Baader-Meinhof's press gang confronts Springer

German newspaper Die Tageszeitung is determined to celebrate its radical past. Ruth Elkins reports from Berlin
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The Independent Online

Peter Unfried, with his striking hair and fiery eyes, still has the whiff of a revolutionary about him. In a smart Italian restaurant near Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, Unfried, deputy editor of Germany's Die Tageszeitung newspaper, is busily planning his latest minor revolution. He wants to rename a street.

Peter Unfried, with his striking hair and fiery eyes, still has the whiff of a revolutionary about him. In a smart Italian restaurant near Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, Unfried, deputy editor of Germany's Die Tageszeitung newspaper, is busily planning his latest minor revolution. He wants to rename a street.

Specifically, he and his colleagues want to change Kochstrasse, on which their office stands, to Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse, after the 1970s West German student protest leader. Many agree that Dutschke, who led the students on to the barricades and championed the Tageszeitung, became a victim of Axel-Springer-Verlag's aggressive reporting. He was shot and wounded after one reader of the Springer tabloid Bild took its headline "Stop Rudi Dutschke!" at its word. Springer, one of Europe's largest publishing houses and a recent candidate to buy The Daily Telegraph, has its offices a few doors down from Tageszeitung. The two ideological enemies are close neighbours. Now, says Unfried, it's time "for some poetic and historic justice".

Germany has become used to such revolutionary antics from the Taz, as its cheekiest newspaper is more affectionately known. The national mini-broadsheet was born and flourished on the fringes of the Baader-Meinhof Gruppe at a time when the left-wing guerrillas were busy terrorising the post-war West German establishment.

In its youth, Taz reported the terrorist view and championed Germany's blossoming Green party. The majority of its readers remain Green voters and it has one of the most affluent readerships in Germany. But with a taste for the kind of story other newspapers won't touch, Taz is perhaps more famous for its bizarre business model and its unique style of journalism. Rarely has the UK press seen such experimental élan.

Taz does not survive from advertising revenues. The few ads it does carry are, as one commentator recently put it, of the "'eat more cheese" variety, harmless small ads that alert readers to worthy forums and discussion groups. When it started in 1979, Taz was formed as a workers' "collective". Everyone, from the editor to the toilet cleaner, was paid the same. "Of course we're a little less radical nowadays," says Unfried, with a laugh. Nowadays Taz is a workers' "co-operative". Editors still have to be approved by the staff and senior appointments can be vetoed by reporters, but, while staff writers and reporters are paid a starting salary of €1,000 (about £700) a month, the editor gets a little more.

If Taz has managed to shake off its complex historical relationship with terrorists, its journalistic credentials have hardly changed. "For us, everything is still political," says Unfried about Taz, which has virtually no sports coverage, devotes a page to business, another to the environment and has been accused of filling its pages with lengthy, if witty, ideological rants. It is committed to extensive foreign reportage. Taz has an editor for each continent and draws on the largest pool of foreign freelance journalists of any German newspaper.

But some of its editorial decisions are, at best, curious. As well as not always bothering to splash the front page with the day's hottest news, classic moments in its reporting history include an issue last June, which it turned over entirely to honour the 100th Bloomsday, the celebration of James Joyce's Ulysses. On its 25th birthday, the team called in the famously right-wing editor of the mass circulation Bild to edit the paper. The inside pages, the staff decided, should be filled by the views of the top neo-liberal politicians and capitalists - the kinds of people, most who know Taz will tell you, who are the paper's sworn enemies.

Its headlines are famously funny. "Oops, they did it again" was the Taz classic that ran last November, the day George Bush won his second term in office. Last Friday, the morning after Dubya was inaugurated for the second time, Taz had another crack: "Bush threatens more freedom".

Wladimir Kaminer, a wry Russian Jewish émigré, founder and DJ of Berlin's ultra-trendy Russian Disco and now a best-selling author, found his voice at Taz. Another contributor is the proto-dissident Arno Funke, who was convicted of six bomb attacks and extorting money from banks and department stores in the 1980s. He became a folk hero because of his narrow escapes from the police and the inventive money-drop schemes he ripped off from Donald Duck comic strips. His criminal days behind him, 54-year-old "Dagobert", as he is known, was one of the stars of last autumn documentary The Heist, on Channel 4, in which former criminals were invited to pull off the perfect crime.

This relaxed editorial approach has led to Taz's reputation as Germany's great journalistic training school. "Even though they could be earning far more elsewhere, we still have plenty of 25-year-old budding journalists who come to Taz because they have a passion for writing about a certain subject and have the freedom to explore and express it here," says Unfried. Critics say this is the reason why many still regard Taz as the kind of newspaper you read only after you've read the rest.

Whether the finances will enable the Taz brand of laissez-faire to flourish remains a moot point. Its relatively small 60,000 (overwhelmingly metropolitan) readership (50,000 of whom fund the paper by paying a €21 monthly subscription) means the paper struggles.

Taz is constantly teased about its almost daily financial crises. But many at the paper see its non-reliance on advertising as its biggest strength. "The big German newspapers have spent years not giving a damn about their readers, just concentrating on their ad revenues," says one Taz insider. "Now even they've discovered they can't do that any more, because they're losing readers. Taz has survived, even if it's been tough at times, because we put our product and our readers first."

For now, the newspaper has to deal with its minor revolutions. The district authorities in Berlin are very soon expected to make a final decision on whether to re-name Kochstrasse. If at all, it will be the eastern part that becomes Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse. It might sound like defeat. But Axel-Springer-Verlag is said to "hopping mad" and Taz is rejoicing. The stretch of the road "is the bit that passes past the Axel-Springer offices" it gleefully informed its readers. Germany's Tageszeitung might not be quite as revolutionary as it used to be, but it's still got a twinkle in its eye.