by Marion Ziegler
For my case study, I chose a traditional regional daily newspaper in Germany – “Rhein-Zeitung”, which is distributed in an area along the river Rhein in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate near the city of Koblenz.
Why “Rhein-Zeitung” is a typical example of a traditional media company
“Rhein-Zeitung”has been printed since 1946, when it was given a print permit during the allied occupation period in postwar Germany. Since 1948 it has been published by the printing house Mittelrhein-Verlag.
Today, the print edition is published in 14 different local editions which share a collective “umbrella desk.” Whereas the joint desk provides national, international, political and economic content, the local desks are supplying local news targeted for readers only in their area of distribution. This is common practice in the German newspaper landscape, as this (German) weblink will show. The second chart lists all German newspaper companies. The first digit indicates the number of local editions, and the second digit indicates the number of shared desks.
Rhein-Zeitung has about 200,000 subscribers and approximately 580,000 readers per issue. Its market share in its area is about 85 percent, as it has few competitors. That too is common in the German media landscape as more than half of all German counties are provided with one unrivaled newspaper.
Therefore, Rhein-Zeitung can be seen as a typical regional daily newspaper in Germany.
Rhein-Zeitung is facing the same problems as all the other newspapers
The last years have not been good years in newspaper business around the world. Germany too has to face the vicious circle of decreasing circulation and, consequently, decreasing advertising revenues. 2012 was an exceptionally bad year when it comes to journalistic diversity. Within only a few weeks, several big media companies went bankrupt – including Germany’s second biggest news agency DAPD and the popular daily newspapers Frankfurter Rundschau and Financial Times Deutschland, leaving hundreds of journalists jobless.
Rhein-Zeitung was affected too. On September 19, 2013 chief editor Christian Lindner declared the end of Rhein-Zeitung’s edition in the state capital Mainz on Twitter – thus making Mainz another city with only one daily newspaper left. Lindner’s bottom line: “Popular, but not profitable.”
What makes “Rhein-Zeitung” atypical
Rhein-Zeitung is a typical German daily newspaper struggling with the typical problems in a changing news landscape. But Rhein-Zeitung is also very atypical.
It has always been known for its progressiveness and boldness in trying out new devices and in experimenting with new possibilities. In 1995, Rhein-Zeitung was the first German daily newspaper to provide an online edition with its own desk. Since 1996, all of the content has filed in a full-text database. In 2001, Rhein-Zeitung developed an e-paper: It was the first newspaper worldwide (!) to offer a one-to-one-copy of its printed edition online on the basis of HTML (demo version accessible here). In 2004 it integrated a disk mirror of Wikipedia into its e-paper and online edition.
Activities in Social Media
Being present in social media cannot count as modern or progressive anymore, but nevertheless, Rhein-Zeitung’s activities should not be forgotten in this case study. Its Facebook profile has about 14,000 likes. In addition, the newspaper is present in more local social networks. In 2009, it hired a social media editor, responsible for social media only. Again, Rhein-Zeitung is said to be the first local newspaper to have a social media editor.
On Twitter, Rhein-Zeitung has a main account with about 36,000 followers and 50,000 tweets. In addition, it has several other accounts focused on different editions or particular desks, such as the politics desk. In comparison to other local dailies in Germany, that is not bad. Furthermore, as mentioned, chief editor Christian Lindner is a very well-versed Twitter user.
Rhein-Zeitung’s readers use Twitter as a first feedback channel and also point out local events to journalists. Thus, Rhein-Zeitung also sources information over Twitter. An example is #rheinstagram (play on words Rhein and Instagram). Readers are called upon to upload images of local events that may be used online or (with consent) even in the print edition.
(In this video, an editor presents the online and especially Twitter activities of Rhein-Zeitung – but only in German, I’m sorry.)
Rhein-Zeitung’s online performance today
Digital share in the company lies around only 4 percent of Rhein-Zeitung’s whole business.
In 2013, Rhein-Zeitung explicitly decided not to allow Google to provide its content on Google News. In an interview (German link again!), chief editor Lindner defends this decision. As only 1 percent of the paper’s traffic comes from Google News, it can pass on those readers.
“We have made a fundamental decision and we do not want to comp our content anymore,” Lindner argues. Shortly after that, in November 2013, Rhein-Zeitung set up a paywall for its local online content. “A paywall would not go together with the fact that we are giving away our precious content for free elsewhere.”
In another statement (German), Rhein-Zeitung gives more reasons for its paywall: print readership decreases, online readership increases, and: “After 17 years of online experience, we want to enter the adult era.” Admittedly, this statement sounds as though it was written to protect the corporate image.
Local news – the core business of Rhein-Zeitung
The paywall only applies to local content. Ten articles and pictures per month will be free. International or national content will be free and content linked on social media will be free. Thus, Rhein-Zeitung really defines local news as its core business.
I suppose the focus on local news is the main reason for Rhein-Zeitung’s ability to withstand big changes as imposed by Google News. Their readers do not need to Google for content on Rhein-Zeitung, as they already are on the website or the e-paper.
For now, Rhein-Zeitung seems to be doing well with that.