IAMCR 2017 – Impressions

A conference report by Mandy Tröger and Kerem Schamberger

July 16 til July 20, 2017, Cartagena, Colombia – right by the Caribbean sea. Some might think of beach and vacation, the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) thought of celebrating its 60th anniversary here. More than 1400 media researchers and scholars from around the world followed the invite for its annual conference. The theme: “Transforming Culture, Politics & Communication: New media, new territories, new discourses.” After thirteen years (2004, Porto Alegre, Brazil) IAMCR took place again in a Latin America country. Here our thoughts and impressions.

Findings and Frame

Since I started my research in Germany, several points have become clearer, others have changed compared to my initial proposal.

Audience

First, my thesis fills a gap in research, literature and our understanding for the transition of media and media systems in transitioning countries. Due to its unique position of being written for a U.S. academic institution and audience while engaging largely with the German-German historical media discourse it aims to bridge a gap between national, continental and academic disciplines.

In my proposal I underlined that its target audience was non-German and its theoretical outlook was firmly based in the Anglo-American context of critical political economy of media and communication (PEoC). While the latter still holds true, I expanded the former. The audience should and must be German as well. On the one hand, because a historically informed political economy of media and communication does not exist as a field in Germany, and my thesis might serve as an example for a forgotten academic tradition. On the other hand because my study might be enlightening for a better understanding of the development of media markets and infrastructures in recent German history, as well as of the dynamics that made a large part of East German Wende (transition) experience. Changing this focus comes with the challenge of placing my thesis also within the German academic discourse, its literature and theoretical outlook.

Both audiences, German and non-German, might read this thesis as one attempt to make the unique and politically highly interesting German media history accessible to an audience outside of Germany, and to apply a PEoC to issues specifically relevant to German media and its current media system.

Scope

The second difference to my initial proposal relates to the scope of the thesis. While my proposal focused largely on the GDR context, asking for media policies and media initiatives in a country in transition, my research findings show very clearly that nothing that happened in the GDR before, during and after the Wende happened in isolation, nor was it a decisively East German problem. Instead East Germany became the battle ground for various interests groups, East and West, but with clear and all-overshadowing interests of West German political and economic groups. These groups generally expanded and continued their long-established interests and disputes onto the newly opened political arena and economic market. Examples are major West German publishing houses (Großverlage) that contested small, and medium-sized publishers; associations of newspaper and magazine publishers that contested unions; different West German parties contesting. each other for the upcoming elections. Aiming for power at different levels, all of them had an interest in influencing media and its policies or, in simply circumventing them, creating hard facts barely changeable once put into place.

Big Four

Here, my thesis analyzes in particular the dealings and strategies of the major publishing houses Springer, Bauer, Gruner+Jahr and Burda. Called the “big four” these companies used three different strategies to explore the GDR market. First, starting in December 1989, they started to sell their own publications, partly with special GDR editions, early on at a price ratio of 1:1. This meant that the sales price in East German Mark was just as high as it was in West German Deutschmark, while the official exchange rate was 3:1. While publishers had been legally required to sell at a ratio of 1:3 (to somehow allow for a somehow fair competition with East German publications), the early undercutting of the price had several reason, one was to secure future readership.

The second strategy was a joined building of privately run press distribution system (Pressegrosso). As the postal distribution system in the GDR had not been able to deal with the high increase of publications, the four publishers had built their own system. They divided the GDR into four distribution zones, distributing largely only their own publications. This caused an upheaval amongst small and medium-sized West German publishers as well as GDR publishers and politicians. Eventually the practice was stopped, not the least because of West German pressures by a resolution of the GDR Media Ministry. It continued, however. On the one hand, because hard facts had been created and in a politically in-stable situation it proofed impossible to break an already established practice. One the other hand, the building of a local distribution system, independent of publishers and based on medium-sized press wholesalers (as established in the Federal Republic) required time that was not available once German unification and all-German elections stood at the horizon.

The building of the “big four” distribution system, privately-run by major publishing houses, had been possible only because an inscrutable and extremely fast changing political-economic situation on all levels of society, which had created a sort of “legal vacuum” with almost no transparency.

The third strategy of the four publishing houses was to secure future market interests through joint-ventures with East German newspapers and magazines, a strategy employed also by small and medium-sized West German publishers. Thus, by June 1990, over ninety percent of East German newspapers were either in negotiations or had already signed contracts over investment shares of West German capital. These investments were needed because the East German press had outdated printing and editorial technology, a lack in know how and resources. It now handicapped GDR publications on a press market that was defined by fierce competition created not the least because of the massive import of West German publications. Different to other West German publishers, the “big four,” having the financial resources, were mainly interested in the 16 well-established former district Party papers of the state party SED (Bezirkszeitungen). Their high circulation and subscription numbers had remained stable, their readership consistent and their future outlook seemed most promising. Joint ventures took very different forms, from providing technology only to moving all the editorial work to the parent company in West Germany.

GDR Media Ministry

The newspapers that struggled the most and often disappeared soon were smaller publications of the former bloc parties or newly established publications, often those that had been major carriers of the protest movement or had grown out of it. Newly elected GDR Media Minister Dr. Gottfried Müller, generally welcoming joint-ventures with West German publishers, underlined repeatedly that the newly grown press diversity was endangered if no publisher was willing to invest in those smaller newspapers. He furthermore emphasized that it was a problem if formerly dominating Party papers where now being bought by market dominating publishers. While his Ministry lacked the resources of aiding small papers, it, by June 1990, knew of 100 planned mergers out of the press, not because any had been reported to his Ministry (with the exception of three).

The Media Ministry had established the above named resolution for press distribution, which proofed inefficient, and was working on an all-encompassing Media Act that became obsolete with German unification. In the end, it proofed too weak to deal with the aggressive strategies of West German publishers in a developing market economy.

GDR Media Policy Institutions

How urgent the situation on the transitioning media market really was, is shown by the fact that next to the Ministry, two other institutions aimed at dealing with these problems. The Media Control Council, established early on, was to ensure a general compliance with the resolution for the freedom of information, opinion and media had had been adapted by the People's Chamber February 4, 1990. Overwhelmed with this task, the People's Chamber created the Media and Press Commission in May 1990. All three institutions were uniquely East German with no West German equivalent, diverting from the otherwise often used West German blueprint for the reformation of GDR political institutions. All three, however, had little influence on the actual practice of media distribution and joint-venture agreements between East and West German enterprises. Another institution created in May 1990 was the Competition for Competition Protection, a Cartel Office that eventually gave great leverage to possible market dominating positions of publishers because its overall aim was to keep newspapers from folding.

Newspapers

All of this happened while GDR newspapers and their staff struggled with their own history and compliance in a propaganda state, with internal reform processes (or the lack thereof) and the constant confrontation with Western ideas of a free press and expertise. Different interest groups in editorial offices (i.e. old party loyal, reformers) combated over new ideas of journalism, of freedom of opinion and speech while simultaneously having to face fierce market competition with products severely lacking behind West German publications. The loss of subsidies in April 1, 1990 and the introduction of advertising as a major source of revenue required marketing and advertising know how and, again, West German expertise.

Still, one major issue, especially among small newspapers, was the distribution problem. With the almost breakdown of the postal system and the exclusive distribution system of the “big four,” a common and constant complain of GDR publishers was their inability to sell their products because they could not get them to the newsstands or subscribers. The Post, still responsible for distributing East German publications, single-handily canceled subscriptions, did not deliver entire stacks or did not put publications at display at its own newsstands. There is evidence that the Post had been in negotiation with the major West German publishing houses but at this point, I am not clear in what exactly they negotiated.