Augstein appreciated Aust’s can-do approach, and made him editor of Der Spiegel in 1994. At the time, the magazine was in a bind, its traditional dominance facing a severe threat. Newcomer Focus, a weekly with short articles and infographics, had taken Augstein by surprise, stealing a quarter of Der Spiegel’s ad pages. At the same time, larger forces were beginning to gnaw at the magazine’s considerable self-esteem. The end of the cold war had transformed Germany overnight, and Der Spiegel’s idiosyncratic mix of hard-nosed reporting and tendentious writing turned out to be less suited to the reunified nation than to the polarized and secretive world of the Bonn republic. With both the left and right moving toward the center, the general reader lost interest in the daily ins and outs of party politics.
Still worse, increased competition from other print publications, cable news, and the Internet cost Der Spiegel its near monopoly on political scoops. The emergence of the Web, coupled with the privatization of the television industry, created a more individualized and hedonistic culture of media consumption. Germany’s leading news site, interestingly, is Der Spiegel’s own Spiegel Online, which combines breathless 24/7 coverage, features from the print magazine, and elements of tabloid journalism. When New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned over his links to a prostitution ring in March, Spiegel Online, characteristically, ran both a news story and a photo gallery of call-girl Ashley Alexandra Dupré.
In response to these new realities, Aust changed the magazine more radically than any editor in Der Spiegel’s history. He introduced color photos and gave more room to softer issues. “Germany II,” the news department responsible for nonpolitical domestic news, soon was nicknamed “blue-light-and-red-light” for its focus on crime and scandal. Aust’s television background showed in his knack for covers that did well on newsstands. After a massive power failure hit the U.S. in 2003, he devised the headline AMERICA: WORLD POWER OUT OF POWER, and ordered a drawing of the Statue of Liberty holding a candle.
Aust also hired a number of award-winning journalists and encouraged them to depart from the magazine’s trademark acerbic and somewhat formulaic writing style, sometimes derided as Spiegelsoße, or “Spiegel sauce.” The magazine’s new stars weren’t old-school muckrakers with years of beat experience, but skilled writers who knew how to turn any kind of story into stylish nonfiction. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Aust sent Ullrich Fichtner, who had twice won Germany’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Egon Erwin Kisch Award. Fichtner duly added another Kisch, this one for his atmospheric reconstruction of the fall of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
When it comes to reporting, Der Spiegel still has unrivaled firepower, and the sheer bulk of its research can seem overwhelming—as when sixteen reporters teamed up for a January cover story on young immigrants in Germany, dissecting an alleged increase in violence from historical, sociological, and political angles. But true big-impact stories have become few and far between, and the magazine’s journalists are increasingly expected to devote their considerable skills to lighter issues, such as the impact of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s love life on French politics.
Even Aust’s critics admit that he had done an admirable job keeping circulation above one million—a key measure for mass-market advertisers. Sound finances have enabled Der Spiegel to do without the kind of radical cost-cutting that dried up the news budgets of other publications. In 2007, Der Spiegel Group, which also includes the business monthly Manager Magazin and the German edition of the Harvard Business Review, posted an operating profit of €57 million, the best in the company’s history. Jakob Augstein, the late publisher’s son who represents the Augstein family on the shareholder board and who backed Aust’s ouster, concedes that “readers simply have become less political. Der Spiegel had to make adjustments to maintain its economic strength and its public significance, and Aust was very successful in doing that.”
But, in some ways, Aust struck a Faustian bargain. Doing what he considered necessary to remain relevant, he sacrificed much of what made Der Spiegel unique. Long-serving reporters like to say, somewhat wistfully, that Der Spiegel is no longer “Spiegelesque.” One reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, says that “we once had a circulation of less than one million, and we lived fantastically well, too.” Franziska Augstein, Augstein’s daughter and a journalist at Süddeutsche Zeitung, voiced her discontent more aggressively. “Der Spiegel has turned into one gossipy paper among many,” she said in an attention-grabbing speech at a Berlin conference for newspaper journalists in 2005, and she pointed the finger firmly at Aust: “The fish rots from the head.”