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Euro Crisis Shoots the Messenger

Paul Ames
Monday, 10 Dec 2012 | 8:27 PM ET
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Ricardo Martinez de Rituerto has covered the twists and turns of Europe's economic crisis for Spain's best-known newspaper, El Pais, for the past four years. Then he became part of the story.

The veteran Brussels correspondent is one of 129 journalists — a third of the editorial staff — the Madrid-based daily is firing as a spate of closures and lay-offs sweeps Europe's struggling press.

"All my professional life has been at El Pais," said Martinez de Rituerto, 58, who joined the paper as a trainee in 1980.

(Read More: Spain's Jobless Number Nears 5 Million)

"Human resources called me while I was covering the European summit last week," he added. "They said I had to come to Madrid to sign my dismissal papers. I was kind of surprised, but during the negotiations the boss had said people over 50 don't fit in, they have problems adapting to technology and so on. At that moment, I thought: I fit that profile."

Almost 8,000 Spanish journalists have lost their jobs since 2008, according to trade union figures.

But problems for Europe's press range far beyond Spain, as the economic crisis depresses advertising and sales in a sector already struggling to adapt to the rise of new digital media.

As El Pais was preparing to fire its reporters, one of Germany's biggest-selling dailies, the Frankfurter Rundschau, filed for bankruptcy. Days later, the respected business paper Financial Times Deutschland announced it would cease publication on Dec. 7.

The implosion of those prestigious titles sent shock waves across the European media landscape.

Dutch newspapers recently announced they would shut down their cooperative newswire, and well-established national dailies in Spain and France folded in the past few months.

Advertising revenues for European newspapers dropped on average by 14 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to a report this week by the European Newspaper Publishers' Association.

In Spain, the fall was almost 37 percent, and Estonian newspapers saw advertising revenues tumble by 96 percent between 2006 and 2010. The association says revenues across Europe have since stabilized, but at historically low levels.

(Read More: Will Michael Bloomberg Buy the Financial Times?)

Industry experts say Europe initially avoided the havoc of US newspapers during the financial crisis because its press relies less on advertising. The balance between sales and advertising revenues is about 50-50, compared to up to 70-30 in the United States.

However, the economic squeeze in Europe is now also dragging on sales, which are down an average of 12 percent since 2006, according to the publishers' report.

"We're in a healthier position in Europe, but that's not to say there aren't serious issues," says Francine Cunningham, executive director of the newspaper publishers' association. "Overall, print circulation is under pressure in many European countries."

Not all the figures are depressing. The hard times for traditional media come at a time that general readership is at record highs — when online editions and mobile devices are taken into account.

"If you add it all together, readership has never been higher and that's one reason to be optimistic and have hope for the future," she said in an interview. "The big challenge is how to monetize that popularity."

The number of Europeans regularly reading their news online has soared to well over 60 percent in some countries. For major newspapers such as France's Le Monde and Italy's La Repubblica, the number of Facebook likers now far outstrips their print editions' readership.

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Like their US counterparts, however, many European newspapers have been late to wake up to the challenges and opportunities of the digital revolution.

"I'm not sure you can blame these problems on the economic crisis at all actually, this is just evading the issue," says Wilfried Rutten, director of the European Journalism Center, a non-profit organization that promotes media standards. "It's been a creeping death for sometime. The newspapers didn't embrace the internet early enough, they didn't know how to deal with it."

He says Financial Times Deutschland and other doomed papers made fatal mistakes by not switching to an online-only format. Other publications will have to radically adapt their content and business plans to survive in the digital age.

"Newspapers, they are from yesterday," he said in a telephone interview from the center's headquarters in The Netherlands. "If they just come with the news, if they don't go for background and commentary and opinion, they cannot compete."

Cunningham cites examples in Scandinavia, where digital editions of established newspapers are becoming self-sustainable.

Rutten points to other digital success stories in Europe, such as Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the British daily The Guardian, which has found a new audience in the United States with its online edition.

But too many in Europe are still fighting against digital media, he says, pointing to the ongoing efforts of German publishers to get legislation through parliament that would allow them to charge search engines for displaying newspaper articles.

"It's ridiculous, like asking the guy running a kiosk to pay just to display newspapers," he says. "They should be happy to be found. It's a sign of desperation."

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