End of an era for the West German press

The passing of Axel Springer this week signals the end of an era for the West German press. The new era -- already foreshadowed in Mr. Springer's designation of a younger generation of editors to take over the direction of Die Welt beginning October 1 -- suggests that the new epoch will be more pragmatic and less ideological. Axel Caesar Springer, one of the giants in West Germany's four decades of history, was either hero or bogeyman to those who dealt with him. He was renowned for his conservative political steering of the largest publishing empire in the country, for his untiring efforts on behalf of Israel and West Berlin, and for his resolute opposition to d'etente and to leftist culture.

In a tribute President Richard von Weizs"acker praised Springer for his services to ``the city of Berlin, the alliance with the Americans, and understanding with the Jewish people.''

Springer's flagship, Die Welt, faithfully represented the magnate's political views, down to the detail of always putting quotation marks around ``GDR'' to imply the illegitimacy of the government of the (East) German Democratic Republic. Springer's boulevard newspaper, Bild Zeitung sells an astounding 6.5 million daily copies to West Germany's population of 60 million.

Springer's ``Welt am Sonntag,'' West Germany's only serious Sunday newspaper, and his ``Berliner Morgenpost'' have long given the Springer press what opponents call an ``opinion monopoly'' in West Germany on weekends and in West Berlin every day. His ``H"or Zu,'' -- the radio and (eventually) TV guide that started the empire back in the days when radio stations were run by Occupation forces and television didn't exist -- is still a staple of West German households.

Die Welt, the most conservative of West Germany's four national newspapers, will stay at that end of the political spectrum -- but it will clearly not perpetuate Springer's own personal mix of views and style. Springer went public and put Die Welt shares on the stock market a few weeks ago (though he retained a controlling 26.1 percent), and he arranged to pass the torch to younger editors now in their 40s. The new team is determined to attract readers beyond just the right wing in order to get the news paper out of the red. To do so, they have indicated, they intend to put out a more modern and less ideological paper.

Actually Die Welt, by some astute management operations, has succeeded in cutting its losses dramatically in the past four years. By now its annual deficit amounts to little more than a useful tax writeoff. If possible, the paper would like to go beyond this, however, and recover the leading mainstream political role it had in the 1950s.

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