Four Dailies Duke It Out in Berlin  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 1999

Four Dailies Duke It Out in Berlin   

By Carter Dougherty
Carter Dougherty, a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., recently returned from a one-year stint with the German newspaper Die Welt.     


Countless spy novels and a few actual events, such as the building of the Berlin Wall, rendered Germany's divided city the quintessential symbol of cold war intrigue for more than 40 years. Now, with reunified Germany closing in on its 10th birthday, Berlin can rightfully be called a city of journalistic intrigue, a thrilling place if your business is daily newspapering.

Four Berlin-based sheets revamped themselves in preparation for this year's switch of Germany's capital from the sleepy town of Bonn to the nation's largest city. Two papers, Der Tagesspiegel and Berliner Zeitung, are taking a shot at becoming newspapers of national stature. Germany's left-leaning daily-with-attitude, die tageszeitung, plans to provide provocative and flip commentary on the Berlin-based government. And an ambitious young chief editor is breathing new life into the stodgily conservative Die Welt.

In the heady days following the 1991 decision to move the government to Berlin, the then-publisher of Berliner Zeitung proclaimed that his newspaper would become the German Washington Post, a nationally recognized paper based in the capital city. Der Tagesspiegel is competing with Berliner Zeitung in that quest to be Berlin's leading voice. The two papers have radically different histories. Der Tagesspiegel, born in the months immediately following World War II, served for decades as the paper for West Berlin's sensible middle: educated people committed to a democratic state and interested in the world beyond the country's borders.

Managing Editor Gerd Appenzeller points out that, above all in Berlin, competition has taken the form of improved content. Immediately after unification in 1990, Der Tagesspiegel dramatically expanded its staff and original editorial material. A few years later, it adopted a more reader-friendly layout. And late last year, the paper appointed a young and telegenic chief editor, Giovanni di Lorenzo.

The Berliner Zeitung of pre-unification Germany is far removed from the current version. Under communist rule in East Germany, it was a state-sanctioned local newspaper that only East Berliners could buy. And it toed the party line.

After unification, Gruner + Jahr, a subsidiary of German publishing giant Bertelsmann, snapped up the paper and orchestrated a relaunch in the fall of 1997. Berliner Zeitung gained new production facilities, a smart layout and a cadre of respected, nationally known journalists. "We had to break decisively with our past," says former Chief Editor Michael Maier, who left the paper late last year to join a Hamburg-based weekly magazine, Stern.

The jury is still out on the question of whether Der Tagesspiegel, circulation 134,000, or Berliner Zeitung, circulation 209,000, will be No. 1 in Berlin. Both dailies face the Berlin Wall for newspapers: Roughly 20 percent of Berliner Zeitung readers are from the former West Berlin, while a scant 15 to 18 percent of Der Tagesspiegel readers live in the former East.

No survey of the Berlin newspaper scene would be complete without a glimpse at die tageszeitung, circulation just under 60,000. The taz, as it is known conversationally, was founded in the late 1970s as an alternative newspaper that would pay attention to issues such as disarmament, ecology and women's rights. Its leftist political stance has moderated considerably, but the taz, with its biting commentary, remains a shining exception to the sober-minded German newspaper scene. "If the taz doesn't do things differently, it has no chance of survival," says Editor in Chief Bascha Mika.

Adding more fire to the competition is Die Welt, with 223,000 readers nationwide. The paper was based in Bonn but moved to Berlin in 1993. Die Welt aspires to be the paper that will explain German politics "from the capital city for all of Germany and the German-speaking world," says its 36-year-old chief editor, Mathias Döpfner, who took the helm last fall and has already boosted circulation by about 7,000.

Döpfner hopes to shake Die Welt loose from its traditionally conservative moorings, though it will still have a clear political profile: cosmopolitan and a devotee of market economics, Döpfner says. In November, he introduced a two-page editorial section with guest columns and a weekend book review section.

But the smoke over the battle for newspaper readers will not clear for years, says Barbara Held, a researcher at the Free University of Berlin. Alluding to the still-salient East-West divide within the city, Held wrote in a 1994 study that the Berlin newspaper market resembles "a shark tank with two chambers, and a glass partition in the middle. When the government comes [to Berlin], the partition will rise, and everyone will go at it." For the moment, "the partition is still there," Held points out. But as the move to Berlin takes root, the sharks will be ready to attack.

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