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Home arrow Communication arrow Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany: Agents of Accountability

Germany: Hesitant and Controlled Adoption of Digital Media

Most reporters I talked to in Munich did not have any online responsibilities in addition to regular news production duties. Although LP journalists experienced an increase of workload in the years prior to my research, this additional workload was typically not digital but occurred in legacy news outlets, partly in response to the greater public access to information on the internet. Most of them also mentioned increasing demands of topicality and associated time pressure.

One reporter said that “what changed overall is the turnaround time of news with [the existence of] online” (Interview, LP reporter, November 7, 2011), despite the fact that he did not write online news himself. One senior radio reporter said: “We became much faster and put a lot of pressure on ourselves” (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011). He reminisced about the old days when it was possible to reach agreements with competitor-colleagues to save a story for the next day, which promised to be a slow news day: “‘Let’s play this story tomorrow.’ (laughs) It worked! This would be unthinkable today” (ibid.).

LP reporters perceived the most fundamental change of their occupational role in the weakening of gatekeeping authority. One national newspaper correspondent stressed greater public control of journalism through the internet. He used the example of a political document he once reported on. Earlier, when readers could not access this information themselves on the internet, journalists were in principle able to arbitrarily pick certain aspects and omit others according to their own preferences, he told me, whereas nowadays readers would call them out for that (Interview, LP reporter, April 17, 2012). Another reporter shared this sense:

If you want to do a good job you cannot make it easy for yourself, not just write something up that everyone can find through Google and Wikipedia.

I think that’s a very significant issue because the verifiability has increased, of course, and it left the journalist like an emperor without clothes. There are so many stories that were traced back and exposed as copied from Wikipedia. (Interview, LP reporter, December 5, 2011)

The privatization of broadcast media in 1984 was another important change in German journalism, which Munich reporters mentioned frequently as a significant change during their career. One public radio journalist in the LP referred to a new information station that his company had added in the early 1990s in response to the new competitive situation as a Staubsauger (vacuum cleaner), because “the demand for our stories is very high” (Interview, LP reporter, January 24, 2011) on this new outlet. One of his colleagues said: “This news machine is enormously voracious; it demands to be constantly fed with news, from six in the morning until midnight” (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011).

Reporters’ motivations to start using social media were markedly different in Munich compared to their Albany counterparts. If LP journalists paid attention to social media at all (several reporters did not during the research period), they solely valued them for the ability to monitor politicians’ activities. One young LP reporter, who did not have any online news production obligation, said:

I’ve got a Twitter account and a Facebook account for research purposes, just to be able to observe what happens, but I don’t provide my own journalistic impulses there or use it to publish my work. (Interview, LP reporter, June 13, 2012)

When I asked one LP bureau chief about the most significant changes in journalism in the last decade, he mentioned Facebook as one of the “new tools for research and identifying issues” (Interview, LP reporter, November 10, 2011). He said he told interns to conceive Facebook in this way, since politicians sometimes posted messages that provide insights on current happenings. To him, as many of his competitor-colleagues, social media were useful add-ons rather than competition.

As a rare instance of metadiscourse, journalists of the LP talked about their views on Twitter and Facebook in an entry on the Politik aus Bayern blog, titled “The LP twitters and posts,” using the German translation of twitter, zwitschern, in the original (Lell 2013). Henry Stern from the daily Main-Post described social media as “good and quick sources of i nformation” and added that “you can be a bit more informal than in other media, perhaps.” Frank Muller (SZ), a Twitter-pioneer and by far the most active LP tweeter, reported: “We have had good experiences with representatives presenting themselves very authentically” (ibid.). His competitor-colleague, Christian Deutschlander from Munchner Merkur, echoed this notion and elaborated: “I’m on there regularly because I’m aware that politicians post a lot, they like it and also like to post emotionally. And that is great for us journalists when something gets to us that is not filtered by some spokesperson” (ibid.).

Perhaps they both had a story in mind which Muller published more than a year earlier in SZ, titled “when politicians twitter.” It discussed one representative’s Twitter feed, which was criticized for promulgating blonde jokes:

Aiwanger’s mishap sheds a light on how speed and content of the political debate in Bavaria changes through new media. Appearances of politicians accumulate on the leading social networks, Facebook and Twitter, and journalists and followers are also diligently involved. Spontaneous political discussions evolve, which are similar to a regulars’ table: sometimes loud, sometimes thoughtful, entertaining or rough. And occasionally misogynistic as well. (Muller 2012b)

The story focused not only on such social media pitfalls but also on the inauthenticity of politicians not operating their own social media identities, since representative Hubert Aiwanger blamed his staff for tweeting politically incorrect jokes. The article quotes the politician: “If it goes on like this I will turn this crap off.” When another questionable joke followed on his Twitter feed, not even two weeks later, Aiwanger was again castigated by political opponents online and the Twitter account was taken down (Muller 2012a).

Despite the clumsiness of social media engagement, Bavarian politicians were still forging ahead in the digital era compared to most reporters covering them. LP reporters referred to the state of affairs concerning social media as a trial period in conversations. They raised questions about a possible future that was already a reality for their US counterparts. One of them said:

How to operate all these new channels? What is this new type of journalist like who does all these things? Does that mean - we see it with our colleagues from the online department who are actually expected to tweet at night! (Interview, LP reporter, May 15, 2012)

After my field research in Munich, particularly in the context of the 2013 state election, many LP reporters joined Twitter (including the one I just quoted). However, even in 2015, their twitterverse was not nearly as multimedial, interactive and, above all, immediate as their US counterparts’.

To my surprise, several Munich reporters brought up mobile phone text messaging as a response to my question what had been the most significant changes in their working lives, even though it had been around for almost two decades at that point. They regarded it as significant because it allowed them to permeate spatial boundaries of information within the state legislature, especially with regard to closed session committee meetings: “You are able to get there directly. You are able to evade spokes- people without them ever noticing it. That has actually changed the work” (Interview, LP reporter, November 10, 2011). Another reporter said that text messaging had even affected political dynamics

In some instances it’s almost bizarre because so much goes over text messages from ongoing meetings, in and out, and when they talk about something important inside the CSU caucus, wire stories are already circulating outside. But [politicians] read those inside and then there is this strange feedback to the inside. (Interview, LP reporter, November 24, 2011)

I observed similar but more pervasive spatial dynamics in New York, through a medium that was originally modeled after text messaging: Twitter, with the important difference that communication was public.

 
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