In 2000, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, the weekly supplement to Germany’s largest broadsheet newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), was reeling. A scandal over the publication of a series of fake celebrity interviews had led to the resignation of the editors. The magazine was hemorrhaging money. Faced with either axing the publication or doing something radical, the publishing company went for the latter and appointed 28-year-old Dominik Wichmann as editor, together with Jan Weiler (the latter left four years later).
Today SZ Magazin, with a circulation of 600,000, is the most widely read supplement in Germany and (in this writer’s humble opinion) one of the best in the world. It’s intelligent without being aloof, and entertaining without being frivolous. It’s different every week. It sets journalistic standards. It challenges preconceptions. And it makes money. It’s that rare kind of magazine that seems to be just – perfect.
“I’m not going to deny that I was out of my depth sometimes,” Wichmann admits today. But whatever strategy he had, it worked. And that’s why he’s leaving. This interview took place in February 2011, a week before he departed to become deputy editor of Stern.
Herr Wichmann, why does a newspaper need a magazine supplement?
To compensate for what the newspaper doesn't do. To reach audiences that are underrepresented, and to emphasise topics that get a raw deal in the paper. When SZ Magazin was founded, in 1990, the SZ had too few young and female readers. So the magazine was positioned in more feminine way.
Has the reader demographic changed since then?
The magazine hasn't changed much, but the newspaper has. I think that the newspaper is much less masculine than it used to be and that the range of topics dealt with in the SZ is much broader today than in 1990. But the magazine has developed its own life and has become indispensable for many readers. Nobody wants to lose it.
Why? What's so special about SZ Magazin?
The key is probably our approach to the issues we talk about. The magazine tries to answer questions posed by the reader but not by the industry. It's a magazine with strong roots in people’s everyday lives. It tries to explain seemingly banal questions, to make big issues small and to give importance to seemingly unimportant things. So it tries to direct the gaze to things that we take for granted, but which in reality aren't. And it tries to keep changing perspective, including visually.
It often deals with doubt and the little absurdities of life.
Yes, that’s it. It’s about not always aiming to know everything. It’s about giving space to skepticism, to doubt, to insecurity, and to address them and not to behave differently than you and I would in private life. The magazine wants to speak to its readers as a person would speak to their friends and admit: I don’t know that either. That creates sympathy. It’s not all about respect. It’s about liking the magazine, or even loving it, in the best case. Some readers hate it, too. But it’s an emotional relationship, and it’s based on a kind of recognition – one finds in the magazine the same questions we ask in our daily lives – but also recognition of one’s fears and worries and hopes.
...or the recognition of the fears and worries of others.
Radicalness is an issue at SZ Magazin. We're a supplement to a mainstream newspaper, so we can't be totally radical, we'd scare people away. But the idea is to be an advocate within the mainstream. It’s not a fanzine that changes hands under the counter, it’s a mass medium. That means that we have to make compromises to fit the mainstream taste, but we try to keep their number at a manageable level.
You are a team of 31 people making an 80-page magazine. That seems like a lot.
Yes, but that’s the whole apparatus – designers, assistants – and we don’t only produce the magazine here: there are two or three other projects that run parallel to it. However, I have to say that if you’re so understaffed that you can’t have times of leisure, then you won’t be able to produce a magazine full of ideas. It may work once, but not every week. And a successful SZ Magazin isn’t good once – it has to be good every week. And it has to surprise the reader every week, with very different topics. When we produce a fashion issue, it has to be on par with Vogue, ideally be more creative and imaginative, and be technically one hundred percent correct. And a week later we are producing an issue about a Holocaust perpetrator who’s being tried in Munich, and that issue, too, has to be one hundred percent correct and has to compete with Der Spiegel. And all that is done by one editorial team. That’s not easy.
How do you come up with the ideas?
The ideas are generated in the editorial meetings and through conversations in the office hallways, at the foosball table, in the canteen, and drinking at the pub. But mainly they come from the editorial meetings. On average we plan for three months in advance. I’m leaving each issue open enough to make changes possible. But creativity needs safety.
So you believe in creativity through dialogue, a Socratic creativity?
Oh yes, of course. There is nothing else. I don’t believe in the lonely genius. I also believe my role, the editor-in-chief’s, to be that of a moderator. The best ideas always arise through dialogue. The job of the editor-in-chief is to encourage discussion and to end it at the right moment. What makes SZ Magazin strong is the collective, the tight-knit group that has worked together for years and developed a distinct view of journalism and the issues that surround us, and that motivates each other with unbelievable passion and dedication. Entertainment is arduous. Ideally, it looks easy and playful, but behind the scenes it’s a lot of work.
How does that play out between the editorial and the art department?
The art department is present at all editorial meetings. Furthermore, there is a very strong link between the two departments, and that’s the office of the editor-in-chief. Good magazine design isn’t just text plus image. Good magazine design creates something else. The sum is 1+1=2+x. The x is what’s special. And in order to achieve that one needs to communicate and to collaborate; unite text and image. If people aren’t thinking together, that unity isn’t going to happen in the magazine.
Do you consider the interests of advertisers when choosing themes?
Not at all. We don’t direct our content at advertisers, but produce special issues from time to time and inform advertisers of those. But what exactly goes in is none of their business.
How often do you produce those special issues?
I’d say we make about ten per year. We don’t produce more because it would get too predictable, and we want the magazine to remain unpredictable. The surprising element is part of this magazine’s genetic code. I also want to produce special editions for editorial reasons – simply because we feel like it. Last year we produced an issue about a topic you can’t sell any ads to: the Holocaust. When our advertisers heard about that, they left in drones. I think there wasn’t a single ad in that issue. But we did it anyway, because it was important and because we had some great stories.
And because you could afford it.
You have no idea how much money we lost with that issue! It was brutal. But I have to add something else: that Holocaust issue won about every journalism award there is in Germany. That the advertisers find sexy again. For a publication like SZ Magazin it’s important to do both. If you only work with themes that are attractive to advertisers you lose all journalistic credibility. And a magazine that only covers sad and serious issues wouldn’t be entertaining. It’s a fine line to walk.
SZ Magazin has a very unique way of dealing with current affairs. How would you approach the issue of revolution and regime change in the Middle East?
Have a look at tomorrow’s issue! There’s so much talk about dictators’ funds and fortunes being frozen. The question on the cover is: what does that mean?
I've been asking myself exactly that.
See, that's exactly what we spoke about before. It’s key that the reader says, “I’ve been asking myself exactly that question,” and then, in the second sentence, “But I’ve never gotten such an interesting answer”. When that happens our principle works. But only then.
So that would be your favourite reader response?
Absolutely. I love having a conversation with the reader. I often go out for dinner with a reader. Or I call someone who’s written a letter to the editor and chat. One-way communication, from the magazine to the reader, that’s a thing of the past. Today we talk, thanks to technological possibilities. That’s going to change the media landscape. The reader is playing a bigger role and has become more mature. And to a mature reader a magazine or newspaper has to listen and respond.
I don’t want to offend you, but I think Stern has a very different approach, also in its reader treatment.
Yes, of course, it’s a completely different world. I know that, and you’re not offending me. But you know, when you’ve been doing something for eleven years, that’s a long time. There are few editors-in-chief who do what they do for more than ten years. And if on top of it you started that young, you get to a point where you say, alright, that was my first job, now I’d like to learn something new. There are a few things that you have to be able to do as a journalist, and one is to sell at the newsstand. That’s very difficult and I’ve always wanted to learn it. Secondly, Stern has a huge editorial office of 250 people, and running that is going to be very interesting. And lastly, this is an opportunity to turn Stern into something a little different. You can only learn through change. I like contrasts, they’re enriching. And Stern is such a long-established, venerable brand... I find that a hundred times more interesting than all those black-and-white indie magazines.