German news groups consider web fightback

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Germany’s newspaper publishers are considering launching joint websites in which to sell articles – a move to defend themselves against search engines such as Google that have put newspaper sales under pressure by offering free news online.

Some of the nation’s largest print houses – such as Axel Springer, M. DuMont Schauberg, Verlagsgruppe Georg Von Holtzbrinck and WAZ Mediengruppe – are in initial talks about how to sell content on the web.

“Some are considering joint projects,” said one person familiar with the situation. “Others are looking at creating their own platforms, with a view to maybe letting others join them later. But talks are still very informal.”

After watching advertising revenues shrink by 4.3 per cent to €4.4bn ($6.5bn) last year, the publishers of daily newspapers are bracing for some poor year-end results, even after waves of cost-cutting in the country’s newsrooms.

According to the BDZV, the German newspaper publishers association, newspaper sales in the second quarter were down 2.5 per cent at 25.3m copies daily – with only Springer’s mass-market Bild selling more than 3m copies.

Central to publishers’ plans to turn the web into a source of subscription as well as advertising revenue is the belief that readers will pay for quality journalism – a view championed by Springer boss Mathias Döpfner.

Secondly, advances in so-called micro-payment systems on the internet mean that publishers are increasingly confident they will be able to offer a simple one-click payment system for web users lured to a certain article.

Konstantin Neven DuMont, board member of DuMont Schauberg, which owns titles in Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin, recently wrote in the Frankfurter Rundschau that there are “deliberations about founding a distribution platform for paid content from German language publishers and authors” which are meant to stop “high-quality content being given away on the internet”.

Springer, contintental Europe’s largest newspaper publisher, is focused on finding its own solutions, with the option of taking partners on later. Mr Döpfner has become an ever-more vocal cheerleader for paid content, famously clashing with Arianna Huffington, founder of the website Huffington Post, at a media event last month.

Springer is rolling out an iPhone edition of Bild, which Apple users will be able to buy over their handsets, and plans to launch other fee-based services.

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