Readers Want Orientation as Much as Choice
Mathias Döpfner is CEO and Director of Newspapers at Axel Springer AG, which publishes Die Welt, NPQ’s Global Viewpoint client in Germany.
Berlin—Crises are nothing new for newspaper publishers. When Johann Carolus published the first newspaper 401 years ago in Strasbourg, the project threatened to fold just 12 days after its first issue. He complained to the mayor about copyists who were ruining his business. The history of newspapers, then, started with a crisis—a copyright crisis. Around 1900, there came a crisis of quality, with fears of trivialization and two-dimensionality. The next major crisis came 50 years later, when a threat to the existence of newspapers was perceived in the rise of television. Then came Bild newspaper, and whereas in 1900, only 10 percent of the German population read newspapers, a century later that figure was 73 percent. In 1990, Bill Gates prophesied that by the year 2000, there would be no more newspapers. He was wrong. In the year 2000, newspaper publishers around the world made the largest profits in their history.
In spite of all this, the last few years have again been marked by a crisis: the great advertising, circulation, Internet and structural crisis. We media managers love crises. We compete to see who can describe the crisis in the bluntest terms. No one wants to be a dinosaur. Which is why we all present ourselves as extremely open to change and what Schumpeter called “creatively destructive.” Myself included. But we must be careful not to commit suicide out of a fear of dying. To exaggerate slightly, the depressed mood in our business can be boiled down to two dominant theories:
The end is nigh because everything in the publishing industry is changing. We will only avoid destruction if we change the way we do everything.
I would like to refute these theories in the most emphatic terms. The end is not nigh, as things are changing less than we think. We should not change the way we do everything, because otherwise we really will face destruction.
I believe in “Riepl’s Law.” Wolfgang Riepl was the editor-in-chief of Nürnberger Zeitung newspaper. In 1913, he published a dissertation putting forth a law that was to have a shaping influence on the history of communications: New media do not replace existing media. Media progress is cumulative, not substitutive. New media are constantly added, but the old ones remain. This law has yet to be disproved. Books have not replaced storytelling. Newspapers have not replaced books; radio has not replaced newspapers; and television has not replaced radio. It follows that the Internet will not replace television or newspapers. That sounds comforting, but there are exceptions: CDs really did replace old vinyl records; and mp3 technology is currently in the process of replacing CDs faster than anyone suspected. The same applies for DVD and video. And this is where things get interesting, for the CD, the DVD and the mp3 are not really new media, they are merely improved technologies. The product itself, the creative medium of music or film, has not been changed by this new transfer medium. Which is why these examples, too, actually confirm Riepl’s Law.
The main question hanging over our industry is whether the newspaper format, which has just celebrated its 400th birthday in rather ill-humored and depressed style, will live another 100 years. The answer is yes and no. As a transfer medium: no; as a creative medium: yes. Paper will be replaced as the transfer medium—by electronic paper. As a function, the newspaper is indispensable. On account of journalism. The Internet is not the new newspaper. It is a genuinely new medium. Not just a new transfer medium, but a new creative medium, too. According to Riepl this means that the Internet will establish itself alongside the media already on offer, not replace them.
The Net | The Internet is a spectacular success story. But that is not all—it is a new cosmos which has changed and will continue to change society more than modern transport technology. The first step toward globalization was air travel. The second decisive step in globalization is the Internet. Every piece of information is accessible to everyone at all times in all places. This radically democratic feat has given globalization the unstoppable force of a natural phenomenon. It is the largest, most inexorable social project in recent history, and the greatest act of redistribution: from rich to poor, from knowledge owners to those hungry for knowledge, from those who are sated to those who are hungry. In terms of know-how and prosperity, established economies are losing their lead over rising nations like India, China and the states of Eastern Europe. These are the real challenges for Old Europe: “Anyone who thinks they are something has stopped becoming something.”
There is a fundamental difference between globalized Internet journalism and newspaper journalism. They have entirely different functions. On the Internet, I get faster access to more information about something I already know I am interested in. If I want to learn something about a specific illness, I go to the Internet. A few links later, I am on a special orthopedic site, and a few seconds later a search engine has found the right doctor for my ailment. In the newspaper, on the other hand, I learn about things that I did not even know I might be interested in. I wanted to read something about backache and ended up reading a text about holidays in the Maldives. The newspaper has breadth, the Internet has depth. The newspaper works horizontally, the Internet vertically. The second essential difference is that on the Internet, the user guides the journalist. In the newspaper, the reader is guided. The Internet has turned the hierarchy on its head. It is selflessly anti-authoritarian in character, profoundly democratic. Newspapers, by contrast, are confidently authoritarian.
Most online content offered by existing newspaper brands falls far short of the technical and creative potential of the Internet. Let us take a major news story—the bombings in the London underground. The next day’s newspapers offer outdated information, the television repeats the same footage again and again. And the Internet? It could be the winner. But most sites simply repeat the wires from the agencies and add up the facts a little faster than their colleagues in the newspaper editorial offices.
User-generated content is the keyword here. The Internet site of the future has not 50 but 50 million reporters. The users, the customers, are reporters. One South Korean Internet newspaper (Ohmy-News in Seoul) practices this in exemplary fashion, rewarding the best contributions with payments whose size depends on the number of clicks. As we see here, the customer, the user, is in charge. Online journalists play a subordinate role. They do what they are told.
Is this the future? Yes. It is part of the future. But what does this mean for newspapers? Do they have to bend to the demands of Rupert Murdoch and others and become flexible and interactive, in line with the wishes of the readership? Do they have to become fast food, consumable on demand? Do they have to try to become like the Internet? I think not. Newspapers must focus on their own strengths, and that means being a horizon medium, creating and satisfying wishes and interests which the reader did not even know s/he could have. As in the past, this remains the newspaper’s future, regardless of whether it is delivered on paper or electronic paper. One thing I am sure of is that the future of newspapers is digital. They will cease to be printed on paper as soon as electronic paper exists that fulfills the following criteria: It has to be thin, foldable and rollable, capable of reproducing high-resolution color images, ensuring foolproof touch-screen operation, with no need for heavy batteries or chargers, and it must be cheap. Then we will roll our newspaper out of a mobile phone or ballpoint pen. Then we will call up our subscription at the click of a button. Work on developing e-papers of this kind is well underway. Eventually—in 5, 10 or 25 years—we will distribute this electronic paper to our subscribed customers. Costs for paper, printing and distribution will sink dramatically—but our business model will not have changed at all. Information and entertainment for a range of target groups. In other words: exclusive news, independent opinions and captivating language. In one word: journalism.
We publishing executives must therefore become even more aware that our business is not creating printed matter, but creating journalism. Journalism on the Internet and newspaper journalism. And the two forms are governed by different laws. There is one thing I know: when every piece of information is accessible to everyone at all times in all places, then there will be a growing need for orientation, selection and the quality that makes a good newspaper journalist: leadership.
Three grams of football, 10 spoons of pension policy, five pinches of movie reviews and a dash of foreign policy sauce with a Middle Eastern flavor. On your laptop at 7 in the morning. And then, at 11:30 at night, another dose on the flat screen in your bedroom. Is this the recipe for the adult media consumer of the future? No one wants to be his or her own program director in the long term. That is a nice utopia of democratic and media theory for a small elite, but it is not a realistic vision for the mass market. Readers do not want to make all the decisions themselves. Just the same as one does not always feel like cooking when one is hungry.
Orientation | Readers want orientation. They want preselection. In an anecdote dating from the anti-authoritarian kindergartens of the 1970s, a victim of this educational credo asks: “Mama, do we really have to play what we want again today?” Paraphrasing this, one could ask: Does the reader really always want to want something? The newspaper principle is based on leadership. This is what makes it so seemingly old-fashioned. And the leadership principle is also what assures the role of newspapers in the future. This principle of leadership, this deep-seated desire for hierarchy, is something I believe in almost as firmly as I believe in the function of the marketplace. People want to go where they will meet as many other people as possible to exchange information, opinions and wares. The more fragmented, diverse and fissured the media landscape becomes, with an ever-increasing number of specialized channels, special-interest magazines and Web sites, the greater the demand for a communication experience that fosters conversation. A demand for big brands. For the important television show. For the big newspaper. It is in this desire, that is independent of all fashions and trends, that the opportunity lies.