European papers see promise in high tech

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Are newspapers set to become yesterday's news? Don't count on it, say editors at some of Europe's iconic publications.

The pressures on the European industry are the same as in the United States: Fewer readers, less ad revenue and competition from the Internet and free papers. But European editors are optimistic they can provide the content readers need -- whether it's on newsprint, a computer screen, a smart phone or a futuristic electronic scroll.

Some predicted the media revolution underway may even allow them to return to the deeper, more sophisticated journalism on which they took pride decades ago, before the crush of round-the-clock news took its toll. What they can't agree on is how that new emphasis on quality will play out -- online or in print.

Bruno Patino, director of online and digital projects at France's Le Monde, spoke of a split in which the newspaper would focus on in-depth investigations and the Web site would aim at more hurried audiences.

Marco Pratellesi, online editor of Italy's leading Corriere della Sera, feels exactly the opposite: The Internet, he said, is the medium that opens up opportunities for long-form traditional reporting. He noted 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 both agreed 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."

Marek Kiwecien, a 44-year-old real estate agent sometimes reads online, but said he thinks traditional papers will survive, and the main reason is comfort.

"My eyes hurt reading online, so I prefer regular newspapers," Kwiecien said while thumbing through the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper over a pot of green tea at a central Warsaw cafe.

He also noted that papers are starting to charge for their online services, as well as for access to their archives, a process Kwiecien thinks will only intensify.

"I think that'll be another reason for papers to survive," he said.

Pawel Starzynski, a 43-year-old engineer reading the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper over a cafe latte, said he sees a place for both online news and traditional papers in the future.

"I think online and traditional forms can co-exist," he said. "I like to read this kind of paper over a coffee in a cafe and I read online at work."

"I don't like to take my laptop to bed," he added.

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 Association of Newspapers showed that daily paid newspapers in the European Union saw a 0.61% drop in circulation in 2005, and a 5.26% fall over the five years through 2005.

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 $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, http://www.e24.se., in addition to its regular news site, http://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 to 50% year over year, depending on the Web site.

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. For example, search engines' tendency to reduce stories to their first 200 characters meant writers needed to think up ever snappier headlines.

"We're writing very pithy first paragraphs, and making the headlines as packed as we can," he said. "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 is 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," he said.

Still, broadcast quality video is 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 sponsorships for the Times' online video content are among the top five% 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.

Advertising online is a strong lure for newspapers. In Britain, for example, online advertising rose 41% in 2006 to reach more than 2 billion pounds, giving it an 11.4% share of the market, just higher than that of the newspapers. That compared to 7.8% 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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