You can summarize the crisis facing German newspapers these days in one phrase: generation gap. While 80-85% of people between 40 and 69 read a daily newspaper, according to a survey by the German Association of Newspaper Publishers, the number falls to 72% for those 30-39, and to 63% for those 20-29. "The interest of young people is going down," says association spokeswoman Anja Pasquay. "They don't read newspapers any more."
But Axel Springer publisher of Bild, Europe's best-selling newspaper thinks it has a solution: Welt-Kompakt, a new tabloid slated for an eight-week trial run in Düsseldorf beginning May 24. Unlike Bild, a classic downmarket rag with TV celebrities and topless women on its front page, the 32-page, half-euro Welt-Kompakt will only be shaped like a tab; it will be a "quality" newspaper put out by the editors of Springer's prestigious national broadsheet, Die Welt. "Naturally we are working to reach a new readership with a new concept," says Jan-Eric Peters, editor of Welt-Kompakt. "We hope especially to reach young readers who do not read any newspaper regularly."
All over Europe, newspapers are getting smaller. In Britain, two broadsheets, the Times and the Independent, have seen dramatic circulation gains after introducing compact editions last fall. Poland's FAKT tabloid, which launched last October, has rapidly become the country's highest circulating paper. And Welt-Kompakt won't be Germany's first quality tab: Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck announced last week that on May 10 it will start one called 20 Cent in two eastern states.
Why the rush to slim down the news? In Germany, something has to be done to shake up a dismal publishing market. Newspaper advertising dropped 6.7% in 2003, its [an error occurred while processing this directive] third straight year of hefty declines. Die Woche closed in 2002, and others are suffering: after years of losses, the Frankfurter Rundschau is negotiating a sale to Deutsche Druck und Verlagsgesellschaft, a media holding company owned by the Social Democratic party. Holtzbrinck has threatened to close its Berlin daily, Die Tagesspiegel, if competition authorities won't allow it to merge the paper with its main rival, the Berliner Zeitung. Economy Minister Wolfgang Clement has promised to introduce legislation this month to make it easier for papers to merge.
Tabloids may be a way to buck this grim trend. Market studies show that readers especially younger and female ones prefer a quick, manageable read. In the U.K., the Independent, owned by Independent News and Media, introduced a compact edition last September and saw sales shoot up 18%, to just over 258,000 in six months. The new edition has been so successful that the paper is phasing out its broadsheet edition, first launched in 1986; starting this week it will be available only in Greater London. Inspired by the Independent's success, the Times, owned by News International, started a compact edition in November and has seen an 11% increase in circulation in areas where it sells both editions. The paper sold 636,331 copies in December, of which the compact edition accounted for 54,121; it sold 658,637 in March, with 236,729 for the compact. The British compacts "have revitalized a dying market," says Kirsty Hutton, buying director at media planning and buying agency Total Media. With the same cost and content as their broadsheet brethren, the compacts win style points for seeming more modern, and more convenient to cramped commuters.
Springer knows that smaller papers can succeed; it's behind the Polish tabloid FAKT now selling 600,000 copies a day. "We have broken all conventions and made a total newspaper," says deputy editor-in-chief Robert Krasowski. "Some people read us for gossip, others for sports and others for serious topics."
Not everyone thinks the formula will work in Germany. "The terms quality and tabloid don't fit together in the German market," says Bernd Blöbaum, a journalism professor at the University of Münster. Blöbaum points out that the German newspaper market is fiercely regional; 76% of German readers buy a local paper rather than a national daily, and "they stick to their papers and don't change." But German publishers fear a different rule: change or die.