Berlin's red rag tears ahead

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The Independent Online
East Berlin's former Communist newspaper wants to become the first quality national

daily in Germany. Imre Karacs reports on Berliner Zeitung's ambitious relaunch.

Market gaps do not come much bigger than the chasm which scars the German newspaper landscape. The tabloid Bild Zeitung has conquered the low ground, Die Welt keeps mid-range punters entertained, but at the top end there is only a void. Not that German readers lack seriousness - far from it. But in a country where local patriotism eclipses national sentiment, nothing has emerged in the past 50 years capable of uniting the chattering classes of the big cities.

Two regional newspapers come closest. The Frankfurter Allgemeine and the Munich-based Suddeutsche Zeitung are respected throughout the land, but on the news-stands in Hamburg they still appear foreign. And now along comes a local paper from the wrong side of the Wall with pretensions to become the Washington Post of Germany.

It was not the first time that such a boast was made. In 1990, shortly after the Wall fell, Berliner Zeitung, East Berlin's party daily was relaunched with that very pledge. The content, cobbled together by barely reconstructed party hacks, hardly changed. Circulation tumbled in the east, remained negligible in the western half of the city, and the paper became synonymous with ossified Ossis' failure to adapt to the new world.

The proprietors, the mighty Bertelsmann, took it on the chin for six years, but then lost patience. In 1996 it hired Michael Maier, an Austrian journalist who had done wonders as editor-in-chief to Vienna's Die Presse. According to inside gossip, there were no German applicants for the job of editor. Mr Maier hired a top designer from America, and went searching for new talent. From the Frankfurter Allgemeine he poached the features editor, from the Suddeutsche, the sports editor and top political journalists. Bertelsmann, the world's third biggest media empire, has invested DM25m in (pounds 8.5m) the redesign, and is willing to sink in millions more in order to achieve the goal of having a German national newspaper.

The new team is now producing a paper that is unlike anything else produced in Germany. Its layout is a cross between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, down to the etched portraits characteristic of the latter. It is a handsome design, accessible but conservative enough for its home market.

"We want to be serious, but modern at the same time, with a fast delivery," Mr Maier says. The paper, he said, used to be obsessed with Berlin and entertainment. "Now we are trying to turn it into a platform of debate about politics, society and culture."

The political coverage has been beefed up. The hyper- active Bonn office has lately been generating an average of one big scoop a week, to the great embarrassment of the better established papers. People are beginning to talk about the Berliner Zeitung, and not always in derisory terms.

Mr Maier says that circulation is up since the heavily promoted relaunch, from 216,000 to 222,000. In the unspecified "next phase" of expansion, he wants to establish a network of bureaux in Germany's 16 federal Lander, without which no newspaper can cover the politics that really influence people's daily lives. Similarly, there are plans to upgrade foreign coverage by opening more staff bureaux overseas.

But to succeed outside its main base, distribution needs to be completely overhauled. However hard it tries to be a national paper, Berliner Zeitung will not be able to fulfil its ambition as long as it can be bought only at railway stations outside Germany's biggest city. Most German dailies are sold by subscription, but at present Berliner Zeitung seems unable to deliver the paper to its most loyal readers in the provinces on the day of issue. About 40,000 copies are sold in West Berlin, some 20,000 in the whole of Germany outside Berlin, and the rest in the former capital of the GDR.

"This is naturally a long-term project," Mr Maier admits. "I don't think it will be done in one or two years." The investors are thinking eight to 10 years ahead. So far, despite the catastrophic fall in circulation in the first years, the media moguls have had little cause for regret. Berliner Zeitung has never lost money, and made a profit of more than DM10m last year.

"We are trying to create a newspaper that addresses German unity," Mr Maier says. But seven years after reunification, the inhabitants of the former frontier town of West Berlin seem less forgiving towards the people of the "Zone" than the rest of Federal Germany. To many, Berliner Zeitung will for ever remain a "commie paper".

In two years, however, the government will move to Berlin with a vast entourage of newspaper-reading folk: tens of thousands of bureaucrats, diplomats and assorted hangers-on. This is what Bertelsmann and Mr Maier are counting on. The leading Berlin paper will reap the rich rewards of a captive market. United Germany will at last have an urbane capital, and maybe even a national newspaper. On current evidence, the former red rag of East Berlin stands the best chance of winning that prize.