Words Matter

‘With readership in decline, the German press faces not only a dire economic challenge but an identity crisis’

European Eye Germany
The Alte Stadtbibliothek in Frankfurt, Goethe's home town

Journalism in Germany has suffered some severe blows this year. Taken together they amount to a cultural shift, a real change in how we view the world. Perhaps more than elsewhere in Europe, the German press has been strong, varied and influential for the past 70 years, ever since the Allied forces — the British in particular — reintroduced a free press after 1945. Until recently, it was common for educated Germans to take three dailies and one weekly; somehow, we found the time to actually read through huge piles of paper. A childhood memory is the sound of our front door opening in the morning and my mother bringing in the newspapers.

Now, with print readership declining and no sustainable pay model in place online, newspapers face not only a dire economic challenge, but first and foremost an identity crisis. This is particularly palpable in the feuilleton sections (“arts and culture pages” may be the common translation but it doesn’t capture its uniquely German character). Back in the good old days, the whole country, or so the myth goes, would be shaken up by a leading article in the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, usually abbreviated to FAZ. When I began my career in journalism there, the atmosphere was still suffused with this intellectual grandeur. Words mattered.

The sudden death last June of the best-known of the FAZ co-publishers, Frank Schirrmacher, at the age of 54, couldn’t have come at a worse time. He was a towering, controversial figure in German journalism, known to be the most gifted creator and conductor of debates, with an almost supernatural instinct for stories and their timing, whether it was reprinting the entire genome code on the culture pages, or breaking the news that the Nobel laureate Günter Grass had been in the Waffen-SS.

I was surprised at how shaken I was by Schirrmacher’s death, both on a personal and on a professional level, and my feeling may indicate what appeal and power criticism has over here. It was not only a terrible loss in a field where few dare to constantly reinvent themselves, but it also underlined the insecure future of intellectual journalism. It provided an anchor, too, at a time when papers now have to go out of their way to attract readers and hang on to them, a permanent courtship that no longer allows for living off one’s legacy.

I spent the main part of this past summer in Palo Alto, California, working on a project on the digital reinvention of quality journalism for the media giant Axel Springer. This meant meeting with lots of eager, fresh-faced media entrepreneurs who loved to use the word “content” — it took me a while to figure out that this didn’t necessarily mean journalistic content but anything with, well, a message in it.

In Silicon Valley people are obsessed with social media and love the idea of sharing even the most random snippet of information — be it the duration of your morning run or how much kale you bought at Whole Foods.

What’s in it for the respective companies is obvious: data. Data has become not only an economic but a value system of sorts. Employees at big companies are encouraged to comment on their workplace — favourably, of course — on social media sites. This may be all very well as a business model, but if applied to journalism it is a shallow, even futile attempt to make topics “sexy” that by their very nature are not. (Surely there’s nothing frumpier than the pretence of sexiness.)

What subtle allure bookishness still has I noticed a few weeks ago in Frankfurt — home of Goethe and the book fair. I had just got back from Palo Alto and found myself sitting on a panel in the Literaturhaus, a grand old riverside building. Still jetlagged, blonder and more tanned than my usual self, I felt like a Californian interloper among the other German critics discussing the latest novels. I was humbled by being offered the privilege to speak, having nothing to offer but my opinion on a couple of books.

I don’t miss much about my country of birth when I live somewhere else. But what I always long for is this particular brand of intellectual outlook, one that actually makes people come out on a Monday night and pay to spend two hours listening to critics talk about books. However, this is not a nostalgic feeling, as once was the case for writers and thinkers in exile, longing for the language and culture of their childhood.

In my case, there’s little melancholy about it; I just wish we’d find a way of preserving this sentiment and make it sustainable in the future. After all, it was the impulse that helped Germany to grow out of its benighted past: a modern form of enlightenment provided, day by day, by newspapers. It would be an irreversible mistake if it were diluted by the glib call for more entertainment and a more pedestrian version of what’s new and important. We shouldn’t be content with mere “content”.