Germany’s financial powerhouse has a lesser-known face as a quietly influential news hub giving Munich and Hamburg a run for their media money. Monocle pays a visit to discover a city rich in newspapers and broadcasters unafraid to deal with complex stories.
It is 15.59 at the studios of the Hessische Rundfunk (HR) in Frankfurt and smartly suited Hessenschau Kompakt anchorman Martin Wirsing is set to go. Three Japanese Shotoku cameras are aimed at him, ready to roll; the seconds tick down until silence envelopes the room. The clock hits 16.00 and on the dot a voice calls out, “We’re on air!” The studio, furnished with expansive green screens, comes alive in an instant. “Welcome to the news,” announces Wirsing with a gentle smile for his television audience of more than half a million.
“Hessenschau [which launched in 1961] is the station’s strongest brand,” says Manfred Krupp, director of what is Frankfurt’s leading public-radio and television broadcaster. Founded in 1948 in the wake of the Second World War, the Hessische Rundfunk is home to about 1,600 employees ranging from radio DJs to saxophone players and set designers. It’s a big mover in a city fast catching up with more established news hubs.
This city on the Main River has never been a German media capital – Munich, Hamburg and, increasingly, Berlin share that title – but besides its financial sway the birthplace of Goethe is making its presence felt on the national media landscape. The breadth of the city’s local press alone is difficult to match, particularly in a tough publishing climate and in view of its relatively small population of 700,000.
From the Rhein-Main supplement of the leading Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) to the Frankfurter Rundschau and the Frankfurter Neue Presse – not to mention the city’s Journal Frankfurt, as well as regional dailies and a variety of specialist publications – Frankfurt has its fair share of print titles. Add to that its broadcasters – HR and ZDF down the road in Mainz – as well as international financial-news organisations such as Reuters and Bloomberg, and you’ll find that this city has more to offer than first meets the eye.
As the literary heart of the nation and base of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the city has, since the days of Gutenberg, established itself as a creative centre to offset its financial dominance. Post-Brexit, interest in this home of the Deutsche Börse (stock exchange) and the European Central Bank (ECB) is rising – as is rent – as companies evaluate whether relocation from London would be worthwhile. As such, Frankfurt has a unique opportunity to step out of the shadows and present itself as a cultural as well as financial centre.
But in the offices of the FAZ, editors acknowledge that Brexit has not brought the expected surge of people. Not yet, at least. “All the banks are moving from London!” says Jürgen Kaube, one of the FAZ’s four publishers who loosely fill the role of editor in chief. “That’s the rumour. We hear that applications are manageable but you try moving a business with 10,000 employees; I’d wait and see. That said, Frankfurt is very receptive to visitors. It’s very international and I’d say half of the city’s population is sitting on packed suitcases as we speak.”
Every four years there’s a population swap, which keeps the city on its toes. It helps that Frankfurt is so well connected; within one to two hours you can be in Paris, Lucerne or even London. The city’s location is key for businesses such as the FAZ, which covers regional as well as international news with an intellectual focus and reaches more than one million readers. With 800 employees and more than 40 correspondents in Germany alone, the paper dominates the news coverage here.
Nonetheless, it is not a publication for everyone and in that lies both its strength and weakness: “It’s no head-over-heels love; it’s not an easy newspaper,” says the Feuilleton (arts-and-literature section) editor Hannes Hintermeier. Its dense texts and pluralistic coverage are certainly complex but, after surviving two phases of cutbacks, the paper is diversifying once more to attract a wider audience.
“Our focus will always be print but we have to create new products,” says Kaube. “Our new Die Woche [The Week], launched in April, is designed for the next generation; to introduce younger readers to the FAZ. Der Tag, one of our online news apps, gives you the latest stories and in November we’re launching the FAQ Quarterly, an intellectual, modern luxury magazine.” With a total of nine products on offer ranging from the daily paper to the FAZ website, the newspaper’s future looks promising.
“We are not architects,” he adds. “We cannot remodel our organisation into a television station or anything like that. We’re a newspaper. That’s what we are. And if that’s no longer desired then I guess we’ll have to herd horses.” He chuckles but there’s a serious undertone. Fortunately it’s proven that when big news breaks, such as the failed coup in Turkey or the Nice attack, newspaper sales shoot up. Over the weekend following the Brexit vote, for example, FAZ’s Sunday sales were up by 20 per cent, showing that there is still an audience for quality journalism, particularly in uncertain times.
The regional audience is a loyal one; the Hessische Rundfunk can attest to that. “We have a strong brand and a devoted audience,” says HR radio’s Pop Unit director Jan Vorderwülbecke, noting how hr3’s 1.2 million listeners make their voices heard. “Today a lady called to ask about a mysterious cluster of sticky yellow dots on her car; we found out that they were bee droppings,” says radio anchor Mirko Förster as he pulls on his headphones. “We get the most random requests.”
The audience of Börse vor Acht, the station’s televised stock-market report produced for the ARD (an organisation of Germany’s regional public-service broadcasters), is equally staunch. Regularly presented by Markus Gürne, this headline show pulls in 1.8 million viewers every night. “We always think outside the box and come to the bottom of the story: what does this mean for the average citizen?” says Gürne. He previously covered the south-Asia beat and maintains that when you’ve reported from conflict areas for so many years, no crisis – financial or otherwise – can surprise you.
Thus Brexit was no bombshell for him but it does have the power to shape his city. “Frankfurt is in competition with Paris and Milan but it doesn’t matter who gets the biggest chunk of cake, there’s plenty to go around,” he says. “A lot of what’s based in London will have to look elsewhere. With our location and as the seat of the ecb and the stock exchange, Frankfurt offers many incentives.”
Journalists here end the day at snug neighbourhood haunt Gute Stute or the Frankfurter PresseClub, toasting yet another ticked-off deadline with glasses of cider until the sky fades to black. Just like the studio lights back at the Hessische Rundfunk, where Martin Wirsing reads the last lines on the teleprompter: “And that was the news. Hessenschau Kompakt will be back at 22.30. Until then, I wish you a good night.”
Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (Second German TV) is a leading public-service TV broadcaster based in Mainz near Frankfurt.
Director: Dr Thomas Bellut, since 2012
Full-time staff: 3,600
Most watched show: Heute-Journal
Highest rating: 33.86 million watched Germany beat Brazil 7-1 in 2014’s World Cup
Slogan: “Mit dem Zweiten sieht man besser.” (“You see better with the Second.”)