Survival in the age of digital change: strategies, tactics and opportunities for regional newspaper publishers

Gundel Henke

Waiting for better times is not an option for newspaper publishers. The digital transformation and demographic change will fundamentally change the business in the coming years. That's why it's important to look to the future now and develop new digital business models.

That was the clear message from Dr. Christoph Mayer in our webinar on "Digital change or demise: How daily newspapers are successfully mastering digital change". Dr. Christoph Mayer, Partner at SCHICKLER, a management consultancy specializing in media, spoke in the webinar with Stephan Heck, co-founder and Managing Director of Purple.

In this article, you will learn about the current and future situation of newspaper publishers. This results in possible courses of action, strategies and tactics with which newspaper publishers can master the development.  

The old status quo and the coming future: what challenges does the newspaper industry face?

In his keynote speech, Dr. Christoph Mayer first analyzed the situation of newspaper publishers. The figures speak for themselves. In recent years, print circulations have mostly declined evenly and only slightly. Generally "between one and five percent" per year. Newspaper publishers have been able to adapt to this. They increased prices and were able to achieve further growth in sales revenues.  

This approach is likely to be exhausted soon. Firstly, price increases cannot be imposed on the market indefinitely. The second, more dramatic reason can be found in the age structure of subscribers.  

A dangerous cycle

"Print subscribers are clearly outdated," said Dr. Christoph Mayer. In the next five to ten years, 40 percent of print subscriptions will be "in the fire". This sets a cycle in motion: print circulation drops, revenues fall, delivery density decreases, districts become uneconomical. Publishers are forced to shut down these districts because the remaining subscribers can no longer be supplied economically.  


"This cycle," says Mayer, "will have a dramatic impact on the print business over the next few years." Some publishers have been reporting falling sales revenue for two years. This is the new situation. This trend will intensify in the coming years. Subscriber numbers will continue to fall. Dr. Christoph Mayer uses the image of a "stall" that is making print uneconomical. According to Dr. Christoph Mayer, some titles will reach this point earlier, others a little later, but everything will happen within a time frame of five to ten years.  

Mayer explained this using the example of publishers from different regions and the development of their subscriber numbers since 1995. His forecast can be illustrated using a title from the region of southwest Germany. The number of print subscribers fell from just under 160,000 in 1995 to around 90,000 today. Depending on the scenario, this figure could fall to 40,000 or even 20,000 print subscribers by 2030. A high circulation usually means that a large area has to be supplied. "If circulation declines, the area becomes thinner," says Mayer. "This makes delivery more and more expensive." And then simply uneconomical.  

This development can give you the creeps. The question is: where do I actually want to go? If print becomes uneconomical, what does a company, a regional publisher, that works purely digitally look like?

Transformation does not happen at the push of a button - how can digital reach be gained and print managed at the same time?

If you take a closer look at the average cost structure of a regional newspaper publisher dominated by print and compare it with the cost structure of a publisher that has gone digital, the switch to digital looks promising at first. The largest costs, namely distribution, especially delivery, and production, are eliminated.  


It would be nice if the problem could be solved so easily. But that is currently wishful thinking. Publishing houses first need a correspondingly high density of digital subscriptions before they can switch over. They are a long way from achieving this goal. Publishers currently have around a quarter to a third of the subscribers they need to be able to operate profitably digitally.  


A newspaper company must therefore grow into the digital world and manage the old print business at the same time. The transformation will affect the entire organization. The learning and change phase must be initiated now in order to set up new processes and technology. Only then will publishers be able to grow their digital subscriptions in good time before the print business collapses.  

"Now, 2024, 2025, is the time when I have to drive change forward on a massive scale," says Christoph Mayer.

If publishers lose this time, they are forced to fall back on reserves later.

One of the challenges is to familiarize print subscribers with the digital product and to find out which product readers really want. This is not yet clear. However, it is clear that reader loyalty and the value of the digital product differ significantly from a conventional print product. Print cannot simply be transferred to digital. In digital, an article sometimes has a higher value for users than the entire newspaper because it is a topic that readers cannot get elsewhere.  


New thinking: From digital first to print last and what that really means

At present, many publishing houses still work according to a principle in which the print edition dictates what the digital product will look like in the end. Articles are often written for the printed newspaper. This not only limits the length of the articles, but also the time at which they are published.  


Mayer proposes a different approach here, centered around the "Pure Digital Newsroom". There, people think in terms of topics instead of pages. The length of an article is based on the topic, ideally on the information needs of the reader. In the digital newsroom, there is no longer just one deadline for a page that has to go to print at a certain time of day, but several per day. The printed newspaper itself is controlled from the digital production.  


There are other important components for success in the digital world. Online, content must be written differently and be geared more towards the needs of users. In the mornings and evenings, there is a greater receptiveness to topics that are not only determined by topicality. This should have an impact on the design of products. Newsletters and personalization offer many ways to make content visible that would otherwise be easily overlooked. And support from artificial intelligence helps to develop new texts and formats from content that has already been produced. Algorithms can be developed to drive forward the automation of the printed newspaper without having to rewrite or edit digital content or write for the newspaper first again.  

Into the future after print

Production for digital offers many new possibilities beyond the limitations of the printed newspaper. Users and their needs are at the heart of this development. "People want to understand, they want to understand contexts, they want background information," says Mayer. This brings a shift from pure topicality and current affairs journalism to stories that help to classify or inspire.  


The importance of traditional reporting is therefore declining in the digital world. This is having a lasting impact on editorial processes. In order to ensure the necessary topicality, breaking news teams are created, for example, while other topics are produced beyond pure topicality and are sometimes ready days before publication.  

E-paper and Digital Edition as bridges to the digital subscription

The e-paper remains an important tool as publishers move into the digital future. E-papers are often the first step for print readers and get them used to using a digital product. Christoph Mayer therefore recommends always providing print subscribers with access to the e-paper. This makes the changeover easier after a possible discontinuation of the print edition.  


At the same time, e-papers are showing enormous growth rates with a manageable investment. They also help to break new ground - right up to the development of a digital edition such as Purple offers alongside many e-papers.  


As mobile devices are now the main source of digital content, an e-paper with a print layout is not the best way to present it. Digital editions are a new type of product that can offer users orientation in a world of information overload.  

Opportunities lie in the countryside

In the digital future, the problem of delivery in rural regions will no longer apply. Offering digital products for rural regions therefore offers enormous growth opportunities for publishers. They can establish themselves there as relevant media and provide people with information that they do not already know from other sources.


Regional newspaper publishers are facing significant challenges due to digital and demographic change. Newspaper publishers must develop new digital business models. With declining print subscriber numbers and rising delivery costs, print is becoming uneconomical. The transformation to digital models must be initiated now in order to achieve a sufficient number of digital subscriptions in good time. Successful digital transformation also involves new approaches to editorial processes and a stronger focus on user needs.  

Purple supports publishers on their way into the digital future. With Purple, you can publish your articles not only on high-performance websites and in apps, but also as e-papers and on social media. Purple is your companion on the path to digital transformation.    

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Kevin Kallenbach
Head of Sales