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Did Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung Newspaper Let Advertisers Dictate Its Content?

Süddeutsche Zeitung. Photo by Flickr user Thomas Angermann.

Süddeutsche Zeitung. Photo by Flickr user Thomas Angermann. CC BY-SA 2.0

Sebastian Heiser, a former writer for Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, has raised heavy accusations against the southern German newspaper. On his blog, he revealed his experiences as contributor to the services supplement desk of the newspaper, describing how the interests of advertisers influenced the emphasis of the editorial staff. Going one step further, he claimed that the newspaper indirectly advertised tax evasion.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung is Germany's largest trans-regional quality newspaper, with 397,000 issues and a reach of roughly 1.3 million readers. On its website, the newspaper writes, “the SZ distinguishes itself through its opinionated and independent journalism. It lays value on critically minded editors and readers.”

Heiser was employed with the trade desk at the Süddeutsche Zeitung from the beginning of January 2007 to the end of March of the same year. The services supplement desk deals with topics ranging from profession and career, to real estate, energy and finance. The content it produces is not marked as an advertorial; it is expected to conform to journalistic standards, such as editorial independence from advertisers, just like the rest of the paper.

But now, eight years after his resignation, Heiser has disclosed protocols from editorial staff meetings and recordings that he secretly compiled.

For Heiser, there were two fundamental differences between his working atmosphere and what is considered correct journalism; the chosen topics were motivated by money, and there prevailed a hostile and relatively uncritical attitude. Heiser claimed that the Süddeutsche Zeitung chose topics not according to their relevance, but rather for their appeal to advertisers. In addition to this, he accused the newspaper of not calling for more critical reporting in its articles: 

Bei dem Journalismus-Imitat in meinem Ressort wird nicht nach Relevanz entschieden, sondern nach Geld. Rein kommen die Themen, für die Anzeigen geschaltet werden. Die Daumenregel: Für jede viertelseitige Anzeige (Kosten damals: rund 20.000 Euro zuzüglich Mehrwertsteuer) erscheint eine Seite über dieses Thema.

At my desk, with its impersonation of journalism, decisions were made not based on relevance, but according to money. Only topics were addressed that benefited the advertisements. Their rule of thumb: for every quarter-page advertisement (back then that came out to 20,000 euros plus taxes) an entire page would follow, discussing the advertisement's topic.

Heiser was especially critical of the fact that he provided readers with information in an article about Swiss bank account numbers, for the sake of being able to reduce the tax burden. Looking back, Heiser reflected:

Es ist eine unverhohlene Werbung für Steuerhinterziehung. Gedruckt von der Süddeutschen Zeitung, weil sie dafür eine gut bezahlte Anzeige von der Tiroler Sparkasse erhält. Und ich bin dafür zuständig, die Texte auf dieser Seite zu schreiben oder von anderen Mitarbeitern zu bestellen und zu redigieren. Wie bin ich hier nur reingeraten?

It's a blatant advertisement for tax evasion, printed by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, because in exchange it will receive a handsomely paid advertisement from the Tirol Sparkasse bank, for which I am responsible for writing an accompanying text, or requesting texts from my coworkers that I can then edit. How did I even wind up here?

‘Covert advertising is a form of corruption’

On social media, people responded to Heiser's disclosure under the hastag #szleaks. Some users described it as “naive” to expect supplement editorial departments to report objectively, which is the norm in most editorial departments:

Who can be so naive and expect tough, political reporting from #sonderthemen-Beilagen [trade contributions] at newspapers? #szleaks 

Show me a “trade editorial department” where things run differently. Contributions have always been intended for advertisers. #szleaks

Others, however, were outraged by the disclosure. Twitter user Uwe Krüger wrote that such conduct should not be the norm:

#szleaks Covert advertising is a form of corruption. If many people consider this the norm, then it just goes to show how perverted our standards have already become

He added that many readers consider these additional pages as common editorial content:

From what I've seen, the number of cases from #szleaks is determined by whether the “fleeting average reader” is able to recognize such pages as non-editorial. 

According to an interview with the news portal Newsroom, the Süddeutsche Zeitung does not plan to comment on Heiser's allegations. Newsroom writes that Süddeutsche Zeitung assistant editor Wolfgang Krach emphasized that Heiser's claims are indefensible. Krach argued that the newspaper never gave instructions for tax evasion and that Heiser never had to present his texts to the advertising department. 

Krach macht im Gespräch mit Newsroom.de aber deutlich, dass seiner Zeitung keine Vorwürfe zu machen seien. „Warum entstehen Beilagen, warum veröffentlichen wir Sonderseiten? Es ist wie bei jeder anderen Zeitung in Deutschland, die Anzeigenabteilung kommt auf die Redaktion zu und schlägt ein Thema vor. Was wir dann journalistisch daraus machen, welche Themen in diesen Beilagen gesetzt werden, das entscheidet die Redaktion“, betont Wolfgang Krach. Er verweist dabei auch auf die „illegalen Mitschnitte“: „Hören Sie sich die Bänder genau an, dann wird klar, dass an den Vorwürfen nichts dran ist.“

But Krach makes it clear in discussion with Newsroom.de that there are no allegations to be made against his newspaper. “Why do supplements exist? Why do we publish special pages? It's the same with every other newspaper in Germany. The advertising department comes to the editorial staff and proposes topics. It's the editorial staff's decision what we then do journalistically and what topics we choose to include in our supplements,” says Wolfgang Krach. He then refers to the “illegal recordings.” “Listen to them really closely, and it will become clear that the allegations don't hold up.”

Heiser also uploaded audio from editorial meetings that he had secretly recorded onto his blog. Some observers have questioned the ethics of doing so. In an unrelated incident, Heiser's current employer, German daily Die Tageszeitung, publicly accused him last week of using keylogging software to steal data from 16 of his colleagues. In a statement, the paper said it will file charges against him.  

Similar allegations against the Telegraph

Journalist Peter Oborne has recently raised similarly harsh allegations against his former employer the Telegraph, saying that the interests of the readers and of quality journalism are no longer at the fore. The Telegraph is a large quality newspaper in Great Britain with roughly 500,000 copies.

On news and opinion website openDemocracy, Oborne accused the Telegraph of protecting the London bank HSBC. He wrote that after the newspaper published stories that were critical of HSCB in late 2012, the bank stopped advertising with the Telegraph. To woo HSBC back, Oborne said the newspaper adopted a policy of not publishing any criticism of the bank, however small.  

The bank had recently been placed in the hot seat due to involvement with tax evasions in Switzerland. While other large British newspapers reported on this, one could spend hours searching for the topic in the Telegraph, according to Oborne. 

The Telegraph's recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers. There is only one word to describe the situation: terrible.

Traditional media's coverage

#szleaks has been discussed above all on social media and forums, while traditional media has been slow to react. Twitter user Uwe Krüger noted:

#szleaks What is Süddeutsche Zeitung writing about the covert advertising allegations of a former employee? NOTHING #fail 

In international media, little has been reported about the accusations against the Telegraph. In German media, however, there are considerably more reports about the Telegraph than about the accusations against the Süddeutsche Zeitung, including one published in Süddeutsche Zeitung itself. German coverage of Heiser's accusations against Süddeutsche Zeitung has largely focused on his journalistic methods, not on the media's credibility or the accusations themselves.

Although both cases aren't entirely comparable, they address the same issue: credibility. In light of anti-Muslim protests in Germany, the German press has been described by demonstrators as a “press of lies,” and many of the movement's members and organizers avoided contact with journalists. At many demonstrations there resounds the rallying cry “press of lies – shut up.” “Press of lies” became a buzzword of 2014, and triggered a debate in Germany about the media's credibility that has been shaped by serious and some less serious criticisms. 

Accusations against a large German quality newspaper could breathe some fresh air into the discussion. Stefan Winterbauer wrote on the website Meedia:

Gleichzeitig bekommen Anhänger von Verschwörungstheorien im Internet eine immer größere Bühne, auf der hemmungslos über eine vermeintliche Gleichschaltung von Mainstreammedien debattiert wird. Vorwürfe, wie sie hier erhoben werden, sind Wasser auf die Mühlen der Medienkritiker. Sie zielen auf das höchste Gut der Zeitungen, ihre Glaubwürdigkeit. Mal ganz abgesehen von den Wirrköpfen, die bei jeder sich bietenden Gelegenheit “Lügenpresse” rufen: Sobald Leser das Gefühl bekommen, Zeitungen schreiben Anzeigenkunden nach dem Mund, gibt es keinen Grund mehr für teure Abos.

At the same time, believers of conspiracy theories are increasingly coming more into the fore, where an unrestrained debate about the perceived synchronization of mainstream media is raging. Allegations as they're raised here are wind to the sails of media critics. They appeal to the newspapers’ highest good: their credibility. But scatterbrains, who call out “press of lies” every chance they get, aside, the moment readers sense that newspapers are writing what advertisers want to hear, there's no longer a reason for expensive subscriptions. 

Winterbauer concluded his observations by calling on the media to better deal with such critiques, thereby further strengthening their credibility:

Zeitungen, die sich solchen Vorwürfen ausgesetzt sehen, wie jetzt die Süddeutsche und der Telegraph, sollten entschlossen, ausführlich und konkret Stellung beziehen und ihre Arbeitsweisen möglichst transparent machen. Bezeichnend ist zum Beispiel auch, dass die Süddeutsche gar keinen eigenen Pressesprecher mehr hat. Eine gute Idee wäre es auch, Kritiker einzuladen zu einer öffentlichen Diskussion. Ja – shocking! – dies womöglich auch noch im eigenen Blatt, auf der eigenen Website zum Thema machen. Auf diese Weise kann Glaubwürdigkeit sogar noch gestärkt werden. Eine solche Strategie des offenen Visiers und der Transparenz funktioniert aber natürlich nur, wenn die Medien tatsächlich nichts zu verbergen haben.

Newspapers that are subject to such allegations, such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung and The Telegraph, should take a resolute, extensive and concrete position, and make their operating procedures as transparent as possible. It is also peculiar that the Süddeutsche Zeitung no longer even has a press spokesman. Another good idea would be to invite critics to an open discussion. And yes, how shocking would it be to hold such a discussion in its own newspaper. In this way, credibility can be strengthened. Such a strategy of open visors and transparency works, of course, only when the media don't have anything to hide. 

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