The swarm and the fury: Newspapers battle against (not for) their audience in Germany.
December 12, 2007 by ruediger

It is rare, at least in my observation, to see various pretty serious people – essayists, journalists of high quality newspapers, editors – really in rage to the point of denouncing all (presumed) adversaries squarely as ‘childish’, ‘anti-journalists’ and ‘filthy’, oh, and yes, ‘user generated content’ is called ‘loser generated content’ because alledgedly in websites such as delicio.us, only “3 percent of the posts” refer to ¬†“news that shape global events”, and the rest is about “making coffee in Japan and the quality of seats in airplanes”.

Since a few weeks, major newspapers in Germany seem to fight for their very survival (and, I must add, use more latin proverbs than normally in years), as they feel threatened by the “Web 0.0” (the double zero alluding to the popular shortcut for a toilet, in fact).

These are the facts and the background: A German court ruled that owners of a website (or blog) can be liable for all posted comments Рwhich resulted in the prestiguous Sueddeutsche Zeitung to allow postings on their website only during office hours, meaning that readers can comment on articles only Monday through Friday between 8am and 7 pm. Freedom of expressions has clear limits: No night shifts or weekend hours.

In another – pretty much unexpected – ruling¬†this morning, a civil case of Sueddeutsche and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) against the online news portal and aggregator Perlentaucher was rejected by the court of appeal in Frankfurt. Perlentaucher (for whom I write a ca. monthly column about culture, books and the digital world), among other things, produces summaries of the daily cultural pages and book reviews of major German newspapers for a newsletter and their website, and sells those pieces to an online bookstore – which infringes, according to Sueddeutsche and FAZ their copyright. The court turned the argument down, explaining that such summaries cannot be interdicted because anyone has the right to publish a summary of a work (e.g. a newspaper¬†article), even with a commercial purpose, provided the summary has its own “creative substance”.

Now the interesting part of the controvery is, at least in my view, absolutely not about copyright, but about culture.  Only an argument about two contrary concepts of culture is good enough for all this fury.

The debate started in fact when in October, member of the publishing board of FAZ, Frank Schirrmacher, an icon of German conservative journalism, had argued “How the Internet Changes Man”, stating – this is already his follow up explanation of the original essay – why printed newspapers have a “purpose” in society as gatekeepers for reliable information and reading, hence are among the pillars of culture (as opposed to the pillows that couch potatoes and web surfers are sitting on, I suppose).

“The newspaper”, Schirrmacher argues, “lasts for at least 24 hours, and with its opinon pieces and¬†reviews, it claims even to have a value for following generations.”

Now, this is an interesting point, as it says that durability, life time, is the measure for cultural value.

Two answers to this. First the Austrian version, which means to point to Karl Kraus, the 20th century critic and aggressive essayist against – newspapers, because of their sloppiness, bad language and shortsightedness (‘only for 24 hours!’); by such, he became the harshest benchmark for quality journalism, including for the FAZ. Kraus would never ever have thought for a second of newspapers as a guarantee for cultural value, as opposed to books.

This is the other answer: We see in this stunning German controversy a carbon copy of all those pointless debates over centuries why Рplease fill in your newest media beast Рphotography, radio, TV, the internet, comic books threaten the book, culture, civilized life.

At once, we find newspapers among the pillars, not the pillows of culture. How come? Remember the odd word of ‘nothing is less valid than yesterday’s paper’!

The German controversy on culture reflects, of course, the dramatic aging of newspaper readers, the loss of revenues from classified ads, and the competition from all those new actors who are more successful at the emerging online market place.

But the real offense comes from their younger readers whom the newspapers seem not to trust anymore. So they yell at them, in despair.

According to them, the web is¬† “also a medium that growingly makes not-reading or alsmost not reading possible” (Schirrmacher); those among the readers who post unfitting comments on the newspapers’ websites are “leisure activists with a little scum on their lips” (Sueddeutsche), or, in today’s FAZ: “Every serious blogger will change sides”.

So the argument points at a war – of the newspapers against a portion of their own audience. A civil war for the newsroom?

I guess not that much. It is the culture of the 19th century – where ‘culture’ equals a few knowledgeable, elder men (not women) educating the mass – against what? No, not some bland 21st century thing – but rather against the 18th century, that was much more experimental and laid the foundations of modern democracy, learning societies, peer review (Yes! Those interested readers giving their opinion on a piece, and the result is debate and, yes, often enough, squabble), yet turned from then small clubs and societies to¬†the global mass sociteties of today, fragmented, volatile, dynamic as they are.

This points to a real and substantial cultural divide. A clash of cultures, not only in Germany. Interesting! Let’s see what’s going on next.

Comments are closed.