Does local journalism have a future?

Stephan Heck

The German local newspaper landscape is unparalleled. Despite market concentration, there are still over three hundred regional and local newspapers. However, the total paid circulation of daily newspapers in Germany has been falling steadily for years.

The German local newspaper landscape is unparalleled. Despite market concentration, there are still over three hundred regional and local newspapers. However, the total paid circulation of daily newspapers in Germany has been falling steadily for years. In 2020, it amounted to around 12.5 million copies. Regional and local titles account for around 80 percent of this. In 1991, the total circulation was still 27.3 million copies.Not only are fewer and fewer people reading a local newspaper. They are also getting older. According to DJU, the average reader of a local newspaper is 55 years and older. The younger generation mainly uses the Internet as a source of information. Is the local newspaper a discontinued model?in this article, we explore the question of how local journalism must change to ensure it has a future.

The traditional newspaper model has had its day

Let's take a look at the initial situation. In today's media world, the repertoire and usage habits have changed. Everyone has access to news through the Internet. Google and the social networks are now among the most important news suppliers, along with TV and radio.

The business concept of the daily newspaper with the news as its core is obsolete. Every newspaper competes just a click away with a multitude of offerings on the World Wide Web. The strength of the past, offering orientation as a generalist, is now proving to be a stumbling block. A standardized, one-size-fits-all product can no longer do justice to today's differentiated lifestyles.

The advertising industry also sees it this way. They are looking for new ways past the print product, especially in the advertising market. Newspapers' print advertising and print sales revenues are declining from year to year. More and more budgets are being shifted to digital channels.

New sales opportunities for local newspapers through e-paper and apps

Digital transformation is therefore the order of the day for newspaper publishers. Not least due to the mass distribution of tablets and smartphones, e-papers are finding more and more users. In 2020, digital circulation sales exceeded the two-million mark per publication day for the first time. Daily newspapers sold the most e-papers, with 1.48 million copies; in contrast, there were only 1.14 million local and regional e-papers. According to a trend survey, however, the entire newspaper industry expects e-paper sales to grow by 44 percent in 2021 compared with the previous year.

After all, e-paper opens up completely new possibilities for addressing readers and also for marketing content and advertising formats. Particularly successful are those apps that are equipped with additional functions and do not just appear as a simple copy of the print product. These include, for example, memory and read-aloud functions, podcasts, interactive puzzle pages, zoom functions and much more. There are no technological limits to creativity here. - a local news and information app for Bremen and the surrounding area.
In the free news app, readers can individually compile their newsfeed from different sources.

This is also very clearly demonstrated by - a local news and information app for Bremen and the surrounding area. The target group is the mobile young generation, who can use the app to access the most important current reports from regional media, official institutions and a wide variety of collectives from Bremen and the surrounding area.

The app is structured as a news sampler that draws from a wide variety of sources. - molo stands for moving local - bundles four questions that each user can decide for themselves: What moves me about the city? Where am I moving to? How do I move? What can I move? The basis for the development of was user habits and customer demands and only secondarily editorial considerations and concepts. Here, empirical research in communication and media science has been combined with creative software development in an exemplary way.

You can find more examples in our blog post "How the digitization of local newspapers can be successful" and in this article.

Local newspapers need a multimedia strategy

The editorial teams of regional and local newspapers are faced daily with the question of what interests readers, how does my content attract attention in the media conglomerate, and what digital content are readers willing to pay for. A study by the Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts on the question "What is an attractive newspaper today?" gives an indication of what appeals to young adults: well-researched local reports, opinionated commentaries, solutions and perspectives. By contrast, they reject articles about national or international topics in regional newspapers. Here, according to the study, they rate the Internet, TV or radio as the better source of information.

Freistunde - Local Journalism for Children and Young People
Freistunde - the children's news site of the Straubinger Tagblatt/ Landshuter Zeitung media group

A good example of how a regional publisher can implement local journalism for young people is "Freistunde " - a project of the Straubinger Tagblatt and the Landshuter Zeitung. Here, a self-sufficient youth editorial team determines the topics of the online newspaper "Freistunde" as well as the content strategy for the various social media channels. The content is prepared in a media-appropriate manner for the online newspaper as well as for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Spotify, etc. Software applications help to manage the activities and respond to user interactions.

The "Freistunde" portfolio also includes its own podcast series and the "Freischnauze" poetry slam events. Cross-financed by the Straubinger Tagblatt/Landshuter Zeitung media group, the digital "Freistunde" formats are free of charge and advertising for young readers.

Local and hyperlocal portals engage their community

The winner of the Netzwende Award 2020, RUMS, shows how local journalism can also function independently of a publishing house. The RUMS editors write about what is changing in the city of Münster, "where things are going wrong and how things can be improved - about connections and backgrounds in politics, business, culture and ecology. In addition, RUMS offers its readers the opportunity to participate in events in which the editorial team picks up on topics from the letters, stories and podcasts and takes them further. RUMS is advertising-free and financed by subscription fees. After a free trial month, readers can choose between a "Standard," "Idealistic," or "Generous" subscription fee ranging from eight to 40 euros.

RUMS Newsletter from Münster
RUMS aims to provide its readers with "quality local journalism" and now has 900 paying subscribers

The success of the independent hyperlocal portals also shows that there is a great need among people for good local journalism. Dilapidated streets, a lack of daycare places and unaffordable housing - these are issues that are burning under the nails of citizens and are taken up by the creators of hyperlocal portals such as, in Berlin or "Meine Südstadt" in Cologne. Here, there is unadulterated reporting on the people and debates in the district or neighborhood - not just about, as it were, but directly from the street. The bond between the editorial team and readers is also particularly strong here. Often enough, it is not only the residents themselves who benefit from the on-the-spot reports, but also the major daily newspapers. Most of these portals finance themselves like RUMS over the membership dues of the Community and are advertising-free. Others are additionally supported by local sponsors.

Politicians launch support program for newspaper publishers

To enable publishers to invest more in digital transformation, the German government has launched a 200-million-euro funding program in 2020. It is intended to "provide publishers with a second, promising pillar for the future. Subscription newspapers and magazines as well as advertising papers with an editorial share of at least 30 percent can benefit.

Press funding on this scale is a first for the Federal Republic. In other European countries such as Austria, France and Sweden, such funding has been common practice for years. The German subsidy program is still subject to approval by the European Commission. But before the end of this year, publishers will be able to draw on 180 million euros from the program - for example, to set up online stores, classified ad portals or apps, and their own or cross-publisher platforms for content distribution.

A cultural change is needed for the future of local journalism

Let's draw a conclusion: The classic instruments of circulation and media revenues are no longer sufficient to sustainably finance newspaper titles. However, there is a great need for local reports and stories. Well-researched, well-founded and constructive local journalism has a future. However, a cultural change is needed in local newsrooms. After all, in order to achieve high reach, content must be prepared for the various digital channels, including social media channels, in a multimedia and target-group-specific manner.

Regional and local newspapers must become more agile and exploit technological opportunities for themselves in order to compete for user attention on the World Wide Web. The one-to-one transformation of the print medium into the e-paper can only be a first step. Ultimately, publishers need to expand their digital portfolio and services beyond the simple e-paper if they are to be successful in the reader and advertising markets of the future.

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