With newspaper readership on the decline worldwide as the industry faces the print-to-digital transition, a German approach may serve as a reference for Japanese media seeking new tactics to attract customers.

Martin Doerry, senior editor and former deputy editor in chief of Der Spiegel, one of the largest weekly news magazines in Europe, says that introducing the online standalone website, Spiegel Online, in 1994 has led to the publication’s success today.

Der Spiegel, which has been published since 1947 and is known for its in-depth coverage of political and other issues, was the first to introduce the online service in Germany, helping the magazine extend its brand.

To cater to the digital media audience, the magazine chose to provide readers with different content online than in print, Doerry said during his visit last week to mark the 25th anniversary of friendly relations between Osaka and Hamburg, where the magazine is based.

Noting that the magazine has about 150 journalists covering stories for its online edition and 200 producing stories for the print edition, Doerry said the content is managed and provided separately.

“(Online) journalism is not the same as it was when it was printed,” he said, pointing out that in the digital era journalists face new challenges when addressing the conflict between speed and accuracy.

“Journalists now write in a different style. They have to be more aggressive in the way of producing stories, which have to be very short” and not so analytical or profound, Doerry said. Amid these changes, most of Europe’s newspapers have struggled to maintain the quality of their writing, he added.

Among the main issues facing the German newspaper industry as the digital transition continues, Doerry also pointed to declining circulation, presumably caused by younger generations’ waning interest in politics.

He added, however, that tablet computers and other digital devices that allow young people to access news are another important factor driving the decline of the printing press.

“The circulation (started to) decline in the 1990s, when the Internet” became popular, he said.

To tackle this problem, Der Spiegel introduced an online version of the print magazine for tablets and smartphones, which has proved quite successful. This version, different from the free Spiegel Online, is presented exactly like the print magazine. In addition to the 800,000 printed copies, the magazine sells 50,000 online copies per week.

But Doerry added that free access to the online edition, which is constantly updated, hinders any further rise in print circulation, prompting the publisher to consider putting Der Spiegel’s online edition behind a pay wall.

“In my opinion, other newspapers within the next (several) months will follow this trend and introduce pay walls. It’s very expensive to have good journalism and the lack of quality is a question of money, in a way,” he said, adding that advertising becomes the only source of revenue if content is provided online for free.

Doerry, who has also been contributing to the magazine as a columnist since April, stressed the importance of preserving a publication’s reporting style amid changing trends.

He said he wants to continue to provide online readers with the classic “quite long, sophisticated” and ironic Spiegel stories, as this style has contributed to the magazine’s success.

However, that traditional reporting style for politics, economics, cultural affairs and foreign policy may not match the needs of younger generations.

“When I look at the generation of my daughters, who are in their 20s, they don’t talk about politics, they’re interested in different things such as lifestyle or other issues,” he said.

“The new generation won’t read as much as former generations did. We have to face this problem and think about finding other issues to report on. This is one of the most important tasks — to find a way of reporting for this younger generation.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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