Restoring Journalism

Though our time in Germany is great for seeing sights, and making personal breakthroughs (like learning to eat bananas and spaghetti: good work baby) there is a more serious reason I am here: Journalism.

I am listening and learning as much as I can about the radio system in Germany, but also on the state of journalism in general.  In the States the numbers are grim, but Germany’s problems are different, and may be tougher to solve.

I think it’s fair to say that Germans are a well-read people.  You see it on the trains when everyone has a novel, or magazine, or paper; and you hear it at the dinner table. Pick a topic, and you will see a passionate, informed discussion, regardless on how unimportant the topic is. So a lack of potential readers and customers for Germany’s media machine is not the problem.

In the States, customer numbers are the problem.  Fewer folks are physically buying the big papers, save for picking up a USA Today for the crossword before a flight.  Viewers of network and cable news are segmenting themselves into groups based on ideology.  Conservatives tend to lean Fox News.  Left-leaning (so-called liberals) tend to watch MSNBC.  And CNN, the international cable network made the Cadillac of networks during the first Gulf War, has just fallen to dead last in cable news…it doesn’t know what it is anymore.

On top of this, Americans are reading and seeking out information online.  The most important thing is not necessarily that the information is truthful, more than it is free and provocative.

Can’t be afraid to ask the big questions…no matter the address. (Tony Ganzer)

Germany’s media problems are sadly systemic.  The public system is flush with cash thanks to compulsory taxes on TV and radio owners (which could change.)  But this cash has come at a cost: bureaucracy.  German firms are bogged down by paperwork, procedures and excessive employee protections. (It’s tough to fire someone, even for substandard or non-existent work)

German media outlets also have a three-step system to finding employees. 

Step 1: Be an Intern, or Assistant.  Make coffee, get donuts, watch other people working, and MAYBE you will be asked to do something media-related, to then MAYBE receive a probationary job offer.

Step 2: Freelance/Limited contract.  Many firms simply don’t want to mess with full-time employees.  Instead they hire legions of freelancers, who can only work limited hours and days per year, and don’t receive benefits.  Or you could receive a limited contract, and be hired only for 1 year, or 6 months, with or without benefits.  And to manage all these freelancers, you have a small over-worked group of full-timers.

Step 3: If you have weathered the system so far, and want to make this your life, why not try a full-time contract.  They are rare, and you need to compete with that same legion of freelancers, but if you get it…you are golden!  You have full benefits, worker protections, and 5 weeks of vacation a year.

But with this system as it is I see a BIGGER problem in the German system.  Many freelancers in radio, TV and even some print publications are not journalists at all.  Some of these folks are activists trying to push an agenda, and some just hobbyists, but one cannot assume everyone working for a media outlet is a journalist, or has been trained.

Deutsche Welle
Outlets have cash…but are they using it effectively? (Tony Ganzer)

This is tough to stomach.  In the states, journalism grads are flying out of universities at break-neck speed, despite a lack of jobs. (Not to say these grads are good journalists…) But in Germany, where the readers, listeners and viewers are hungry for well-informed news, journalists are not necessarily ruling the media landscape.

Angela Merkel was asked recently why her finance minister nod was capable of managing the finances of 82 million Germans when just 10 years ago he was involved in a slush fund scandal.  Merkel had a perced smile, and said, “He has my trust…that’s all I will say.” 

Interestingly enough, it was not a German who asked this question, rather a Dutchman.  Some commentators have asked why it took a journalist from Amsterdam to ask the hard-hitting questions of Merkel, while German journalists smiled nervously and embarassed.

People ask me what I think about media and the state of journalism and I have to be honest: quality is being drowned out by quantity.  But one must remember, a quality program or publication retains its audience.  British magazine The Economist is still gaining readers, NPR is still gaining listeners and individual TV news programs like Frontline are still bringing solid numbers.  But for every one good outlet, a citizen has to shovel through dozens of substandard sources. 

I think my time viewing German media outlets is opening my eyes to possibilities on how an organization could function, but the panacea for American outlets (or all outlets) is still elusive.

As corny as it may sound, I think the key to bringing journalism out of the dumps is simple: Get back to basics–ask tough questions, the answers of which would serve the public; find good stories, don’t steal or ‘borrow’ incessantly from other outlets; and make an effort *gasp* to tell the truth. 

Maybe with a little common sense, the Fourth Estate will pick itself up for the common good.

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