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The future of journalism

Mathias Döpfner, head of the Axel Springer publishing empire, answers a speech by media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

One year ago, media magnate Rupert Murdoch delivered an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors outlining his views on the role of newspapers in the digital age. This was followed by a second speech in March to the English press establishment, heralding that "power is moving away from the old elite in our industry." Mathias Döpfner, head of the Axel Springer media empire controlling over 150 newspapers in 32 countries, responds.

For a concise and intelligent statement on the correct way to deal with change, there is still no beating Rupert Murdoch's appeal to "embrace progress!" This is the way to go. But it is not always easy. Sometimes, the sheer amount of progress makes it hard to know who to embrace.

Some months ago, one of our editors-in-chief welcomed a group of school children for a visit to his editorial offices. He proudly informed them that he is able to react to the latest developments until 11 pm; new computer technology has accelerated the process of making printing plates, allowing him to go to press just a few minutes after the final changes to the layout; and sophisticated logistics mean the paper is with the wholesalers at 4 am, so that it reaches sales outlets across Germany, and thus in effect the readers, by 6 am. All this, he said, made his paper unbeatable. Having soared to this closing apotheosis on the thermals of his own enthusiasm, the editor-in-chief asked if anyone had any questions. One pupil put up his hand and asked: "Does that mean that by 11 pm, you already know everything you want to put in the paper, and that between 11 pm and the next morning, no more changes can be made?" "Yes, of course, it does mean that." "But why should we wait until the next morning? You could just send us the paper by e-mail at 11 pm." The editor-in-chief was devastated. For all his claims of being up to speed, the print man was suddenly looking rather out of the loop.

This experience is symptomatic of the uncertainty within our industry. Levels of collective angst are higher than they have been for a long time. Of course, 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 twelve 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 trivialisation and two-dimensionality. The next major crisis came fifty 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 Joseph 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 neither the CD nor the DVD nor the mp3 are 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-humoured 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 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 towards globalisation 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 orthopaedic 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 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 London Underground bombings. 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 fifty but fifty million reporters. The users, the customers, are reporters. One South Korean Internet newspaper (OhmyNews 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 it 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 readers did not even know they had. 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 fulfils the following criteria: it has to be thin, foldable and rollable, capable of reproducing high-resolution colour images, ensuring foolproof touch-screen operation, with no need for heavy batteries or chargers, and it must be cheap. Then we will roll out 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 five, ten or twenty-five 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 a word: journalism.

We publishing executives must therefore became 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, ten spoons of pension policy, five pinches of movie reviews and a dash of foreign policy sauce with a Middle Eastern flavour. On your laptop at seven in the morning. And then, at eleven thirty 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 their own programme 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 like you don't always feel like cooking when you're hungry.

Readers want orientation. They want pre-selection. 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 websites, 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, independent of all fashions and trends, that opportunity lies.

But we must be careful not to go too far on the road to becoming more reader-friendly, turning customer-orientation into a lack of orientation and a loss of charisma. Otherwise, the media could suffer the same fate as politicians, whose loss of importance and prestige has accelerated since they started governing to please the electorate (and the media). Pollster democracy is what happens when political leaders stop organizing majorities for the right course of political action and start paying pollsters to find out what the people want to hear. This may be comforting in the short term, but eventually respect and interest wane.

The same applies to newspaper journalism. Anyone who designs concepts and content mixes on the basis of market research is bound to lose in the long term. For years, worldwide copy texts delivered the following result: less politics, less culture, more sport, more local news. Today we have ReaderScan (explanation in German), the "viewer ratings" for print media, delivering hard facts on which texts are actually read. And to our general amazement we find that sport is only read by 25 percent. And that what people want, even in local papers, is less local news and more national and international content. What now? Should we throw local news and sport out of our newspapers? Market research is a guide, but it is never a guarantee of success.

All this sometimes reminds me of the phenomenon I call the bouncer syndrome. I only know two types of discos or clubs. At the first, someone stands at the door calling out "Come on in! Pretty girls! Free entry! Come on in!" And anyone not totally desperate switches to the other side of the street. At the other type, someone stands just inside the door saying, sorry, members only tonight. And people stand in line to get in.

So what do newspaper readers want? What characterizes the newspaper of the future will be the same thing that characterized newspapers in the past: exclusive news, independent opinions and captivating language. What is the current situation concerning these three core competences?

Exclusive news: By definition, newspapers are about news. But the genuine element of the newspaper, its true function and reason for existence, is that which no one knows yet (as opposed to easy-access agency wires) and that which no one was supposed to find out (if those concerned got their way). Finding news depends on research. The reporter Hans Leyendecker points out that for some people in Germany, finding a phone number without help from a secretary already constitutes research. If newspapers want to keep abreast of the times and successfully compete for their share of the customer's precious time, they must place more emphasis on research. And publishers must maintain or create the conditions for this: money, time, independence. Investigative journalism costs money, it may take some time and it may not always deliver results. But in the long term, it pays off.

Independent opinions: Besides news, the lifeblood of newspapers is opinion. Ideally, it should be intelligent, pointedly stated, sometimes even provocative and polemic. Nothing is more tedious than perfectly balanced views or writing what the reader wants to hear. Newspapers must offer people things to talk about. Provide a briefing for discussions in the corridor at work or later in the pub. In Germany, however, the dominant culture is still one of consensus, increasingly so in fact. The time for passionate debate is never past. All it takes is for people to launch debates in a passionate way. Nothing is better than the good old leader article: this is where the editorial team speaks out boldly, stating what it or one of its members thinks.

And finally, captivating language: Language is the journalist's raw material, and an aphrodisiac to seduce the reader. It is a well-known fact that there are no tedious subjects, just tediously written texts. Publishers view writers like orchids – expensive and sensitive. But these artists of language are the most important anchors – the popular columnists and those responsible for the big reports we had no intention of reading but which, after reading the first two sentences, we simply had to finish. Language is the talent that newspaper journalism – unlike radio, television or the Internet – can and must make the most of. The message between the lines, precise observations, ironic use of detail, striking and unfamiliar use of words, and maybe even the reader's laughter – this is what binds people to their newspaper.

News, opinions, language – this is what it has always been about, and that is not about to change.

Rather than those who show the smartest charts at conferences and say what their advertising clients want to hear, the most successful journalists and editors-in-chief today are those who are troublesome, demanding, exacting. Those who are confident. But not self-satisfied. Of the confident ones, then, only those whose capacity for self-criticism is still stronger than their capacity for self-satisfaction.

The future belongs to journalists and publishers who believe that the newspaper format is not dead as long as it is possible to keep creating new newspapers and magazines with circulations in the millions, as long as a daily newspaper for children can develop into the country's highest coverage publication – as is now the case in France – and as long as people have a passion for news, opinions and language.

In a much-discussed address, Rupert Murdoch said: "What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don't want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don't want news presented as gospel." Of course, Murdoch is right – as always. But I would like to make three small objections:

Firstly: I believe that even in future, young people will read a newspaper in the morning, on paper or on electronic paper, if it deals with their lives, with their issues, problems and dreams. In short, if they are attracted by the news, ideas and language in the paper.

Secondly: I believe that the newspaper of the future can only captivate its readers if it is backed up by confident, charismatic (although not necessarily divine) figures who provide leadership, who are capable of explaining in interesting terms what they themselves are passionate about. The standards of design, language and content expected by young people today are higher than they were twenty years ago. They have had enough trash. What is called for is substance – in different ways in broadsheet and tabloid formats.

And thirdly: I can hardly imagine a better metaphor for good journalism than gospel. Gospel is movement, gospel is spirit, and gospel is soul. Good gospel moves the entire community. And moving people is exactly what we want to do. Good journalism is moving. However much changes – this will stay the same.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on May 8, 2006.

The author is CEO and Director of Newspapers at Axel Springer AG.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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