10 years ago: the Cologne newspaper war

20 Minuten CologneIn the weeks leading to Christmas 1999, the Cologne newspaper war started. It marked the beginning – and after 18 months also the end – of free newspapers in Germany. After the Cologne experience no ‘real’ free daily was launched, and even all the halfhearted efforts like in-plane, in-train and in-company free dailies failed miserably.

The war started when Norwegian publisher Schibsted launched 20 Minuten in Cologne on December 13, 1999. On the same day Köln Extra by Axel Springer (publisher of boulevard paper Bild Zeitung) entered the market while local publisher DuMont Schauberg distributed from the next day on a free version of their Express tabloid.

DuMont Schauberg was also publisher of the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger and the Kölnische Rundschau and feared that the new paper would threaten their near-monopoly. Springer published a local edition of Bild in Cologne but mostly wanted to prevent a national expansion of the free paper.

koelnextraSpringer earlier started a legal procedure against a free evening paper in Berlin and repeated this in Cologne. The free daily was accused of ‘unfair’ competition. On December 21, 1999, Springer won the first round; the court agreed that 20 Minuten indeed hindered competition.

The free daily first changed the free concept to a ‘sample’ paper but a later court order prevented this circumvention. From December 29 on the paper was published with big white spots and empty pages were the local news should have been. On January 5, publication of the paper was suspended after a further court ruling – only the online edition remained (an archived edition is still available).

The next round was won by Schibsted; courts in Cologne and Berlin ruled in February that 20 Minuten could be published again, which happened on February 14. DuMont Schauberg immediately launched their own spoiler Kölner Morgen while Köln Extra resurfaced a day later.

kolnermorgenThe war went on for more than a year. Springer and DuMont lowered ad-rates, had their affiliated media refuse ads for 20 Minuten and also went to court again. Printers were put under pressure so Schibsted had to print in the Netherlands. DuMont Schauberg even threatened to launch a free daily in Schibsted’s home market Oslo.

The German publishers organization BDZV refused to audit the circulation of free dailies so Schibsted could not use official data for advertisers. Springer relaunched their paper as ‘Extra’, to be ready to start in any other German market in the case Schibsted would expand.

On July 11, 20 Minuten distributed its last issue in Cologne; Extra and Kölner Morgen closed down on July 12 and 13. The legal battle went on for years, in 2007 the last verdict was that the courts would not decide on the unfair competition issue because 20 Minuten was no longer published. Dumont Schauberg CEO Neven Dumont immediately declared that he would go to court again the moment a new free daily would launch in Germany (see previous post).

(The detailed information on the case comes from Christoph Wolff’s master thesis on free dailies in Germany.)

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