s headquarters in Berlin, there has been no desperate talk of how to survive the recession and the digital revolution. Instead, Mathias Döpfner, Springer’s chief executive, said he was looking for opportunities to expand, scouting around for acquisitions in Germany, Eastern Europe and maybe — in what would be a first for the company — the United States.

So what gives? I was talking about this very issue with my dad and brother last week and I offered the following hypothesis: American newspapers will begin to reverse their fortunes when they...stop home delivery of papers!

This is very difficult for me to say because there are few things about America I like better than the fact that I can open my door every morning and find (in my case) a Washington Post sitting on my lawn. I can then spend a good 30 minutes reading through the various sections while enjoying my morning coffee. But the simple fact is that it is just as easy (easier?) to open my laptop and read the news online.

I'm afraid we have reached a point where the average American no longer wants to read a print paper at home because there is a free and easy alternative: the internet. But, according to my admittedly-not-very-well-thought-out-theory, they will read a paper when they are away from home (think bus, metro, cafe, waiting room). This is where Europeans have a clear advantage over Americans: they use public transportation much more frequently; when they stop for coffee they drink it on the premises, not on the go; and they generally create 'me time' during the day that lends to activities such as reading newspapers.

Of course I could be totally wrong, but the following news clip caught my eye and spurred this little blog entry.

DETROIT — Executives with Detroit's daily newspapers say they have kept more readers and subscribers than they expected, more than a month after reducing home delivery and increasing electronic offerings.

Officials with The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and the partnership that handles their business operations didn't offer specifics on overall readership and subscriptions.

But they say Web traffic and single-copy sales have increased since March 30 _ the day they launched the plan to deal with declining circulation and changing readership tastes. Home delivery now is limited to Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

I'm not happy about this trend, believe me. But I am enough of a newspaper nerd that I am in favor of whatever will help the papers survive.


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