A two-letter mistake on a newspaper masthead turned a leading daily from an "independent" to a "dependent" one and raised eyebrows, since it is financed by a political party. How independent are Germany's newspapers?
German papers have had a tough time over the past three years
Blame it on Woody Allen.
His picture on the front page of the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper pushed the words "Independent Newspaper" under the paper's name partly off the page. Suddenly, the 61,450 copies of the edition meant for national distribution were billing the respected paper as one subordinate to and regulated by another body.
An unfortunate if not comical error, perhaps even good material for a Woody Allen send-up, but it didn't have editors at the Rundschau laughing. Once the mistake, or sabotage as some suspect, was discovered, managers immediately ordered distribution of the papers with the error to be stopped. Delivery trucks that had already left the printer were ordered to return. Tens of thousands of readers had to make due without a newspaper that day.
Wolfgang Storz, Editor in Chief of the Frankfurter Rundschau
The error touched a sensitive spot at the paper at a sensitive time. In May, the financially ailing broadsheet was bought by a media holding company owned by Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), one of the country's largest political parties and senior member of the current governing coalition. The sale earned the paper and the party a good deal of criticism, especially from members of other political parties, who said the Rundschau would become an organ of the SPD and lose any claim to objectivity.
"The Christian Democrats tried to make an issue of it," media analyst Matthias Kurp told DW-WORLD, "even though truth be told, we haven't seen any evidence of the paper's content changing."
Parties and papers
The debate over the Frankfurter Rundschau's independence was amplified partly due to Germany's tradition of party-affiliated papers and the strong undercurrent of opinion that still flows through many articles in papers that claim to be unbiased.
Before television became the most powerful mass medium for politics in the western world, newspapers were of greater importance to political parties than they are now. Party leaders took great trouble and often spent large sums of money to ensure that particular newspapers supported the "party line."
Financial backing for newspapers sometimes took the form of grants to apparently independent journals; at other times, parties set up newspapers of their own.
In Germany, most have fallen by the wayside or lost their official affiliation, although there are still a few party papers left. The conservative Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) has the Bayern Kurier; the successors of the East German communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), still publishes Neues Deutschland; and the SPD has its own official organ in Vorwärts.
"The spectrum of both party-affiliated and independent papers in the past was much broader than it is today, and I don't think it's bad that that has changed," Hendrik Zörner, spokesman for the German Association of Journalists, told DW-WORLD. "Culture and society has developed and most people no longer need or want to get their news through a party filter. I would say that is due to a maturation of newspaper readers."
While most papers today in Germany claim to be "unparteilich," that is, not directly affiliated or representing just the views of one party, their editorial lines do often run toward one end of the political spectrum, even in news articles. That is in line with many papers in Europe, but contrasts with most mainstream newspapers in the US, which aim to limit their viewpoints to the Op-Ed page.
"In Germany, that has to do with the publisher of the paper," said Matthias Kurp. "It's well known where the publishers' political sympathies lie. They can then recruit reporters and editors who share their worldview, although there is no direct influence from the party itself."
According to analysts, the increasing financial pressures that many papers are under are much more dangerous to their independence than any perceived party meddling. For the past three years, many German newspapers, even high profile ones like the Frankfurter Rundschau and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, have been hemorrhaging money. The losses are largely due to plummeting classified ads sales -- an important revenue source for newspapers -- as people turn to the Internet to sell goods or advertise jobs.
Circulation has also fallen at many papers, as a younger generation turns to the Internet or broadcast media for their information. Smaller papers, and a few larger ones, are fighting to survive.
In response, the government is considering loosening the country's press mergers law and allowing increased consolidation in the newspaper market. The strategy would be that financially ailing newspapers could enter into partnerships with larger, more stable ones. But the result would be, according to Hendrik Zörner, fewer papers and viewpoints as smaller ones are swallowed by larger ones or lose control over their newsrooms. "That is the real danger of editorial independence," he said. "And it is a fairly dangerous development."
In Germany, if a reader prefers her news though a more conservative filter, she can pick up a copy of the daily Die Welt at the newsstand. Those wanting a more left-leaning outlook can grab the Süddeutsche Zeitung.