Stefan Aust, the longtime editor of Germany’s leading newsweekly, Der Spiegel, was on a boat trip near the Indonesian island of Ambon when he learned that he was out of a job. Although Der Spiegel’s circulation numbers were good, many of its journalists thought there had been a decline in the quality of the magazine’s journalism. The nation’s elites no longer considered Der Spiegel an absolute must-read. Working there didn’t feel as glamorous as it used to. Besides, Aust wasn’t exactly an easygoing boss, and the newsroom had never entirely supported him. So the committee that represents Der Spiegel’s employees in shareholder meetings made use of its majority stake in the company, and canned him.

Aust’s ouster, which was announced in November 2007, and the drawn-out search for his successor, filled the pages of rival publications for months. The top job at Der Spiegel is easily the most challenging (and coveted) in German journalism—and that’s not only because of the quasi-socialist ownership model, a legacy from the 1970s when the owner, Rudolf Augstein, bequeathed half of the company’s shares to the staff. Launched by the Allies after World War II, Der Spiegel introduced U.S.-style investigative journalism to the fledgling democracy of the Bonn republic. For decades, the magazine dominated the competition, uncovering everything from illegal campaign financing to the Nazi pasts of government officials. Lately, though, the Hamburg-based magazine has struggled to maintain its preeminent position. Other publications have become more aggressive in their reporting. Internet news sites, including Der Spiegel’s own Spiegel Online, are attracting younger readers. In response, the magazine has broadened its coverage of nonpolitical issues, from crime stories to cultural events, and placed more emphasis on elegant writing. The hard-hitting political scoops that made Der Spiegel famous, meanwhile, have become rare.

Faced with this new reality, Der Spiegel’s staff decided to take control. It terminated the contracts of both Aust and managing director Karl Dietrich Seikel and replaced them with its own picks. Competitors gleefully predicted a descent into anarchy. “A mob of 800 people has driven out an accomplished and successful editor,” said Helmut Markwort, the editor of rival Focus magazine. For the moment, it’s unclear whether the critics are right. Can a bunch of journalists effectively manage a news operation as complex as Der Spiegel in the hypercompetitive and fluid age of digital media? No one at Der Spiegel—including the two journalists now in charge—is saying much about what happens next. But at a time when publications everywhere are chafing under the profit expectations of investors, Der Spiegel provides an alternative case study. The venerable magazine, which remains financially healthy, has a chance to strike a balance between the demands of great journalism and the new commercial and cultural realities.

Initially named Diese Woche, or “This Week,” Der Spiegel was launched in 1946 by an entrepreneurial English officer named John Chaloner who believed that post-Nazi Germany needed a free and fearless press. He hired a couple of young Germans and introduced them to Time and other English-language magazines. “They translated a few articles for us and said: Here’s how it’s done,” wrote Rudolph Augstein, who, at twenty-two, was one of Chaloner’s hires. But when the Germans started writing stories critical of their Allied administrators, Chaloner’s superiors lost their enthusiasm and handed control to Augstein and his team.

Augstein, who led Der Spiegel for more than fifty years, is an iconic figure in German journalism. Half a dozen biographies attest to his sharp, analytical mind and irreverent wit, as well as to his increasing ambivalence toward Der Spiegel. In his latter years, a reclusive and reluctant Augstein advised the newsroom by phone and fax from his Hamburg residence and various vacation spots. Although he sometimes said that the magazine had become too influential for its own good, Der Spiegel’s powerful brand of journalism was essentially his creation. “Augstein was an intellectual who enjoyed being disrespectful and questioning authority,” says Peter
Merseburger, one of his biographers, “and the magazine’s content and language reflected that.”

Before Der Spiegel, the centerpiece of German journalism had been the front-page editorial, a pseudo-academic treatise on current events. Augstein used human-interest angles to make political stories more digestible. He borrowed from U.S. publications to introduce the anecdotal lead and the kicker. A huge staff of librarians, as legendary in Germany as The New Yorker’s factcheckers are in the States, made sure that reporters backed up their stories with an abundance of supporting material.

Konstantin Richter is a freelance writer in Berlin. His first novel, Bettermann, was published in Germany in 2007.