Europe’s newspapers are dying too

The implosion of the newspaper industry, long a dreaded topic in the US, has finally hit the continent

The staff of Financial Times Deutschland appeared on the back page of the newspaper on Friday, in a deep bow. Below the photo was an apology, translated here from German:

Excuse us, dear company manager, that we burned through so many millions. Excuse us, dear advertiser, that we reported so critically on your company. Excuse us, dear company spokesman, that we did not often follow your proposed formulated texts. Excuse us, dear politician, that we did not always believe you. Excuse us, dear colleagues, that you had to work through so many nights and weekends. Excuse us, dear readers, that these are the last lines of the FTD. We are sorry. We beg your pardon unreservedly. However: If we could do it all over again—we would do it exactly the same again.

With these words, the FT Deutschland closed. The 12-year old newspaper launched at the height of an economic boom and crashed as the finances of so many of its readers collapsed.

With its last edition—in which they renamed the paper Final Time Deutschland and announced “finally in the black”—the 309 employees join what may well be an unprecedented number of journalists who have been laid off in Europe this year. The implosion of the newspaper industry, long a dreaded topic in the US, has finally hit the continent. The dailies are being knocked out by the one-two punch of an economic crisis now in its fourth year and readers’ attention being diverted to the digital realm.

“It’s a very, very, very tough time for journalists right now,” said Stephen Pearce, secretary general of the European Federation of Journalists. “Unless organizations invest in journalists, you can’t maintain the quality needed to keep readers engaged.”

In Germany, Frankfurter Rundschau, the second publication to receive a license after World War II, announced its insolvency earlier this month and is fervently searching for a white knight to rescue its 500 employees. The news agency dapd, too, declared bankruptcy this fall. In September, the Nuremburger Abendzeitung laid off 35 employees. The Berlin Verlag, publisher of two papers in the nation’s capital, laid off at least 40 workers. Scores of smaller, regional papers have quietly stopped hiring or offered voluntary leave packages.

The announcements prompted the nation’s Agency for Work to pronounce the wave the highest number of layoffs in the journalism branch since 1945.

As European Journalist Union president, Arne K├Ânig, points out, the job loss is not limited to full-time staffers; when newspapers fold, freelancers, who often contribute a large amount of content, also lose major revenue sources.

The German layoffs have been headline news because Germany is considered economically the healthiest of all European nations. But ailing southern Mediterranean countries, like Greece, Portugal, and Spain, have been hit hard as well. No firm statistics exist, but anecdotally, journalists say it has been one of the worst years in memory.

Grosse Kaka,” (It’s crap) is how one laid off FTD journalist put it.

Spain’s flagship paper, El Pais, said in October that it was laying off nearly one-third of its staff, or 464 people. Pearce, of the journalists’ union, said it was impossible to gather accurate numbers, but that the high-profile trimming follows years of smaller, quiet layoffs and media companies simply not replacing staff that have left.

Anecdotally, Ireland’s regional papers have been hard hit; Greek papers, too, have been hurt. And Portugal has been hit particularly hard this year, said Francine Cunningham, executive director of the European Newspaper Publishers Association (ENPA).

Circulation in Europe has fallen about 5.5 percent since 2008, when economies there began to unwind. Hungary, Poland, Italy, Spain, and Greece, however, were struck particularly hard. Circulation in these countries dropped 10 percent between 2008 and 2010, according to ENPA statistics.

True, home circulation has never been as important in many European markets as it was in the US. European readers tend to pick up a paper to read on the tram during the morning commute. But hard times mean that once-loyal readers may skip buying the local broadsheet to economize, or they may opt for a free paper.

(“It’s very cultural,” Cunningham explained. Scandinavians, on the other hand, prefer home delivery.)

That is why newspapers in southern European countries are hardest hit by revenue lost from classifieds and advertising. A decade ago, newspaper sales accounted for perhaps only one-third of revenue, while the rest came from ads and classifieds. Now, it is a 50-50 mix. Ten years ago, carmaker BMW regularly ran two-page ads in most newspapers in Germany. Now, the Bavarian company advertises in fewer papers and less often.

More significant for many papers in the last few years is the collapse in sales to classified ads as people switch to online portals to sell their cars, find apartments, and search for jobs. Those big, fat sections in weekend papers are still common in Europe, but not likely for long.

While searcing on the Web for an apartment has been the norm for years, it is new for jobs. For decades, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s want ads section has been the go-to place for job seekers. This year, the Frankfurt paper is faced with a deficit of around 15 million euros because of declining ads in its popular section, according to the Hamburger Abendblatt. FAZ officials confirmed that they were facing a loss this year but would not confirm a figure.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two continents is reader loyalty. When they go online, readers throughout Europe head to the digital version of their trusted newspaper, ENPA’s Cunningham said. Still, until their owners figure out how to make a profit from those mobile apps, each paper that folds means one less outlet that is hiring, according to Martin Hock, a financial journalist for the FAZ.

“Right now,” he said, “you have a huge numbers of highly skilled, highly qualified, well-educated people searching for jobs that aren’t going to appear any time soon.”

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.