On the sidelines of the MCC conference titled The Future of Publishing held between 25 and 26 January in Budapest, Hungarian Conservative interviewed Ralf Schuler, former chief political correspondent for German paper Bild to ask him about his views on publishing and the digital revolution.
I remember one of my first articles at Hungarian Conservative was about you leaving Bild. Could you give me some background information on what led to you quitting?
There were multiple reasons actually, but one of the main ones was that the publisher, the whole enterprise was entering the US market. This is not the entire reason, but after entering we had to come very close to the American rules of start-ups and the net-economy branch. You have to know that the publisher is only making less than 30 per cent of their money from publications, the remaining 70 per cent is from participating in or buying whole platforms where one can search for new cars, new flats and so on. And we now have a very strong American section that consists of political and business insides. Long story short, I did not want to be part of an enterprise that is very closely related enterprise to the LGBTQ community, to the movement. To be clear, I do not have any problems with fighting for anti-discrimination. There is no doubt that everyone should be able to live their lives in peace, however, the problem starts when one is no longer critical of the whole movement. The ‘rainbow movement’ as I see it is kind of a political movement at this point. Same with the climate movement. So, I do not want to march on the side of activists that have a special agenda. It is their right to have this agenda, but as a journalist I do not wish to be part of it. I of course will comment on whether something is good or if it is bad, but I am not a companion in a political movement. And this was my main reason for leaving. I thought that I should not discuss this every day, so I figured it might be high time for me to change after 12 years dealing with politics at Bild and try something different. Because the media branch is rapidly changing, trying something new seemed like a good idea.
Did you end up trying something new?
At the start of November, I started my new job at a small start-up. And I launched my own interview channel on YouTube titled ‘Schuler! Fragen was ist’ – which translates as Schuler asks what it is. These are longer interviews, not only keywords about German politics and German politicians. I have already interviewed the former family minister, the interior minister of Bavaria, and the vice president of the Parliament in Berlin among others. And one can see the number of views on these videos, and they are looking very promising. Given that I only started it a few weeks ago, I am close to 20 thousand subscribers already. It is a nice experiment and I hope that I can fill a gap in political reporting to have longer talks with people, where there are no foolish games played. It is not about me taking half of a sentence they said and spinning it to project a different idea out of context. We just talk about the topic, do not interrupt each other and ultimately, just have a nice talk at the end. I believe it is quite successful. So, I started something new, and I am trying to be the voice of ordinary people.
As you said, you had to leave Bild because of the direction the company was taking. Do you believe that some journalists would have stayed even if they had had to sacrifice their beliefs to do so?
I do not think that they should do that. I did not do it under socialism, and there is no reasonable argument as to why I should do it now. Because the last judgement will be about you, your decisions, and your life. And at the end of your life, you have to reflect on whether you did it your own way, or you did it someone else’s way. I for myself cannot live with the notion that somebody told me to do something that I fundamentally do not agree with. When they asked me some 30 years ago to join the army, they asked me if I would shoot somebody who is trying to cross the German border. I told them, frankly, no. There are some lines in life that I simply will not cross. And I would not shoot somebody for trying to leave a country. If somebody threatened my family for example, now that is a different question, a different situation. So why should I write things that I do not believe, for others to ask me afterwards ‘what was this rubbish?’ And I would have to answer that well, it was not my opinion, but my boss told me to write it. For me this would simply not be bearable.
Clickbait culture is taking over media. As a journalist, what are your views on this?
Click baiting is one way to make online journalism more profitable, but it always tremendously affects political processes. If you have a well-managed online platform and you have a political process, for example a discussion about the future of a politician and you see that the politician is very popular, or that his or her resignation would be very popular, you try to refresh your article about that person every day. We had this in Germany with the former president of Germany who resigned. It was a topic that was so popular in online journalism that the owners of the platforms were thinking everyday: ‘What can we do to make the story fresh again?’ So, they would publish another article day after day. And there would be close to zero new content in it. They would just reuse the previous article and add a new sentence to the top, so they can publish it as new and so that it can stay on as a headline of their site. And with this, over a longer period you are producing pressure on this topic or on this person and this pressure’s only there for generating clicks, it does not achieve anything of substance. And this is something that you must deal with as a journalist, however, I believe it is a question of ethics that should be discussed. It is the same in other branches of the media, when an actress is getting divorced, it is the same. People love these types of articles, so you try to republish them again and again.
The question of artificial intelligence in the media comes up frequently now, what are your thoughts on it?
As I have read, the progress is rapid. There are successful tests in copying the style of some writers. I do not believe that AI will replace journalists in the end, but it would be harder to analyse whether a publication is written by a human or computer. I think we should think of how we are going to deal with this. Maybe something along the lines of the nutrition industry, where they have to put a disclaimer on the packaging that says ‘contains nuts’ for example. Maybe we should eventually add a disclaimer to publications written by AI so that people know what they are in for.