Source AP ©

Newspapers' future- yesterday's news?

The editors of Europe's iconic publications say that newspapers will never become yesterday’s news.

The pressures on the industry - in Europe as in the United States - are prodigious: tumbling circulation and ad revenue, competition from the Internet, the proliferation of free papers. Rapidly changing technology and consumer trends have made adaptation especially difficult.

But European editors interviewed by The Associated Press appear strikingly optimistic about the future. They see the online media explosion more as an opportunity than as a threat and express confidence they can provide the content readers need - whether it's accessed on newsprint, a computer screen, a smart phone, or a futuristic electronic scroll.

Some European editors predicted the media revolution underway may even allow them to return to the deeper, more sophisticated journalism on which they took pride in decades past - yet in some cases felt they had to dilute under the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle.

There was disagreement, however, on how that new emphasis on quality will play out - whether it will ultimately find its greatest impact online or in print.

Bruno Patino, director of online and digital projects at France's Le Monde, spoke of an "inevitable fragmentation" between print and online editions in which the newspaper would go "back to basics, even more elitist" - focusing on in-depth investigations. The Web site, then, would aim at more hurried audiences, he said.

For Marco Pratellesi, online editor of Italy's leading Corriere della Sera, it was exactly the opposite: The Internet, he said, is the medium that opens up opportunities for a return to what he called long-form traditional reporting.

"In a way we are returning to journalism of 20 years ago, offering more investigative pieces," Pratellesi said, noting that it costs next to nothing to post a 10,000-word story online compared to clearing space on the printed page and selling advertising to pay for it.

Where the two viewpoints converged was that traditional newspapers will live or die based on the quality of their content - an authoritative perspective free papers cannot provide.

"Our strategy is quality, to select the themes that interest our readers," Pratellesi said. "Free newspapers, for example, are just quick reads, not newspapers that readers actually seek out."

There is no denying, however, that newspaper circulation is tumbling across Europe, as it is in the U.S. market. The most recent figures available from the World Associated of Newspapers showed that daily paid newspapers in the European Union saw a -0.61 percent drop in circulation in 2005, and a -5.26 percent fall over the five years through 2005.

Le Monde has taken a particularly steep hit, declining from 416,000 to 355,000 in 2002-2007 for a fall of nearly 15 percent. Most newspapers in Britain - which has an impressive array of national dailies - have seen steady declines as well.

Many European newspapers are investing heavily in online editions in hopes of growth.

Berlin-based Axel Springer, Europe's biggest newspaper and magazine publisher, is set to spend some EUR2 billion (US$2.67 billion) to expand its digital offerings both in Germany and elsewhere.

In Sweden, Raoul Gruenthal, managing editor of Stockholm-based Svenska Dagbladet, said the daily has started a financial news site, www.e24.se., in addition to its regular news site, www.svd.se.

"We are seizing the opportunity to use the position we have to grow in areas where we previously didn't have a strong position," he said.

Going online also helps newspapers reach a global audience, a factor that is particularly important for British papers that can count on a massive worldwide English-speaking readership.

Industry-wide in Europe - as elsewhere - it's not yet clear whether Internet growth will be able to soon offset declining print revenues.

But there are positive signs: Le Monde's Patino said that after recent loss-making years, the paper is expected to break even or make a profit this year entirely thanks to online services making up for print losses.

Peter Wuertenberger, managing director for Axel Springer's Welt/Berliner Morgenpost newspaper publishing group, said Internet revenues are growing 20-50 percent year-on-year, depending on the Web site.

Meanwhile, Wuertenberger said Germany's older population is helping keep newspapers going.

"Two-thirds of the population have not been part of the young Internet generation," he said. "Those people are still used to, and dependent on, paper as one of their information supply chains. So we don't see newspapers fading away so quickly."

Svenska Dagbladet's Gruenthal also said it was too soon to write off print editions.

"I'm optimistic when it comes to print," said Gruenthal. "Right now there is no hardware that can compete with print. ... I don't think print will die quickly, but of course it will be a stagnating market compared to the Internet, which is growing explosively."

A key variable is the speed with which technology for making electronic content as portable as papers might evolve.

French business daily Les Echos this month plans to launch a "digital paper" version available on specially dedicated PDA-type "readers." The next step would be an "e-paper" - a flexible sheet using electronic ink that could be constantly updated wirelessly.

Philippe Jannet, director of Les Echos' digital projects, says his paper is trying to boost income by expanding the number of platforms but narrowing their targets.

All of this has brought about profound overhauls in newsrooms.

Zach Leonard, the digital media publisher for the Times of London, said pressures of the online world were forcing old journalists to learn new tricks and turning black-and-white newspapers into multimedia portals.

Search engines' tendency to reduce stories to their first 200 characters meant writers needed to think up ever snappier headlines, Leonard said.

"We're writing very pithy first paragraphs, and making the headlines as packed as we can," he told The AP. "It's important in a newspaper, but it's even more important for a search engine, where the content is organized vertically."

The Times is also encouraging its journalists to fill out their articles with video and audio content, and teaching them how to conduct podcasts and upload video from mobile phones. In the YouTube age, the quality of material was secondary to the need to put it online in the first place, Leonard said.

"The Web is very forgiving as far as high end audio and video goes."

Still, broadcast quality video was becoming an increasingly important part of how the Times made ends meet. The paper was being turned - in part, at least - into a small television studio, fielding pitches from production companies and organizing advertising deals.

Leonard didn't discuss specific figures, but said the sponsorship for the Times' online video content - such the TimesOnline TV series, "Cool in Your Code" - were among the top five percent of the paper's revenue-producing deals.

That was a model he said the Times applied to all its online features.

"We don't do anything on the site unless it makes money," Leonard said.

As in the United States, European media companies have been seeking way to harness more Web sites to drive advertising revenue and eyeballs to news-oriented sites.

Many publishers are charging for access to Web sites, much as they would for subscriptions to their newspapers or magazines.

France's Hachette, part of Lagardere, sells online subscriptions to 200 of its magazines, a process it started in August 2006, for just less than EUR10 (US$13.36) a month, which gives readers complete digital copies of a magazine, including audio and video.

Advertising online is a strong lure for newspapers, too, as more and more advertisers embark to the Internet to pitch their products, ranging from upscale Mercedes-Benz sedans to new video games.

In Britain, for example, online advertising rose 41 percent in 2006 to reach more than 2 billion pounds, giving it an 11.4 percent share of the market, just higher than that of the newspapers.

That compared to 7.8 percent in 2005, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau report which was compiled by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Advertising Research Center.

"With almost all expenditure on traditional media in decline, the upward momentum of the Internet reflects a new era," the report said.

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