Ausgabe 39/2007

Venerated German Paper Gets a Makeover Can FAZ's New Look Halt Shrinking Circulation?

The German heavyweight newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is making a daring break with tradition. The ban on photographs on the front page will soon be lifted, and editorial headlines will no longer be printed in Gothic script. But the paper's real problems will not be solved with a new image.


This is what the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung could look like soon -- a far cry from its previous style.

This is what the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung could look like soon -- a far cry from its previous style.

The readers of the German conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung will soon have to be very brave. They are only a few days away from something they don't like at all: change.

For decades, no matter what was going on in the world, there was one thing that could be relied on: the FAZ's practically unchangeable front page. It hardly ever featured a photograph: Only 33 times in 58 years did an image grace the cover, the last time being when Benedict XVI was elected pope in 2005. And the editorials were always flagged by having their headlines printed in old-fashioned Gothic script.

The FAZ's cover page was the serious face of conservatism. True, there were occasional attempts to introduce some cheerfulness. But readers defended the paper's drab image as a bastion against colorful modernity; even the most minimal changes provoked major annoyance. "Tabloidization," furious readers would rail in their letters, complaining that the paper was "pandering to the zeitgeist" in a way that was "unworthy of the FAZ." Even worse, the readers accused the FAZ of stooping "to the level of the Springer press," in a derogatory reference to the publisher of Germany's biggest tabloid, Bild.

When the editors added a small red box measuring a mere 1.9 by 5.5 centimeters (0.75 by 2.17 inches) to the cover page, the readers immediately detected "lurid curlicues" and a "wild mix of colors." One reader complained that, "once again, a piece of the homeland has been sacrificed on the altar of progress."

That was what the paper used to be like -- and what its readers are still like. One hardly wants to think about what shock waves will run through the letters' page when the paper actually presents its new layout for the first time on Oct. 6. Because this time around, it's not just a little inconspicuous tinkering with the font. This time, the paper is daring to break with tradition and take the plunge into modernity.

Not only does the new layout feature a photograph on the front page, but it's a color image at that. Both the previously sacrosanct Gothic script above the editorials and the lines between the columns have gone. The new layout introduces a new and very elegant font for the headlines. It's lighter and friendlier, with more white space. And far from being the creation of some internationally renowned design guru, who could have provided a scapegoat if necessary, the new layout was developed entirely in-house.

Scratching The Surface?

But is the new image enough to solve the problems of the FAZ, a paper that was previously characterized less by a particular look than by an absence of design? Can a makeover put an end to the continuing erosion of the FAZ's circulation and a creeping decline in the paper's significance?

And the problems the paper faces are serious. Its paid circulation has shrunk by more than 40,000 during the past nine years. During the same period, the FAZ's main rival, the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung, increased its own paid circulation by about 19,000.

The FAZ is lagging behind its arch-rival, the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The FAZ is lagging behind its arch-rival, the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The Munich-based Süddeutsche has been outpacing its Frankfurt rival ever since it braved the media crisis at the start of the decade. For some time now, the FAZ has been unable to pretend it is still the only "Newspaper For Germany," as the caption on the front page would have readers believe -- even if the FAZ still likes to look down on the Süddeutsche as a jazzed-up regional paper. (The Süddeutsche does in fact still sell the bulk of its copies in Bavaria.)

It is precisely this huge expectation that the paper sets for itself -- that it is a German institution practically on the same level as the constitution -- which has become a burden for the FAZ and its staff. Confusion reigns behind the newspaper's self-confident facade.

Young editors in particular are finding that the paper's old-fashioned personality is getting on their nerves. They would rather venture out into the turmoil of reality than act as the keepers of Germany's true conservative values as espoused by the Christian Democratic Union party. To these young editors, editorials are no longer the be all and end all of journalism. They would like to see more reporting in the paper -- just like their rivals have.

But the FAZ has never done anything the way other papers do it, and it was always proud of that fact. The astounding thing is that even its own high priests have recently begun showing a lack of veneration for the sacred front page.

Werner D'Inka, the chairman of the editorial board -- one tradition the paper maintains is not having an editor-in-chief -- sounds like he has been relieved of a great burden: "The old layout was hard work," he says. "And people are really sick of the Gothic script."

But D'Inka and his four colleagues did not rely just on their own opinion when they decided to give the paper a new look, but also used reader surveys and focus groups. Readers were presented with three sample layouts. The middle option was chosen -- the moderately radical one, so to speak. The readers rejected both a more far-reaching modernization with more images on the front page and a half-hearted variant with a tiny image at the top of the page. The FAZ too is moving closer to the center, it seems.


© DER SPIEGEL 39/2007
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