Online journalism atlas: Germany (by Lorenz Lorenz-Meyer)

In the third part of the Online Journalism Atlas, Lorenz Lorenz-Meyer looks at how the news industry in Germany first went online, the German blogosphere, online journalism education, and – well, it’s a very comprehensive overview indeed. Got any information about your own country’s online journalism? Add it here.

History

Germany’s online journalism had a pretty good start in the mid-90s. News magazine DER SPIEGEL was among the first to use the proprietary online service Compuserve for pre-publishing its weekly title story and some extracts, as well as providing discussion space for their readers’ feedback. On Compuserve they hosted the first public chat with a politician, the then prime minister of the eastern German state of Saxonia, Kurt Biedenkopf (an event that made it to the front page of Wall Street Journal).

SPIEGEL was also the first German publication to go online in 1994, some days before TIME Magazine in the US. One year later they presented the first professionally designed homepage and an addition of online-exclusive content.

Other early adopters include the public TV news show tagesschau, the highbrow weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT, and SPIEGEL’s arch-rival Focus. Two pioneers of internet-exclusive online journalism are worth mentioning: the short-lived magazine Wildpark, provided by the big web agency Pixelpark and somehow modelled upon Wired Magazine’s then ultra-hip website Hot Wired, and the technology/culture/politics magazine Telepolis, a small but ambitious publication coming from the renowned computer magazine publisher Heise in Hannover, which still exists.

Like everywhere else, it was mostly the bad news, like the Princess of Wales’ death, the ICE train desaster in Eschede, September 11, the tsunami in south and southeast Asia, or the bombings of Madrid and London, that pushed online news production to the attention of a wider audience.

Up to now, it’s still mostly news that german online journalism is focussed on. There is still very little background, very little good magazine-style work to be proud of.

National Newspapers and Magazines

If you leave aside the big portal providers, like telecommunication giant Telekom’s T-Online or Yahoo, MSN and national webmail providers Web.de and GMX, it’s SPIEGEL ONLINE who leads the pack of proper online journalism websites, with nearly 4.5 million unique users and a very comfortable margin separating it from its competitors.

Next is the tabloid newspaper BILD (with a lot of page-3-style naked attractions guaranteeing success with their 3.8 million uniques), further down the line we find the magazines STERN and FOCUS with 2.2 million uniques each, and the nationaly high-quality dailies Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and DIE WELT with 1.7, 1.7 and 1.2 million unique users.

There have been a lot of attempts to kick market leader SPIEGEL’s ass recently with relaunches at all the major news websites, mostly adding all the necessary Web 2.0 bells and whistles. But none of them have been really successful, mostly because nearly all of the results look very much like Spiegel.de.

(All the numbers are 2nd Quarter 2007.)

Public Television and Radio

Commercial publishing companies are not happy with Germany’s public TV and radio providers’ recent announcement of putting much more effort into their Internet products.

Up to now the latter have mostly restricted themselves to so-called ‘programmbegleitende Angebote’ (secondary services related to TV and radio shows). But observing the big success of BBC’s Internet strategy, particularly, has triggered some visions and desires, and there are major projects on their way, mainly about giving the users access to the riches of the providers’ archives.

Online Only

Apart from the online magazine Telepolis, mentioned above, there are very few professional online-only journalistic websites. One of them, Netzeitung, was founded in 2000 by the Norwegian publisher of nettavisen.no and did reasonably well for some years before being sold to a group of private equity investors in summer 2007. Now the site is drifting in some kind of limbo.

Including the Amateurs

The hype surrounding citizen journalism has not stopped at German borders. But letting amateurs contribute seems to be not a very good strategy with German readers. Some regional newspapers experimented with user blogs, attracting not more than a few hundred bloggers each. Many newspaper websites now provide some ‘reader reporter’ interface for contributing juicy celebrity or bloody accident pictures and the like, the most prominent one being national tabloid BILD, which also offered some kind of fake press card to their readers.

Notable exceptions to the bleak picture are two online magazines addressing young people (mostly with some higher level education): Neon.de and jetzt.de. Both of them have seamlessly integrated professional editorial content and readers’s contributions, and host very lively communities.

National newspaper DIE WELT has tried to copy The Guardian’s successful platform Comment is free with their Welt Debatte, but their own contributions are not good enough to attract a bigger audience and they never succeeded in integrating enough interesting external authors.

Some other professional publications include weblogs by editorial staff of paid guests, the most prolific being DIE ZEIT with a portfolio of more than 30 weblogs, some of them very good.

Blogosphere

A similar picture emerges with the German blogosphere, which is mostly in a very sorry state, both in terms of numbers and quality. According to a survey from October 2007 there are 880,000 bloggers in Germany, with 340,000 of them blogging regularly. (Compare this to the 12 million bloggers in the French community provider Skyrock, just to take one example…)

The most successful blog in Germany (in terms of cross-linking) is Basic Thinking, a personal blog by the opinionated Web 2.0 consultant Robert Basic. The runners-up are BildBlog, a very funny and well-done watchblog focussing on the BILD tabloid, Spreeblick, a weblog from Berlin by a group of authors surrounding former punk musician and radio host Johnny Haeusler, and BildBlog co-founder Stefan Niggemeier’s private blog. Niggemeier is a freelance media journalist, and his blog is one of the best sources on media topics in Germany.

The Spreeblick guys have made the first attempt to establish a commercial network of weblogs, but the project stagnated, not least because Haeusler wasn’t able to recruit enough talented bloggers.

All in all, the german blogosphere has only a very small circle of nationally known “power bloggers”, and it is ridden with a lot of self-importance and adolescent infighting. Also, any attempt to turn blogging into some professional and commercially successful venture is accompanied by suspicion and resentment.

Aggregation

There is one more specialty worth separate mention: The small but devoted team around Thierry Chervel and Anja Seeliger in Berlin who, under the name of Perlentaucher (pearl diver), have made it their business to give a daily overview on the ‘Feuilleton’ (arts and literature) sections of german language newspapers (partial english version).

They also produce several other products, including a weekly international magazine roundup including magazines from countries as far as India or Egypt (english version), the multi-language european press review eurotopics, and a daily overview on recent book reviews.

The latter has brought them under attack by German newspaper publishers. In an incredibly stupid move, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Sueddeutsche Zeitung have sued Perlentaucher for their aggregation of FAZ and SZ book reviews. (Perlentaucher only gives a summary, linking to the orginal reviews.) On Dec 11, 2007, Perlentaucher announced that they won the case at the appellate court.)

Professional Journals

Apart from rather frequent contributions in traditional journalism and media magazines, there is only one publication focussing on online media only. It’s the web-based onlinejournalismus.de, originally a highly ambitious web magazine founded by some journalism students, now reduced to a much less ambitious weblog, unfortunately. Some other weblogs, most of them by online journalism practitioners, deal with topics of the profession.

Awards

There are two major online journalism awards in Germany. One, the Axel Springer Preis für junge Journalisten (Internet) is focussed on individual contributions by young online journalists, the other, Grimme Online Award, is broader in scope.

Education

In Germany journalism education comes in three guises:

First, and most basic, there is a kind of guided internship (lasting between one and two years) called “volontariat”, interspersed with additional theoretical instruction held by special institutions. In the last years there have been some first “Volontariate” provided by online publications like spiegel.de.

Second, there are a handful of (pretty elitist) journalism schools. Most of them now have included multimedia and online elements into their curricula. An attempt by the most renowned one, the Henri-Nannen-Schule in Hamburg, to establish an online only program, has been given up after only a short time (somewhen around the year 2000).

Third, there is the academic education, at regular universities and universities of applied sciences. Academic journalism education doesn’t have a very good reputation in the media market, mostly because it’s still considered to be too theoretical. Like with the journalism schools, most academic programs have included online and multimedia courses. Only two programs focus exclusively on online journalism: one a the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, the other at the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt.

Recent Trends

There has been a wave of newspaper site relaunches recently, mostly adapting the sites to Web 2.0 standards and acknowledging the current shift in advertising money towards the Internet by adding some staff and new projects.

One of these stands out: The West German newspaper group around Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung has developed an integrated regional portal, DerWesten.de, under the guidance of former blogger Katharina Borchert. DerWesten.de includes a smart platform for user generated content and first attempts at comprehensive geo-tagging for local news and UGC.

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6 thoughts on “Online journalism atlas: Germany (by Lorenz Lorenz-Meyer)

  1. Falk Lüke

    A nice roundup of the german online journalism web sites, even though I don’t agree in some specific case.

    At least I’m missing the participatory approach of ZEIT online: since October, the users can contribute not only commentary but also articles and if an article is of very good quality, it will be paid, edited and published on the regular platform. (Disclaimer: I was managing and developing the user participation strategy for ZEIT online until February 08)

    Reply

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