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.'

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own