Negative zeitgeist

I'm in a rainy Odense, Denmark today where I just spoke at Fagfestival, the largest annual Scandinavian conference for professional journalists, about the newspaper crisis. After my talk, several Danish journalists privately expressed their pessimism to me about their industry. "In twenty years time," somebody confided, "every single Danish newspaper will have closed their print editions."

Unfortunately, it's becoming a pan-European crisis -- the negative zeitgeist of our age. I was in Frankfurt on Monday to keynote the annual ZukunftsForum Medien event about the future of media, held at Lufthansa's cool Flight Training Center. After my speech, a panel of four leading new and old media experts discussed the crisis of declining newspaper readers in Germany. I was particularly struck by a singularly dark comment by Hans-Juergen Jakobs, the online editor-in-chief of the Munich based Suddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's largest quality newspaper.

Unless self-promoting journalists can make themselves more relevant to a German public more interested in social networking than in serious news analysis, "It will be over," the highly respected Jakobs predicted starkly about the end of the high-end newspaper business. 

Jakobs' dire prediction about German newspapers is, of course, already happening in America. Two weeks ago, the 100 year-old Christian Science Monitor announced its intention to shut down its print edition and go totally online – thereby earning itself the dubious honor of being the first American newspaper to give up on print. Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe have gone through yet another deep round of staff cuts and the US Audit Bureau of Circulation revealed that in the first six months of 2008, sales of the top 500 American newspapers were down almost 5%. Even more ominously, Silicon Alley Reporter's Henry Blodgett has revealed that the New York Times needs to repay a $400 million debt by May of next year, a sum that the company, in today's credit tight environment, currently doesn't possess.

Which national American newspapers will follow The Christian Science Monitor in killing their print editions? The two leading candidates are the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. It really does seem to entirely “be over” for high quality print newspapers in California – a state with a population six times that of Denmark. But it’s not just German or Danish newspaper editors who should be worried. Journalists and readers throughout Europe should take also note of the growing crisis. As the Guardian's Emily Bell acknowledged in our BBC debate this week, the advertising-driven digital economy really struggles to sustain high-end professional news operations. It won’t, therefore, be that long before the rot sets in throughout Europe and some of the continent's most cherished print newspapers will also have become history.