by Oliver Bateman
Wednesday, 7
September 2022
Analysis
10:01

Can Mathias Döpfner make Politico great again?

The Axel Springer CEO has made a big bet on non-partisan news
by Oliver Bateman
Mathias Doepfner, chief executive officer of Axel Springer. Credit: Getty

Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German publisher Axel Springer and recent subject of a detailed profile in The Washington Post, articulated a bold vision for the future of news: “We want to prove that being non-partisan is actually the more successful positioning.” This, he told the Jeff Bezos-owned newspaper, was his “biggest and most contrarian bet”.

That contrarian streak appears to come naturally to Döpfner, a 6’7” cosmopolitan whose rise from the ranks of grad school to running Germany’s largest publishing company would sound like the stuff of status-climbing fiction were it not true. This exceedingly tall man contains multitudes, pairing an expressed admiration for polarising figures such as Peter Thiel (for whom one of his sons works as chief of staff) and Donald Trump (in support of whose 2020 candidacy Döpfner wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek intra-company email articulating reasons that warranted Trump’s re-election) with the conventional values to which Axel Springer’s German employees pledge their support (opposition to racism, sexism, and extremism etc.). 

More importantly, however, Döpfner has shown a recent willingness to put his non-partisan positioning to the test while standing by his news staff. In May, reporters at newly acquired Politico came into possession of Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court that appeared to overrule the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and its constitutional guarantee to abortion access. Döpfner and fellow Axel Springer executive Jan Bayer could have killed the story; instead, after listening to the editors make their case about why it was necessary to leak a draft opinion that would soon be issued officially, they backed their decision to publish it

Another example includes when Insider — acquired by Axel Springer in 2015 — began preparing a potentially damaging story about Elon Musk exposing himself to a SpaceX flight attendant who later received a $250,000 settlement for her silence. Despite his admiration for Musk’s contrarian tendencies (The Washington Post article quotes him describing Musk as “one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met”), the lack of an on-the-record interview with the flight attendant, and his own interrogation of Insider’s editors about the propriety of publication, the story ran as planned

These are just two examples, of course, but they speak to broader trends within the media. CNN, beset by declining ratings since Donald Trump left the presidency, parted company with long-time White House correspondent John Harwood after he praised a recent Joe Biden speech because “the core point [Biden] made in that political speech about a threat to democracy is true…the Republican party is now led by a dishonest demagogue.” While CNN has yet to clarify whether Harwood’s departure was motivated by these remarks, the network already cancelled host Brian Stelter’s show Reliable Sources in late August, allowing him to leave with several years remaining on his contract (regarding his own departure, Stelter remarked that “it is not partisan to stand up to demagogues, it’s required”). 

It might be too late for CNN to right the ship — the network’s ratings and profits are in steep decline — but Döpfner’s bet on “non-partisan positioning”, if successful, could encourage additional welcome imitation from competitors. One set of winners in such a competition would be the reporters, whose stories could at last speak for themselves via the evidence presented. 

Another set of winners would be the readers, who could analyse and interpret reportage without intrusive narrative cues or editorial asides instructing them to cheer the heroes or boo the villains as if they were children attending their first professional wrestling match. Faith in readers’ faculty of judgement represents a valuable commodity, one in short supply these days, and all of us should be happy to see such faith reaffirmed in pursuit of success in the marketplace of ideas.

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Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago

If they had any vision at all, the BBC would be working night-and-day to achieve this. If they could become the global news brand which is acceptable to left and right wing viewers in the UK and abroad, they would secure their position for decades to come.
They would need to balance the political opinions of their journalists, editors and managers in much the same way as they profess to balance sex, race etc.
They would need traditionalists and conservatives and free-market liberals on their staff, at all levels of seniority as well as Blairites and lefties. They should also have Celtic Nationalists. And they would need deliberate policies to ensure that no side felt the agenda or the reporting was inaccurate or condescending. They might even discovery which opinions are shared across groups – what a service that would be! I don’t think it would be hard to find good right-wing and populist journalists – there are many on UK newspapers and UnHerd does a good job of heterogeneity.
The BBC central management should also make sure that other departments – entertainment, sport etc, don’t destroy the News and Current Affairs departments hard work by introducing fashionable political opinions into their output and so wreck the Corporation’s reputation.
Is it possible? I’m not sure but as they are (currently) freed from having to make a profit, if they can’t do it, who can?
Good luck to Dopfner though.

Last edited 19 days ago by Matt M
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

There are plenty of Celtic nationalists at BBC Wales.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago

Correct. They need to make sure that their Unionist viewers ( and their Brexiteer audiences) don’t feel that the news agenda and reporting are being dictated by the Nationalists and Labourites.
I don’t think it is that hard to do. But maybe I’m missing something.

Max Price
Max Price
18 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

You should check out the ABC here in Australia!

Matt M
Matt M
18 days ago
Reply to  Max Price

Are they doing it well?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
19 days ago

I received an advertising flier for a publication called The Week this morning. The whole pitch was that “we source stories from multiple sources so you get a fully unbiased and rounded picture.” I was interested until it got to a sample list of sources – The Guardian, The Economist, The Times.

These people really do think, like Emily Maitliss, that voices completely contra to their view (rather than a slightly different nuance) are so wrong they just aren’t real.

Good luck to Mathias with this project. I might sign up.

Matt M
Matt M
18 days ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Either that, or they know it is a con- job but don’t care.

R Wright
R Wright
19 days ago

It is far harder to restore a collapsed reputation than it was to lose the trust of viewers. CNN is now spoken of in the same breath as other yellow journalism spouting institutions like HuffPo, Vox and Vice. Half of the remaining watchers are lilely treadmills and empty seats in airport departure lounges.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
19 days ago

Non-partisan positioning. Isn’t that the core of good journalism? It may be difficult to completely keep the writer’s own views completely out of a text – whether in terms of the words written, or the tone/connotations. In items like commentaries then it’s a must – but then a publication might offer a range of views in its commentaries to balance things out and let readers decide for themselves what they think.
The fact that this article needs to be written is proof of just how badly journalism has swerved off into the direction of activism/narrative in the past few years.

Last edited 19 days ago by Katharine Eyre
J Bryant
J Bryant
19 days ago

This article confused me. First, I’m a long time reader of Politico. Even before it was acquired, Politico had a fairly good track record of balanced reporting. It was, of course, more than happy to publish articles critical of Trump, but it also skewered Biden on several occasions over missteps in the early days of his administration.
Over the past several weeks, however, the selection of articles at Politico has changed noticeably ahead of the US midterms. Politico is now hammering at the Republicans, and Trump in particular. Sadly, they have lost their previous somewhat non-partisan stance.
I’m also confused by the two examples provided of Mr. Döpfner’s commitment to non-partisan reporting. One was publishing the leaked draft of the Dobbs opinion: that was a gift to the Left. The other was publishing the story of Musk exposing himself to a stewardess: to the extent the story weakened Musk, it was also a gift to the Left because Musk is not one of those high profile billionaires who unequivocally aligns himself with the Left. Based on the current article, I’m not seeing much evidence that Mr. Döpfner is anything other than a standard left-leaning newspaper exec.
Money does talk, though. And if CNN, or other msm outlets, is hemorrhaging dollars they’ll happily sing whatever song, democrat or republican, that brings back readers.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
18 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yeah this is a really weird article. I had the same reaction. The two examples of cases where Döpfner supposedly displayed his qualities appeared to be junk journalism of the type that he should indeed have killed. We have:

  • An article for which the only possible justification is to whip up harassment against the court in the hope of changing its mind before the final opinion is released. Otherwise they could just report on the final opinion.
  • An article for which, apparently, they had no solid evidence whatsoever – not even an on the record claim from the person in question – and which was therefore an unsourced, unverified attack on Musk’s character.

Neither article seems politically neutral nor even proper journalism, and the rationale for why this displays his qualities is that he let his staff ride roughshod over him to go on the attack anyway? Doesn’t sound like Politico is going to be worth reading anytime soon.

Last edited 18 days ago by Norman Powers