Party press is revamped and still read all over: John Eisenhammer in Dresden finds former Communist papers are keeping their readers' loyalty in difficult times

THE Haus der Presse, a dull, concrete blockhouse in the centre of Dresden, seems an unlikely place for a successful experiment in defying the laws of gravity. None the less, inside, those same journalists who just three years ago were penning columns about the party's infinite wisdom, and vitriolic articles about the capitalist enemies of the West, now dedicate their efforts to extolling the beauty of Bavaria and the joys of driving the latest Volvo. And the readers love it.

Before the collapse of Communism, the Sachsische Zeitung described itself as the 'official organ of the regional section of the Communist Party'. Now, it is simply 'independent'. The nearly half a million readers appear not to have noticed anything amiss. Where, before, people had to read the regional party paper because there was no other, they now buy it out of choice.

A similar phenomenon is repeated right across eastern Germany, utterly confounding the confident expectations of most western German media bosses. Under Communism, the old regional party papers like the Sachsische Zeitung had 92 per cent of the market; today they still have 85 per cent. Efforts to introduce established western papers into the east, or start up new 'westernised' ones there, mostly proved dismal failures.

'The newcomers just do not have the right feel. East German journalists write differently, they understand their readers' problems, they share the same past,' says Jorg Wagner, the economics editor at the Sachsische Zeitung.

It has been a sobering experience for the western publishers, who were convinced that only they knew how to produce real newspapers. For even though all the former regional party papers are now western owned, and in many cases the old Communist editor has been replaced, that is about as far as the changes have gone.

There are just four western journalists on the Sachsische Zeitung, now owned by the western publishing house, Gruner and Jahr. The rest are former party hacks, trained in the 'Red Cloister', as the national journalism school at Leipzig university was known. Those new owners who tried to westernise further, as did the liberal Munich-based Suddeutsche Zeitung, which took over Dresden's other paper, the Union, were rewarded with more than a 50 per cent drop in sales.

Just as unsettled by having to adjust to new times as the journalists, the eastern German readers clung to the local papers they knew. An independent study commissioned by the Interior Ministry in Bonn found that eastern readers 'believed their newspapers to be more objective and credible than western ones'.

Shortly after taking over the Sachsische Zeitung, Gruner and Jahr did a poll of its readers, asking them which political party was felt to shape the paper's reporting. The result was evenly split between all the main parties, from the former Communists to the Christian Democrats, with a slight leaning towards the right. For writers moulded in the 'Red Cloister' that was no mean achievement.

A glimpse at the front pages of a regional western and eastern paper leaves little doubt that, by the choice and presentation of stories, they inhabit different worlds. The criticism is frequently heard in the west that, by their obsession with problems such as unemployment, western arrogance and sharply rising crime, the eastern papers have done much to undermine the early spirit of unification.

'People who say that do not live in eastern Germany,' says Edith Giert, editor of the Sachsische Zeitung. 'Our newspapers must be different, we have much more urgent, dramatic problems. We have to show we understand our readers. In 10 years' time, the newspaper will be different when the conditions are different. We have to live with the people and the times.'

That is something she should know. For Mrs Giert is one of the few senior former Communists still in charge of a major regional paper. Deputy editor for nearly 20 years, she was elected editor by the staff when the paper went 'independent'.

'Red as sin' is one insider's description. Mrs Giert states bluntly: 'No one here was a resistance fighter.' She oversaw the paper's transition during the past three years. However, it has all finally become too much for Gruner and Jahr. Mrs Giert is taking early retirement at the end of the year; a western editor is moving in.

It will make little difference to one aspect of life in the newspaper, which has already undergone dramatic transformation. 'In the old days,' laments one of the journalists, 'you could not say a word against Honecker, but you could be very free in your discussions with the editor. Now, you can write every day that Chancellor Kohl is a cretin, but woe betide anyone who lets slip a careless word about the boss.'