Tectonic shifts in my journalism career usually happen on the day before Thanksgiving. On November 21, German publisher Gruner + Jahr decided to shut down Financial Times Deutschland – making me the paper’s last Washington correspondent. Ten years ago on the day before Thanksgiving my first employer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, had informed me that I would be laid off during Germany’s first severe media crisis.
The times are different, but the questions are the same. It is remarkable how, ten years later, we are still debating how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the digital information age. And it is frustrating that we still don’t know the answer.
The reasons for the failure of FTD are many. Founded in 2000 by G+J and Pearson, the publisher of the Financial Times in the UK, the paper entered the world at the height of the dotcom boom and shortly before its bust. It scrambled through a decade of global instability, from 9/11 to the financial crisis in 2008. FTD never gathered enough fat, our editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann wrote last Friday in a letter to the readers.
The news of the end of FTD came only weeks after the news agency dapd and another big regional daily, Frankfurter Rundschau, had filed for bankruptcy. The German media market is very crowded, so some might say that a correction was overdue.
With more than 300 titles serving a population of 80 million, Germany is newspaper heaven when compared to the U.S. German publications easily have 150 foreign correspondents in Washington and New York – making them the largest contingent behind the Japanese (whose oversized media industry I will never understand).
But the readership in Germany is dwindling just like elsewhere. According to the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers, paid circulation of German dailies shrank from 23.7 million copies in 2001 to 18.4 million in 2012. FTD has only 42,000 subscribers left, down from 62,000 in 2006. The rest of its 100,000 circulation consists of free copies distributed by airlines and hotels.
The only thing that fell faster than circulation was advertising revenue. The share of newspapers in Germany’s ad market was down from 29 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2011 – and revenues kept falling in 2012, an otherwise good year for the German economy. This brings me back to 2002 when the stock market crashed and brought the real economy down with it. Ads and job postings dried out even for established newspapers like F.A.Z.
I still remember how our group of six trainees visited the printing facility of this prestigious paper in the fall of 1999. We saw the freshly printed newspapers sliding off the presses and found it hard to imagine that our articles would soon be published on those pages, black on white, multiplied by 400,000. If all went according to plan, we would one day become lifetime members of this organization and drive around Frankfurt in one of the famous company cars whose number plates all start with the letters: F-AZ.
But in 2002, an unfamiliar feeling crept into the protected world on Frankfurt’s Hellerhofstraße. The advent of the Internet raised fears that this crisis could be more than cyclical – but a threat to an entire business model. I survived the first round of layoffs that summer, but under German labor law, the youngest employees are the most vulnerable. By November I sat in the office of one the publishers, and he had to say: “I’m sorry.”
Luckily, I soon got a new opportunity. FTD’s politics desk was looking for an Asia expert, and within weeks, I was working out of an office in Berlin. Germany’s youngest newspaper was quite the opposite of what I had experienced in Frankfurt. No more Ms. Muscat, everybody went by their first name, including the editor-in-chief. FTD was faster, bolder and visually more creative. Sometimes that came at the expense of the thorough editing I knew from F.A.Z. I also missed the Frankfurt paper for its intellectual debates.
But for a young reporter, working for FTD offered many perks. At F.A.Z., I had been in the sometimes awkward position of editing the paper’s most seasoned Asia correspondents (in German newspapers, editing is often done by the youngest staff members). At FTD, I commented on the nuclear crisis with North Korea during my first week on the job. I conducted interviews with my British FT colleagues and worked in two languages since part of my job was to adapt texts by FT correspondents. If we needed a German angle for a story, I packed my bags and traveled to report about German businesses in China, Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan or the victims of the Tsunami.
From the beginning, FTD often out-scooped its competitors, and it wrote about the industries of the future: From the tech companies in Silicon Valley to the booming health care market. Over the years, the paper attracted talent and gained respect. But it never made any money. 250 million Euros were lost since the paper was founded. There were savings rounds and hiring freezes. After the FT got out in 2008, G+J merged us with their business magazines Capital, Impulse and Börse Online. Nothing helped.
In 2007, I had a taste of what lay ahead for our industry. When I arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow, I found many empty desks. The Hearst publication had just fired a quarter of its newsroom staff. The colleague who had covered trade with Asia took a buy-out and dumped his unfinished stories on my desk. Every Friday, there were farewell parties at the bar next door. The Chronicle survived, at least so far, but other papers in the U.S. shut down left and right. In March 2007, the website Newspaper Death Watch had started tracking their demise.
For me, journalism was still an investment that paid out. After the end of my fellowship, I was promoted to be FTD’s Washington correspondent. I arrived in November 2007 – on the day when all career-changing events happen in my life: the day before Thanksgiving. In the five years since, I have covered two Presidential elections and the difficult economic years between them. I wrote about unemployment and about places where entire industries had died – from steel mills in the Rust Belt to textile mills in the South.
Sometime this year, my colleagues and I were reminded – once again – that ours was a dying industry as well. The hip FTD of all publications lagged behind when other organizations invested in more modern websites and apps and it was just as bad as its competitors at earning money online. “We described the creative destruction by the Internet as intensively as no one else in Germany,” writes Klusmann. “But we failed to build a business model that could have financed our standards in journalism.”
Some might say that there is too much pathos in the current debate. Even if the Bundestag is now debating the media crisis, this does not mean that the closure of a loss-making publication portends the end of journalism. Neither does the Internet. Brand recognition, good content and smart management will always draw readers to publications like F.A.Z.
But even the market leaders will have to identify new sources of revenue and to convince readers to pay for content they now get for free – just like this blog. “The hard fight for survival will continue, but something has changed in the heads of readers as well as journalists,” my colleague Horst von Buttlar wrote in last Friday’s FTD. For us, there will only be two more Fridays. After that, others will have to lead the way.