Young magazines challenge German publishing world: A trio of new political weeklies has found a public, but the market reflects the divisions between east and west, writes Steve Crawshaw in Hamburg

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GERMANY has seen an explosion of political weeklies in the past 12 months. In a market that had seen little change for 40 years, everything has suddenly been on the move. But this latest fruit of German unity seems as divided as the country itself.

For decades, serious weekly journalism has been dominated by two titles. On the one hand, there is Der Spiegel - a self-important, agenda-setting magazine based in Hamburg, with an unmatched record for political scoops. On the other hand, there is Die Zeit, also Hamburg-based. Both were helped into existence by the British occupation forces after 1945.

Stern, which sells more copies than Spiegel or Zeit, is less obviously an opinion- former: its glossy lifestyle articles, rather than its political coverage, are at the heart of the magazine.

The extent to which Der Spiegel occupies the commanding heights is illustrated by the way in which Rudolf Augstein, the magazine's publisher, was feted in a series of interviews (more than 100, according to one count), on the occasion of his 70th birthday last year. The crusty and sceptical Mr Augstein is as much of an institution as his magazine.

Die Zeit is a Central European intellectual's paper, full of long and thoughtful articles (too long, say its critics). It comes as no surprise to discover that some of the paper's senior editors refuse to use computers and insist on writing with fountain pens instead.

Into this unchanging market have sprung a trio of young wannabes, eager to create - or seize - a slice of the market. In Munich, there is a weekly magazine, Focus; in Hamburg, a tabloid-format weekly, Die Woche; and in Berlin, Wochenpost - not strictly new, but relaunched nationally.

Each has challenged a different part of the market. Focus wants to headbutt the unshakeable Der Spiegel. Wochenpost, originally east German, is closer to the reflective style of Die Zeit. Die Woche says bluntly that it wants readers wherever they come from, but its target is 'politically independent, young, thinking people'.

Already it seems that the net effect of the newcomers has been to enlarge the market, not to dislodge the champions. Der Spiegel has lost a mere 30,000 of the million-odd who buy it every week. In the words of its editor, Wolfgang Kaden, 'I'm sometimes amazed by a circulation of more than a million, with a magazine which is so serious, and makes such intellectual demands. I find it astonishing and encouraging.'

Die Zeit has remained more or less steady, at just under half a million. Meanwhile, Focus - high gloss and shorter stories, dismissed by its opponents as 'snippet journalism' - found almost half a million readers within a few months of its birth. Die Woche, full of zappy graphics, simple explanations and confident commentaries, has been selling 100,000 copies a week; Wochenpost - which used to sell a million copies in East Germany, and was always sold out - now also sells around 100,000 copies a week, and claims that if it gains another 50,000 readers, it can break even.

All the players seem surprised that they have, so far at least, survived without serious injury. Der Spiegel admits a 10 per cent dent in its advertising income, but is still 'highly profitable'. Most vulnerable is Die Woche, whose early demise is frequently predicted. But its publisher, Thomas Ganske, insists that he is not about to dump the paper just because it is losing money today. 'I always knew that it would take several years,' he says.

In one respect, the new arrivals have changed the landscape less than might have been expected. Visually, they are more interesting. But both the established papers and the pan-German newcomers acknowledge that they are still focused, above all, on the west - more than four years after the Wall came down. In the words of Haug von Kuenheim, a senior editor at Die Zeit: 'We have always been - and, despite all our efforts, we remain - a west German paper.'

Hans-Ulrich Jorges at Die Woche says: 'The paper is done with western eyes - no question. That's a mistake.' Not surprisingly, the readers of the western papers are overwhelmingly western.

The Berlin Wochenpost, on the other hand, wants to go the other way, and its distinctively eastern coverage has won much praise. Mr Greffrath is a west German, but is spoken of warmly by his east German colleagues; the Wochenpost's rabbit-warren office in Berlin, just by the old Checkpoint Charlie, is one of the few corners of Germany where west- east divisions seem almost entirely blurred. Critics of Wochenpost say that it only knows how to play one tune: the woes of the east. Mr Greffrath rejects that charge.

Focus, Die Woche and Wochenpost all share the desire to make political journalism more accessible. But accessibility still means different things on either side of the west-east border. For the moment, the divisions in perception - confirmed in every opinion poll - seem set to be reflected and magnified in what the two German nations read.

(Photograph omitted)