I’ve spent the past few days tucked away in a secret hideaway in the headquarters of the German publishing house Axel Springer, helping create what the company thinks could be the salvation of newspapers. I’m not allowed to tell you everything that’s been debated but I can tell about the outcome of all that work: today the company launches eMag – an electronic magazine that will be part of the Berlin-based national quality Sunday paper Welt am Sonntag.
Twelve stories have been enriched with animation, film and audio. Browsing feels as intuitive as turning pages on paper. But you can also watch the New York correspondent visit a party by artist Terence Koh and sit in the passenger’s seat of the new Ferrari 458 Italia as it roars along the Maranello test track. You can dive into elaborate interactive infographics explaining the Copenhagen Climate Conference or listen to the Bee Gees talk about their 50th anniversary.
This is not a newspaper anymore. But neither is it just a flash-website or web TV – although it includes those aspects. The eMag feels closer to those animated journals in the Harry Potter films. But perhaps more importantly it is also one of the first experiments with a paywall. Readers will have to fork out €1.50 to get those jumping and moving pages.
For years newspaper publishers have been lamenting sinking revenues but on their websites most of them still give away their articles for free. Many now consider this decision from the early days of the internet to have been a major error and one that must be corrected. Rupert Murdoch has announced that – following the example of his Wall Street Journal – all of his newspapers will charge for online-content next year.
In Germany Axel Springer has been the most vocal proponent of this new strategy. Unlike Murdoch it does not plan to charge for the electronic versions of existing papers. Rather it will launch innovative products, hoping to lure customers into downloading them onto computers and smartphones. In addition to today’s eMag there will be iPhone Apps from its tabloids Bild and BZ later in the year – you will also need to pay for these.
Fascinating as the new Welt am Sonntag product may be it raises fundamental questions about the self-image of journalists. How much will the role of writers change if their work is reduced to providing captions for animated graphics? If videos are the way to go, will future journalists be trained as TV hosts rather than investigative reporters? With production of electronic media so much more complex than printing ink on paper, will programmers soon be the new editors?
But the most pressing question of course is whether readers are ready to pay for content online at all – however it is dressed up. In an era of abundant information and where news is spread in real time via Twitter and social filters it’s something of an unknown. Still, experimenting in times of rapid change seems more sensible than complaining. The media world will watch with curiosity and even envy as Europe’s mayor publishing house releases today’s trial balloon.