Local Media for Democracy — country focus: Germany

Jan Christopher Kalbhenn, Institute for Information, Telecommunications and Media Law, University of Münster and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences


Over recent years there has been a growing debate on local media in Germany. However, the term “news deserts” does not play a prominent role in this debate. To highlight the problems of plurality in local news, the term “Einzeitungskreis” is commonly used.[1] This refers to districts with only one editorial outlet producing local news. In its ruling on local radio in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1991, the Federal Constitutional Court stated that the legislator must also ensure media diversity in the “local” sector. However, the State Media Treaty (2020) has largely omitted the topic of local media but identified it as a key issue for the future in an additional protocol.[2] The State Media Authority of Thuringia[3] and the Bündnis 90/Grüne party[4] have published legal studies, addressing the active preservation of local media diversity. Recently, the Federal Government[5] and the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs issued detailed studies dealing with possible types of direct financial support for the press.[6]

Regarding the definition of local and community media, German media legislation lacks a specific legal definition.[7] Since media legislation is the responsibility of individual federal states, there are thirteen distinct media laws, each establishing different frameworks for local radio.[8] Notably, not all laws provide specific regulatory frameworks for local media, with a primary focus on regulating local radio.

Media concentration laws in most states set limits for the capital and voting rights of local publishers in local radio stations. These rules were primarily intended to implement the case law of the Federal Constitutional Court and prevent local “double monopolies”, i.e., local newspapers and local radio stations in a distribution area coming from the same “hand”.

The connection between economically deprived areas and news deserts, as well as low internet penetration and news deserts, remains an ongoing concern.

[1] H. Röper, “Zeitungsmarkt 2022: Weniger Wettbewerb bei steigender Konzentration,” Media Perspektiven, 2022, https://www.ard-media.de/fileadmin/user_upload/media-perspektiven/pdf/2022/2206_Roeper.pdf

[2] Protokoll zum Medienstaatsvertrag, 2020, https://www.ard-media.de/fileadmin/user_upload/media-perspektiven/Dokumentation/Protokollerklaerung_zum_Medienstaatsvertrag.pdf

[3] J. Ukrow, et al., “Aktive Sicherung von lokaler und regionaler Vielfalt” (VISTAS Verlag, 2020).

[4] M. Cornils, “Möglichkeiten öffentlicher Förderung von Lokal- und Regionaljournalismus bei Wahrung der Staatsferne, Gutachten im Auftrag der Bundestagsfraktion BÜNDNIS90/DIE GRÜNEN”, Bundestagsfraktion BÜNDNIS90/DIE GRÜNEN, 2021, https://www.gruene-bundestag.de/fileadmin/media/gruenebundestag_de/themen_az/medien/pdf/210512-gutachten-journalismusfoerderung.pdf.

[5] DIW ECON, “Die Situation der lokalen Presse in Deutschland und ihre Herausforderungen im Zeitalter der Digitalisierung”, 2023, https://www.bundesregierung.de/resource/blob/974430/2182890/36596999f2fe36061b335f262c3799b6/2023-03-31-gutachten-zur-situation-der-lokalen-presse-data.pdf?download=1

[6] A. Niederprüm et al., “Erforderlichkeit und Möglichkeit Presseförderung”, 2022, https://www.bmwk.de/Redaktion/DE/Publikationen/Technologie/erforderlichkeit-und-moeglichkeit-einer-bundesfoerderung-fuer-die-pressewirtschaft.html

[7] J. Kalbhenn, “Digitalisierung lokaler Medien”, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen. 2024.

[8] Only the Bavarian Media Act contains a special regulatory framework for local TV.

Main findings

Granularity of infrastructure of local media – Low risk (21%)

Germany still has a robust media landscape, also in terms of the availability of local media. These are primarily local newspapers, which are available almost everywhere, as well as local radios. That said, the landscape of local media services in Germany varies across rural, suburban, and urban areas, highlighting the complexity of media organisation in a federal structure. Notably, the federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and Bavaria have implemented intricate regulatory systems under media law to ensure the provision of “state-wide” local radio. Currently, 44 local radio stations operate in NRW, but the digital challenges are putting pressure on these systems, leading to discontinuation in sparsely populated regions.[1] State media laws, however, play a pivotal role in dividing federal states into local/regional distribution areas (FM/DAB+), safeguarding local radio coverage.

The press, traditionally present in major centres and even remote corners, has encountered changes.[2] For quite some time, it was considered normal for two competing local newspapers to be available. FUNKE Verlag, in a pioneering move in early 2023, decided to supply a rural area in Thuringia solely with EPaper, providing free iPads and training as part of an innovative approach.[3] Profitability in rural regions is no longer a given. The variable investigating these issues therefore was assessed as a medium risk.

However, challenges persist, particularly in regions with poor broadband internet provision, hindering the shift to digital formats like ePaper. The public service offerings, accessible via VHF throughout Germany, have strong regional and national coverage but lack a mandate for local coverage. The Eastern parts of Germany, with lower population density, face the highest risk for the press and TV due to these challenges.[4]

The ground-level presence of local journalists is crucial, but the number of journalists employed by local newspapers has seen a decline of 17% from 2010 to 2020.[5] This variable therefore was assessed as medium risk. This trend is accompanied by changes in work patterns, with publishers centralising editorial functions in larger cities, impacting local newsrooms.[6] Local radio in NRW mandates that editorial offices be located in their respective distribution areas.

The risk for press journalists is particularly pronounced due to these tendencies. Additionally, the presence of local branches and correspondents of public service media (PSM) and the main national news agency, Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), play a vital role in maintaining local news coverage. DPA has 12 regional offices and 58 locations, indicating a comprehensive effort to cover various regions.[7]

While the federal German Constitutional Court has ruled that local PSM coverage could be constitutional under certain conditions, current legislation prevents PSM from entering local news markets. This is intended to protect the existing diverse local press landscape from economic competition. Under constitutional law, it would be perfectly possible for PSM to also report locally in order to ensure the basic supply there. It would even be conceivable to establish a new PSM institution for local reporting.[8] Despite having local correspondents or branches across the country, PSMs adhere to a consistent level of geographical granularity, maintaining a broad regional focus.

The map you can find at the following link refers to number of local and regional newspapers across the different federal states of Germany in 2023. The original data source for this visualisation is Drehscheibe- Die Deutschlandkarte und Lokaljournalismus and you can access it here

[1] Medienkommission NRW, “Abschlussbericht des Ad-hoc-Ausschusses Lokalfunk NRW”, 2021, https://www.medienanstalt-nrw.de/fileadmin/user_upload/NeueWebsite_0120/Ueber_Uns/Abschlussbericht_MK_final_210510.pdf

[2] DIW ECON, “Die Situation der lokalen Presse in Deutschland und ihre Herausforderungen im Zeitalter der Digitalisierung”, 2023, https://www.bundesregierung.de/resource/blob/974430/2182890/36596999f2fe36061b335f262c3799b6/2023-03-31-gutachten-zur-situation-der-lokalen-presse-data.pdf?download=1

[3] D. Hein, “Das ist das Ergebnis von Funkes E-Paper-Modellprojekt in Thüringen,” Horizont, 2023, https://www.horizont.net/medien/nachrichten/zeitungszustellung-das-ist-das-ergebnis-von-funkes-e-paper-modellprojekt-in-thueringen-212152?crefresh=1

[4] J.Ukrow et al., “Aktive Sicherung von lokaler und regionaler Vielfalt”, VISTAS Verlag, 2020.

[5] A. Niederprüm et al., “Erforderlichkeit und Möglichkeit Presseförderung,” Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz, 2022, https://www.bmwk.de/Redaktion/DE/Publikationen/Technologie/erforderlichkeit-und-moeglichkeit-einer-bundesfoerderung-fuer-die-pressewirtschaft.html

[6] H. Röper, “Zeitungsmarkt 2022: Weniger Wettbewerb bei steigender Konzentration,” Media Perspektiven, 2022, https://www.ard-media.de/fileadmin/user_upload/media-perspektiven/pdf/2022/2206_Roeper.pdf

[7] Dpa, “Zahlen, Historie & Auszeichnungen”, n.d., https://www.dpa.com/de/ueber-die-dpa/historie-fakten

[8] J. Kalbhenn, “Digitalisierung lokaler Medien”, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen. 2024.

Market and reach – Medium risk (44%)

Local newspapers have experienced a steady decline in revenues from sold copies and advertisements, further accelerated by falling advertising revenues.[1] Therefore this variable shows a very high risk. Digital advertising has not been able to compensate for this decline.[2] Similar trends are observed in local radio, where decreasing revenues are expected to result in job cuts.[3] The local media landscape has seen no outlet closures, but has witnessed mergers and “efficiency improvements” through team consolidations.[4] Few new local online outlets have emerged, indicating limited overall growth in the number of local media outlets.

Most state media laws aim at local media plurality. To ensure supply distribution levels, the legal regulations focus on ensuring coverage of local radio broadcasting via FM. However, adjustments in newspaper delivery methods, such as rising prices due to the introduction of the minimum wage, have led to changes.[5] Alternative delivery methods, like central pick-up points and postal delivery, have been introduced in rural areas, triggering subscription cancellations.[6]

Germany has traditionally been very sceptical of direct financial support (subsidies) for the media.[7] This instrument was only used briefly during the COVID-19 pandemic. While indirect support for the press includes reduced value-added tax, postal tariff reductions, and exemption rules, community media, TV, and radio do not receive direct state funding. Calls for financial aid for local press have been widespread, with scholars and associations advocating for support. However, decisions on the exact form of support are pending.[8]

Commercial advertising revenue has clearly decreased across all media sectors (press, TV, and radio) in recent years. The variable, therefore, shows a high risk.

Regarding Market Shares, the Commission on Concentration in the Media in its current report concludes: “The newspaper market in Germany can basically be described as diverse with regard to the market positions of titles and publishers.”[9] The newspaper market in Germany is diverse at the national level as well as at the local level. In broadcasting, statutory maximum limits exist for cross-media mergers, particularly between broadcasting and local publishers.[10]

The audience reach for local newspapers has decreased from 27% to 19% in the last three years. Local/regional radio and TV have lost 4% and 5%, respectively, during the same period.[11] However, local FM radio continues to maintain a consistently robust listenership.[12]The variable therefore shows a high risk.

The willingness to pay for local news varies across media types. Traditional printed weekly newspapers face declining purchases, and users are generally sceptical about paying for digital news.[13] Local TV and radio news are ad-financed and do not have a pay offer. However, some native, online, local news offers in the form of newsletter subscriptions show signs of success with private investments. In conclusion, the economic landscape for local media in Germany is challenging, marked by declining revenues, changes in distribution methods, limited subsidies, reduced advertising revenue, and shifts in audience reach and willingness to pay for news. Despite these challenges, some innovative models, such as native online news subscriptions, provide potential avenues for sustainability and growth.

[1] A. Niederprüm et al., “Erforderlichkeit und Möglichkeit Presseförderung,”, Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz, 2022, https://www.bmwk.de/Redaktion/DE/Publikationen/Technologie/erforderlichkeit-und-moeglichkeit-einer-bundesfoerderung-fuer-die-pressewirtschaft.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Medienkommission NRW, Abschlussbericht des Ad-hoc-Ausschusses Lokalfunk NRW, 2021, https://www.medienanstalt-nrw.de/fileadmin/user_upload/NeueWebsite_0120/Ueber_Uns/Abschlussbericht_MK_final_210510.pdf

[4] H. Röper, “Zeitungsmarkt 2022: Weniger Wettbewerb bei steigender Konzentration,” Media Perspektiven, 2022, https://www.ard-media.de/fileadmin/user_upload/media-perspektiven/pdf/2022/2206_Roeper.pdf

[5] DIW ECON, “Die Situation der lokalen Presse in Deutschland und ihre Herausforderungen im Zeitalter der Digitalisierung”, 2023, https://www.bundesregierung.de/resource/blob/974430/2182890/36596999f2fe36061b335f262c3799b6/2023-03-31-gutachten-zur-situation-der-lokalen-presse-data.pdf?download=1

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestags, “Modelle zur Förderung lokaler Medienvielfalt in EU-Mitgliedstaaten”, 2019, https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/651774/78e41173fcbea7309f9ca78b060d8c19/WD-10-038-19-pdf-data.pdf

[8] See introduction of this report for recent studies in this regard.

[9] Kommission zur Ermittlung der Konzentration im Medienbereich, Siebter Konzentrationsbericht, 2023, https://www.kek-online.de/fileadmin/user_upload/KEK/Publikationen/Medienkonzentrationsberichte/Siebter_Konzentrationsbericht/Konzentrationsbericht_2022_Web.pdf

[10] Ibid.

[11] Reuters, Reuters Digital News Report, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2021-06/Digital_News_Report_2021_FINAL.pdf; Reuters, Reuters Digital News Report, 2022, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2022-06/Digital_News-Report_2022.pdf; Reuters, Reuters Digital News Report, 2023, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2023-06/Digital_News_Report_2023.pdf

[12] RadioNRW, “MARKTFORSCHUNG GEKAUFT WIE GEHÖRT: DIE IFAK-STUDIE 2023”, n.d., https://radionrw.de/media-marketing/marktforschung/

[13] C. Buschow, “Zahlungsbereitschaft für digitaljournalistische Inhalte”, 2021, https://www.medienanstalt-nrw.de/fileadmin/user_upload/lfm-nrw/Foerderung/Forschung/Zahlunsbereitschaft/LFMNRW_Whitepaper_Zahlungsbereitschaft.pdf

Safety of local journalists Low risk (21%)

While there are no reported SLAPP cases on a local level, the recent ruling coalition has expressed a consensus on transposing the SLAPP directive into German law, highlighting a commitment to address these issues.[1]

Examining the working conditions of em[2]ployed and freelance journalists for local media outlets, salaries and access to social benefits vary. The statutory minimum wage, at 12 euros per hour since October 2022, aims to ensure fair compensation for all workers, including those in journalism.

In terms of physical safety, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) reports that after setting two negative records in a row, the number of attacks on media professionals in Germany fell in 2022, recording 56 assaults throughout the year; 27 fewer than in 2021. Local journalists are particularly vulnerable as they lack the anonymity enjoyed by colleagues in larger cities. The study also highlights online and offline intimidation, including demonstrations outside editorial offices. In 2022, demonstrations, particularly those related to COVID-19, emerged as the most dangerous context for journalists, constituting 80% of all reported attacks. The variable therefore shows a high risk.

While the number of attacks decreased in 2022, there is a continued need for vigilance. The effectiveness of journalists’ unions, associations, and organisations at the local level plays a crucial role in protecting the journalistic profession. These unions maintain specialised departments for media with regional representatives in all federal states advocating for minimum wage regulations, collective bargaining, and other labour rights, and try to ensure the well-being of journalists in both permanent and temporary positions.

Despite legal protections, challenges persist, and the role of unions in advocating for journalists remains essential. The situation in Germany regarding legal frameworks against SLAPPs is evolving, with a consensus on addressing the issue at the legislative level. This ongoing commitment reflects a broader effort to safeguard the rights and safety of local journalists.

[1] J. Kalbhenn et al., “Der Kommissionsentwurf zu einer Richtlinie zum Schutz vor strategischen Klagen gegen öffentliche Beteiligung (‘SLAPP’).” Zeitschrift für Urheber- und Medienrecht, 2022.

[2] European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, ‘Enemy Image Journalist:in 7: Occupational Risk Proximity”, 2023: https://www.ecpmf.eu/feindbild-journalistin-7/

Editorial independence – Very low risk (16%)

In the broadcasting sector, the State Media Treaty imposes strict prohibitions on parties and voter associations obtaining licences. This regulation is effectively implemented by state media authorities, ensuring a barrier against direct or indirect political control. There have been no reported cases of attempts by political actors to manipulate broadcasters through ownership or intermediaries.

In the press sector, the legal situation regarding ownership differs. Political parties are allowed to financially engage in the press. Most prominently, the Social Democrats (SPD) hold a media holding company (DDVG) with stakes in various local newspapers. However, DDVG predominantly maintains minority interests, emphasising its commitment to internal press freedom and contributing to the financial independence of the SPD without exerting a controlling influence. Such an influence has not yet been reported; the press also enjoys constitutional protection against such tendencies.[1]

Concerning state subsidies and advertising, private press products in Germany receive indirect subsidies through privileged VAT rates and subsidies for newspaper delivery. While this support is constitutionally acceptable, funding must avoid influencing content and journalistic competition. Direct aid during the COVID-19 pandemic was distributed transparently and fairly. No content criteria were used.

To safeguard editorial independence, the Press Code and Media State Treaty establish guidelines for recognised journalistic principles, independence, factual reporting, and the separation of advertising from editorial content.[2] There is no evidence or case law of commercial or political influence over editorial content in practice, although some publishing houses might tend towards the interests of advertising customers.[3] Media companies, classified as tendency enterprises, are allowed certain political convictions but maintain editorial independence.

Media regulators, represented by 14 state media authorities in Germany, operate independently under state media laws. These laws grant authority over licenses, concentration laws, journalistic due diligence, protection of minors, and programming regulations, ensuring the general public’s interest. The German Federal Supreme Court affirmed the independence and effectiveness of state media authorities.[4]The variable therefore shows a very low risk.

Public service broadcasting is considered independent of politics. This is ensured by laws on the composition of supervisory bodies, where only a maximum of one-third may be made up of people with close ties to the state. There are also incompatibility rules that exclude high-ranking politicians from these offices.

Concerning the diversity of news content, researcher Horst Röper notes a growing concentration in the German press, leading to more similar offerings within publishing groups.[5] The centralisation of reporting from large publishing groups contributes to a reduction in the diversity of local reporting, impacting the uniqueness of circulation areas. However, local TV and radio are legally obligated to provide diverse content, mitigating concerns related to news content homogenisation. There is no recent empirical study on diversity of news content in local media.

[1] Bundesverfassungsgericht, Judgment of the First Senate of 6th November 1979, https://www.servat.unibe.ch/dfr/bv052283.html.

[2] B. Holznagel et al., “Festschrift für Jürgen Taeger. Journalistische Sorgfaltspflichten auf YouTube und Instagram,” R&W online Datenbank, 2020, https://www.rw-online.de/artikel/rw_Journalistische-Sorgfaltspflichten-auf-YouTube-und-Instagram.html

[3] Ralf Heimann, Local journalist, 12/6/2023, interview conducted by e-mail.

[4] Bundesverfassungsgericht, Judgment of the First Senate of 18th July 2018, https://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Entscheidungen/EN/2018/07/rs20180718_1bvr167516en.html.

[5] H. Röper, “Zeitungsmarkt 2022: Weniger Wettbewerb bei steigender Konzentration,” Media Perspektiven, 2022, https://www.ard-media.de/fileadmin/user_upload/media-perspektiven/pdf/2022/2206_Roeper.pdf

Social inclusiveness – Low risk (21%)

The evaluation of the extent and quality of news offered for and about minorities and the role of local and community media in meeting critical information needs (CINs) lacks recent empirical studies. However, in German media law, this responsibility is deeply ingrained in media legislation, guided by Article 5 of the Basic Law and upheld by the Supreme Court’s case law. The core mission of all media outlets, whether national, regional, or local, and across various branches such as TV, radio, press, and online, is to report on Critical Information Needs (CINs).[1] Constitutionally, this is the central justification for privileges granted to the media and must be fulfilled and monitored.

For PSM, this commitment to CINs is explicitly outlined in their missions and overseen by supervisory boards. Private broadcasters, governed by the State Media Treaty and state media laws, are obligated to contribute to the presentation of diversity in the German-speaking and European area, with specific attention to information, culture, and education. Compliance with these regulations is monitored by the media authorities. Press outlets adhere to the high standards set by the press code, supervised by the press council.

Although there are radio stations in minority languages (Turkish, but also Frisian and Sorbian) in the larger cities, there are only a few private media outlets that offer news services in minority languages, which is why this variable indicates a high risk.

Local media play a crucial role in engaging with their audience. Traditionally, local journalism has maintained a strong connection to communities, interacting (via call-ins and letters from readers) closely to meet their information needs.[2] This practice extends to the online sphere, where social media platforms enable behind-the-scenes glimpses, community actions, programme information, personality building, connections between different content, competitions, and polls.[3]

[1] Medienstaatsvertrag, Bayern.Recht, https://www.gesetze-bayern.de/Content/Document/MStV

[2] W. Möhring, “Lokaljournalismus im Fokus der Wissenschaft”, 2015, https://www.medienanstalt-nrw.de/fileadmin/user_upload/lfm-nrw/Foerderung/Forschung/Dateien_Forschung/L171_Lokaljournalismus-im-Fokus-der-Wissenschaft_LfM-Doku51.pdf

[3] T. Kabitz, “Digitale Community im lokalen Kommunikationsraum. Journalismus auf Zwei Säulen”, In Kurp/Lendzian/Milbret: Journalismus auf Zwei Säulen, 2020. Springer. Wiesbaden. pp. 237-245.

Best practices and open public sphere

Academic literature highlights a lack of substantial innovation from established publishing houses.[1] PSM exhibits higher degrees of novelty but faces limitations due to legal constraints. For-profit and nonprofit journalistic startups show potential but encounter barriers during the start-up phase, including team composition and funding challenges.

Notable examples of digital local media outlets, such as RUMS, Karla, Viernull, Katapult Greifswald, and Correctiv.Lokal, showcase innovative approaches. These projects, although small and in their early stages, face audience growth challenges. RUMS, for instance, relies on private funding and has gained recognition for its investigative stories in national news.[2]

The German media landscape reflects a mix of traditional and innovative practices. Established outlets face challenges in fostering substantial innovation, while emerging digital local media projects demonstrate potential, albeit with hurdles in audience growth and profitability.

[1] C. Buschow, “Die Innovationslandschaft des Journalismus,” Landesanstalt für Medien NRW, Düsseldorf, 2020, https://www.medienanstalt-nrw.de/; C. Buschow & C.-M. Wellbrock, “Die Innovationslandschaft des Journalismus in Deutschland.” Düsseldorf: Landesanstalt für Medien NRW, 2020, http://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-69718-6

[2] C. Opphoven, “Newsletter mit Lokaljournalismus,” Deutschlandfunk, 2021, https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/newsletter-mit-lokaljournalismus-konkurrenz-fuer-die-100.html

Map of Local and Regional Newspapers in Germany

This map shows the number of local and regional newspapers in 2023 across the different federal states of Germany which can be filtered by hovering over a region. Clicking on a specific region provides a list of the newspapers in the table below the map. The original data source for this visualization is Drehscheibe- Die Deutschlandkarte und Lokaljournalismus and can be accessed by clicking here