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A foreigner’s guide to understanding the German press in five minutes

Interested in deciphering the different political biases in the German press? Here’s The Local's quick guide on the Zeitungswelt (newspaper industry), and other media.

A newspaper stand in Berlin showing the German daily Bild.
A newspaper stand in Berlin showing the German daily Bild. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

Germany’s media landscape has changed drastically over the last century; from being used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis, to being censored and state-controlled in the GDR (East Germany).

However, German media has come a long way: the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) outlines freedom of expression and freedom of the press as a fundamental right and according to the 2021 press freedom ranking by the NGO Reporters Without Borders, Germany comes in at 13th place, making it one of the freest countries for journalists to work. 

While the advent of the digital age brought online journalism into the mainstream, the so-called ‘death of the newspaper’ seems to be not as severe in Germany compared to other Western nations, with many Germans (56 percent) choosing to read the printed press over online formats, and German newspapers pulling in 38 million readers.

However, many print online publications now have large online presence as well as a print product. Increasingly, newspapers in Germany are also turning to subscription-based models.

The majority of adults in Germany claim they trust the media – but what media do they consume? To help you understand and navigate the German press, we have broken down some of the Nachrichtenagenturen (news outlets) in Germany.

Print

There are over 330 daily newspapers in circulation in Germany, as well as 17 weeklies and 1600 mass-market magazines. Germany’s print market is the largest in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. Germany is also characterised by its regional press landscape – people from Berlin tend to read newspapers from Berlin, people from Frankfurt tend to read newspapers from Frankfurt, and so on. Even national newspapers have regional sections to make them more attractive to their readers. 

A selection of German newspapers.

A selection of German newspapers. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Kalaene

Conservative

Axel Springer SE, the largest publishing house in Germany, and Europe overall, publishes a number of newspapers since its founding in 1946. Politically conservative, its journalists support a free market economy, are pro-Europe and pro-Israel. But the brand has come under fire for neglecting journalistic and workplace ethics.

The wider Axel Springer publishers were targeted by a number of left-wing groups in the 1960s and 1970s, notably by the Red Army Faction.

READ ALSO: Three gunshots 50 years ago that led to revolt on the streets of Germany

Bild

Springer’s most widely read daily newspaper is the Boulevardzeitung (tabloid), Die BILD. It has an enormous reach of over 7.9 million readers, controlling the largest share of the overall market (23.6 percent) and dominating the tabloid market (79 percent), making it a key political player in Germany. 

It is written clearly and known for its bright images and use of sensationalism and inflammatory language, particularly in its regular reporting of scandals, crimes and celebrities. Often compared to The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, readers mainly come from lower and middle income groups.

Die Welt

Die Welt (The World) is Springer’s other major newspaper. It is seen as the ‘serious’ alternative to Die BILD and offers an extensive business section. The language is still relatively easy to understand and, fitting with its parent company, is conservative leaning.

Liberal

Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ)

The Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) based in Munich is centre-left on the spectrum and the second most widely read paper in Germany after BILD. It is the flagship of a socially liberal and culturally interested middle class and advocates for a social market economy. 

On Mondays the paper includes articles from the New York Times and on Fridays the SZ-Magazin showcases younger cultural journalism and ties in pop culture. 

Die Tageszeitung (taz)

Berlin’s taz is a left-wing daily newspaper owned by a cooperative, something that is unique in the German media landscape. This allows the newspaper to continue to be independent. 

It is specifically green-left and critical of the system, having been founded in 1878 as an alternative to mainstream newspapers. The newspaper is currently women-led, with two co-editors-in-chief and a deputy. 

Die Zeit

First published in 1946, Die Zeit (The Times) is one of the oldest and most popular weekly newspapers and holds centre-left views. It is known for more longform content and in-depth analysis and an exemplar of Germany’s high-brow journalism.

Newspapers are still fairly popular in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / Marijan Murat/dpa | Marijan Murat

Der Spiegel

Der Spiegel (The Mirror) is a left-liberal leaning weekly political magazine based in Hamburg that focuses on investigative journalism, known for uncovering a number of political affairs and scandals.

It is not to be confused with Der Tagesspiegel (The Daily Mirror), a daily regional newspaper based in Berlin that is liberal and more centrist.

Neues Deutschland (nd)

The nd is a national daily newspaper with a readership focus on East Germany, being the main newspaper of the former SED party. It sees itself as a socialist newspaper and is the most left-leaning of Germany’s mainstream papers. The nd targets not only old eastern leftists but a general left audience and is backed by Die Linke (The Left Party).

Business 

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ)

Those with a special interest in business and economics tend to read the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), though the paper also features foreign policy and culture sections. Its political leaning is centre-right to conservative.

Der Handelsblatt

Based in Düsseldorf, the Handelsblatt is another daily newspaper with a business focus. The paper reports mainly on companies and financial markets, as well as politics and technology. Its political leanings are economically liberal.

Online

The most visited online news sources in 2019 were Spiegel online, t-online, Focus online, Bilde.de and Web.de – all of which are online versions of traditional newspapers.

Many people belonging to Germany’s English speaking population, of course, turn to The Local Germany.

TV

Television is by far the most widely used and widespread media in Germany. The two main news channels, ARD and ZDF (Zweiten Deutschen Fernsehen) take a neutral stance on issues. 

Like TV licensing fees in the UK, residents in Germany help fund these channels, as well as Deutschlandradio, through the so-called Rundfunkbeitrag (broadcasting contribution).

Each household in Germany has to pay €18 a month, with a few exceptions. This contribution accounts for the largest part of the €7.7 billion budget of the public broadcasters, the highest of any non-commercial media company in the world.

ARD’s foreign broadcasting service, Deutsche Welle (DW) is also independent of government influence, though it is financed by taxpayers’ money rather than by broadcasting fees. 

EXPLAINED: How to pay Germany’s TV tax (or legally avoid it)

Member comments

  1. 56% still read print! Why am I not surprised. I’ve lived here 7 years and I’m still trying to get used to living in the 70’s

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CULTURE

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”

READ ALSO:

“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”

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