Turning the Page at the Click of a Mouse

October 14, 2004 • Media Economics • by

Werbewoche, Nr. 36, October, 2004

E-papers: Digital newspaper editions constitute just a minor item on the balance sheets of Swiss publishing companies. Frequent travellers make up the bulk of their readership.

“One moment please. Loading application” or “Veuillez patienter …”. When visiting one of the many e-paper editions of newspapers and magazines published on the Web, these are usually the first words you are greeted with. It is very like being back in the good old days of the World Wide Web, when listening to the crackling noise of telephone lines and watching the build-up of Web pages made you feel like a pioneer.

Ten years on, some users seem ready for a new round of the “World Wide Wait”. Hoping to gain new readers, or at least to win back old ones, but also as a consequence of the widespread “herd instinct” in the media industry, a growing number of publishers have started to offer digital versions of their print products.

Back to the future

According to Katja Riefler, a new-media consultant and author of a comprehensive study on e-papers, approximately 25 companies are currently offering software solutions for producing digital newspapers. And a thriving business it seems to be: in October 2003, there were a mere 90 digital papers across Europe, says Riefler. Six months later, the number had more than doubled to 220. Switzerland alone now counts more than two dozen e-paper editions.

One reason for the boom in e-papers is likely to be the fact that they encounter very little resistance in the boardrooms of publishing companies. Certainly, publishers and editors-in-chief must be thrilled by the digital paper’s recognizable format on the computer screen, which closely resembles the “physical paper” – and all of that without extra spending on editorial content, of course. But there are also more tangible benefits from digital papers, since they make it possible to deliver the newspaper on the day of publication to subscribers in the most remote areas of the world for a fraction of the cost.

Christoph Bauer, head of marketing of Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), notes that this was the primary reason for launching NZZ-Global, the e-paper version of the Zurich-based newspaper, in March 2004. According to Bauer, the main intention behind creating a digital version of the NZZ‘s international edition as well as of the NZZ am Sonntag was to offer a genuine alternative to the print edition at affordable rates to those readers who live outside the German-speaking world and currently pay up to 1,358 Swiss Francs (roughly 1,100 US Dollars) for an annual subscription. However, most overseas customers have yet to make the change from the “physical” to the “virtual” NZZ. Apparently, the Swiss businessman in Shanghai or the German professor at Harvard does not care too much about the delay in delivery of the print edition since they tend to read the “paper from home” only in addition to their daily (local) newspaper, anyway.

Showing the way to paid content

Bauer says that digital newspapers find more favour with business people, frequent travellers and mobile readers who live in Switzerland. This group now makes up approximately two thirds of NZZ-Global‘s customers. In particular, those with more than one residence welcome the e-paper as a valid alternative to the print edition. They also like some of the additional benefits that come with a subscription to the digital paper, such as free access to the NZZ‘s monthly archive.

Marcel Sennhauser, head of interactive media at Swiss publisher Tamedia, confirms this trend. Most readers of the digital versions of the Zurich-based newspapers Tages-Anzeiger and SonntagsZeitung and the e-paper edition of the weekly news magazine Facts live in Switzerland. They are either from areas where there is no early-morning delivery, or they are subscribers to both the print edition and the digital version – whereby the “physical” paper is usually taken along by a family member on the commute to work. According to Sennhauser, e-papers increasingly serve as an alternative to redirecting delivery of the print edition during holidays. In some cases, digital versions are even used as voucher copies for authors and advertisers, says Sennhauser.

What makes this innovation even more attractive to many in the media industry is that it actually seems to persuade customers to pay for journalistic Internet content. Users appear more inclined to spend money on a familiar format. When they launched the digital format, a number of publishers also went about experimenting with new, web-based business models and billing systems (see “Different business models”).

An add-on, not a replacement

Yet despite all this, e-papers will no doubt remain a niche product for the foreseeable future. No access to a broadband connection makes reading digital papers a tedious affair. Because of the limited readability of the paper – cut down to fit the screen – and almost non-existent hypertext functions, the digital format appears overly static compared to traditional online services.

Thus, experts recommend using e-papers as a supplement and not a replacement for “traditional” newspaper websites. Whether Swiss publishers would agree with this is highly doubtful. In contrast to the New York Times, Washington Post or USA Today, many leading Swiss newspapers have reduced the amount of print content on their websites since launching their e-paper versions.

So the trend seems to point towards “traditional” newspaper websites becoming independent (wire-service) news providers, which are only loosely linked to their respective print “parent”. It is now getting more and more difficult to find background information and quality journalism in the free content areas. As a result, search engines will bypass high quality editorial content. This in turn may cost large newspapers dearly, since they may well gradually lose the privilege of being reference sources. Is the e-paper format the beginning of the quality papers’ withdrawal from the internet?


Different business models

When it comes to the pricing policy of e-papers, most publishers are still moving in uncharted territory. Subscribers of the print edition are mostly offered a more or less substantial discount, when they subscribe to the digital version. Subscribers to the paper versions of SonntagsZeitung and Le Temps are even given free access to the digital edition. Tages-Anzeiger, Blick and SonntagsBlick pass on some of the cost savings they realize from the digital version to subscribers of the respective e-paper editions. NZZ, meanwhile, deliberately opted not to fiddle with their print business model and charges the same price for the print and e-paper editions.

Cash, Finanz und Wirtschaft, Basler Zeitung, Corriere del Ticino and La Regione have followed NZZ‘s lead. The two Ticino-based papers have chosen a peculiar approach: subscribers to the e-paper edition get the print version delivered to their doorstep – whether they want it or not. The PDF-version of Le Temps, meanwhile, is only accessible to print subscribers.


Tiny circulation

Even at the world-renowned New York Times, the 3,172 subscribers to the digital edition account for a paltry 0.28 percent of the total print subscribers. A mere 900 e-subscribers at USA Today make up only 0.05 percent of print subscribers. In Germany, the situation is not much better. IVW, Germany’s leading circulation audit organisation, started to certify circulation figures of e-papers at the beginning of 2003, but even today, circulation is still in two- or low-three-digit figures.

In Switzerland, NZZ is the only publisher to release its “e-circulation”. Around 2,500 people – 1,700 in addition to the print version and 800 only to the digital version – have subscribed to the e-paper NZZ-Global – a respectable 1.6 percent of the total print circulation. Asked about their figures, Tamedia was only willing to say that they have a ratio of digital to print circulation similar to American newspapers. Total circulation of the e-Tages Anzeiger is therefore likely to be somewhere between 200 and 600 “copies”. The number of e-subscribers at the business paper Cash is in the low three digits according to Andre Michel, head of the paper’s online division.

[Translation: Florian Faes]

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