Tools and Weapons with Brad Smith

Mathias Döpfner: Can democracy survive without independent journalism?

Episode Summary

Why does the head of a global media powerhouse still give his occupation as “journalist?” Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE, is driven by deep convictions about journalism’s role in safeguarding democracy – a perspective forged in his youth after viewing the American miniseries Holocaust. In this episode, Brad and Mathias dive into the worrying trends developing in democracies around the world and how technology can reduce – or amplify – the danger. They discuss how new business models can strengthen digital journalism, their shared belief in the power of truth, and what he believes is the one precondition for great quality journalism.

Episode Notes

Why does the head of a global media powerhouse still give his occupation as “journalist?” Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE, is driven by deep convictions about journalism’s role in safeguarding democracy – a perspective forged in his youth after viewing the American miniseries Holocaust.

In this episode, Brad and Mathias dive into the worrying trends developing in democracies around the world and how technology can reduce – or amplify – the danger. They discuss how new business models can strengthen digital journalism, their shared belief in the power of truth, and what he believes is the one precondition for great quality journalism.

Dr. Mathias Döpfner is the CEO of Axel Springer SE, the largest publishing house in Europe. He started his career as a journalist in 1982 and has been with the company since 1998, initially as editor-in-chief of Axel Springer’s flagship daily newspaper, Die Welt (The World). Döpfner became a member of the Executive Board in 2000 and has been CEO since January 2002. Since Döpfner became CEO, Axel Springer’s revenues from its digital initiatives have increased twenty-fold, and its worldwide digital audience expanded to more than 400 million users. An active public speaker, Döpfner is engaged in efforts to preserve freedom and the free press for democratic societies. He is also a member of the board of directors of Netflix and Warner Music.

Click here for the episode transcript.

Episode Transcription

Quick note from our producers, this episode was recorded in January 2022. Thanks for listening.

Brad Smith: I'm Brad Smith this is Tools and Weapons. On this podcast, I'm sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We'll explore technology's role in the world as we look for new solutions for society's biggest challenges. At this precarious moment for democracy worldwide, journalism just might be the key to preserving freedom.

Mathias Döpfner: Journalism needs to be alive and today, I'm a lot more optimistic than I used to be.

Brad Smith: That's Mathias Döpfner. As CEO of the German media giant, Axel Springer, Mathias has transformed the company into a digital news powerhouse, but he's also uniquely passionate about journalism's capacity for defending democracy. With Axel Springer's acquisition of the American publications Business Insider and Politico, his viewpoints on free expression are expanding to a global audience. Today, we'll discuss how a healthy media ecosystem is vital to supporting the project of democracy. My conversation with Mathias Döpfner up next on Tools and Weapons.

Brad Smith: Well, hello, Mathias. It's always a pleasure for me to spend time with you. We've known each other for a number of years, worked on different issues together, but today I really want to have a conversation with you about one of the most important issues of our time. It's the role of journalism in protecting democracy. I really think that there are very few people in the world who have been more passionate in addressing this issue than you. What got you so focused on the connection between journalism and democracy. Was there a moment that opened your eyes to the importance of this connection?

Mathias Döpfner: Hi, Brad. Thank you for having me and perhaps it really goes back to a very kind of early experience when I was 15. There was an American TV series called Holocaust, a term that I didn't know by then, and I had very little knowledge about the Holocaust. To see that series and the terrible chapter of German history, that was a life changing moment I have to say. It was a very popular TV series, but the very emotional way, how out of the perspective of this family of victims, the German deeds and the uncomparable crime was described. That shocked me so much that I somehow said, I want to do everything in my life to make sure that something like that can never happen again.

Mathias Döpfner: That brings you very quickly to the question of individual freedom, roots of racism, freedom of expression, freedom of journalism. The whole drama in a way started symbolically when books were burned, when the free expression of artists, of literature was stopped. I wouldn't say that then, being 15, I said, I want to be a journalist, but I think that was probably the moment when I started to get interested in that whole topic of freedom of expression and also the work of journalists and the role that it plays in society. In a way, you could say it is still even until today, one of the main reasons why I keep totally motivated to make sure that journalism and free expression plays a very important role in our society and democracy.

Brad Smith: One of the things that has always been striking to me on so many issues, whether you're talking about privacy or free expression or democracy itself... I think if you are an individual of almost any nationality, if you really want to learn more and think hard about how these issues intersect, go to Germany. Because, you grew up in a country that experienced this incredible tension and success and failure, not once but twice in the 20th century, I would say. First with the rise of the Nazis in the thirties and then with the experience under the Stasi in East Germany between 1945 and the 1990s.

Brad Smith: One of the things that you just said strikes me as particularly poignant. It was, when you were 15, when you first started to really learn about the Holocaust, and I think there was a time after world war II, in Germany and other countries, there was a concern that people were losing the memory of what had happened. Did that play a role? Why did it take until you were 15 to first be exposed to this?

Mathias Döpfner: Because, at that time, it still didn't play such a big role in schools. It was a terrible chapter of German history. Some people wanted to deal with it in a very self critical manner, but a lot of people, and I would even say the majority said, well let's not touch that issue too much. And truly, this TV series Holocaust, changed that. It started a totally new discussion.

Mathias Döpfner: I went with my mother to Israel for the first time when I was 16, meeting Holocaust survivors there and this moved me very much and really it motivated me. It became a kind of topic of my life I have to say. It's sometimes hard to explain totally rationally why, but to see that even today on certain occasions on the streets of Berlin, Israeli flags are burned or antisemitic sentences are screamed. That shows that it is an ongoing project to make sure that a zero tolerance mentality for any form of racism, discrimination, xenophobia... This is not the topic of the past. It is something that remains always important and I think it is definitely one symbolic domain, why independent journalism matters so much. That, in a way, also indirectly motivated me to make sure that journalism doesn't remain a thing of the analog past, but it is also something that is very intact and lively and prospering and with high quality, also a successful business model in the digital present and in the digital future. Journalism needs to be alive, and today I'm lot more optimistic than I used to be.

Brad Smith: I would love to get your insight in one additional way about the past in terms of the lessons they may offer. I think one of the things that is remarkable about the history of Germany is that, of course, Adolph Hitler was elected in a democracy before he then consolidated and seized power in an authoritarian manner. It really only took about a decade for a democratic nation to go from electing a leader, to pursuing the genocide against the Jewish people. A decade's a short period of time and I think many people look back at that decade of the thirties and almost say the truth died in many ways. When you look back at what happened in Germany and the collapse of democracy, the rise of authoritarianism, and then these horrendous abuse of human rights, what happened to journalism in that decade?

Mathias Döpfner: Yeah, that's a very good question because we always think this was something that could never happen again. The danger is always there if things like polarization of society, a widening gap between very rich and very poor, a lot of people with kind of inferiority complexes and no real perspective in contrast to a very small and super privileged elite. Those were the ingredients in the twenties and some of these ingredients are still there in many countries and we have to be very careful to avoid that happens again. It really started in the universities. It started in the intellectual elites to come up with this antisemitism, which was very much driven by jealousy. There were these people who felt neglected and were jealous that a lot of Jewish people were in very important positions in science, in intellectual jobs, as artists, as musicians, as writers, as painters, but also in finance and everywhere, and suddenly this sentiment of jealousy and we want to take it away from them and they do not deserve it. This very, very aggressive spirit became widely spread.

Mathias Döpfner: Then, as I said, it started in the universities. It started with art, with books, the famous burning of books at the Bebelplatz in the middle of Berlin in 1933, where all these great authors from Thomas Mann and Heine and Feuchtwanger and all these giants of German independent thinking and literature were banned and burned. That was the moment when the aggression transformed from intellectual criticism into physical aggression and there is this famous sentence of Heinrich Heine, who basically said, "If you start to burn books, one day, you will also burn people." And that's exactly what happened.

Mathias Döpfner: We have to be very careful. If it is about intellectual independence, if it is about freedom of expression, this is not a symbolic thing. It is much more. It is the fundament of everything and this intellectual violence very easily then leads to physical violence. That's what happened in Germany.

Brad Smith: If we go from the 20th century to the 21st century, I'm struck if we think in terms of decades, it was only a decade ago that there was this enormous sense of optimism around the Arab Spring. That technology had become this tool that was spreading information and was giving people the ability to share information rather than suppress it. It was going to become a great engine of democracy globally. It was going to reach countries where democracy had not flourished. And now a decade later, I think democracy's on the defensive. What role do you see technology playing today when it comes to the health of journalism and the health of democracy?

Mathias Döpfner: First of all, I very much agree with your observation, that democracy is on decline. That is honestly one of my biggest worries that we think democracy's a given, but it is not. If we look to a lot of centrist democracies, they are in a relatively weak shape, populists are on the rise. Autocrats like Putin and Erdoğan and others are very strong and dictatorships from Belarus to China are in a way prevailing and I think that is really, really worrying.

Mathias Döpfner: And the Arab Spring is an example where totalitarian systems, autocratic systems have been weakened in the first wave, very much also with the help of technology. It was the opportunity, it was the possibility to gather virtually, to share information, to organize certain demonstrations via social media. You could say that here technology and social media and platforms were a terrific tool in order to distribute information and organize people in order to oppose against autocratic systems.

Mathias Döpfner: We should not forget about the second wave, the next step, where also a certain degree of naivety that once this kind of opposition and revolution is organized, everything is going to be fine. That's not the case. It is usually very complicated then to bring formally autocratic or totalitarian society to real civilized democratic order. And I think in that context, unfortunately, also platforms and technology didn't play a very ideal role.

Mathias Döpfner: In the end, technology can be used in a very positive manner and it can be used in a very negative manner. You can help people to share information about oppression and with that, limit oppression and you can also use technology in order to build bombs and organize terrorism. I think technology is, in the end, pretty neutral. It's a tool. It is very much about us, the people, what we are doing with it.

Brad Smith: When you look at the world in 2022, do you think that technology is being used, I'll say, in the major democracies of the world in ways that are more positive or more negative at the moment?

Mathias Döpfner: The short answer is more positive. If I really draw a line, for me, there is a lot more positive in all these innovations, which is probably after the invention of book printing, the biggest revolution of information, of speed, of globalization and also, you could even say to a certain degree also with regard to democracy, because of all the opportunities to bridge also certain social borders or gaps. So, I think altogether it's more positive, but let's not be naive. It has also a lot of negative effects if we are talking about the acceleration of fake news and misinformation and propaganda and the phenomenon of filter bubbles, that people basically act within their own bubbles of prejudice and limited views. Also, the balance of power and the diversity of competition is a big, big precondition that technology and innovation is in the end, sustainably positive.

Mathias Döpfner: You could say the fact that the five biggest platforms have doubled their market gap from 5 trillion to 10 trillion in the last two years. At the same time, more than 250 million people lost their jobs and a lot of businesses collapsed completely is in a way, creating a new gap and is also showing new challenges that we have to deal with. So, I really think we should avoid any kind of simple statement—technology is only good, is solving all the problems, or is only bad. It is both. It is very much about us, what we do with it.

Mathias Döpfner: And if we are now discussing the details of how tech should act and should be regulated and big super platforms should act, this is not skepticism against technology. It is just the desire to really make the best out of it. And I think it is a necessary process. It's back and forth, and the pendulum is swinging and we should just not sit there and say, that's what it is. We should actively deal with it. And I think it is quite symbolic that now China is at the forefront about regulation of big tech platforms. I find it a bit worrying that it is China that is moving first with a big and bold regulatory concept. I think we, from a US and Europe perspective, should take that as a kind of warning call. It is not really about us to come up with even better proposals and not leave that to a non-democratic state like China.

Brad Smith: I think it's a remarkable point and I think that it's perhaps not entirely surprising that China has moved so quickly, both because it's a government that has the capability to move quickly... Non-democratic countries sometimes do have an advantage in terms of speed. I also think it reflects a recognition of the impact, especially of consumer technology services on the population, for good or bad in so many ways.

Brad Smith: One of the things that I'm struck by is, building on what you said, technology is a tool that has enabled journalists to reach a global audience in ways that they might not have imagined 30 or 40 years ago, but it has also, I think, created fundamental challenges for the health of journalism. One of the things that I so appreciate about you, Mathias, is that you wear this hat of passion about the pursuit of journalism as a craft in pursuit of democracy, but you also have to run it as a business. And you recognize that if it doesn't thrive as a business, it can't thrive to support democracy. When you are thinking with that business hat on, how do we reconcile some of the tensions that technology has created for journalism?

Mathias Döpfner: Well, I think only if journalism is a business model that is attractive, there will be enough diversity and there will be enough quality. If it is the recipient of state subsidies or of philanthropists who are basically funding regional journalism, as it is the case of the United States to a large degree, I think that's very unhealthy. In the long run, other forces will have influence and the independence of journalism is going to suffer. That's why I'm deeply convinced it needs to be a business model and every YouTuber, every blogger today is the potential next big publishing giant of the future, but there only will be enough ambitious projects if there is a perspective that one day you can make money with it.

Mathias Döpfner: And in the early days of digital journalism, it was a bit like that. You have, on the one hand, the stupid publishers who were investing into investigative journalism, taking a lot of money in order to send people all around the world to interesting places to report. Then there were the smart platforms who basically took the content of the publishers, and monetized it with smart advertising models and basically with zero costs of content creation, the platform set the smarter business model and the publishers were basically the dumb content producers with no real business model.

Mathias Döpfner: That has changed over the last years significantly. The dependency on advertising was unhealthy from the very beginning and when the platforms took the biggest chunk of the advertising through their smarter models, it was even worse. We are now in a situation where paid content, where digital subscription is a kind of established model. We have many examples of legacy publishers who transformed to digital, but we also have more and more digital native publishers that are doing very well with paid content, not only our own assets, Business Insider, or Politico, but more and more are heading into that direction.

Mathias Döpfner: And I think if now we achieve a bit more kind of fairness in the competition and in the relationship between the big platforms as big distribution pipes and the content creators, then I think it's going to be really a healthy ecosystem and I'm not worried that then we will have hundreds, thousands of new publishers in the future competition is going to strive. Diversity, plurality of offerings, and the very healthy competition is absolutely essential. If only Facebook decides which information is distributed to whom, which news is good, which is bad, what is true, what is false, if that is decided by one platform that has more than 3 billion customers, that's a very dangerous concentration of power. If you have hundreds and thousands of sources and of publishers, if you have that diversity in the search for truth, then you get closer to the truth.

Mathias Döpfner: Nobody owns the truth and whoever pretends that already lies. But I think the safest way for people to get truthfully informed and get a realistic picture of reality is through the diversity of sources. I think that's why the good model here to incentivize journalists and publishers to invest into that business and create great products is the safest protection against fake news and propaganda disinformation.

Brad Smith: I think it's so important to innovate in business in order to protect journalism and it's easy to forget that 15 years or so ago, people were mostly pessimistic about the future of say audiovisual dramatic productions. The era of high cost dramatic productions for television was ending and then as you and I have seen firsthand through our participation on the Netflix board, it was business model innovation. It was somebody like Reed Hastings who saw an opportunity that others did not. Suddenly, we're in the 2020s and Netflix has no shortage of competitors. There is almost a new golden age for the creation of dramas that you used to only see on television and now you see multiple streaming services.

Brad Smith: In some ways, I think you, Mathias, are at the forefront of sort of forging similar innovation—you, the owners of the New York Times, the Washington Post, others, and as you say, diversifying revenue streams, ensuring that subscriptions thrive. And you're now doing it on an international basis. Tell us a little bit about what led your inspiration to, I'll say, enter into an agreement to purchase what is one of the more important publications in the United States, especially in the nation's capital, Politico? What did you see that perhaps others did not?

Mathias Döpfner: So, the first step was simply to transform an only German and only analog company, like Axel Springer into a more and more digital and into a more and more international company. Our first aspiration was to be at the forefront of digital journalism in Germany, transform our two most important legacy brands into digital brands and then build new projects, digital native projects through an organic acquisition or organic launches. Then we said, we have to go beyond Europe. Here, of course, the biggest democracy in the world, the biggest media market in the world, the United States, a country that I was traveling since I was 16 and that I always loved was of course for us, the obvious and most important opportunity. Particularly also because some of the incumbents did not really see the opportunity in digital journalism and thought journalism was only a good business model in the analog times and this is over now.

Mathias Döpfner: And this deeply rooted conviction also based on our experiences in Germany and in Poland and in France and in other European markets that digital journalism can actually be even better—quality-wise because you have unlimited space, you have no deadline, you can be a lot more topical and faster, but you can also take more time if you need to have access to all kinds of content, to text, to video, to audio. You are, on the creative side, much more flexible and have a lot more opportunities. You have access to the intelligence of your users. User-generated elements could be added. All these aspects basically are preconditions in order to come up with a higher quality.

Mathias Döpfner: If it is about business model, we also thought, well, in the analog world, you had to invest so much into printing, into paper, into distribution on trucks. In the digital world, you basically only invest in the best possible editorial journalistic quality. You invest in the best possible technology, which is a lot more important of course, and closely interlinked and inseparable from the creative journalistic part of it. And then on top of that, you have a bit of marketing costs and that's it. In the end, the digital business model can be much better, can be much more attractive if certain regulatory frameworks exist that provide fair competition and level playing field. That's why we were convinced from the beginning that can work and we now wanted to take advantage of the opportunities in America as an early mover.

Mathias Döpfner: When we acquired Business Insider for 400 million seven years ago, most of our shareholders thought this is crazy. Totally overvalued, makes no sense. Now people are debating which amount of billion value is appropriate for the company, but definitely it's in a different ballpark. And also with Morning Brew or now with Politico, to really show that the best possible quality journalism can be developed not only in Washington and in America, as it has been done so impressively and so successfully by the Politico team over the last 15 years, but also globally in other democracies. We would not go into non-democratic markets where there's censorship and basically surveillance and manipulation, but in democratic markets, we see incredible opportunities for these brands. Basically those were the main reasons why we want to be an early mover here and why our ambition to become the leading digital publisher in the democratic world remains intact.

Brad Smith: One of the things that I think that is so interesting about what you just described, Mathias, is that I think sometimes in the world of journalism, people think of the tension between say the newsroom and the publisher. Yet I think what you just highlighted is if you want to produce great quality journalism, it's actually an enormously important thing to work in an institution that is led by a great business leader who's a great publisher. And yet I also know you have to be very mindful. Back to where we started, the promotion of democracy, this diversity of information, this commitment to truth. You've always struck that balance in your career, but now I think you're striking it in a new way. You're an international entity, the aspiring leader of journalism in the world's democracies. Do you need to play your role differently when you're say, managing Politico, because you're based in Germany than the way you play your role with say, Axel Springer in Germany itself?

Mathias Döpfner: First of all, I think the most important precondition for great quality journalism and independent journalism is freedom. If you want to attract the best journalistic talent, you have to make sure that they enjoy a culture of total intellectual freedom and that you are also willing to defend them and the very unpleasant investigative discoveries against advertising clients or politicians or business people who may put pressure on journalists on a team in order to avoid these unpleasant publications. And so, I think that is a cultural thing and based on a genetic code that a company cannot develop in a couple of month, that is something that needs to be deeply rooted.

Mathias Döpfner: In our case, Axel Springer has been founded by a journalist, Axel Springer, who launched the company in '46 after the Second World War, literally in a pig stable, not in a garage, but in a pig stable. And the company is now led for two decades by a journalist. If I'm going to a hotel and checking in, I put in as a profession, not CEO, that is a role, my profession is journalist. I've worked for 20 years as a journalist, as editor in chief for three different publications so that is my kind of mindset.

Mathias Döpfner: And maybe that helps in order to provide this culture of intellectual freedom and independence. And I do not see, in that context, any difference from being a German publisher or being a European publisher or being a US publisher or a global publisher. That is something that applies everywhere where democracy, rule of law, and human rights apply. The only risk could be if we would now think that we can basically import certain German cultural specifics to the US. That would be a big mistake, but I think we're also well trained here, respect for cultural diversity, that has always been a fundament for our expansion and for our success. Perhaps that is almost a more European mentality because it is such an international, it's such a diverse entity. So any form of hubris or arrogance or any form of thinking, we are now implementing the German way to be, that is definitely not going to happen. It's going to be pretty much the opposite. We are very carefully, respectfully listening to our new American colleagues and I'm so impressed to feel that positive spirit and to see all these new ideas.

Brad Smith: I appreciate from Microsoft, when we do business, when we go into other countries, there are sometimes people who say, do we really want a company from another country doing this for us? And I'm sure there will be days when Washington DC or the United States will ask these questions. What does it mean that an American publication is owned by a German company? But I think there's something of just fundamental importance in your personal story, to have someone like you, who at an early age saw so clearly what can happen when democracy dies and that's what happened in Germany, democracy died, freedom collapsed, people were oppressed, 6 million people were killed.

Brad Smith: And to have someone like you, who has had that as a guiding spirit really for everything that you have done and now to bring that to other democracies, including the United States, in a decade when democracy is, I think it's fair to say, on trial again, threatened by almost the 21st century equivalent of the burning of books if you will when we think about the spread of disinformation and the collapse of many smaller newspapers. And to recognize, as you just said, that ultimately democracy depends on diversity of information, quality journalism, and freedom for journalists. So, I just want to say thank you for what you've done and I'm glad that you recognize your job in some ways is far from over. I might just argue that maybe the most important decade for what you and your firm are going to do is just getting started.

Mathias Döpfner: A hundred percent, Brad. I think definitely for me, this is now the time which is the most exciting in my career so far. For me, it really feels sometimes I'm about to start my journey and I totally agree, the most exciting is definitely yet to come.

Brad Smith: Well, we have a lot to get started on. Thank you. Thank you for your time.

Mathias Döpfner: Thank you very much, Brad.

Brad Smith: You've been listening to Tools and Weapons with me, Brad Smith. If you enjoyed today's show, please follow us wherever you like to listen. Tools and Weapons is produced by Corina Hernandez, Mark "Frosty" McNeill, and Jordan Rothlein, with production assistance from Emma Foley. Our executive producers are Carol Ann Brown and Aaron Thiese. This podcast was edited and mixed by Jenny Cataldo, with production support by Sam Kirkpatrick at Run Studios. Original music by Angular Wave Research. Tools and Weapons is a production of Microsoft, made in partnership with We Are Listen and A_DA.