So many media figures have lost their jobs recently that it seems to be the exception, rather than the rule, when a top journalist, such as Alan Rusbridger, Guardian newspaper editor-in-chief for 20 years, resigns on his own terms.
These days few journalists seem to have the luxury of organising their own departure. There has been a wave of high-profile sackings across the industry, and some of the most brilliant journalists have been forced to look for new work.
For example, Wolfgang Buchner, until recently editor-in-chief at Der Spiegel, left the company after only 18 months overseeing the integration of the news magazine’s print and digital operations. His proposed changes antagonised Der Spiegel’s print journalists who are also shareholders in the publication. His plans were better received by the magazine’s digital journalists, but they do not hold any financial interest in Der Spiegel.
At the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and previously at the German magazine Stern or, in the United States, at the New Republic, publishing house bosses also appear to be at a loss. They are looking for scapegoats because they have not yet discovered a new, profitable business model for journalism.
Yet, it is not the fault of editors that readers are turning into ‘users’ who now expect everything online to be free.
Neither is it the newsroom’s fault if advertisers prefer to distribute their messages via social media like Facebook, or search engines like Google. They can reach their target groups without the costs of traditional advertising via news sites and print media – where users were often bombarded with sales messages they did not want.
However, the German magazine publisher Gruner and Jahr, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, has so far taken the cake. Recently the company has fired the staff of entire newsrooms. The most prominent example is the women’s magazine Brigitte, (read by one in four German women) where only the bosses were allowed to stay – presumably content will be provided by freelancers in the future. Given how extensively robot journalism has been discussed over the last month in the American professional community, it could be argued that Gruner and Jahr have made a perceptive decision.
However, until robots do take over, one would wish that editors and managers indulged themselves more frequently in a timeout. They should absorb some scientific insights about newsroom management. Thereafter, life might become more normal and more humane in at least some newsrooms.
This column first appeared in Tagesspiegel on 21.12.2014