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.
It was only after Augstein died, in 2002, that the balance of power shifted gradually away from Der Spiegel’s top floors to the ground-floor canteen. There, in a garishly decorated pop-architecture landmark from the 1960s, hundreds of employees gather every twelve months for their annual meeting. In the soft orange glow of bosom-shaped lamps, they address complaints and concerns to the five representatives who are elected every three years. Spiegel journalists say the atmosphere is more like a union than a shareholder meeting. “We like to vote for people who aren’t powerful,” one longtime reporter told me. “Why should we boost someone who is high up in the Spiegel hierarchy anyway?”
Such self-interest, though, doesn’t necessarily produce good corporate governance. Once elected, Der Spiegel’s labor representatives must consider the long-term interests of the company. It’s a difficult proposition, as the employee-owners of Le Monde could attest. The French newspaper is unprofitable and saddled with debt, making it a ripe target for takeover by minority shareholders—a situation that Der Spiegel’s employee-owners must be mindful of as they go forward. Difficulties can arise especially when business strategy, journalistic ideals, and employee self-interest clash. In 2002, for instance, Spiegel’s management joined HypoVereinsbank AG and media companies Springer AG and Bauer AG in a bid to buy the troubled television group ProSieben. Staff representatives opposed the move, saying that financial ties with competitors and banks would undermine Der Spiegel’s journalistic independence. Reluctant to reinvest profits, they also argued that the financial stakes were too high—a judgment that proved short-sighted. In the end, ProSieben went for $1.3 billion to the California-based entrepreneur Haim Saban, who resold the firm three years later for about three times that amount.
The warts on Der Spiegel’s ownership model showed, too, when the staff dismissed Seikel, in 2006, and then Aust, last year. In both cases the committee simply started looking for successors, without communicating its intentions, and made a hash of the process. Committee members acted hastily and without coordination, more like rebellious subordinates, in fact, than managers. In May 2006, they picked Mario Frank, a manager with Gruner + Jahr, to replace Seikel. As the second-biggest shareholder, Gruner + Jahr has not played an active role in Der Spiegel’s management so far. But Frank’s surprise appointment sparked fears that he would strengthen the media giant’s position in the long term. The new manager did little to assuage those fears when he decided to buy 50 percent of the money-losing, German-language edition of the Financial Times—a move that would have been beneficial to Gruner + Jahr, which owns the other half. The employee committee promptly vetoed the decision.