Sebastian Turner is the publisher and part-owner of Der Tagesspiegel. Based in Berlin, the seventy-one-year-old newspaper is considered one of Germany’s most influential dailies. In a #Media4EU interview with Christophe Leclercq, the founder of EURACTIV, Turner explained why the media should not be owned by oligarchs and how the sector will reform itself.
You introduced the concept of ‘Leitmedien’ or leading media. Could you summarise it and tell us why the leading media seem to have failed in the UK and in the US?
The concept of ‘Leitmedien’, is not that much about the question ‘Are you digital or print?’, but rather ‘Are you a type of media that is setting the pace or following?’ That relates to the size and the independence of their editorial team, the quality of their original reporting, the amount of content they take from agencies, and how educated and influential their readers are.
About the United States and the UK, some aspects are so complicated that I’m not sure off-the-cuff answers cover it. I did live in both places, and to me, their social structure cannot be compared with Germany’s. This country was completely upside-down in the post-war years. There were 12 million refugees, a complete redistribution of ownership, all social structures were challenged and everything was put under the control of three Western countries and Russia.
In addition, our immigration is different: if Germany had not lost its colonies long ago, I’m sure we would have all the problems other countries have. In American and British societies, the conflicts that are exploding are different from the tensions we have in Germany. This makes it not a media question but a social question.
Let’s focus on the US. Why have they failed? Are they really leading? Are they not following what people express on social media?
These are two different things. When you are leading in terms of thought, you can be in a minority or be leading the masses. It’s two different concepts under one word. I did not observe the American campaign closely enough so I’m just second-guessing from the reports I have. The American media system from the outside looks much different than from the inside. The ‘Leitmedien’ like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal are read by very few people, while the average regional newspaper is of very poor quality. This has to be reflected in any analysis.
Now, about the elections, the result is contradictory because the majority has voted one way while the Electoral College has a different majority. This is the Constitution. American society is largely split and I guess this was reported during the Republican primaries. In the end, predicting the result is completely irrelevant, this is why we have elections and we don’t simply go to pollsters for that, but reflecting society’s views is a general problem of many media organisations.
In Germany, for instance, we have an awful, absolutely nonsensical principle that you have to complete academic studies to become a journalist with the public TV and radio system. This is one of the most stupid things in the world because you create a media class. You can’t make it as a reporter in public TV and radio if you are just a humble craftsman. We don’t have enough migrants, we don’t have enough people with a practical education or with a natural science background in almost any editorial teams, including the one I’m speaking for.
Are you saying that there is a risk of disconnect between the media and the people – and therefore of populism?
Absolutely. The key point is that reporters need to step out of their bubble, whatever that may be. I cannot say much about our neighbouring countries, but in Germany, we have a perception that society ends where people who did study social sciences do their jobs. It’s kind of an academic upper-class, but not in the sense of billionaires talking to each other. It’s rather a bubble made up of people with lots of idealistic intentions who are observing the world, and observing society but are not a part of it. This kind of disconnect is something you have to constantly challenge.
Looking at the media sector in Europe, we see that it’s still very national. Some form of restructuring is actually taking place, but not much, and solely on a national basis.
There are multiple, strange contradicting behaviours. For instance, we can observe a movement that you could describe as oligarchisation in many countries like Italy, France, let alone Eastern Europe with Russia, Turkey, Hungary etc. Media ownership by people who have their majority commercial interests outside publishing is a key issue in those countries. To me, that is one of the main sources of the disconnect.
I think that most of the privately-owned German media belong to people who have their core commercial interest in the sector, so its development is in their hearts, in typical ‘Mittelstand’ attitude [Ed. Middle class]. We do have this giant public sector, but print media are mostly privately-owned.
This is a strength in terms of independence, but could it potentially be a weakness in terms of access to finance?
Yes. But nobody in Germany owns an arms factory which is a hundred times as large as their media interest so that all of a sudden this media ownership becomes some kind of press department. For example, Russians have bought into London media and I’m not sure whether they are opposition people who want to be more global or if they are just buying access. In Germany, we observe how Russia is trying to spread propaganda with new means that are hardly detectable. It must be awful in the Baltic States and in Ukraine.
When the GDR disintegrated, most of the leftist media [Ed. in West Germany] collapsed too, because they were financed by the East. We now have the same situation for social media and other fields, where you’d be completely surprised about where the money comes from. You know better than I how Le Pen is financed. We are facing just the top of the iceberg. Our media system is really changing in terms of independence.
You’ve described negative instances of foreign ownership, but it can also be a healthy factor of diversity. For example, in Central and Eastern Europe, very often foreign-owned media are the most independent.
Absolutely, that’s very important. At the same time, we should pay attention to possible social media abuse by propaganda actors in Eastern Europe. There, media organisations are increasingly being taken over by oligarchs and also in the UK, France, Italy and others you have the same phenomenon.
What’s your own experience with content exchange and media cooperation within the Dieter von Holtzbrinck group? I hear that there are few content exchanges among your members like Die Zeit, Handelsblatt, Wirtschaftswoche, Der Tagesspiegel etc.
Because we partly appeal to the same people and they do not want to read the same article twice, but we occasionally have limited exchanges. For instance, Handelsblatt has a Global Edition where they pull articles from all the German-speaking sources and bring them into the English-speaking world, but that’s a minor factor. On a daily basis, Tagesspiegel has access to the business reporting of Handelsblatt, which is the leading German business daily. So it may happen that if you subscribe to Tagesspiegel and Handelsblatt and live in Berlin, you may run into the same article twice, but it’s a pretty small group. Of course, all these newspapers are linked to Deutsche Presse Agentur and other agencies like Agence France Presse, Reuters etc. Agencies are actually how most news-sharing takes place.
It is difficult for media organisations to collaborate in the same country and language zone, so cooperation should be easier across borders. There two main hurdles: translation but also adaptation for local readers. How do you see this evolving in the next few years?
In the English-speaking sphere, the most educated users are creating their own mix of news sources digitally. Thereafter begins a language barrier. Even in Germany, where the level of English-speaking is relatively high compared to our non-Anglo-Saxon neighbours, the reach of English-speaking media is very limited.
Should Germans read about Italy, Spain or France via an Anglo-Saxon interface, which potentially would not even be based in the European Union?
Well if it’s a legitimate outlet I don’t mind. In fact, the more sources there are, the better. But to me, we are really talking about global affairs, not Italian affairs in English. Reports about Italy in English are pretty limited and next to nobody speaks Italian outside Italy with the exception of Switzerland.
After the issue of language, there is the problem of culture and of the explanatory context you need for a piece. This holds true even inside Germany. Due to the changing economic situation, we have more and more of something like American-type syndication. So there is one major Berlin office doing all the national reporting both for regional and big nationwide newspapers. For example,
For example, the minimum wage is a major issue in Berlin, in East Germany and in parts of the north because people earn less. However, in southern Germany, it’s a non-issue. You won’t get anyone to work for minimum wage. So even inside one country and one language, you have different perceptions of the same debate.
One more example: an Italian piece by an Italian writer about Italian politics is probably not as understandable as the piece written by a German expert on Italy who can compare and contrast government systems etc. So overall I see three barriers to content exchanges: language, culture and context.
Are there new formats which would lend themselves to cross-border exchanges even more? For example data journalism, where the numbers are not culture – or language-specific?
Yes and no. Videos of cats might be European and even global, but if you go for something as simple as wealth, some data is worthless across Europe because the structures are so different. The poor in Greece own a house, while the richest Germans pay rent. The poorest Greek is backed by his family, while poor Germans may count on very reasonable state support. This context is not inherently in the figures.
Isn’t it the point of data journalism not to compare, but to illustrate the differences?
There are very interesting initiatives like the European Journalism Fund. They “hack” European data and they exchange on what is agriculture in the UK, in Spain etc. Coming up with a deep European understanding is far beyond translating or even localising. It’s really comparing apples and peaches.
In Germany, broadcasting is mainly subsidised, but not much public support is given to the written press, notably to political journalism. Should there be more?
Firstly, there are no direct subsidies for public broadcasters. If you are a citizen in Germany and have a household, you pay a contribution for that [Ed. like a licence fee]. I’m very hesitant to advocate for public subsidies. What I think is reasonable, is to use the public resources that are around anyway to improve the situation, like education, research and technical development through organisations like Fraunhofer, the Max Planck institute and the universities. So if the state invests money into developing or strengthening journalism education, that is perfectly fine. But direct money as you see it in Austria and other places is very ambiguous.
What you describe is exactly what the EU institutions are starting to do. There was a wave of subsidised media projects like Presseurop, Euranet Plus and in a different way Euronews. Most of them are being discontinued. Now there is a stronger emphasis on innovation projects, both at EU level and also from Google DNI. You seem to support that. You also address a new aspect which is education: there are few programs regarding non-journalists in the media sector.
Good point, yes. When I was making up my mind on what profession to go for, media jobs were highly attractive. Today, my understanding is that start-ups and digital jobs are more appealing. So the key thing is how to draw more talent, but we can’t transfer this burden to the state. It is our job as an industry to make sure that we have attractive jobs to offer. Business education for media management is an element. However the key is understanding the changes that the digital world brings along, and that affects everyone. My understanding is that educators are puzzled themselves.
Three types of ideas are emerging in this area; one is to create some kind of Erasmus for media people, mainly based on exchanges. The second one indeed is to strengthen education programs for media management. The third one, at a higher level, is to encourage more benchmarking and exchange of experiences between senior executives. There are many media conferences, but the sector is changing too slowly. Why is that? How do we improve the situation?
Well, if something is changing slowly, the need is not big enough. For most, it does not seem urgent enough, which is a weakness. I think the ERASMUS idea sounds very reasonable, but not on a business level, just to foster pan-European understanding. It has nothing to do with the commercial aspect, maybe it goes alongside. Ultimately anything fostering a more peaceful Europe is wonderful.
There could be a program for journalists and another one for business innovators.
I think that business innovation in the media is easiest when it’s driven by technology-wise journalists. You have to connect these two worlds, technology and journalism, and bring along a new breed of people who master both. That is the real challenge.
You said that urgency brings about innovation. Is the German press more at risk than others because it does not have a sense of urgency?
Yes and no. It’s less urgent, therefore at a higher risk. However, it’s also mostly owned by mid-sized enterprises that would lose everything if their businesses fail, so they are more focused.
More focused, but perhaps more risk-averse too?
Maybe, I don’t know. There are 500 or so significant media owners in Germany and the Germans are incredible at recognising what the guy next door is doing and reproducing it. This is how we innovate.
So benchmarking is the answer?