In late December, the German weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a story covering the latest slew of revelations about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. The report detailed the internal machinery of a branch of the NSA called Tailored Access Operations, which the Spiegel called “the top operative unit.” It was reported by a team of journalists, including American internet activist Jacob Appelbaum, based on classified documents to which the magazine had exclusive access.
The story was published in English, too, on Spiegel International, the same day that the magazine hit newsstands, and it was subsequently picked up across English-language media. At Spiegel International, the coverage drew droves of readers, who shared it across social media platforms. The lead story received more than 16,000 recommendations on Facebook.
Much of that influence can be traced to a tiny Berlin-based team that has been making Der Spiegel available to non-German speakers for nearly a decade. Started by two American journalists in the early aughts, Spiegel International has slowly come to be manned by a full time team of five editors and a slew of interns, fellows, and freelancers. Through the Euro crisis, the dissemination of the Wikileaks trove—to which Der Spiegel had advanced access, along with the Guardian and The New York Times—and coverage of what Germans call the ‘NSA-Affäre,’ Spiegel International has given Der Spiegel’s unique brand of investigative journalism distinct prominence on an international level, prompting Irish Times Berlin correspondent Derek Scally to call the team, “a tiny operation with outsized influence.”
But now the site, a hodge-podge of originally reported pieces and translations from the 67-year-old German magazine, is being significantly curtailed. In an announcement made public mid-December, Der Spiegel editors announced that Spiegel International’s five positions would be cut to 1.4, eliminating the capacity to take on visiting journalists or work with freelancers.
What that means for the future of Spiegel International is unclear, but the expected fallout rankled journalists across the Spiegel’s publishing enterprise, which includes a highly successful, editorially independent German-language website, Spiegel Online, and a television service.
In an internal newsletter sent out in December, the magazine’s employee representative organization assailed the decision, calling it a ‘clear-cutting’ of the international department. It showed, the newsletter wrote, that such a thing “can happen to any employee of the Spiegel at any time, independent of their achievements.”
The question, though, is exactly how to measure achievement. Der Spiegel’s new editor in chief, Wolfgang Büchner, who returned to the publishing house in September after a brief tenure as head of the German Press Agency and faced a bumpy start at the helm, could have different ideas about how to batten down the hatches for the long-run. And his spokesperson, Anja zum Hingst, defended the decision as driven by financial realities. “We are successful in terms of marketing,” Hingst wrote in an email, “but the editorial effort is too large to be able to maintain the offering in its current form.”
Nonetheless, Der Spiegel journalists argued that Spiegel International’s performance can’t be measured solely by the bottom line. Though a lean service with huge clout, journalists said the English section bolstered the prestige and renown of the publishing house all over the world.
More than 40 of Der Spiegel’s foreign correspondents sought a reconsideration of the decision to cut Spiegel International’s staff in a December 16 letter. Addressed to editorial leadership and publishing directors, it says that the existence of Spiegel International made their jobs easier.
“In the past year alone, the worldwide resonance of our reporting on the NSA, Syria or the Euro debate is clear, even just from a glance,” stated the letter. “In major decision-making cities like Brussels, Paris, London or Washington, we are, thanks to our English-speaking backing, continually read and cited.”
Obviously, the outsized influence of Spiegel International has been inextricably intertwined with its access to the kind of reporting that made Der Spiegel arguably the biggest name in German journalism. “Spiegel International gave huge pop to their scoops,” former New York Times Berlin bureau chief Nicholas Kulish says of the English-language version. “It wasn’t just second-hand, as in, ‘Oh, there was an interesting article in Le Monde, and I hear it said this.’ People could go and read deeply reported Der Spiegel articles themselves.”
That meant getting access to perspectives that could act as a counter-balance to prevailing angles in American newsrooms. Aside from the legendary thoroughness of Der Spiegel reports (they have one of the biggest factchecking staffs in the world), stories published by the magazine reflect its European sensibilities. “With a German publication,” says Kulish, “you’ll always have a point of view that’s less directed toward ideas in New York and Washington.”
With some stories, though, that’s more important than with others. Which is why the timing of Der Spiegel’s decision, as one of the publications at the epicenter of NSA coverage, is so inauspicious. Not only does Der Spiegel work closely with Appelbaum and other Berlin-based journalists, like Laura Poitras, but it has maintained a hard editorial line on questions like Edward Snowden’s asylum request to Germany. In the midst of the November debate about whether to extend diplomatic protection, Der Spiegel published a striking cover with a portrait of Snowden and an emphatic headline calling for offering him asylum (a proposal which was ultimately dismissed by the government of Angela Merkel). The issue included a statement written by Snowden that called for more open debate.
Irish Times’ Scally says the significance of Der Spiegel’s NSA coverage lies in its eschewing the English-speaking press’ tendency to consider some kinds of surveillance as more damnable than others. “One crucial difference is that someone in Germany doesn’t have the notion that everything is okay if the surveillance isn’t directed against an American. That’s cold comfort to German readers,” Scally says. “The scandal has become much more developed; it’s really a global issue.”