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.
In Aust’s case, his management style complicated matters further. While some reporters have raised legitimate questions about Der Spiegel’s journalism under Aust, at least as many had personal gripes that may have blurred their view of his overall record. According to a number of reporters interviewed for this article, Aust would often browbeat people who weren’t part of his inner circle and who didn’t share his views. “Aust energized the newsroom but he also spread fear,” says Dieter Wild, a former deputy editor who retired in 1999. “In the end, many people just wanted the committee to take revenge.”
Last summer, the committee finally did, getting rid of the man it never wanted in the first place. Mario Frank, the new manager, placed cold calls to potential successors, and the news quickly reached Aust in Indonesia. “Hold on to your seat,” his deputy, Joachim Preuss, told him over the phone. “They are looking for your replacement.” When Aust returned to the office, names of candidates were being leaked on a daily basis. In haste, the committee offered the job to Claus Kleber, a public-television anchor with no print experience. Several media organizations reported the appointment as a done deal. In the end, Kleber declined the offer.