Inside Der Spiegel’s Tent
By Eric EllisJanuary 30, 2013
So, print is all but washed up? Not according to one of the world’s most successful magazines, which, against all odds, is still making money — lots of money.
BIG MEDIA is in crisis, this much we well know.
The internet is the Fourth Estate’s enemy, or possibly its saviour, if once-eminent titles such as Newsweek, which killed its 80-year-old print edition last month, and companies such as Australia’s ailing Fairfax Media, can deliver to a readership wielding smartphones, tablets and whatever the Next Big Thing is.
But a German publishing phenomenon, the country’s most respected news magazine Der Spiegel, may have the answer, and it’s achingly simple. That is, tell good, factually correct, society-serving stories; don’t treat readers like illiterate idiots and you’ll make money. Der Spiegel’s revenues in 2011 were €325 million ($410 million).
For 66 years Der Spiegel (The Mirror) has reflected Germany’s post-World War II renaissance as Europe’s biggest economy. Today, it has a thriving online presence, in German and English, and a well-watched TV channel. But it is the million-strong circulation of its print magazine, ubiquitous in a country of 81 million people, that continues to anchor its success. “The nation watches us to see how we think,” Der Spiegel’s managing editor, Klaus Brinkbäumer, says.
Der Spiegel’s achievements are captured in a simple exhortation: “Sagen, was ist” scrawled across the foyer wall of Spiegel-Haus, its edgy new headquarters in cosmopolitan Hamburg, traditionally the hub of German publishing.
“To say what is”, is the motto that exhorts Der Spiegel’s 1,200 staff to write and produce what is; to report, analyse and critique the world as it is, factually and faithfully, without fear, bias or influence.
“It is the program for Der Spiegel,” says the head of its legendary fact-checking department, Dr Eckart Teichert, a magazine institution after 29 years on staff. “We print the facts, whether friend or enemy will be pleased,” he continues. “And as a fact checker I add: the correct facts!” (True to form, Teichert points out that the aforementioned saying was first coined not by Der Spiegel’s sainted founder Rudolf Augstein, as many Germans believe, but by 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke.)
What Augstein did say was that he “never had difficulty being against something”, but rather “had more difficulty being for something’’.
It is an ethos that has been enthusiastically embraced by Germans.
Klaus Brinkbäumer is one of three editors stewarding the magazine, alongside 52-year-old Mathias Müller von Blumencron, and the German-Italian investigative journalist Georg Mascolo, 48, who has been editor-in-chief since 2008. Brinkbäumer describes the typical reader of this magazine that he says is run by 40-somethings and reported by 30-somethings:
“I would love to say [it’s] a 22-year-old, very bright woman [but] it’s probably a male, in his 40s, a family man, a bit sceptical, professional, interested in politics, business and history, a bit sports-minded. A banker maybe, who has another language, most likely English and [is] fairly well-travelled.”
The polished Brinkbäumer may just have described himself. He’s 46, educated in Germany and the US and was a nationally ranked volleyballer and sailor. He’s worked at Der Spiegel for 19 years, originally hired as a sports writer. Over the past two decades, he’s also served on the features and foreign desks, and as a foreign correspondent, most recently in the US.
So is he his magazine’s typical reader? He smiles wryly: “I’m way too optimistic; our readers are sceptical.”
They are also internationally minded. A typical edition of Der Spiegel will have 30 to 50 pages of foreign coverage, as much as a quarter of the magazine, written by its own correspondents across dozens of bureaux. “Our readers want that,” says Brinkbäumer. “It’s expensive but we are not cutting our foreign correspondents.”
Ulf Armbrust, a Hamburg hotelier and former advertising executive, has read Der Spiegel “ever since I can remember.” Now 71, Ambrust says he misses the “sassy and irreverent tone” the magazine had in the ’60s and ’70s but adds that it has “at least prevented me from suffering from a one-sided view of the world’’. Armbrust still has seven binders of the editions he collected as a student in the radicalised West Berlin of the 1960s, when so many Germans of his generation railed against authorities. “I see Der Spiegel as part of what it means to be German,” he says.
IT’S JUST AS WELL Der Spiegel is a weekly because that’s about how long it takes to properly digest. Where one can inhale Time in minutes and absorb The Economist over a few studied hours, Der Spiegel’s detailed reporting takes days to fully appreciate. There’s so much to read, on Germany and on global topics. Der Spiegel supports more than 30 foreign correspondents on its staff, and it’s adding bureaux while other media organisations are closing theirs. The magazine’s writing is typically clear, concise and intelligent; the photography and art are compelling. Celebrity coverage is rare; trash and fluff, rarer still. The Economist once described it as “a thumping great glossy thing’’.
That same Economist graciously paid its competitor of sorts the following compliment when Augstein died aged 79, in November 2002, after he’d served for 55 years as editor-in-chief: “In a country where journalism, particularly in the past, tended towards the pompous and docile, it had the most lucid prose, the best investigative reporting, the widest foreign coverage, the sharpest political analysis, and the most insightful social commentary … the magazine often beat the rest of the German press combined.” As for Augstein, The Economist held that “he was usually right on the big things … he knew that relentless scrutiny of the rich and powerful was the way to make the country work better. It did.” Such is the national lustre surrounding Der Spiegel that when Augstein died, then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder didn’t just sign off on a perfunctory tribute noting his passing, he called an official press conference to pay due homage.
Originally called Diese Woche (This Week), Der Spiegel was set up in 1947 from the ashes of World War II, with professional input from Americans at Time and the official backing of the British occupation forces. It was viewed as an essential part of the nation-building of a new Germany. A 24-year-old soldier in the German Wehrmacht, Rudolf Augstein, was anointed as its first editor. (Another publishing licence was granted to Henri Nannen, founder of the racier Stern). Augstein had been an amateur journalist before being drafted, but it soon became apparent that if his British champions thought he’d cut them slack, they were mistaken. The magazine quickly turned its critical focus on the very institutions that set it up, reporting on Germany’s occupying forces — and the coverage was rarely flattering.
Der Spiegel has since claimed many scalps: a Bundesbank boss; myriad ministers and government officials, federal and state; errant tycoons and corporations, not least Deutsche Bank, the world’s biggest commercial bank and arguably Germany’s most powerful institution. Die Skandal-Bank, as Der Spiegel dubbed it, has been the subject of a cover story twice in the past year. Brinkbäumer says, “If the chairman of Deutsche Bank called and said, ‘Leave us alone, we are a national institution,’ we would say, ‘Well, you’d better take care of it.’
“Have politicians and companies tried to shut down stories?” asks Brinkbäumer rhetorically. “Yes, they have, but that has never stopped us from publishing. Even the threat of withdrawing advertising doesn’t, it has the opposite effect. Otherwise the whole reputation of the magazine would be gone and people know that in Germany. This reputation we have to protect. It has to be that way.”
Der Spiegel was one of five international titles — and the only magazine — to first air the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables in 2010, and the one most favoured by Julian Assange as he began to fall out with others such as The New York Times and The Guardian.
Willy Brandt, the late former Chancellor and hero of the German left, liked to call it a ‘‘Scheißblatt’’, literally ‘’shit paper’’.
But it was the bulldog of the German right, Konrad Adenauer’s Bavarian enforcer Franz Josef Strauss, who handed Der Spiegel its defining moment, and an international reputation for publish-and-be-damned independence.
That was in 1962 when Strauss, then Adenauer’s defence minister, tried to shut down the magazine after it exposed failings in the German armed forces. Strauss saw the coverage as treason and directed security forces to occupy the magazine’s Hamburg head office, while throwing editor Augstein and his senior colleagues in jail.
It was a serious test of Germany’s post-war democracy, 17 years after World War II had ended but with its democracy then far from secure. Germans rallied behind Der Spiegel. Augstein was released after 103 days. Strauss, on the other hand, then a towering figure in German politics, was forced from office, his reputation stained by a stand-off from which he never fully recovered. Many believe his attempt to silence the magazine eventually cost him the Chancellorship and the place in German history that his great rival on the right, Helmut Kohl, later assumed. Der Spiegel’s investigative reputation — and its circulation — soared. “It was all over the news, people started buying it,” Brinkbäumer says. “It’s where the culture of the magazine was cemented.”
‘‘Die SPIEGEL-Affäre’’ — Strauss’s raid on the magazine — was Der Spiegel’s watershed. On last year’s 50-year anniversary of the raid, Der Spiegel reproduced that same issue in commemoration (the proofs had been smuggled onto competitor-cum-accomplice Stern’s presses, with its headline “Sie Kamen In Der Nacht” (They Came In The Night). Could such a raid happen again? “I hope that is inconceivable,” Brinkbäumer says.
Few print products anywhere devote the same level of resources to journalists as does Der Spiegel. Brinkbäumer cites an assignment which took him across Africa and Europe, tracking where, how and why illegal immigrants then came to Europe — he travelled in their footsteps as if he were an immigrant himself. The editor of the day, Stefan Aust, told him the feature was “a great concept; whatever you need, whatever it costs, go and do it”. It took an arduous six months, and from it came a series which turned into a celebrated book. He’s one of many Der Spiegel journalists to have penned important tomes. “They sent me, they let me go, they trusted me and the pay-off was excellent. This is the sort of thing that builds trust in the magazine.”
Another Der Spiegel hallmark is its team reporting. Often packages can involve 25 journalists, exhausting every imaginable angle on a story over 10-15 pages. Such an approach might be used to dissect the fall of Lance Armstrong, compile the definitive guide to Angela Merkel or track Greece’s collapse, or investigating the euro; required reading in European capitals deciding its future. Brinkbäumer, sailor and volleyballer, enthuses: “I love team sports.”
Brinkbäumer says Der Spiegel is empowered by its corporate structure. No-one owns or controls the magazine, thus no-one can exert undue influence over editorial. Employees control 50.5 per cent of its stock through a 40-year-old mitarbeiter (employees’) trust. Another 24 per cent is held in an Augstein family foundation. “It creates a lot of loyalty,” Brinkbäumer says.
And security. This structure enables Der Spiegel to avoid the predicament which befell the late German media tycoon Leo Kirch, whose media empire, in 2002, fell foul of the very interests its journalists had criticised. Kirch’s heirs recently won a €2 billion lawsuit against the powerful Deutsche Bank which, it is claimed, led a conspiracy to bring down Kirch. “It’s almost impossible to buy Der Spiegel,” Brinkbäumer says, of the likelihood of a takeover. “Other publishing houses have tried but they couldn’t.” (Stern’s owner Gruner and Jahr controls a minority 25.5 per cent of Der Spiegel.)
TO PUT DER SPIEGEL’S CIRCULATION — and national impact — in context, it’s useful to view its reach alongside that of broadly comparable news magazines in other developed media markets.
Although it could never lay claim to the quality of Der Spiegel, Australia’s once-venerable The Bulletin was circulating, at a generous estimate, about 55,000 copies in its last months of life in 2008, when it was serving a national population of 21 million. This was about half its circulation when it was at its peak in the mid-’90s. In the US, which has a population of 314 million, Time circulates almost 3.3 million copies every week, and the magazine rarely runs to more than 60 pages. By comparison, Der Spiegel, all 200-plus pages of it, lands on about one million desks and tables every week, serving a heavily internet-wired German population of 81 million.
Der Spiegel may have a third the circulation of Time, but the US has almost four times as many people as Germany. And one should also consider that German newsstands boast three broadly similar news magazines, each of considerable heft and influence; Der Spiegel, Stern (circulation also about one million) and Focus (circulation 500,000-600,000).
FACT-CHECKING HAS BECOME an arcane — and increasingly rare — process in the world’s newsrooms. Der Spiegel, however, makes a virtue of its fact-checking department, which forms a crucial professional layer in the refining of text, separate from the usual editors and lawyers involved in the publication process. “It’s part of our selling point,” Brinkbäumer says. “It’s part of what makes us trusted.”
The department is headed by the formidable Dr Eckart Teichert,who was an academic before he joined Der Spiegel. He commands a 40-strong team of fact-checkers, about whom articles have been written, such is their regard in Germany and abroad.
“We are employed to be sceptical,” Teichert says of his department. “The first rule of our job is that nothing is correct until we can prove it to be.”
That means Der Spiegel has killed a lot of stories because they didn’t meet Teichert’s standards. Given the magazine’s elevated status in Europe, to publish something wrong could be corporate suicide. “We don’t want to have the catastrophe that happened to Stern.”
He’s referring, of course, to the Hitler Diaries scandal of 1983, when Stern was duped by German scammers Konrad Kujau and Gerd Heidemann into paying around $US6 million for what were purported to be Hitler’s journals, but which were in fact elaborate forgeries. (Rupert Murdoch also fell for the scam, ignoring warnings from his own staff against publishing the bogus diaries in his Sunday Times.) Stern’s reputation — and circulation — was smashed by the scandal and has never fully recovered. “It almost killed them,” Brinkbäumer says of his competitor’s disaster. “And it still hurts them. It was the biggest mistake in German journalism.”
Brinkbäumer says, “We haven’t had anything happen to us like [what happened at] Stern but can I say nothing [bad] is ever going to happen? No I can’t, nothing is infallible.” (He was proved right a few weeks later when his website briefly published an advance obituary of former US president George Bush Snr, who was then ailing in a Houston hospital. The mistake was hardly of Hitler Diaries proportions, but it severely embarrassed a magazine which takes the truth very seriously.)
Says fact-checking czar Dr Teichert: “The most satisfying thing about my job is knowing that every fact in an article is absolutely 100 per cent correct and the article has been published in a better condition than when the author wrote it.”
SITTING IN HIS SLEEK HEADQUARTERS with its Scandinavian-inspired lines, as late-model Audis and BMWs emerge from the staff car park below, I ask Brinkbäumer if it’s fashionable, even cool, to work at Der Spiegel. Are they the grooviest guests at German dinner parties, leading discussion? He laughs. “You are not going to get that quote from me.” He seems aching to say ‘yes,’ but loyally opts for “I never want to leave” instead.
We speak the week before Christmas, as Newsweek’s print edition draws its last breath. Its editor, Tina Brown, has headlined a Twitter hashtag #LASTPRINTISSUE on the cover — a gesture that is part promotion, part finger-pointing and part obituary.
The death of Newsweek on paper symbolises the economic and electronic malaise affecting big media worldwide. Despite its solid economy, German media has plenty of Newsweeks of its own. A fortnight earlier, the Financial Times Deutschland, also published from Hamburg, was closed by its owner Gruner and Jahr, 12 years and €250 million after its launch. It had never made a profit, a point wryly noted in its last edition, which carried an all-black front page of just two words, Endlich schwarz (“finally (in the) black’’). Not even the FTD’s internet edition survived the shutdown.
And, a month earlier, the liberal daily Frankfurter Rundschau, one of Germany's 10 largest national newspapers, became the first German newspaper in post-war history to go bankrupt.
Such turmoil has not gone unnoticed at Der Spiegel. “We are not so isolated, different to everybody else,’’ Brinkbäumer says. “We are losing advertising revenue to the internet. Everybody is.”
But Der Spiegel Online is making money, “one of the very few [online publications] of its kind in the world to do so”, Brinkbäumer says. And, he claims, it’s “not just barely profitable; they are making a lot of money”. Profits, he says, are derived primarily from advertising, supplemented by a paid app and, increasingly, paywalled content. Barely five per cent of the print magazine’s content is available online, a testimony to the quality of its journalism and a fiercely loyal following. “Advertising around the main part of our website is very expensive and lucrative for us,” he says. “The problem for us is print advertising, which has gone down, in volume and in value.”
Print circulation, he says, is less affected. “It’s slightly fallen, a little below a million. We are selling 40,000 iPad copies per week, and if you add those to the print circulation it almost evens out. I would say (circulation) is stable. There are others who have been worse affected than us.
“But we are not saying there’s not a problem,” he says. “There is a problem. We are lucky to be far from the position of Financial Times Deutschland and Frankfurter Rundschau, but our revenues are decreasing.”
I ask Brinkbäumer if Der Spiegel is clubby, or elitist, or blokey. There are a handful of aristocratic “vons” and plenty of Doktors on Der Spiegel’s masthead, and a distinct lack of women and cultural minorities. The 11 editors and co-editors of the magazine during its 66 years have all been male.
Brinkbäumer insists Der Spiegel is a meritocracy. Still, the magazine is a mostly white, male, Germanic place, unlike the liberated, increasingly kaleidoscopic Germany with its buoyant immigrant community that’s immediately evident in the bustle around Spiegel-Haus. “We are developing in that way,” Brinkbäumer says. “We always strive to reflect Germany in every way.”
Der Spiegel’s New Digs
Michael Bernhardi/Noshe/DER SPIEGEL
Der Spiegel’s new headquarters in HafenCity, Hamburg’s redeveloped Elbe-side docklands, looks more like the home of a bank or insurance giant than that of a media company. Which is part of its point. Spiegel-Haus, completed in 2011, presents a huge silver wedge of solidity, symbolising a reassuring longevity for a wobbling industry.
The €250 million building is designed by Danish architects Henning Larsen of Copenhagen Opera House fame, and built in the heart of Hamburg’s emerging new financial centre. The building is solely occupied by the wider Spiegel group — the magazine and its offshoot publications, online operations and the popular Spiegel TV news channel.
There’s also a playfulness about Spiegel-Haus, evident in its café, which pays homage to the “Spiegel Cafeteria” in the magazine’s old headquarters. That café, the 1969 creation of the Danish colourist Verner Panton, became an international design icon — a Barbarella-esque riot of Pop Art psychedelic kitsch. It also was known as one of the best eateries in Hamburg. When the magazine moved, Hamburg’s government placed the legendary café under a preservation order, and parts of it are now being painstakingly recreated in the city’s arts and crafts museum. Hamburgers are reminded of Panton’s genius each time they pass the Spiegel-Haus and see the glowing orange orbs of the new building’s fifth floor café.
Writer Silke Burmester describes Der Spiegel’s culture of the 1960s and 70s as being “Mad Men of the Brandstwiete” (Brandstwiete is the historic street of Hamburg’s old town where the magazine was then based, with its famous café at the core). It was patronised, Burmester writes, by men “committed to shaping the republic with words, men fuelled by writing and alcohol in high percentage alliance”. Women, notes Burmester, “were primarily the secretary or the waitress”.