Now that it’s curtains, our editor-in-chief offers a few thoughts on journalism. But above all, he wants to say Thank You.
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February 27, 2019
Dear reader
Now that it’s curtains, our editor-in-chief offers a few thoughts on journalism. But above all, he wants to say Thank You.
And so it is goodbye at last. With this essay, Handelsblatt Today, formerly called Handelsblatt Global, will cease. As editor-in-chief, I would like to take this occasion to say Thank You. Thank you to my team: You are the best and tightest group I could have asked for. And Thank You to our loyal, sophisticated and enthusiastic readers: You have, since the announcement of our shut-down, been inundating us with emails that will warm my heart forever. I also want to offer a few thoughts about journalism as such.
Our publication was launched in 2014, edited initially by my talented predecessor, Kevin O’Brien, and since March of 2017 by me. A dual citizen of the United States and Germany, I had previously spent two decades at The Economist, and was completely immersed in the traditions of “Anglo-Saxon” journalism and storytelling. And yet -- or therefore -- I was intrigued by this offer to build a bridge between German journalism and the rest of the world. For that is what Handelsblatt Global tried to do.

The idea was originally born out of an inspiration, but also a frustration, on the part of the company’s owners and managers. The frustration, which is shared by many Germans I encounter, was that German points of view -- on politics, on the euro crisis, on money and inflation, on how to run an economy, on pretty much anything -- are either unknown outside of Germany or, worse, misunderstood and caricatured. The perception around here is that the way German decision makers think -- even as they are increasingly expected to “lead” internationally -- is filtered and distorted in the “Anglo-Saxon media” to a point where Germans often do not recognize themselves.

The corresponding aspiration was to fill this media gap by adding an English-language publication to one of the great German-language media brands, and thereby helping international investors, business partners and policymakers to understand their German peers. Our goal, as I said in my very first message as editor-in-chief, was thus to let our international audience hear “the undistorted sound of the German voice.”

To do this, we drew on the reporting of our German-language colleagues at Handelsblatt, WirtschaftsWoche and Tagesspiegel. (To be allowed to keep reading, you must say all three brands in succession, quickly, three times.) But while our voice was German, our style of storytelling was always and in every way natively Anglo-American.

Our goal of being a bridge between German and Anglophone media thus placed us among other pioneers in cross-cultural and cross-linguistic journalism. Haaretz in Israel, the Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan, and other media brands across the globe have over the years launched English-language editions. Simultaneously, a number of Anglophone brands, including the New York Times and the Financial Times, have crossed the barrier in the opposite direction, from English to other languages.

But is it even possible to build such bridges, lastingly? And if so, how should I go about doing it? These were the questions I had to ask myself for the past two years, as I formulated and then developed a strategy. In this context, I owe a special debt to Tamar Shiloh Vidon, a researcher who was then writing a thesis on cross-linguistic journalism at SciencesPo in Paris. She contacted me to be her source; instead, she became mine. Thank you, Tamar.
In the process I have come to a conclusion about cross-linguistic journalism. Quite simply, it is that journalism, probably like all forms of storytelling, cannot be “translated”, just as good jokes with good punchlines cannot be translated. You can try, of course, but the subject dies in the attempt.

Whether the medium is text, video or sound, storytelling is always primarily about a relationship: that between the storyteller and his or her audience. This relationship breaks down when things are “lost in translation”. Good storytelling requires intimacy, and a shared vocabulary of references and tonalities, of attitudes and questions and presumptions. Good storytelling is of the audience, by the audience, for the audience.

That is why I banned the word “translation” in my team. Yes, we used our German-language colleagues and their texts as sources. But we always remembered that our German colleagues were explaining the world to Germans, whereas we were explaining Germans to the world.

If we didn’t translate, what, then, did we do instead? In part, we did original writing, conceived and narrated by native Anglophones for other native Anglophones. (And yes, I had no choice but to lump the Kiwis, Aussies, Canucks, Yanks, Limeys and others together; graciously, you always forgave us for that.) We also “adapted” the articles by our German colleagues to make them resonate with Anglos. The resulting stories in effect became mash-ups that were only loosely based on the source texts. To my delight, this approach and philosophy piqued the interest of vaunted media observers such as the Nieman Lab at Harvard.

In this position as bridge builder, we also became acutely aware of the deep-seated differences between German and Anglo-Saxon storytelling. Some of my German colleagues, naturally, have asked me what those are. But it’s a bit like asking about the difference between Hemingway and Faulkner. You can give an answer that is short but unsatisfying (Hemingway wrote shorter sentences). Or you could attempt an answer that is long and subtle.

Such an explanation must start with the question of relevance. Yes, there are some events that are relevant to every audience, and can be reported in formats that will translate easily. Recall the day John F. Kennedy was shot. That day, almost every newspaper in the Western world ran an article written in the universal style and structure of “wire copy”: Who, what, where, when, and how (though perhaps not yet why). You could have translated these articles, and these translations would have worked.

But most journalism is not like this. Most storytelling starts with a journalist looking at the world and finding something interesting, important, urgent, shocking, counterintuitive or surprising. This is where relevance kicks in. In our experience at the English-language Handelsblatt Global/Today, our German colleagues often paid attention to things that we found boring. Simultaneously, they skipped over things that we found fascinating. And they would say the exact same thing about us. None of this should be surprising: After all, as I already said, they explain the world to Germans; we explained Germans to the world.

The differences accumulated from there. That starts with formats (i.e., structures that you are used to seeing in print). In Anglo-American print journalism (radio and podcasts are different), it is uncommon, and in some genres unheard-of, to run long transcripts of interviews with managers or politicians, transcripts that often range across many subjects and have no obvious “peg”. In German journalism, by contrast, this is common (and a favorite way for German honchos and pols to disseminate their propaganda). At Handelsblatt Global/Today we resisted “translating” these Q&As, because you, our Anglo readers, would have found them off-putting and weird.

At the same time, we scoured those transcripts for revealing quotes -- quotes that could become atoms in a narrative. That’s because in Anglo-American journalism, the narrator is always present (even when, as at The Economist, he or she is anonymous), like a slightly tyrannical but well-intentioned guide. This narrator 1) must have a point, 2) must make that point (and not too many others), 3) must make it fast, and 4) must make it with “color”. Color can include direct speech. It usually also requires anecdote.
The anecdote-free zone
And this, in my experience, may be the subtlest but biggest difference between German and Anglo-American journalism: The Germans don’t really do anecdotes. This will surprise and outrage many of my German colleagues, especially at vaunted brands such as Der Spiegel (where, in a recent scandal, a fetish for “color” had caused one writer to fabricate anecdotes). Nonetheless, I agree with my friend Melissa Eddy at the New York Times (who has covered Germany for donkey’s years) and her colleague Andrew Higgins. They have concluded that “Germany is an anecdote-free zone”.

Don’t get me wrong: Germans do start their articles with descriptions, often long ones that stretch out for paragraphs and columns. So there’s lots of that. But these descriptions don’t usually add up to what an Anglo would consider an anecdote, an expression of character that illustrates somebody’s motivation or dilemma.

I have talked to Germans with international experience about this, and they tend to agree. The difference may have even deeper roots, reaching back into our mentalities and legal traditions. Anglophone cultures grew out of centuries of English common law, where lawyers induce from particular to general. German and most continental cultures developed from Roman/Napoleonic legal codes, where lawyers deduce from abstract to specific.

As you can see from the preceding paragraphs, the differences -- not just between German and Anglophone, but between any two journalistic traditions -- are subtle, vast and controversial. I have not even scratched the surface. Nothing here, by the way, is meant as a criticism of German journalism. I once had a fascinating discussion with our publisher, a wise German media veteran with lots of experience in the Anglo-American markets. Like many German intellectuals, he is a fan of The Economist. And yet he and I quickly agreed that The Economist, either “translated” into German or imitated by Germans, would fail like a damp squib in the German market. It’s not about which tradition is better; it’s about which resonates with a specific audience.
Show me the money
If our only goal had been to bring the undistorted sound of the German voice to Anglophone audiences, Handelsblatt Today would be considered a success. We know this from you, our readers, who have been telling us so in your emails, in which you usually began by pointing out how you disagreed with everything we wrote, before gushing about how much you loved us and how you were passing us along to your in-laws, business partners and fellow board members. Our audience was never huge, but it was loyal, spread throughout the Anglophone world, and dedicated, often verging on evangelical.

But of course we had to have another goal: to make money. And this is where we demonstrably failed, which led to our shut-down “for lack of a sustainable business model”. This part, I suspect, will sound familiar to you, because news publications in many places are in the red. In the 2000s, I was based in America, and covering the mass extinction of local newspapers, caused by the internet and people like Craig Newmark, who with his Craigslist lifted classified advertisements out of newspapers and onto a web page with simple blue links. Since then, our industry, in terms of numbers employed, has kept shrinking.

In my old-fashioned mind, my job as editor was to amass an audience, so that somebody else could monetize it. This was naive. It is by now accepted that advertising is broken (and not only thanks to Google and Facebook), and that subscriptions are also problematic, because people don’t pay online the way they used to pay offline. (I became very intrigued by new and flexible paywall models, but even those would not have saved us.)

That’s why new publications nowadays place their hopes on two things. One is “events”, where a brand gathers its audiences for a more intimate (and expensive) experience. This would have been hard for us, because our audience is, by definition, geographically dispersed. The other is “verticals”, where a brand offers general content free but charges dearly for newsletters, podcasts and perhaps seminars that inform about just one narrow subject area (German M&A law, for example, or German car-parts suppliers). Given more time, we would have pursued this course. But even I have doubts that it would have worked.

That’s why I note with great interest that some of the latest media start-ups are not even bothering with a business model. They instead launch as nonprofits funded by wealthy patrons. One such is The Markup in New York, soon to go online, and financed in part, yes, by the very Craig Newmark I mentioned above. Indeed, I remember interviewing Craig in a San Francisco cafe circa 2006. Far from gloating, he was worried. He was becoming rich because he provided something new that made life easier and better for consumers like me (which is good!), but that as a side effect was undermining something else, the press, which had a less easily quantifiable but nonetheless important social value. Well, here he is, part of the solution, putting his money where his mouth was.
Journalism, in that sense, resembles basic research in science: It is hard to price in the open market, but ultimately priceless in value. Etymologically and historically, journalism arose from the “journals” of well-heeled men and women of letters in the early modern era who wrote to their friends. In effect, those diaries were pre-internet blogs — free, and meant for a controlled audience, and for the most part an intellectual indulgence. Maybe this is our destiny once again.
Andreas Kluth
Handelsblatt Global Editor-in-Chief
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