It is not often that one sees major changes in German business practice, and nowhere is the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” ethos more thoroughly ingrained than in the German newspaper market.
But the staid and steady atmosphere of Europe’s biggest press sector is being replaced by unprecedented turbulence. Myriad redesigns, collaborative ventures between publishers, and improved editorial by titles which hitherto have made a virtue of their apparent immutability are becoming widespread.
The national daily Suddeutsche Zeitung has expanded its business coverage. So too has the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which has pepped up its editorial and design and announced that it is to publish an eight-page English language edition with the International Herald Tribune.
In the business press, the von Holtzbrink group, owners of Germany’s leading business daily Handelsblatt, has struck a deal with Wall Street Journal publishers, Dow Jones, to exchange editorial and commercial resources.
A separate wave of restructuring is taking place in Berlin, where no less than ten dailies have survived since reunification. Many of these are owned by Germany’s largest publishers, and all are ambitious to retain a leading presence in the country’s capital.
There are a number of factors driving this activity. Most tangibly, business news publishers have been shaken by the prospect of the Pearson Group and GrÃ¼ner & Jahr joining forces to launch a German-language Financial Times next year.
But the root causes go beyond the threat of foreign competition. The FT’s correspondent in Berlin, Haig Simonian, rightly identifies media deregulation in the 1980s as precipitating much of the newspaper shake-up we are seeing today. “Deregulation opened doors to dozens of new private sector television and radio stations. Although established media groups own or have stakes in some of the new channels, the upstarts also intensified competition in the media.”
Simonian also notes that a growing interest in business matters and personal finance has led to a demand for fresher editorial, particularly in the business pages.
The effects of such fierce competition to retain and win new readers cannot be overstated. “The quality, depth and variety of the Berlin dailies have improved tremendously in the past few years,” Barbara Held, a journalism professor at Berlin’s Free University, told Reuters. “It is easily the most competitive market in Germany and it’s hard to imagine another city in Europe with such cut-throat competition.”
However, the stakes are just as high for newspaper publishers elsewhere in Germany.
As the country moves towards more favourable economic conditions, those that have successfully identified and met changing reader demands will be fitter, livelier and more able to offer advert isers an enticing environment.
John Shannon is President of Grey International