Editor’s Notebook: Journalism Criticism in German

How Germany approaches the media beat

This is the first in a series of occasional columns by CJR’s editor, Mike Hoyt.

In late April, two of us from CJR traveled to Europe to speak at separate journalism conferences. Justin Peters, our managing editor/Web, attended the fourth annual International Journalism Festival, in Perugia, Italy. He and Megan Garber, our former staff writer (now at Nieman Lab), hosted four panels on the future of journalism, all based on their excellent CJR series, Press Forward: Dialogues on the Future of News. Italians care about the future of news, apparently; the conference attracted hundreds of attendees and lots of press coverage, not to mention Al Gore.

My own trip was to Germany, for a conference—Media Journalism: Problems and Prospects—in Leipzig, hosted by a German journal of media criticism called MESSAGE magazine, which was celebrating its tenth anniversary. Leipzig, in the former East Germany, is home to 600-year-old Leipzig University. I saw the church where Bach used to bring his thirteen children and showcase his music, and where he’s now buried. My hotel was across the street from Nikolai Church, a birthplace of the bloodless revolution that toppled the old Communist regime. A pastor there, Christian Fuhrer, now retired, held political prayer meetings that grew into huge mass rallies that eventually spread to Berlin, where at the end of the 1980s the Wall began to crack.

It is good for any American journalist to hear the news business discussed from a non-U.S. perspective. One thing that struck me is that in Germany (the conference also featured a handful of attendees from other European nations), the media’s economic crisis seems less pressing than it does here. Yes, journalists told me that advertising is way down and serious newsroom cuts are being made. But I was told that print readership in the land of Gutenberg is not precipitously declining. People are moving online, it seems, but they like their papers, too, so far. And so the conference was not centered on what media reporting and media criticism can do to help journalism think its way through the crisis, as I had half-expected. Last year three of CJR’s six cover packages were about the media crisis and possible strategies for getting through it; in MESSAGE, not so much.

The conference focused mostly on the role and mission of media reporting and media criticism. There, as here, the Internet has expanded the volume of writing about media, and some of what is emerging had clearly gained the respect of the conference attendees—journalists, editors, journalism and communication professors. Still, there was a lot of discussion on the limits of big media’s ability to watchdog itself. For example: Why, Dr. Stephan Russ-Mohl from the European Journalism Observatory, wanted to know, did European business journalists not see the Greek financal crisis coming, and why is no one asking that question now? Why, asked the editor of Germany’s largest daily, does coverage of certain energy companies seem to get short shrift? Is their voluminous advertising a factor? Media companies, said Thomas Lief, reporter-in-chief for a major German network and an advocate of investigative work, represent a large concentration of power, and thus require scrutiny. But media, he argued, does not deal well with itself. A panel of media reporters and bloggers spent some time on their own admitted sacred cows (though I admit that much of that discussion was inside German baseball—or inside soccer, perhaps—and the translation through my earphones often left me puzzled).

In my own speech in Leipzig (.pdf), I distinguished between media reporting (stories on media trends and situations) and media criticism (which often requires reporting but which questions assumptions and takes a stand), arguing that both are necessary, but that journalism needs tough and independent criticism to thrive. That is what MESSAGE is clearly about, and it was good to meet and observe a brother in arms.

In an opening panel, I was grilled about U.S. journalism and about CJR. One of the questioners had a zinger. He quoted CJR from several months ago promising more coverage of journalism in the rest of the globe. Where is that coverage lately, he wanted to know? Outside of a Letter from Moscow from this past January and a couple of short pieces, I had little to offer in my defense. So that should change in coming months. There is much to learn from the rest of the world.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.