January 31, 2017
Photo [Youtube/ZAPP-Das Medienmagazin]
Matthias Krupa is European Editor at Die Zeit and former Brussels correspondent. He talked with Christophe Leclercq, founder of EurActiv, as part of the Media4EU series, about the tension between trying to modernise the sector and fighting for the core identity of legacy media.
There is a trend towards more populism in a number of countries, notably in the UK and the US. What is your opinion about the role of the media in this context?
The changes of the media and the increasing importance of social and digital media have a direct link to the populism push. These transformations of the sector make it more open to populism and unfiltered information.
What can the media itself do? What about other actors like governments and civil society organisations?
First of all, the traditional media have to acknowledge these other channels and to react to them. The same is true for politicians and for civil of society groups: they need to use these platforms and to professionalise them. We shouldn’t feel threatened by them, they are part of our society, but we have to try to counter those who use them in a populist way.
The European Commission is attempting to tackle potential abuses of dominant position by Google and possibly Facebook under competition rules, specifically allegations that the way they display content privileges their own. Should one build on that and try to establish some kind of fact-checking criteria for the content on these platforms?
I have to say I am a daily user like everybody, but I’m not an expert on that. To my understanding what the Commission does pertains to the economic model of Facebook, Google and so on. I think that is the role that the Commission has to play, that’s why it is the case for DG competition. I wouldn’t want to mix it up with the attempt to counter populism, because these channels can be used by everyone. Of course there’s always a problem if one platform has a monopoly: this has to be tackled by the Commission. But I wouldn’t mix it up with content issues.
The media sector has fairly high standards, typically based on self-regulation and not mandated by the government. For social media would you say that there should be more efforts to set standards and meet them?
Absolutely, but it has to come from those who use the platforms, not from outside intervention. In the end, quality and fact-checking will be an asset of traditional media and we have to trust in the advantage we do have.
Let’s talk about European content as a proportion of the articles published by Die Zeit. What would you say has been the evolution in the past and what might be the trend in the future?
I have a very have a clear view on this, because I remember that eight or nine years ago we compiled statistics for internal use and I think that in half a year we had five or six reports from other European countries. We’ve always considered ourselves as a European paper but Europe ten years ago was not on people’s mind. This has clearly changed with the European crisis and other issues. We have experienced a Europeanisation of our reporting over the last years and I think this will get on. Sometimes half of our political edition is covered in topics from other European countries.
As a former member of the Brussels press Corp, you might be familiar with the two following issues. One is the correspondent’s frustration that their content does not get published often enough, and the other one is the shrinking of number of European correspondents. Isn’t this a paradox given the trend?
I don’t share the first experience you mentioned, the frustration that we didn’t get through. My experience is that those who are in Brussels, not at last those who are reporting on a daily basis, have to work more than ever before. Statistics by the German public television show that the Brussels office has the largest output of all international offices.
The second problem is true, there is a disproportion between the staff reporting from Brussels on the one hand and the number of correspondents based in other national capitals. I have to admit, this is true for us as well. We have a Berlin office with about 12 or 14 people and as I said one correspondent in Brussels. By the way, ten years ago when Brussels was not that important we had two. This disproportion is due to the economic crisis.
You say Brussels correspondents basically have to be more productive because their number is shrinking while your coverage is increasingly European. So where does this extra content come from? Are there media exchanges? Do you retake agencies or have other sources of content that are relevant?
No, there are no other sources of content. Of course, besides the Brussels correspondents there are more colleagues today who cover European issues or report from other European countries. In our model we don’t rely much on correspondents, but a lot of colleagues here in Hamburg travel regularly wherever it is necessary. Other than that, we are not working with other sources, we don’t publish news agencies.
Do you use freelancers?
Some freelances work for us on a regular basis and from time to time, if we are travelling abroad, we also collaborate with freelancers.
I can only speak for the political edition, and as far as I can see there are no real exchanges.
Is it because some readers consume all of them and don’t want to see an article twice? Or because you are positioned differently?
The main reason is that the content and the profile of the other publications are very different. Der Tagesspiegel is a local daily based in Berlin, Handelsblatt is an economic daily and Wirtschaftswoche an economic weekly, while we are a political and cultural weekly.
For most media companies both traditional and online, advertising is shrinking and subscriptions are at risk to some extent. Is it the same at die Zeit? did you launch new revenue models to compensate for that?
I’m speaking as an editor who is not responsible for the economic side, but as far as I know, over the last couple of years we have been in an exceptional position because we’ve always made a surplus. Over the last years the circulation has risen. We have now reached half a million copies a week and we are now seeing a slow decrease. Of course advertising is also declining, which die Zeit group tries to counter with additional products, like the history magazine, the scientific magazine and additional publications. This has worked out very well so far.
Do you think you can rely on those fairly comfortable results? Are you not afraid that this might reduce the propensity to innovate?
No, of course we cannot rely on these results, we have to modernise. But, as a politician would say: fear is not the right advisor. We have to fight for what we are convinced of, we have to fight for the future of the paper edition. The true question is – and this is not an exclusive: how do we make money on the internet?
A quick anecdote: when I was a foreign student learning the language in Germany, my midterm objective was to be able to read Die Zeit because it was the most prestigious. My question is: why is it not available in English? There was an attempt but have not seen much lately. What happened?
You’re absolutely right, this is an open question. The state of the arts is that we are translating some article each week and we have a page online where you will find them, but you have to know where to look.
Is it a business question, because it doesn’t make money, or is it a readership matter?
Yes, it doesn’t make money that’s the simple answer. For us editors it would be attractive to translate more and to engage more.
As an alternative to doing it yourself and building an English-speaking readership, have you considered partnering with organisations in other countries, just like your colleagues at Die Welt or die Süddeutsche Zeitung?
To be honest, I’m not so convinced of this model. Speaking as someone who works for a weekly, for us it is difficult to find a partner whose profile fits into ours. If I look at the the prestigious interviews they obtained like with Mr. Hollande it is true that today Die Zeit, and probably not even Der Spiegel or something would have gotten it. But to my understanding the outcome is not so satisfactory.
Sometimes it’s more than simple republication, it’s also about co-productions which can be investigative or other types of joint work, like comparing data in different countries. Would you be open to that?
Yes, absolutely, we can for sure engage more in this regard. This is a model which is convincing, like the big collaborations such as the Panama papers. But this will be for ad-hoc projects, articles or researches.
So you would like to take on a role similar to the Süddeutsche?
I don’t want to say that we should imitate the Süddeutsche, but I think that all those who engage in these types of projects have made a good decision.
There are efforts towards European Investigative Collaborations. Are you aware of or open to them?
I’m aware of them but I haven’t really engaged in this discussion. We have our own research team, and I do not know how much they are involved in this, but of course I assume that we are open to it.
German probably has the healthiest media sector in Europe, the crisis is deeper in other countries. But even here some titles have closed down, like the Frankfurter Rundschau. Aside from the strong public financing of radio and TV, nothing can be taken for granted. Is this ground for the state to accompany the modernisation of the media sector?
I’m not sure. What you see much more on the local and regional level in Germany is a decrease in titles and a growing shift to cooperation, to common research units, common offices etc. For instance many regional papers share the same correspondents in Berlin, like the DuMont group, Madsack and so on.
So do you think this issue should be tackled only by the media itself by restructuring, joining forces etc.? You don’t see scope for public help, either regulatory or financial?
No, I wouldn’t go that way because we have a strong public TV and radio sector and I’m convinced that it wouldn’t be good to have public influence on the print sector. Some cautious models might make sense, for instance like what was done at the Frankfurter Rundschau before it was sold to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But I’m not on the side of those who are asking for public financing of papers, not at all.
It’s a question of independence and credibility. If we talk about the crisis of media we’re not only talking about the economic aspect but also about the struggle for credibility. If you want to undermine the credibility we do have, then you should ask for public subsidies.
Point taken, but people think there can be other types of accompanying measure. First of all, making sure that the media is on level playing field vis-à-vis the social media platforms from a competition point of view. Secondly financing R&D-type projects like cross-border cooperation models to develop new formats and business models, without subsidising the editorial production. Would they make sense?
I have to admit I’m not really aware of them so I’m not really in the position to judge. I don’t want to exclude anything, but at the end of the day a media project which doesn’t make money has a problem, that that’s for sure.
So it should only be initial seed money but not permanent support?
Ms. Merkel reacted to the election of Donald Trump by welcoming cooperation but setting out some common values as a prerequisite. She was tougher than other leaders at national and European level. Are you proud of your Chancellor?
Proudness is not what I’m feeling towards my Chancellor. I think she was right on this point, but it is interesting that it’s necessary to say what she said, because normally it should be obvious. So I think it’s not necessary to be proud of her, but like in so many other occasions over the last years, this is another proof of the change of position of that Germany has gone through.
There is an international expectation that Germany will take some kind of leadership, but isn’t the main reluctance in Germany itself?
Yes, but we can’t get into a political discussion. If you take all the big European crisis over the last years, like the financial crisis or the one between Ukraine and Russia or about migration, there was always at least an attempt to leadership from the German side. Whether it was successful or welcomed by others, that’s another question.