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.”
But blaming Aust exclusively for what happened to Der Spiegel over the past fifteen years is far too simplistic. Grievances over the loss of influence, the decline of investigative journalism, and the steady creep of infotainment are by no means unique to Der Spiegel. Journalists everywhere are anxious about the future of their profession. The one big difference is that Der Spiegel’s reporters had the ability to take matters into their own hands.
During the 1960s, a number of political activists joined Der Spiegel, tilting the magazine’s news coverage to the left and demanding a say in management. Augstein, a free spirit, was sympathetic, and in 1974, Der Spiegel created a holding company, to be owned by all members of the staff who had been with the magazine for at least three years. In the interest of long-term stability, Augstein also sold 25 percent of the company to Gruner + Jahr, the magazine-publishing subsidiary of Bertelsmann, and decided that his four children would inherit, in total, only 24.5 percent after his death—half a percent below the threshold required for veto power.
Initially, Der Spiegel’s employees rarely meddled in management. They were more than happy with a dividend that in good years increased most employees’ salaries by half. But when Augstein wanted to make Aust editor in 1994, a vast majority objected, arguing that the television journalist lacked the necessary print experience. Perhaps as important, they didn’t like what they had heard about his antagonistic management style at Spiegel TV. Seikel recalls that an exasperated Augstein talked about “throwing in the towel and opening a chip shop on [the North Frisian island of] Sylt.” Augstein’s threat to retire did the trick. The committee reluctantly agreed to Aust’s appointment.