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Kultur Shock
January/February 2013

If there was one debate dominating German intellectual circles last year that went beyond the banter about affairs and scandals, it was about the death of the newspaper. The year saw two venerable national papers collapse, while many others reported spectacularly low sales figures, a downward spiral signalling the end of the print era, or at least a negative trend that is set to continue not just in Germany but across Europe. 

In Berlin media circles, journalists discussed the prospective disappearance of their work, life and calling as if they were watching their own funeral but not quite believing their eyes. To discuss your own professional fate in public is in itself a luxury, perhaps even an elitist indulgence. Who cares? an American friend of mine asked. Sure, he said, it would be scary to see newspapers folding as they have in the US, but we can get the same information, the same articles, the same quality online. Look at the New York Times or the London Times: the paywall seems to be working for them. While I didn't  disagree, I felt he was missing the c-word, which in Germany ultimately moulds any discussion of the future: culture. 

Germany is one of the few countries in Europe—some say the only one—which economically and intellectually can afford to have an erudite culture section ("Feuilleton") of several pages in every major newspaper. In contrast to the Anglo-American model, these are the sections where the liveliest debates take place. The intellectual feuds of the chattering classes are fought out there, but they are also the place for lengthy arguments about assisted suicide or immigration policy, for example, which a reader unaccustomed to this German tradition might look for in the op-ed or political pages. The famous Feuilleton-Kultur is alive; it is the country's Talk of The Town, its intellectual—and thus cultural, social and moral—outlet.

Why are we fretting about dwindling sales figures and the diminishing of this kind of culture? These pages are most at risk of being downsized because they are not news-driven and not economic. Yet they bear the biggest growth potential because of their ability to attract readers with unusual stories, reflexive, humorous writing and sparkle. 

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