A war of words - Issue 56 - Magazine | Monocle

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“What I like about working here,” says Claire Hughes, managing editor of the German Bundeswehr’s magazine Y, “is that when I say what needs to be done, it gets done. It’s not that I’m standing here giving commands, but I can rely on my requests being carried out.”

Officially, Y (the name stands for the letter on military vehicles’ number plates) is a medium for troop information, representing the Ministry of Defence. But internally, staff describe it as more of a “lifestyle magazine for soldiers”. They also see it as a military rival to the big German newsweeklies, only for a younger audience and currently without newsstand distribution.

With cover stories about the German Navy’s mission hunting pirates off Somalia and a female sergeant’s career as a world-class snowboarder, Y isn’t your average government pr vehicle. “We try to be critical and make the Bundeswehr more transparent,” editor in chief Norbert Stäblein explains. “Our aim is to give soldiers their say.”

Y was created in 2001, when the many magazines of the Bundeswehr’s branches were merged into one. The army has a whole array of media outlets, from a YouTube channel to a weekly newspaper, but Y is the only one produced in close cooperation with an external agency. In 2009, a new call for bids resulted in Berlin-based corporate publishing specialist KircherBurkhardt winning the contract. The subsequent relaunch brought a clearer structure, a focus on design, an avalanche of photos and infographics and multiple international awards in corporate publishing.

Moreover, troops love the new magazine. A survey among 1,100 army personnel this year showed nearly half read every issue, and often the whole magazine. Let’s hear it for propaganda. “I think the magazine is authentic and we’re close to the troops,” says Hughes. “And, of course, we have kick-ass pictures.”

Stäblein, Hughes and three of the four departmental heads are civilians (although Stäblein served in the army for 15 years and nearly all male staff have done their basic military service). The only department headed by an army officer is the “glitter and glamour” 360º section, which covers areas such as advice on moving, stories on unusual sports and interviews with pop-culture celebrities.

One reason for this civilian set-up is to ensure editorial independence, explains Björn Jüttner, editor of the Forces section. “If I were a captain and had to interview a general, it would be more difficult to work journalistically. As a civilian, he can’t command me not to ask a question.” The other reason, he says, is to circumvent a soldier’s “socialisation”, a word used frequently in Y’s offices. “If a navy officer were doing my job there’d be a danger that he’d only want to cover the navy, because it’s what he knows best. I have no bias – I’m just curious.”

The top issue for troops, and thus for the magazine, is deployment. Stories are sometimes written by soldiers on the ground, but Y also organises trips to Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Lebanon or the Balkans several times a year to cover the Bundeswehr’s foreign missions. Therefore the position of chief reporter is a military one, currently occupied by Captain Ronald Rogge, formerly of the Feldjäger military police. “It can be easier to get a soldier into a deployment country,” he explains. “In Afghanistan I carry a weapon when I accompany patrol and I take notes at the same time. Soldiers are more accepting towards an officer: I know what to do when things blow up.”

But it’s also that troops know they don’t have to fear Y’s coverage. “As a soldier I know what I can write and what I can’t, and I know what I’d like to read about myself. I’m not an investigative journalist, after all: my aim is to portray troops in a positive light, because the great majority of them are doing a very good job. We don’t publish anything that would discredit anyone.”

It’s this trust that gained Y the “scoop” of an insight into the Militärischer Abschirmdienst, or mad, the German Army’s intelligence corps. Preparations and research took a year, as the undertaking had to be approved by the highest officials.

But can Y be suitably critical without betraying that trust? “We can’t go after the ministry or the generals,” Stäblein says. “But we could, for example, do an anonymous pro-and-con article. After all, we protect our sources.”

Facts & figures

Published: Monthly since 2001; relaunched in 2009.
Print run: Roughly 50,000, one for every 10 personnel in Germany and every five soldiers abroad.   
Pages: Around 100.   
Advertising: Mainly for further education and post-military jobs, but the magazine runs background checks on all advertisers to ensure their trustworthiness. An ad for the computer game Blitzkrieg was banned.   
Top stories: Foreign deployment, the Bundeswehr’s internal changes with the end of universal conscription, and unusual sports such as parkour and geo-caching.  
Editorial staff: 15, seven of them military. A smaller number of KircherBurkhardt staff do art direction, graphics, project management and sub-editing.   

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