The Axel Springer CEO has made a big bet on non-partisan news
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.