“Die Zeit” Newspaper Success and Quality

The publishing house in Hamburg Speersort
The publishing house in Hamburg Speersort | Photo (detail): © DIE ZEIT

Ever since 1946, in-depth articles, refined language and diverse cultural reporting have been the hallmarks of Germany’s liberal weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”. In the past decade, this mix has made it more successful than ever.

Die Zeit occupies a special position in the German print media landscape. As a weekly newspaper, it views social events from a greater distance and can take the time to make sense of things. It claims that this allows it to be more thorough than the daily press and more up-to-date than monthly magazines specializing in politics, business or culture. In this respect it is similar to the – likewise weekly – news magazine Der Spiegel, whose journalistic antithesis it remains to the present day. While Der Spiegel stands for revealing research, an anonymous style of writing and exaggerated opinion pieces, Die Zeit cultivates analysis, the specific style of individual authors and a balance between political camps.

Often gently mocked as being like an elderly aunt, Die Zeit appeared particularly ill-equipped to meet the demands of the fast-paced Internet era. In fact, however, it is currently experiencing the most economically successful phase of its existence. In the 2000s, the layout was made visually more appealing through the use of more colour and more pictures, while Giovanni di Lorenzo, editor-in-chief since 2004, has ensured that topics of general interest – from areas such as psychology and biology, for instance – feature more often on the front page. At its core, however, Die Zeit has remained true to itself. As a result, sales have increased to around 506,000 copies (as of the first quarter of 2012); in addition, the company also publishes numerous offshoots such as Zeit Campus, Zeit Wissen and Zeit Geschichte, to name but a few.

Zero hour

In February 1946, the founders of Die Zeit in Hamburg received their press licence from the British authorities stationed in North Germany, the first edition appearing on 21 February 1946. The four publishers, among them the lawyer Gerd Bucerius, wanted to play their part in shaping the moral reconstruction of their homeland, which had been largely destroyed in the Second World War, and saw zero hour as a historic opportunity. Ernst Samhaber, the first editor-in-chief at Die Zeit, thus did not shy away from openly denouncing the failures and shortfalls of the occupying forces. During subsequent years, Die Zeit evolved to become a resolute advocate of Germany’s right to self-determined democratization and in so doing established its journalistic reputation. To this day, the editorial team remains committed to the liberal values of freedom and pluralism, without supporting any particular political movement as a result.

The “Feuilleton”

Die Zeit publisher Gerd Bucerius recognized early on how important cultural reporting was for his newspaper, targeted as it was at the educated middle classes. The Feuilleton – the paper’s literary and arts section – did not blossom fully until after 1957, however, when the journalist and author Rudolf Walter Leonhardt took over responsibility for it. On 16 large-format pages, of which half were reserved for literature, Die Zeit reported on the cultural life of the Federal Republic of Germany and played a key part in establishing Group 47, whose authors included Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as an important literary voice. A further editorial focus was placed on education policy: Leonhardt made sure that the university reform programme launched in the 1960s was carefully followed, thus making Die Zeit prescribed reading in the academic world.

The strength of the Feuilleton in Die Zeit has always been and still remains its reviews. This genre is particularly well-suited to showcasing the stylistic brilliance of the authors. Although it has become considerably more willing to engage in debate over the past ten years, Die Zeit rarely provokes controversy. One important exception was the 1986/87 Historikerstreit – or historians’ dispute – over the interpretation of National Socialism, a controversy which was brought to a head by an essay in Die Zeit by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Die Zeit was also one of the first leading quality newspapers to elevate the status of film criticism by engaging film critic Hans-Christoph Blumenberg as an editor in 1976. Other influential figures in the Zeit-Feuilleton were Fritz J. Raddatz (literature) and Benjamin Henrichs (theatre).

The present day

In financial terms, Die Zeit has not always been a success story. It teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the spring of 1951, and in the early 1970s Bucerius was forced to balance out the losses suffered by Die Zeit by the profits he had made through his stake in the publishing company Gruner & Jahr. Nowadays, the competition is keen to learn from the success of Die Zeit, yet the newspaper is actually profiting from the changed reading habits brought about by the Internet. While daily newspapers already seem out of date by the morning, Die Zeit presents topics and analyses which go beyond those of the current day, supplementing them with the latest news and reports on its website. What is more, the weekly cycle suits those people who find they no longer have time to read a daily newspaper. One good example was a column, which has meanwhile been discontinued, in which Giovanni di Lorenzo conducted an appropriately brief interview with former German chancellor and Die Zeit editor Helmut Schmidt about developments in global politics. Nowadays, the Feuilleton editors cultivate the genre of brief criticism above all in features such as Diskothek and the Zeit museum guide.