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Given the small-format, colour-splashed reality of the newspaper landscape, it’s tough being a paper like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Its front page has only featured a photograph 33 times in its almost 60-year history. The font – Times – hasn’t changed in decades and the leaders are headed by a grand Gothic typeface. It is iconic but demanding and, as a result, increasingly undesirable in a fast-changing, multi-channel, digital age.

Just how undesirable is evident at Simon Zawalinski’s news kiosk in the shadow of Frankfurt’s high-rises, where plenty of issues of the FAZ, as it’s known in Germany, are stacked on top of the newsstand at four in the afternoon. Its main competitor, the Munich-based national newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, is sold out. “The FAZ? I always have plenty of those,” says Zawalinski as he waves his hand.

The dismissive gesture would make the paper’s five publishers shudder. But with the reality of sinking subscription and kiosk sales hitting the FAZ harder than any other major German newspaper, they have taken action. On 5 October, the new-look FAZ debuted in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Gothic script? Gone in favour of a more gentle Times Bold Condensed. The Times font has been replaced by a lighter Times Roman. And, for the first time in its history, the FAZ features a colour photograph on the front page – every day.

“At one point you have to say, it’s gone on long enough, we need to do something about it,” says Berthold Kohler, the second longest-serving of the newspaper’s publishers. “And this is our answer.”

Like the numerous other FAZ editors and designers who spoke exclusively to Monocle ahead of the relaunch, Kohler’s sentence was uttered with more than just a twinge of regret. Newspaper loyalists such as him like to believe the printed word is as safe now as it has always been. But though circulations worldwide have been increasing in recent years, according to the World Association of Newspapers, the reading habits of their target audiences has forced changes in format, typeface and look on front pages across the US and Europe.

Whereas in the UK and Scandinavia, publishers have tackled the problem head-on, introducing innovative layouts and better online integration, and Spanish papers have moved almost entirely to tabloid format, traditionalists in Germany are working at a slower pace.

“Newspapers here are still under the impression that reading should be hard work,” says designer Lukas Kircher.

None more so than the FAZ. Since being founded in 1949, the paper has prided itself on being defined by its content, ranging from authoritative commentary to an unparalleled correspondent network and stories that spark national debate. Its front page is filled with political and economic analysis, the occasional sports brief and dispatches from around the world. It has cultivated a fiercely loyal readership of top managers, financiers, politicians and literati.

“We serve the elite; we’re almost required reading for them,” says Holger Steltzner, 44, a former investment banker and financial journalist who, in 2002, became the youngest of the current publishers of the FAZ.

But that elite readership, more than two-thirds of which is over 40, is dying out – something made evident by sinking sales. Whereas in the second quarter of 2003, the subscriber count was still 266,617, numbers from the second quarter of this year show a drop to 244,025. The Süddeutsche Zeitung, with its comparatively more modern layout, saw circulation rise to a high of 443,906 in the second quarter of this year, thanks to innovative book and movie packages.

This state of affairs was enough for the FAZ to do something historic: conduct a readership survey. That it was the first time the paper accompanied a major project by asking readers what they thought says a great deal about the paper’s conservative culture.

Together with four colleagues, economist and journalist Erich Welter founded the paper as Frankfurt was rebuilding its bombed-out city centre and reviving as a financial hub. They imposed on it a structure of five publishers (who are equivalent to editors in chief in the English-speaking world, and have no role in advertising). Each publisher is responsible for a different section, and each section inhabits a different floor at FAZ HQ, near Frankfurt’s main railway station. In contrast to big newsrooms in London or New York, the atmosphere is more like an ivory tower, with many of the Autoren sequestered away in private offices.

A feeling of formality and self-assurance pervades the building, where colleagues in starched button-downs and smart business suits typically use the formal “Sie” in addressing each other.

It’s an atmosphere in which change is debated at all levels and eventually either acted on or thrown out. Kohler credits this stable approach with helping maintain the newspaper’s high-cost newsgathering operation during the worst of the German media crisis from 2001 to 2003, when newsrooms across the country responded to sinking ad revenues by slashing staff numbers and budgets. The FAZ Group lost hundreds of millions of euros and had to let go of up to 200 employees.

But as a testament to its passion for quality journalism, it continued to spend on editorial. Most symbolically, it spent lavishly on a new Sunday edition, the Sonntagszeitung. Launched in 2001 with its own staff and an award-winning design created by Kircher from the Berlin consultancy KircherBurkhardt, within four years it was attracting a younger, more female audience, and was in the black, with a circulation nearing 300,000. The Sunday paper’s success was enough to get the house thinking about conducting a readership poll.

“Earlier, decisions were made according to one’s own values or experiences,” says Christian-Matthias Pohlert, the paper’s photo editor. “It’s a new strategy for us to conduct a readership survey.”

The results, from three to four polls in the past year with 500 current and potential readers, were a shock to the paper’s leadership. Readers rejected the photo-less front page, and many found the Gothic script difficult to read.

“We realised that, for our potential readers, the front page represented a hurdle,” said Kohler. The goal became twofold: to better serve the media behaviour of current readers, and attract those who were turned off by its front page.

“We had to confront a strategic question, namely who is our target audience, and how do we better exploit it,” says the FAZ Group’s managing director Tobias Trevisan. “ You can’t discuss that without discussing a redesign.”

Though newspaper designers from Mario García and Kurt Weidemann to KircherBurkhardt had expressed interest, this daunting job was done by in-house designers Peter Breul, art director of the Sunday paper, and the daily paper’s design editor, Johannes Janssen.

“The challenge is to modernise the paper and maintain its character; that’s why something like the FAZ is really hard to pull off,” says Mark Porter, the British graphic designer responsible for The Guardian’s redesign. “They’re right to be cautious, because if you got it wrong, it’d be an act of cultural vandalism.”

Designers both within the paper and outside considered the introduction of a photograph on the front page an easy place to start. Typical of the FAZ leadership, Pohlert, whose professorial air seems better suited to a lecture hall than a newsroom photo department, says he is sad to see the old FAZ go. But the challenge of having a hand in selling the paper’s front page every day is one the photo editor relishes. “It is, of course, the hour for a photo department,” he adds.

Though happy with the end product and initial reader surveys, which show a 70 per cent approval rating, Trevisan doesn’t expect circulation to rocket. The goal, he says, is the continued growth of the FAZ on three columns – the daily, the Sunday paper and online – each of which can reach slightly different readers.

But the reaction from potential readers in downtown Frankfurt, on glimpsing a copy of the FAZ redesign smuggled out by Monocle, is less enthusiastic.

“Typical,” says Barbara Hübner, 60, as she looks over the front page. “It looks like all the rest of them now. I didn’t really like the Gothic type, but that’s what separated them from all the rest.”

Zawalinski, the kiosk owner, says he is doubtful he would be able to move more copies with the new design. “It was more conservative earlier, more clearly arranged,” he says. “Now it’s trying to look more fashionable.”

Publishing experts such as the journalist Adolf Theobald says the design changes won’t accomplish much unless accompanied by changes to the paper’s complex writing style. The paper’s critics said that when the FAZ fired a raft of younger writers and editors during the media crisis five years ago, it lost journalists with a fresh style and perspective.

“The story style in the paper is no longer current,” says Theobald. “It’s too noun-heavy, it keeps out the verbs that give a story life and make it attractive.”

Though the paper has begun hiring younger staff again, the transformation of the FAZ to fit both the reading habits and shifting political beliefs of younger generations will take time. As one FAZ editor, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells Monocle: “The fonts won’t bring anything unless you change the old-school FAZ editors screaming in their articles at women who want to work and not stay at home with their babies.”

To the FAZ leadership’s credit, they seem aware of that. Though the redesign will seem nothing short of astonishing for many of its readers, old newspaper hands like Janssen, who has been at the FAZ for over 20 years, have got used to the idea that this might only be the beginning.

“This isn’t a revolution,” said Janssen. “It’s part of an evolution.”

Foreign office

Monocle believes that investment breeds excellence, that Our Man In… is worth more than a newswire. The FAZ has over 40 journalists in 24 foreign bureaux across the globe, a five-strong Brussels team includes a European sports writer and there are culture correspondents in Paris, Madrid, Moscow, Venice, London, New York and Beijing.

Old: the front page

The FAZ has had 33 photos on its front page: 28 up to 1957 – usually portraits such as Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill and Theodor Heuss. And only five since 1989.

12 November 1989 – The fall of the Berlin Wall
4 October 1990 – The reunification of Germany
12 September 2001 – The World Trade Center is attacked
4 April 2005 – Pope John Paul II dies
20 April 2005 – German Benedict XVI is elected as the new Pope

The FAZ reader

Gender: Male: 65.2%
Female: 34.8%
Germany’s population, by comparison, is 51.6% female and 48.4% male.

Age: 14-29: 15.9%
30-39: 15.4%
40-49: 17.8%
50-59: 18.0%
60-69: 19.9%
70+: 13.0%

Education:
56.1% completed their A-levels and have a university degree (only 22.8% of the German population have done that)

Average monthly income:
<€1,000 - 4.8%
€1,000 < €2,000 - 21.0%
€2,000 < €3,000 - 25.7%
€3,000 < €5,000 - 35.2%

€5,000 - 13.4%

Employment:
Managing director: 4.6%
Freelancer: 6.6%
Manager: 12.3%
Senior civil servant: 4.1%

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