Politico’s New German Owner Has a “Contrarian” Plan for American Media

From a Washington Post story by Sarah Ellison headlined “Politico’s new German owner has a ‘contrarian’ plan for American media”:

BERLIN — Months after his company bought Politico, Mathias Döpfner stood atop Axel Springer’s 19-story headquarters, gazing out at the double row of cobblestones that mark the outline of the demolished Berlin Wall, and explained his global ambitions. “We want to be the leading digital publisher in democracies around the world,” he said.

A newcomer to the community of billionaire media moguls, Döpfner is given to bold pronouncements and visionary prescriptions. He’s concerned that the American press has become too polarized — legacy brands like the New York Times and The Washington Post drifting to the left, in his view, while conservative media falls under the sway of Trumpian “alternative facts.” So in Politico, the fast-growing Beltway political journal, he sees a grand opportunity.

“We want to prove that being nonpartisan is actually the more successful positioning,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. He called it his “biggest and most contrarian bet.”

How exactly Döpfner, Axel Springer’s CEO, hopes to define nonpartisan journalism at an especially fragmented time for American politics is a question of intense interest as he aims to leave his mark on American media. His own politics have remained something of a mystery, too. But weeks before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, he sent a surprising message to his closest executives, obtained by The Washington Post:

“Do we all want to get together for an hour in the morning on November 3 and pray that Donald Trump will again become President of the United States of America?”

His email was inspired by a news story he shared about the government’s plans to sue Google for abuse of market dominance, an animating issue of his for years. But Döpfner went on to argue that Trump had made the right moves on five of what he deemed the six most important issues of the last half century — “defending the free democracies” against Russia and China, pushing NATO allies to up their contributions, “tax reforms,” and Middle East peace efforts, as well as challenging tech monopolies — if falling short, he implied, on climate change.

“No American administration in the last 50 years has done more,” Döpfner concluded.

Asked about the email, Döpfner initially responded with a forceful denial. “That’s intrinsically false,” he said. “That doesn’t exist. It has never been sent and has never been even imagined.”

When shown a printout of the text, Döpfner allowed a glimmer of recognition. It’s possible, he said, that he may have sent the email “as an ironic, provocative statement in the circle of people that hate Donald Trump,” because that’s exactly the kind of ironic, provocative thing that Döpfner, a garrulous and enthusiastic texter, likes to do.

“That is me,” he said. “That could be.”

Döpfner likes to bring visitors to see the view from this roof.

Axel Springer’s resolutely anti-communist founder — Axel C. Springer himself — placed his headquarters here on the dividing line between West and East Berlin six decades ago as a taunt to the authoritarian regime on the other side. East German officials erected high-rises to block sightlines of it, for fear the publisher would install a news ticker to beam the headlines of a free press to its citizens behind the wall.

As Döpfner attempts to move into the U.S. market and beyond, he says that he, too, hopes to reach across dividing lines — the ones forming within our democracies.

“More and more journalistic brands are putting themselves into predictable political camps,” he said, adding later that when publishers find success by “basically amplifying the worldview and the prejudice of its readership … it is a very dangerous seduction to continue in that direction.”

Even before the $1 billion purchase of Politico last year made him one of the most-watched players in American media, Döpfner, 59, found a way to make a big impression.

He’s 6-foot-7, often seen in black V-necks and skinny suits that strike a continental pose among the self-styled thought leaders in the power corridors of Davos, Bilderberg and Sun Valley. From an unlikely entry into journalism as a PhD-holding music critic, the charismatic editor ascended rapidly, gaining the trust of Springer’s widow to the extent she essentially made him the heir to the company. While other new billionaires invest in yachts, Döpfner built an art museum to house his collection of female nudes by female artists, said to be the world’s largest.

Mostly, though, he’s investing in digital news.

Döpfner’s global expansionist impulses started with print acquisitions; not all were successful. He tried and failed to buy Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph in 2005; a decade later, his bid for the Financial Times also fell short. By then, his strategy had turned entirely digital — selling off Axel Springer’s regional German newspapers to build a cash reserve that allowed it to buy a $343 million majority share of Insider, the sleek New York-based business news site that caters increasingly to a young general-interest audience; minority stakes in U.S. digital media start-ups Thrillist and NowThis News; and, in 2020, a majority share of the popular daily business newsletter Morning Brew.

If Döpfner’s ambitions are viewed with suspicion in left-of-center circles, though, it has a lot to do with the 70-year-old ink-stained product at the heart of his empire — the pugnacious, right-leaning tabloid Bild.

Axel Springer’s jewel in the crown may be Die Welt, a cosmopolitan and right-of-center national daily newspaper. But it’s Bild, the best-selling newspaper in all of Europe, that paid the bills for many years. Inspired by racy British tabloids like the Daily Mirror and Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, Bild showcased topless women in its pages until 2018 and has been known to hype inflammatory and spurious stories, such as the later-debunked one about a supposed North African sex mob in Frankfurt, and others that raged against “Woke jargon” or other culture-war causes. Its aggressive reporting tactics are regularly censured by the local press regulator. But its journalism carries influence, and its reporting on corruption allegations helped spur a former German president’s resignation in 2012.

“What makes Bild so influential is that everyone thinks Bild is channeling the common man, so all the politicians read it,” said Stefan Niggemeier, who founded a Bild watchdog site and wrote a book about its role in German culture. “There is not a newsroom in Germany that doesn’t start the day by looking at what stories Bild has.”

Despite his 2020 email to colleagues, which he describes as flippant, Döpfner insists he has never been a supporter of Trump. In an interview with The Post, he describes his own views as eclectic, calling himself a “non-Jewish Zionist” with “small-L liberal” tendencies, deeply concerned about racism and homophobia. He also worries about what he sees as cancel culture, and in private conversations, friends say, he gripes about identity politics. One of his sons works as the chief of staff to Peter Thiel, the conservative-libertarian tech billionaire turned MAGA kingmaker, but Döpfner has only met him a few times and says they are not close. He does profess a fondness for “contrarians,” though, and called provocateur Tesla CEO Elon Musk, currently embroiled in litigation over his noisy attempt to take over Twitter and upend its moderation policies, “one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.”

While calling for political neutrality from his U.S. media properties, Döpfner comes from a tradition of European publishers who are very much at ease blending ideology with news. Axel Springer staff in Germany are required to sign a pledge committing to principles that include a disavowal of racism, sexism and political or religious extremism; but also support for a united Europe, Israeli statehood and a free-market economy.

“These values are like a constitution,” he told the Wall Street Journal last year.

Last year, Döpfner ordered the Israeli flag be flown in solidarity at company headquarters for a week after several antisemitic outbursts at demonstrations in Germany that followed a deadly eruption of violence in Gaza. Some employees bristled, seeing it as taking sides in the fraught Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Döpfner responded sharply in a staff video call: “I’m being very frank with you: A person who has an issue with an Israeli flag being raised for one week here, after antisemitic demonstrations, should look for a new job.”

Conservative pundits swooned in admiration of what they saw as a rebuke of liberal pieties. “All it takes to stop the madness is an adult willing to say: no,” tweeted former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. But Döpfner put it in simpler terms when asked about it later by Politico staffers: After the Holocaust, how could a German company stand for anything less than the right of Israel to exist?

Döpfner was the editor of the second-biggest local newspaper in Germany’s second-most populous city, Hamburg, when he met Friede Springer, the fifth and final wife of Axel Springer, at a dinner party in 1996. Two years later, at her urging, the company’s supervisory board hired him as editor in chief of Die Welt.

It’s tempting to assume that Springer saw something of her late husband — a vigorous and dapper man who sparred avidly with left-wing activists during Germany’s tumultuous 1960s and ’70s and dreamed of reunification with the east — in the swaggering young journalist.

Instead, she says, she saw a fellow outsider. The corporate brass had underestimated her, too — the much-younger nanny who married the boss and who was certainly not expected to take a leading role in the company after his death in 1985. When the company struggled to survive a period of rapid C-suite turnover, she looked to Döpfner.

“[They] said he’s much too young, and he’s a music critic, and he has no idea about business,” she recalled of the reaction to her decision to elevate Döpfner. “I said, ‘I want him.’ And I had the majority [of shares],’ ” She appointed him CEO in 2002. “After a year, they all said to me, ‘What a good idea!’ ” She chuckled softly.

Early on, Döpfner sent Springer a copy of former Washington Post owner and publisher Katharine Graham’s autobiography, which chronicled her close working relationship with legendary editor Ben Bradlee. “Perhaps this is a good role model for our corporation,” Döpfner told her.

But Döpfner craved more than steady newspaper work with a supportive publisher. His father, a financially “unsuccessful architect, but a free man,” had urged Döpfner to become his own boss. So in 2007, Döpfner tried to make the leap.

Craving “the restless sleep of the entrepreneur,” he says, he scrambled to buy shares in Axel Springer, eager to profit from the company’s wins but also shoulder “the pressure of the potential downside.” He borrowed enough to buy 2 percent of the company, brushing off his wife Ulrike’s concerns: This would be a safe investment, he reassured her, under any conditions short of a global financial crisis.

The following year, the market crashed. “It was quite a nightmare,” Döpfner said. Eventually the share price recovered, but he remained wary of the fickle public markets and in 2019 engaged the New York investment company KKR to take Axel Springer private to speed its digital transformation. Meanwhile, Friede Springer established her succession plan: She sold Döpfner a 4.1 percent stake in the company and gave him another 15 percent — and then transferred voting rights for her remaining 22 percent to him.

The journalist had become a bona fide mogul, a role for which Döpfner had long been rehearsing. In 2013 he had traveled with his executives to soak up Silicon Valley culture, documenting the trip with a fawning video; later, he put himself in rooms with the titans of the tech world by initiating the Axel Springer Awards in 2016 to recognize “outstanding entrepreneurial personalities” — among them Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post. But he also put himself on the map as a business leader to contend with when he penned a fiery open letter in 2014 to then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, blasting the company as a monopoly and the entire industry for a disregard for privacy he said rivaled the East German Stasi.

Döpfner distinguished himself from other media CEOs by “just being early” to embrace digital experimentation, said Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, yet “he’s not willing to compromise on his values around journalism in pursuit of innovation.” On Spiegel’s last trip to Berlin, they discussed the future of augmented reality. (And Döpfner “gifted me a pretty heavy piece of the Berlin Wall.”)

Döpfner had also juggled a romantic life as complex as a Murdoch or Musk, having a child in 2016 with art collector Julia Stoschek while remaining married to Ulrike, the mother of his three older sons.

But Döpfner — now a billionaire and the individual who controls Axel Springer’s largest voting bloc — is still not without bosses.

KKR executives make up much of his advisory board, and there’s constant speculation in German media that the terms of their deal with Axel Springer have left Döpfner racing to generate enough cash flow to buy them out of the media properties. (Axel Springer has a large, profitable classified business that is considered ripe for spinning off.)

And his ascension to the top of the pyramid has brought ever more scrutiny.

As Döpfner began seriously hunting top-tier U.S. media properties, a managerial crisis was simmering back home. In March 2021, the magazine Der Spiegel reported that Axel Springer was investigating allegations of sexual misconduct involving the then-editor of Bild. Julian Reichelt was accused of having inappropriate relationships with female trainees who were rewarded and promoted in the workplace.

The company did a brisk cleanup job. After a roughly two-week suspension and investigation, Axel Springer issued a mistakes-were-made statement that nonetheless maintained it had found “no evidence whatsoever of sexual harassment or coercion.” Reichelt was allowed to keep his job with an incremental demotion, assigned to work alongside a co-editor in chief.

Döpfner, meanwhile, carried on with his U.S. quest. Hoping to establish a paid model for journalism, he was drawn to Politico’s profitable subscription service Politico Pro, which covers in-depth political and regulatory machinations for a specialty audience of inside-the-Beltway and business readers. Döpfner’s previous overtures to buy the company had been rebuffed. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 when owner Robert Allbritton learned that Axel Springer was also courting Axios — a Politico rival started by Politico defectors — that he agreed to sell.

But as the deal moved to its closing in October, Axel Springer officials learned that the New York Times was preparing a story about the Reichelt matter. Among the damning disclosures was a statement that one of the editor’s young affair partners gave to the company-hired investigators: “That’s how it always goes at Bild,” she said. “Those who sleep with the boss get a better job.”

Döpfner went into crisis-management mode. He was convinced that rivals who loathed Reichelt’s conservative politics had engineered the scandal and urged his senior executives to promote this theory, thus undermining the women’s stories. “The only important thing is that it becomes clear: a few men have a goal,” he wrote in an email obtained by The Post. “The picture here is the evil men. Since the picture is now that of noble defenders of women — the picture must get cracks.”

Crisis-PR consultants advised a more direct strategy. “The goal for this week will be to change the narrative from this story to the deal close and forward motion of the business,” one wrote on Oct. 18, a day after the Times story published.

This time, Reichelt was fired — on that very day — because the company said he had “failed to maintain a clear boundary between private and professional matters.”

In a rare public statement, Reichelt told The Post that Döpfner “invited me to his home to read me the final report” of the original March 2021 investigation, adding that it “did not find any proof for the allegations against me. The reason for that is that those allegations were lies from the beginning.” (A person close to Axel Springer’s deliberations says Döpfner only read Reichelt “the appropriate redacted excerpts.”)

Döpfner told The Post that Reichelt “gave me his word that his behavior had stopped. But it turned out that he repeatedly lied to executives and me.”

A day after Reichelt’s firing, Axel Springer completed its purchase of Politico. But the saga was clearly still eating at Döpfner — who, despite the advice of the communications pros, posted a selfie video on YouTube railing against the unspecified men that he claimed had conspired to ruin his editor.

Six months later, at the end of April of this year, Döpfner flew to Washington for his triumphant Beltway social debut.

By then, he had overseen a few major moves at Politico, including the hiring of a new CEO, Goli Sheikholeslami, from New York Public Radio, and a new executive editor, Dafna Linzer, formerly of NBC (both previously worked at The Washington Post), after a national search that had felt out an array of political journalism stars from The Post and New York Times. Behind the scenes, Axel Springer had vowed to more than double Politico’s annual revenue by 2026; and according to two people close to the specific planning process, Politico will add reporters in California, New York and overseas while expanding their teams covering the courts and the environment.

Though Döpfner is a regular at various elite big-think conferences, he had never before attended the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. He made up for lost time, frequenting five parties a day through the weekend and scoring an hour-long meeting with Antony Blinken. It was a close-enough confab that, days later, Döpfner merited a phone call when the secretary of state tested positive for the coronavirus. (Döpfner tested negative.)

The weekend visit would not be purely social, though. Politico staff got a first chance to see their new boss engage in high-stakes decision-making.

Amid the festivities, Matthew Kaminski, Politico’s editor in chief, pulled Döpfner aside. His reporters had obtained a Supreme Court draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., signaling that the court had voted to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Supreme Court leaks were almost unheard of; Sheikholeslami and John Harris, the paper’s co-founding editor and advisory board chairman, wanted Döpfner to understand the seismic nature of the story — Politico’s biggest in its 15-year existence, but also one posing legal peril if the company was forced to protect its source.

On the afternoon of May 2, Linzer and Kaminski prepared the story for publication with their reporters while Harris and Sheikholeslami got Döpfner and his number-two executive, Jan Bayer, on the phone. Bayer wanted to know how much it might cost if Politico was sued. Döpfner, playing devil’s advocate, asked why it was important to divulge a draft opinion, given that it was likely to become official within weeks, according to three people familiar with the discussions, who requested anonymity to disclose sensitive deliberations.

Harris explained the obvious news value of the draft opinion, and the reputational hit Politico would take if it passed up a legitimate scoop of this size. The call lasted barely 10 minutes. According to one of the people familiar with the call, Döpfner told them that if they were confident about the validity of their reporting, “you have to run it and you have our support.” Politico published the story that night.

“I was immediately convinced that that was done with highest professional seriousness and that this is a story of historic importance,” Döpfner recalled later. “Honestly, it was not for a second a real question to not run the story.”

Barely a week later, Döpfner had to make a similar decision on a story by Insider, which had just won its first Pulitzer for an illustrated report chronicling an escape from a Chinese internment camp. Now they were poised to break a major story about sexual harassment allegations against one of Döpfner’s business-world heroes: Elon Musk.

The story was held together by an element of triangulation: Insider did not have an on-the-record interview with the SpaceX flight attendant whom it reported received a $250,000 settlement from the Musk-founded company; but Insider’s reporter had reviewed details of the incident in a signed declaration from one of her friends, written to support the woman’s account that Musk exposed himself and propositioned her for sex. Musk told Insider there was “a lot more to this story,” which he called “a politically motivated hit piece.” (Later, he said the “wild” allegations were “utterly untrue.”)

Döpfner was wary and asked specific questions about how the editors had determined that the sourcing was sufficient for publication, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive conversation.

But ultimately, he said, it was a decision for the editors and their lawyers to make. They published the story.

He told The Post later that it’s essential to grant journalists independence. He bristles when critics refer to Bild as the German equivalent of Fox News or suggest that he’s the German Rupert Murdoch.

“That’s pretty much the opposite of what we want and what we are,” he said. “If media are in one camp or the other, I think that’s conceptually wrong.”

He may aspire to a “nonpartisan” niche but he sees no way for media to claim pure neutrality; that’s why Axel Springer lays bare the principles it expects employees to stand for, he said. “But within that rarefied framework, we empower free decisions” — even a story that alienates the boss’s friends or contradicts the boss’s views.

I worked hard in this company,” he added, “that not every journalist writes what I think is right.”

Sarah Ellison is a staff writer based in New York for The Washington Post. Previously, she wrote for Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, where she started as a news assistant in Paris.

Speak Your Mind