Aust is sixty-one years old, a short and wiry man who comes across as relentlessly confident though not exactly charismatic. Asked once on a talk show whether he was capable of self-criticism, Aust deadpanned: “Me? What an absurd idea. Haven’t you read the newspapers?” Aust’s critics call him a conformist, and they like to contrast his left-wing past with his more recent predilection for schmoozing with powerbrokers. In reality, though, Aust’s path from the student rebellion of the sixties to the political mainstream is somewhat typical of his generation, mirroring the careers of other public figures such as the former German cabinet members Joschka Fischer and Otto Schily. Like Fischer and Schily, Aust once moved in radical circles close to the Baader-Meinhof gang—an experience that came in handy when he wrote his best-selling book about the terrorist group. In the seventies, Aust joined public television and made his name as a thorough investigative reporter. Taking over Spiegel TV, the magazine’s cable-television program, in the late eighties, he witnessed firsthand how privatization changed the German media business. Suddenly, ratings mattered, and Aust adapted by supplementing political reporting with sex-and-crime stories that broadened
Spiegel TV’s appeal.
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.