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Newspapers are in freefall. Print editions are being discontinued. Editors are being replaced with alarming regularity. Financial losses are mounting. Digital strategies are yet to bear fruit. New readerships are fickle, promiscuous and hard to impress.

If that’s true of British and American newspapers, then the situation is, if anything, worse in continental Europe. Here much of the traditional media is considered to be several years behind in the digital revolution, still experimenting with paywalls, digital technologies and alternative means of storytelling. Bankruptcy stalks the sector, and staff layoffs are a weekly fact of life.

Spanish papers never enjoyed the big circulations seen in other European countries but sales are now in freefall. El País, which was selling 400,000 copies in 2007, slumped to 267,000 in April. Advertising income plummeted by 60% when the crisis hit and has yet to recover.

“In 2007 we could sell a full-page colour ad for €30,000. Now we’re lucky if we can get €5,000,” said Enric Sierra, head of web content at the Barcelona-based La Vanguardia. Its main rival, El Períodico, is up for sale. “They’ll sell it to you for a euro if you’re prepared to take on their debt,” Sierra added.

There have been job cuts – 134 out of 160 at El Público, 288 out of 456 at ABC, 129 at El País and 400 of the 1,464 employed on the three titles in the El Mundo group.

Last November El Mundo became the first major Spanish newspaper to establish a paywall modelled on that of the New York Times. It is claiming success, with 29,000 paying subscribers to its Orbyt features section. However, many of the deals are pitched at paper subscribers, who are a vanishing breed. El País had similar plans until market research suggested a paywall would be suicide. Both titles are carrying large amounts of debt.

“Users are prepared to pay more if they receive more, as long as it’s quality content,” Pietro Scott Jovane, head of the Italian media group that owns El Mundo, said in a recent interview. However, everyone agrees that the challenge in Spain is to get anyone to pay for any sort of content. “There is almost no culture of paying for online content in Spain,” said Nacho Cardero, editor of the online paper El Confidencial.

El Confidencial is one of several digital-only papers that are enjoying success while producing quality journalism. The paper was launched in 2001, at the very start of the digital age. It employs 100 staff, and last year made a profit of €1m, with all of the income coming from advertising. “We are not tied to any big media group or any political party,” said Cardero. “The Spanish press has a problem. It has lost its way on news because it’s always looking over its shoulder at its creditors or political backers,” he said, adding that El Confidencial had the third largest number of unique online users, after El País and El Mundo.

Barcelona park Newspaper sales slumped in Spain during the financial crisis. Photograph: Leslie Richard Jacobs/ Leslie Richard Jacobs/Corbis

The left-leaning El Público had the misfortune to have launched in 2007. It stumbled on amid increasing debts until its backer, Mediapubli, pulled the plug and it became an online operation. With 1.8 million monthly readers it is among the top 10 most read papers in Spain. It has also been more innovative than most, with extensive use of video and PublicoTV linked to the site. Some 37% of readers go to the site via Facebook, where it has 600,000 friends.

Alongside eldiario.es, these digital-only titles are profiting from running a leaner operation than the with-paper traditional titles. The disadvantage of being only digital, according to Cardero, is there are still prejudices about the quality of digital media and they therefore have less influence than traditional media.

“In spite of everything, the big brands – the Guardian, La Vanguardia, Le Monde – continue to be the points of reference for news on the internet,” said Sierra. “Young people don’t buy newspapers but when they look for news online the majority go to traditional papers because, perhaps unconsciously, they trust them.”

“You need at least three sources of income: subscriptions, advertising and the extra things you offer your readers through e-commerce, events and so forth,” said Ismael Nafría, head of digital innovation at La Vanguardia.

“News has no value anymore,” Nafria added. “Everyone already knows what’s in the news. It’s not impossible that people will pay, but they won’t pay for something that’s not worth it. The only thing that sells is quality.”

France

Francois Mitterrand reading Le Monde The future French president François Mitterand catches up on world events in Le Monde in 1980. Photograph: Jacques Pavlovsky/ Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/Corbis

The Nice-Matin group is threatened with bankruptcy; the leftwing daily Libération needs an urgent injection of €14m; and Le Monde is seeking a new editor after staff complained about a lack of consultation over streamlining plans.

The French press is in crisis over the transition to a digital world. According to Henri Pigeat, the former boss of Agence France-Presse who now heads the Centre de Formation des Journalistes, a journalism school in Paris, France was inevitably going to be hit by the wave of change affecting the industry globally. But he said French newspapers were poorly prepared.

While arcane union practices were abandoned in the UK in the 1980s, “that didn’t happen here. French papers are still affected by corporatism. It means that they are trying to deal with those problems while moving online, at a time when there’s no money around”.

He said continued state subsidies for the press in France, totalling €408m in tax breaks and reduced charges for 2014, had hindered the industry’s development. “The state aid provided a sense of false security which prevented the press from reforming itself.”

French papers, like their counterparts around the world, are searching for the elusive magic formula which would boost their profitability as they shift online.Alice Antheaume, a digital expert who is deputy head of the journalism school at the prestigious Sciences Po, sees two main challenges: persuading journalists to work for both web and print, and monetising content, whether it be via a paywall or advertising that is stubbornly refusing to migrate online. France, she said, had a particular problem because the language barrier for many overseas readers limited revenue from paywalls: “We don’t have a global reach.”

There are some bright spots in the gloom. In the midst of the economic crisis, L’Opinion was launched a year ago as a niche daily paper and a website behind a paywall. Luc de Barochez, the chief editor of the online version, said it was on target to break even in two years’ time. The paper’s owner, Nicolas Beytout, still believes in print, and De Barochez said L’Opinion “chose the right model”. “The fact is that our target readers, who are decision-makers, still read print, in their offices or on planes.”

Other relative newcomers went directly online without a print support, including Médiapart, Rue89, Atlantico and Slate. “That resolves the problem that traditional media have faced when they move to a paywall after allowing free consultation of their website. People want to know: why should I pay for something that was free before?” said Pigeat.

Although all newspapers have been affected by declining print sales, much of the regional press is still in rude health. The family-owned Télégramme de Brest, which covers western Brittany, boasts a total readership of 900,000. Of the 200,000 print subscribers, 75% have the daily paper hand-delivered. Their loyalty is rewarded by a subscription scheme that gives them free access to the website, which has been behind a paywall since last January. “We realised it was better to keep our loyal readers than chase after hypothetical revenue from advertising,” said its chief editor, Samuel Petit.

The Dauphiné Libéré, which serves nine regions in south-eastern France, has maintained its ranking in the top three of the regional press by diversifying within its field of competence, says the chief editor for development, Patrick Peltier. The paper brings out supplements, magazines and coffee table books and offers partnerships to local businesses on printing deals.

As for an all-digital future, he says: “I can see the erosion of print, but I can’t yet see a tipping point when there would be more online readers than print.”

Jean Tortat, from the journalists’ SNJ union, said under-investment remained a fundamental problem. “It’s a vicious circle: press groups need to invest more, but as long as the press isn’t making money, they won’t invest.”

Street cafe in Munich 1974 A man reads a paper at a Munich street cafe in 1974. Photograph: Hartmut Reeh/ DPA/Corbis

German papers have been sheltered somewhat from the global storm because of the comparatively late arrival of pay TV, traditionally high retail prices and the prevalence of the subscription model – accounting for three-quarters of Süddeutsche Zeitung’s sales, for example.

The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel is a case in point: the Hamburg-based institution was one of the first media companies to launch a news website, Spiegel Online, in 1994. The company made a point of running the website and the print magazine from different buildings, with two almost entirely separate editorial teams – a strategy that seemed to work: “Spon”, as it is affectionately known, was for 15 years the country’s most popular website, while Spiegel sold more than a million copies.

But while Spiegel Online remains a success in 2014, it has slipped to third place in the rankings and the magazine’s circulation has been stuck at less than 900,000 copies for more than four years. In December, the website slashed its English-language output, just as the magazine’s NSA exclusive was finding new readers in the UK and US. In January 2015, the magazine plans to change its publication forward a day to Saturday to stay on top of the news agenda in a faster-moving digital climate.

Other newspapers which have tried to ring-fence their profit making print operation are now struggling with declining ad sales revenue. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung announced on 20 May that it had suffered losses to the tune of several million euros.

“All the big German newspapers and news magazines are now increasingly trying to have one editorial team overlook all of its channels of output – it’s better for the overall brand,” said Roland Pimpl, a correspondent for the trade magazine Horizont. “It’s a sensible development not least because it means the whole editorial team ends up pulling on the same string.”

Other publications have tried to tackle the transition from print to digital with more radical experiments. The centre-right daily Die Welt switched around editorial budgets in December, so that most of the commissioning is now done by online editors. The print edition is compiled by a team of only 12 people, including designers and picture editors.

Its editor, Jan-Eric Peters, said while his newspaper had tried to pursue a “digital first” strategy since 2006, a radical shakeup had been needed to break old habits. He said it had not affected the quality of the newspaper: “As I expected: none of our readers noticed. Internally, most people even felt it made the print product better since it is now produced by a small but focused team”.

Die Welt are lucky to be part of Axel Springer, Europe’s largest newspaper publisher whose portfolio also contains Bild, still the world’s bestselling non-Asian newspaper and the Germany’s most successful news website: pressure on Die Welt to make a profit is relatively low, so they have the luxury to experiment with new models that may later be rolled out elsewhere.

Welt’s web content hides behind a “leaky paywall” similar to the one used by New York Times and the Daily Telegraph, which allows users to view 20 articles on the same browser for free every month – Süddeutsche has hinted recently that it will introduce a similar model for paid content in the winter. Bild’s website, by contrast, tries to lure readers towards an online subscription by putting specific articles – such as exclusive interviews – behind a paywall.

One new German venture proposes a new take on the paywall debate altogether: 25 investigative journalists are trying to raise funds for “Krautreporter”, a non-advertising project inspired by Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish and De Correspondent in the Netherlands. For €5 a month, subscribers would get benefits such as commenting privileges or invitations to exclusive readings, workshops or panel discussions with the authors. Most of the content, however, would be free.

Stefan Niggemeier, a former Spiegel staffer who now runs his own media blog and is one of the more prominent faces behind Krautreporter, said it was important to experiment with journalistic forms beyond the old advertising-based model: “Advertising ties you to a quick turnaround cycle and boosts the tabloidisation of respectable newspapers’ online presence: if you don’t follow the herd, you lose clicks.”

“We want to see if there’s a way of establishing a non-advertising-based model. Whether it will work, I don’t know, but I know it’s right to try it, even if it fails. When someone manages to chance upon something new, I want to be part of it”.

What the papers say:

Alexis Delcambre, Le Monde media editor in Paris

Le Monde’s digital operations started early by French standards, in the late 90s, and bore fruit quickly, but they only started to show a profit in 2005.

Since 2002, Le Monde has been using a hybrid business model: a free website, financed by advertising, offering premium content to subscribers. A “subscribers’ edition” (edition abonné) with a formal paywall was launched in 2010; it includes an enriched PDF format of the paper. Today, lemonde.fr has 140,000 subscribers (about half of them also subscribe to the newspaper). Several French media have followed the same model.

The digital newsroom and operations were located offshore until 2009, when they were moved to Le Monde’s main building in Paris. The merger between the two structures is still going on, now in its final stage.

Lemonde.fr is one of the three leading news websites in France and ranks in the top three in the monthly rankings. Le Monde is no 1 on mobile devices (in terms of downloading of its apps and, most of the time, in terms of traffic) and on social networks.

All this doesn’t make a sustainable business model, though: 80% of Le Monde’s turnover still comes from print products (daily and weekly magazine). Advertising revenues on the web and on mobile devices are still low and difficult to develop, except, in some respect, on video. Le Monde is therefore following a double-edged strategy, developing new digital operations while avoiding to weaken its historic core activity. The constant erosion of the newspaper’s sales and a weak advertising market have not helped.

In the newsrooms, the cultural gap between print and digital journalists is finally disappearing. The two categories have not completely merged, but they have learnt to work closely together. Journalists are eager to work for the free website, where they get big exposure, but less keen to produce premium content for the subscribers’ edition, which brings revenues but lower exposure.

Editors (except those of the digital newsroom) still almost entirely come from the newspaper side. Even though the official line is that everybody must be digital, professional legitimacy for the top jobs is still seen as mostly based on the work done for the newspaper, where “Le Monde culture” is acquired.

Stefan Kornelius, international editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich

Germans don’t seem to have lost their appetite for reading. That’s the good news in a string of bad messages. Like all the other dailies in Germany, Süddeutsche Zeitung has not been able to stop the decline in circulation. Hungry readers but fewer papers to chew on – that’s the key challenge German media companies face.

Süddeutsche is about to give its answer to the problem. The Munich-based paper is the undisputed no 1 in the broadsheet/quality market, selling an average of 420,000 copies per day. The number of readers for its digital version has been growing nicely over the past months and is now about to pass the threshold of 30,000 subscribers. The web page draws an average of 45 million visitors per month, putting the brand in fourth place in Germany’s web-based news business. However, the electronic market doesn’t provide enough profit to substitute for losses in the print business.

Süddeutsche is now pursuing a dual strategy to adopt to the new laws of gravitation. Readers in Germany still flock to weekly and Sunday papers, and the weekend market is still growing, so Süddeutsche is to launch a new weekend edition this autumn that will provide additional sections and more indepth analysis.

But the true revolution will happen on the web. Süddeutsche will introduce a pay scheme by the end of the year, following a metered model the New York Times first introduced. A certain number of stories will be free to read. After that users are asked to register – and pay. There will be two web versions to choose from: one more laid back, giving the content of the day; the other one more newsy, rotating. Paywalls have only introduced in Germany by only a few media companies so far, so Süddeutsche will be watched closely. If the new business model is successful, that would constitute a sea change in the German market: almost all companies realise that giving away quality content and trying to live on advertising revenue will not be enough to survive the digital revolution.

Mario Calabresi, editor-in-chief of La Stampa in Turin

In recent years at La Stampa we have torn down the walls between print and digital, merged the newsroom, adopted a multi-platform editorial system and created an innovative “concentric circled” newsroom that encourages the transformation of content from print to digital and vice-versa.

Moreover, we have encouraged the use of social media and explored innovative forms of story-telling, harnessing and uniting the written word, video, photography, interactive graphics and other ways of digital retelling.

We have also chosen to pursue a healthy “contamination” with various professions, bringing engineers and graphic designers into greater contact with editorial and developing joint projects. We are drawing on user-generated content, seeking to unite and integrate it with our quality journalism. On social networks we are working to increase reader engagement in order to make them key players in the debate on our content. This doesn’t scare us. On the contrary, it’s stimulating and a direct confrontation with the key players of the digital era: Google, Facebook, Twitter and all the others. We don’t consider them to be “competitors”, but essential interlocutors.

How can “smart journalism” be made sustainable? This is the big question. We have decided to leave the great majority of our articles free of charge on the web, while holding back some premium content in order to be able to offer more in-depth information to those who want it. Around this premium content we are building a club-like structure, which brings together our keenest readers and offers them exclusive tools with which to understand the world. We believe, however, that there is not a one-size-fits-all business model. It will be increasingly necessary to be able to offer “smart journalism” across many platforms as we search for multiple revenue sources.

Germany | The Guardian