In the Land of Gutenberg, Germans Face Their Digital Future

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Experts say that German newspapers and magazines are beginning to face the same predicament as their American counterparts

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At first glance, the city of Mainz, Germany, appears to be unaffected by the specter haunting the newspaper and book publishing industries. The city has an uncommon variety of bookstores along its cobblestone streets and an unusually large selection of periodicals at its newsstands. And despite its relatively small population of 250,000, the city supports two competing daily newspapers -- an amenity that similar-sized American cities haven't seen for decades. In other words, the city's selection of printed reading material would seem to be the perfect tribute to its most celebrated resident: Johannes Gutenberg.

But a closer look shows a digital storm on the horizon: Experts say the German print media are beginning to face the same predicament as their American counterparts.

"The digital word is okay. But at a certain moment, you're fed up. You want to touch real things."

Such fears prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to declare, at a ceremony for the 175th anniversary of publisher Bertelsmann/Random House, that there will still be paper books and printed newspapers 50 years from now. The audience thundered their agreement.

"As yet, the subscription numbers for magazines and newspapers in Germany have not declined too heavily in comparison to other European countries or the USA," says Dr. Stephan Füssel, who studies book history and media convergence at Mainz University. "However, a tendency can be observed. In the latest surveys, 35 percent of 16- to 39-year-olds would prefer to receive all their information via the Internet."

"The time for major changes in the industry seems to be at hand," he adds.

Indeed, complaints from German newspaper editors sound eerily similar to those in America: decreasing circulation, dwindling advertising, layoffs, and, for those lucky enough to keep their jobs: increased work loads. "We have to write, we have to design, we have to photograph," says Jochen Dietz, editor of the local newspaper Mainzer Rhein-Zeitung. With a tone of exasperation, he adds, "We have to Twitter."

Some Germans worry aloud about the possibility that the children born in the past few years will grow up without any attachment -- whether practical or sentimental -- to the printed word.

"We have to make sure that there will be paper books in the future," says Mascha Hoefer, a German college student studying for a bachelor's degree in primary school education. Hoefer is so concerned about preserving Gutenberg's legacy that she works at a print shop, teaching the art of typesetting and printmaking to children as young as five.

Asked about the importance of preserving the printed word, Hoefer lights up. "When you hold a paper book in your hand, you descend into another world," she says, wearing the print shop's trademark red apron. "You can feel it with your fingers. You can smell it. You can see the special fonts. That is a kind of art."

And e-book readers such as the Nook and Kindle? "They're only good for reading in transit because they weigh less," she says.

Not everyone is worried about the decline of print media in Germany. In fact, in the place where you might expect to find the fiercest defenders of traditional books and newspapers -- the Gutenberg Museum -- you instead find the opposite. At least when you talk to the curator, Dr. Claus Maywald.

Although his job is to preserve rare books for a museum named after Europe's inventor of movable type, Maywald waves a dismissive hand at the idea of maintaining a print-based reading culture. "Normally, people expect me to have a very traditional view because I work here," he says. "But I'm very flexible."

With no irony in his voice, Maywald points out that he doesn't subscribe to a print newspaper anymore. "It makes no sense," he says. "I look at news online. You're just getting outdated information if you read the print version of the newspaper."

In fact, rather than feeling anxiety about the transition, Maywald sees an advantage for the museum if physical books and newspapers continue to decline in popularity. "It creates a vacuum," he says. "As paper books become more rare, the importance of the Gutenberg Museum will only increase."

"The digital word is okay," he adds. "But at a certain moment, you're fed up. You want to touch real things."

Whatever happens to the publishing industry's business models, Germans who are concerned about losing the experience of reading physical books and newspapers need not worry, Maywald says. If anything, the trend in digital books and websites is to simulate the experience of reading the old-fashioned way. "If you turn a page on a computer nowadays, what do you hear?" he says. "You hear the sound of paper turning, and you see it pictured exactly like a page turning."

However, when it comes to reading on a digital device, even Maywald has his limits. "I like Voltaire. I have an old, printed copy from the 18th or 19th century. I can't replace it." He leans back in his chair, surrounded by stacks of centuries-old books. "I will never have a digital Voltaire."

Image: Enkel Marion learns how to use a letterpress at the Druckladen in Mainz, Germany.

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David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Kentucky, and an assistant professor of journalism at Asbury University.

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