Who will pay for real news? Döpfner’s question to Google still unanswered two years later


News quality and a free press shouldn’t be the price paid for internet media

Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review Editor-in-Chief posted Mathias Döpfner’s Why we fear Google on his Facebook page last weekend. It is Op-Ed piece that ran in English and German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine  written in 2014 as an open letter to Eric Schmidt Executive Chairman of Google. Pontin didn’t get many bites from the many writers that follow him but his post infected me. My professional and cultural experience with Germany began in the early 1990’s when publications like the Allgemeine and Handelsblatt’s ventured into the United Kingdom and the British Financial Times’ ventured into Germany seeking print subscribers and it continued through the digital transformation of the country’s networks, media and markets.

It is a very important culturally influenced essay written by Mathias Döpfner Vorstandsvorsitzender (loosely translated but not exactly chairman of the board) of Germany’s largest publisher Axel Springer. The most important distinction in his role compared to the American chairman is the German board of directors has a social charter with labor leaders sitting at the board table instead of across the table. In a socially progressive country the transparency of a free press is more highly valued than it might be elsewhere.

Döpfner’s letter reminded me of the movie Spotlight’s sad theme. Not sexual abuse of course, but the relentless digital erosion of the once formidable Boston Globe. After shuttering bureaus around the world and cutting staff a visit to the Globe’s Boston headquarters on Morrissey Blvd in Dorchester arouses the uncomfortable chill of a mausoleum. The Tomb of the Unknown Investigative Reporter should be built on the Globe’s grounds to represent the crimes, corruption and political malfeasance like the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal that will now go unreported because so many of the Globe and other publishers’ investigative staffs were let go.

Bloggers aren’t a replacement for investigative reporting because crowd sourced editorial oversight is no match for editors who run retractions and corrections and fire reporters who intentionally misreport the news. Reports from Facebook, Buzzfeed or Fox News are not credible without corroborating them with Bloomberg, the Economist, BBC or other reliable and responsibly edited publication.

Döpfner has presided over dismantling and remaking Axel Springer in the face of digital transformation. He was appointed Editor-in-Chief in 1998 just when the internet began to boil news media in a sea of electrons. The turmoil of Germany’s equivalent of People Magazine, Bunte or the New York Daily Post, Bild don’t really measure the social loss. The loss can be seen in the debilitation of German publications of record like the Allgemeine by the same forces that put the Boston Globe on life support.

Steven Johnson wrote an insightful piece this summer for the York Times Sunday magazine the Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t in which he assessed the economic impact of the digital transformation of the arts on artists and performers. He concluded that the creatives are thriving; it is only management such as the record labels that have been squeezed by digital transformation without any loss to society.

But management is what news readers pay for when they buy a paper or digital newspaper. Editors manage the news content quality and Editors-in-Chief like Döpfner, Mark Thompson of the New York Times or Mike Sheehan of the Boston Globe try to balance the social contract to deliver real news with arts, entertainment and whatever else produces the clicks that keep the lights on. For the last decade they have been distracted by keeping the lights on as the free fall of prices paid for digital display revenue continues and print advertising dies off with its subscribers.

Pro Publica president Richard Toefel recently challenged McKinsey’s report that the print newspaper decline is leveling off in an analysis posted to Medium.  If Toefel is right the clicks will continue to grow diluting a declining amount of news.

News is an exception to Johnson’s conclusion that there isn’t a social loss from the internet’s eliminating the management layer that once produced the arts because editorial management is more than promotion and distribution, it is reputation that is eroding even at the formerly dependable New York Times . Without editorial oversight there is no news. If a way to pay for editors to manage news reporting in a free market continues to elude the best efforts of almost every publication in the developed world, perhaps the freedom that a free press brings should be subsidized like solar energy.

Döpfner’s fear of Google must extend to the angst of peering into an internet abyss because he is faced with breaking a much stronger social and cultural contract to produce news.

Find everything by Steven Max Patterson on Twitter @stevep2007


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