A multi-voiced system

The interaction of press, radio and television in the age of the Internet and social media.
by Jo Groebel

In Germany there are characteristics that are peculiar to the media. These include the emphasis on federal sovereignty in cultural affairs and broadcasting and the dual existence of public and private media, something that cannot be taken for granted in other countries but that is certainly usual in a European context. As regards freedom of the press and speech, in international terms Germany comes off very well. There is pluralism with regard to opinion and information. The press is not in the hands of the government or political parties, but rather in that of private media companies. As part of the democratization of Germany following World War II, the public network was modeled on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The stations take the form of corporations (or bodies under public law) financed by license fees. In the 1980s private TV stations were founded.

In Germany the freedom of the press and speech is the common property of everyone and protected by the Constitution. Article 5 of the Basic Law expresses how the Constitution interprets the freedom of the press and communication: “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. (...) There shall be no censorship.”

In general the structure of the German media can be explained by the specific conditions of recent German history. All these upheavals, at intervals of less than 30 years – democratization, the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and Second World War, the East-West conflict and the Cold War, the student revolts and reunification always had a media side to them, indeed would have been unimaginable without the mass media.

The press – a wide range of newspapers

In addition to books, for some 500 years now newspapers and magazines have been a medium that as regards content, form and dissemination may well have been constantly modernized, but whose basic structure has remained more or less the same, despite the continued emergence of new media. Now, as ever, the press stands for in-depth analysis and background reporting, addressing specific topics, and comment. The partial dissolving of fixed ideological convictions along the classical spectrum of left and right was accompanied in part by the disappearance of a clear cut political allegiance on the part of the press. Several publications are still considered to be highly influential, for example national quality newspapers such as “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and the traditional weekly “Die Zeit”.

The German newspaper market is characterized by a large number of publications and regional differences. Alongside 335 local and regional daily newspapers there are ten national dailies, ten quality publications and nine so-called popular newspapers that concentrate on general interest matters. In this category the influential “Bild”-Zeitung, which is published by Axel Springer Verlag and has a circulation of 3.2 million, is the only national newspaper to play an outstanding role. Overall the total circulation figures for some 350 German daily newspapers come to 25 million. However, the financial footing of the classic daily press is under pressure: The younger generation is reading fewer newspapers and advertising revenue, the most important financial pillar of the press, is clearly declining on the back of the financial crisis of 2008-09; furthermore, all manner of content tends to be procured from the Internet, which among almost all age groups has now advanced to become a leading medium. Some 70 percent of all Germans are now “online”; just as many read a daily newspaper on a regular basis.

In the German periodicals market an increasing number of special interest publications has appeared alongside the established mass-circulation magazines over the past few years. “Stern”, and “Der Spiegel”, which play an active role in public debates or have themselves been the subject of important discourse, are among the most widely-read publications. Of these, “Spiegel“, a weekly political journal with perhaps the greatest long-term influence on society of any weekly publication, is outstanding. The biggest publishers of popular magazines are Heinrich Bauer Verlag, Axel Springer Verlag, Burda and Gruner+Jahr, which is part of the Bertelsmann Group. Springer and Bertelsmann are also the two media corporations that by virtue of also owning successful radio and TV stations generate sales in the billions. This triggered a discussion about media concentration and the trans-media concentration of opinion.

There are now some, however, who consider that with the Internet there is automatic pluralism in terms of opinion. In addition to the online versions of print publications with high visitor figures such as Spiegel.de, bild.de and FAZ.NET, there is an unfathomable spectrum of news and opinion sites. As such, for the publishers there is a danger of mutual cannibalization between print and online, even though only a fraction of the readers/users overlaps. On the other hand the mixture of institutionalized and informal sources guarantees diversity. Accordingly the challenges for high-quality print journalism are to be found less in the trend to monopolies and far more in the question of financing the medium. Examples such as theeuropean.de are proof of the fact that quality journalism is not necessarily tied to the printed press.

Internet and social media – a new cosmos

Through the Internet the boundaries between the various media forms, between institutionalized and informal communication have become blurred. However, this also applies to the boundaries between customized communication for the individual and mass communications. At the same time – with regard to printed products as well – amateur sources have now emerged alongside articles by professional journalists: articles by “reader reporters”, omnipresent images from digital cameras and cell phones and opinions of interested users. As such contemporary journalism is in many respects convergent and interactive. Though customary professional press and radio products still play a central role in the new-look media content as well, to many young people the social network, the “community” appears to be more credible and more attractive. The most successful offerings include the German-language Facebook and Twitter. To¬gether with blogs, these platforms have emerged as a digital public presence that is growing rapidly and increasingly impacting on public opinion forming.

Broadcasting - a dual system

Traditional radio and television also reveal the richness of the media. Having begun in the 1920s (radio) and the 1950s (television) as public network institutions, since the 1980s the colorful spectrum of a dual system made up of public network channels and private stations has emerged. Nowadays some 430 radio stations, for the most part local and regional in character, compete with each other.

There are differences in the television structure on two levels, national and regional, and between general and special interest channels. Germany has some of the largest public broadcasters (ARD and ZDF), which are financed by license fees, and private, free stations (RTL, SAT.1, ProSieben) in Europe and the world, as well as the pay-TV channel Sky. The general channels offer the entire breadth of individual genres ranging from news, films, series and shows to sports, whereas the special interest channels feature only news, music or sport. Depending on the technical platform (terrestrial, satellite, cable, broadband, mobile), and on analogue or digital mode, hundreds of German-language and international channels such as CNN, BBC and TV5 and more than 20 different public TV channels can be received. These include the two national channels ARD and ZDF, as well as regionally produced stations broadcast nationwide, such as WDR, MDR, BR, and special-interest channels such as the primarily political docu-station Phoenix and kids’ TV KIKA. Then there are three international broadcasters: Deutsche Welle, Franco-German arte, and Austro-German-Swiss cultural channel 3sat.

In addition to a duty to a basic and general service and a legally defined program, one of the other fundamental duties of public network broadcasting is to preserve political and economic independence. In addition to their standard program these broadcasters also have considerable Internet activities. The public network broadcasters, however, are always threatened with a conflict with the private stations, who fear competition will be distorted by the strong influence in the market of the “subsidized” stations. Further pressure on the public network channels is emerging through the fact that more and more young people are taking advantage of their programs. Even though user behavior has in some cases changed enormously through the Internet and mobile communication, Germany still has one of the most diverse and multi-faceted traditional media landscapes. Free and pluralist, highbrow and entertaining, nationally and internationally focused.

by Jo Groebel