VIENNA — When Austria’s Wiener Zeitung published its first edition, the Enlightenment had yet to take hold in Europe, the invention of the steam engine was still a century away and the Continent’s politics was dominated by a power-hungry Frenchman nicknamed the Sun King.
The newspaper was founded in 1703 and claims to be the world’s oldest daily still in publication. It has survived over three centuries filled with wars, political intrigues and financial crises.
But will it survive Sebastian Kurz?
That question hangs over the broadsheet as it marks its 318th anniversary on Sunday, due to a plan set in motion by Kurz’s government that will starve the paper of its main source of funding.
Wiener Zeitung is wholly owned by the government and for decades it has served as Austria’s official gazette. By law, government job openings and companies’ annual financial results have to appear in the paper. Such ads fund the newsroom by generating the lion’s share of the newspaper’s roughly €20-million annual revenue.
Now the government, citing EU rules requiring digital dissemination of corporate information, plans to kill Wiener Zeitung’s golden goose by the end of 2022.
Even so, the chancellor insists Wiener Zeitung can survive, at least in name.
“Wiener Zeitung should become THE digital and transparent ‘bulletin board’ of the republic,” Kurz said April in a written response to an opposition query about the paper’s future.
His answer, which suggested the government intended to turn the centuries-old paper into a kind of official Craigslist, wasn’t exactly the stuff of journalists’ dreams. Kurz also said the government would explore digital models to preserve Wiener Zeitung’s journalistic mission, but made no promises.
“It is not the role of the republic to run and finance a daily newspaper,” he said.
Wiener Zeitung was founded as a private enterprise. But in 1857 it was seized by the state when the Habsburg monarchy, upset over the paper’s support for the liberal ideals of the 1848 revolution, refused to renew the owners’ publishing license.
“It didn’t just accidentally land in the government’s lap,” says Walter Hämmerle, Wiener Zeitung’s editor-in-chief.
Hämmerle has been with the paper for more than 20 years. He is fighting to save the daily — and its 60-strong newsroom — by bringing in an outside investor committed to preserving Wiener Zeitung, not just as a brand, but as a quality newspaper.
Those discussions are ongoing and show some promise. But first, Hämmerle has to convince Kurz.
Though the media-savvy chancellor likes to present himself as a champion of journalistic ideals, his support is generally directed towards media that give him good press. In Austria, that means the tabloids, which dominate the publishing landscape and compete to deliver fawning coverage of the chancellor.
Wiener Zeitung, a broadsheet with an educated readership and modest circulation, does not factor into Kurz’s media strategy. The government-owned paper isn’t particularly critical of Kurz, but it doesn’t do his bidding either.
The paper’s best chance of short-term survival could be linked to Kurz’s own political travails.
The chancellor is under criminal investigation for perjury over allegations (which he denies) of lying to parliament. He has faced intense criticism in recent months for what many see as government attempts to manipulate the media by trying to intimidate critical journalists and offering financial rewards, in the form of government advertising, to curry favor with the tabloids.
Some critics see the beginnings of an “Orbánization” of Austrian politics, inspired by the grip Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has on media in neighboring Hungary.
Such criticism has rattled Kurz and eroded his standing in Europe.
Saving the world’s oldest newspaper from extinction could help rebuild the chancellor’s media-friendly reputation.
But within the paper itself, there’s worry that Kurz might instead use Wiener Zeitung – and its strong brand – to satisfy his public relations itch. One idea under consideration is to turn it into the government’s in-house “content production” center. That would hardly strike a a blow for media plurialism, but it might sit well for a chancellor who runs a PR team of around 80 people and has built a reputation for governing by photo-op and press release.
Austria, a country of about 9 million, only has 14 daily newspapers and most readers gravitate to the tabloids. The largest paper is the Kronen Zeitung, a right-leaning tabloid, that reaches 25 percent of the population, making it the most read daily on a per capita basis in Europe. The two main quality dailies combined, the center-right Die Presse and the center-left Der Standard, reach just over 10 percent of the population.
Switzerland, a country of similar size to Austria, has 44 dailies — in German alone.
The relative dearth of journalistic alternatives in Austria is why many in the country’s media are convinced that Wiener Zeitung needs to be preserved. The best way to give it a new lease on life, they say, is to untether it from direct government control, while ensuring its financial survival.
“I think the Wiener Zeitung should be viewed as an independent public medium and financed by taking away the millions that the government gives to the tabloids, which they don’t need anyway,” Armin Thurnher, editor and publisher of the weekly Der Falter, said in a recent discussion. “It would be a very worthwhile project to illustrate the meaning of public media.”
A number of prominent Austrian politicians, including former Social Democratic chancellor Christian Kern and former senior officials from Kurz’s own People’s Party recently signed an open letter calling for the paper to be saved.
“Every voice we lose in the newspaper market erodes the variety and pluralism of the media at a time when fact-based, sober and independent quality journalism is more important than ever,” they wrote.
Talks over the paper’s future between Kurz’s center-right People’s Party and its coalition partner, the Greens, are expected to resume in the fall. but a final decision is likely to take longer.
Sitting recently in his office, which overlooks the grounds of Vienna’s old slaughterhouse, Hämmerle refused to contemplate the notion that he could be Wiener Zeitung’s last editor.
“We were the first to print ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man’ in German,” he explained, underscoring the date — 1789. “The pages of the Wiener Zeitung are a reflection of Austrian history.”
In its earlier days, when it was housed in a building called the red hedgehog, the Wiennerisches Diarium (Vienna Diary), as the paper was known until 1780, focused mainly on the comings and goings in the imperial court, happenings about town and military news from the front lines.
In 1768, the paper reported on a concert featuring an “especially talented” 12-year-old named Wolfgang Mozart.
As is still the case with much German-language media, Wiener Zeitung had a tendency to bury the lede. A story from 1776 about Britain’s struggle with its restive American subjects, for example, took until page two to report that the colonies had declared independence.
On November 11, 1918, following Austria’s defeat in World War I, the paper published a special edition with the abdication letter of Kaiser Karl, the last Hapsburg emperor. It was the final time the masthead included the Hapsburg’s double-eagled crest.
The paper continued publication after the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire during the first Austrian republic, only to be shuttered by the Nazis in 1939.
Wiener Zeitung was revived in the fall of 1945 when Austria was still under allied occupation.
In a front page letter to readers, Austria’s then Chancellor Karl Renner spoke of the great upheavals the newspaper had witnessed through the ages, encouraging readers to draw inspiration from its resilience. His closing wish: that Wiener Zeitung “serve as an everlasting monument to our present and future efforts and successes.”
Content created by Matthew Karnitschnig
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