Bringing history's hard lessons home

Megan Cloherty, WTOP Reporter     @ClohertyWTOP

The new motto at The Washington Post, "Democracy Dies in Darkness," speaks to the essential role journalism plays during a time when reporting the truth is under threat. The lesson of keeping authority in check was hard-learned in Germany, where history continues to shape the profession in a profound way.

Countless journalists whom we met with during the RIAS Kommission fellowship recognized the importance of their work as it relates the history of their country. And although there are similarities between the United States and German journalism, there are specific points of contrast in how German journalism organizations are run, specifically among those with state affiliations. There is also a stark difference in the financial interest of the German news audience and in how journalists navigate privacy in sourcing.

The most popular TV, radio and newspapers in Germany are publically funded and maintain the public’s trust. Oliver Sallet, who runs Deutsche Welle TV Brussels, is upfront about the fact his station is funded by a mandatory license fee, and does not equate the funding source to any potential content bias. When asked if there is any government influence in DW’s product, Sallet made himself clear the state is not involved in news judgement nor in setting content, and would be rebuffed if it ever attempted to adopt such a role. The idea that government interests would not leak into a product it funds is difficult to believe. However from those we spoke with, including Thomas Walde of ZDF, the mandatory 18 euro license fee which sustains news outlets offers journalists the professional liberty to pursue news without commercial pressures.

It is likely that by paying the licensing fee the German public is more invested in its news. The awareness current events by average Germans not in the industry was fascinating. Therefore it’s not entirely surprising that appointment television in Germany is still going strong. While American nightly news shows struggle to maintain 8 million viewers a week, according to a Nielsen poll released last spring, 10 million Germans tune in nightly at 20:00 for ARD’s “Tagesschau.” Prime-time programming starts only after that 15 minute newscast in Deutschland, despite multiple failed attempts to pull viewers away in the same timeslot.

While they have a hunger for news, few Germans want to be the story. Germans fervently protect their right to privacy which can make a journalist’s attempt to source a story difficult by American standards. Thomas Habicht, a Berlin correspondent for SHZ Media enlightened the fellows to the historical reasoning behind residents’ innate desire to remain private. He pointed to the role of the Ministry for State Security in East Berlin, or the Stasi, who would use personal information to blackmail Germans into becoming spies. The terror inflicted upon families by the German Democratic Republic simply by using knowledge of their personal lives has not left the psyche of the people. Habicht said even today, many will decline to give their last names in an interview on even the most innocuous topic.

The country’s communist history and its continued effect on the culture bleeds into every part of German life, including journalism. It’s a key reason why publically-funded news outlets so staunchly defend their independence from state influence. It even affects how successful commercial companies fare in the German marketplace. An American acquaintance living in Berlin employed by the U.S-based furniture outlet, Wayfair, said it is nearly impossible to execute the same business model which requires American users to enter their email address before they have access to order from the site. Germans simply will not give away their private information, email included. It raises the question, how do paywalls work in Germany?

It is one of the most hot button issues in American journalism: how to successfully monetize reporting that a user is accustomed to accessing for free? It’s a question legacy companies like The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have grappled with for years. Depending on the approach, paywalls have either tanked newspapers and magazines or, for others, created a sustainable content platform.

In 2013, Bild was one of the first German outlets to put some of its content behind a paywall. While more German newspapers, including Die Zeit, move away from free content online, it will be an interesting experiment to watch. It’s clear Germans are interested and willing to pay for news, but are they willing to exchange their information for access?

It’s clear from our travels, German journalists strive to maintain transparency while respecting the sensitivities that still lie just beneath the cultural surface. Journalism thrives in Germany because of hard lessons learned and an unanimous desire to move into the light.
Megan Cloherty was selected as a 2017 RIAS-Berlin Kommission exchange fellow to spend two weeks in Germany visiting newsrooms and learning about Germany's culture, politics and practice of journalism. The deadline to apply for the 2020 RIAS programs is October 31, 2019. Learn more and apply here.