Kai Diekmann – Media out of control?

The media sec­tor is in the midst of enor­mous upheavals — and it sleeps through it, warns the for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of the Ger­man Bild news­pa­per. The inter­view edit­ed by Alan Webber.

The media have been dis­rupt­ed. The way jour­nal­ists used to do their busi­ness doesn‘t work any­more. It was the great­est busi­ness mod­el in the world: You col­lect the news from the day, you print it on paper and you dis­trib­ute it the next day. The sun comes up and peo­ple read what hap­pened the day before.

”The cur­rent media sit­u­a­tion is prob­a­bly much more out of con­trol than in the good old days.“

Now with dig­i­tal­iza­tion every­thing has changed. Dig­i­tal­iza­tion is actu­al­ly dema­te­ri­al­iza­tion. It turns a phys­i­cal prod­uct, like a news­pa­per, into bits and bytes. We have to rec­og­nize that we can­not dis­trib­ute our con­tent as we used to and peo­ple are not con­sum­ing our con­tent as they used to. We see this with the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump. He uses tra­di­tion­al media as an ene­my and new media like Twit­ter to emo­tion­al­ize his people.

There is a famous say­ing that every new medi­um has its mas­ter: Roo­sevelt with radio, Kennedy with TV and Trump with Twit­ter. Tra­di­tion­al media don‘t con­trol the con­ver­sa­tions as they did in for­mer times. We have basi­cal­ly some­how lost our busi­ness mod­el. Today, most jour­nal­is­tic brands reach a big­ger audi­ence than ever before. In Ger­many for exam­ple, the brand Bild reach­es around 10 mil­lion peo­ple with its news­pa­per each day. But young peo­ple would nev­er read Bild print­ed on paper. We reach them on Twit­ter, SnapChat or Face­book. But we can hard­ly make mon­ey on these platforms.

”On the way to the kiosk the news­pa­per los­es its value.”

This is the biggest cri­sis for jour­nal­ism: How are we going to finance jour­nal­ism, which is impor­tant to orga­nize com­mu­ni­ca­tion with­in soci­eties? It’s crazy because we didn’t see it com­ing. The job of jour­nal­ism is curios­i­ty. It’s about look­ing and antic­i­pat­ing the news even before they hap­pen. And we didn’t see it com­ing. Jour­nal­ists were telling every­body else they had to change. But the peo­ple most resis­tant to change through tech­nol­o­gy are journalists.

We have to con­vince jour­nal­ists that change is not only a threat but also a chance. In dig­i­tal space there are no lim­i­ta­tions. You can tell sto­ries 24 hours a day. You can tell sto­ries with sound and video. So it is a great chance for journalism.

The media sit­u­a­tion now is much more out of con­trol than in the good old days. In the old days, jour­nal­ists were the gate­keep­ers. There is a famous quote: “Press free­dom is the free­dom of 200 rich peo­ple to pub­lish their opin­ion.” Now with dig­i­tal­iza­tion every­body can be a pub­lish­er. With Face­book, you can even have your own TV sta­tion. In for­mer times there were checks and bal­ances inside the media sys­tem. Now we have glob­al com­pa­nies – Face­book, SnapChat, Twit­ter, Apple, Ama­zon – that con­trol on a glob­al basis how con­tent is dis­trib­uted and who gets recog­ni­tion for it.

„We can com­plain about real­i­ty but we have to cope with it.“

We live in a world that is con­trolled by algo­rithms. The prob­lem with algo­rithms is they cre­ate a con­tent world that is extreme­ly dif­fer­ent from the ana­log world. In the ana­log world we curate top­ics accord­ing to their rel­e­vance. There were moments at the news­pa­per Bild where we were con­vinced that a top­ic was so impor­tant it had to be a head­line even when we knew it would sell few­er news­pa­pers. The algo­rithm avoids this because, if a social plat­form offers the user some­thing that he doesn’t like, he’ll leave imme­di­ate­ly. That’s what makes algo­rithms so dan­ger­ous: They destroy some­thing that is impor­tant for dis­course in our society.


As for­mer pub­lish­er and edi­tor-in-chief of the Ger­man news­pa­per Bild, Kai Diek­mann is one of the most expe­ri­enced jour­nal­ists in the Ger­man-speak­ing world.

After grad­u­at­ing and com­plet­ing his mil­i­tary ser­vice, he began a two-year intern­ship at Axel Springer, one of the largest pub­lish­ing hous­es in Europe. In 1987, Kai Diek­mann became a par­lia­men­tary cor­re­spon­dent for Bild and Bild am Son­ntag and in 1989, he served as chief reporter for the mag­a­zine Bunte.
Two years lat­er, Kai Diek­mann became the B.Z.’s deputy edi­tor-in-chief. Soon after, he was appoint­ed deputy edi­tor-in-chief and head of the pol­i­tics depart­ment at Bild for five years.

The well-known jour­nal­ist con­tin­ued his career in 1998 as edi­tor-in-chief of Welt am Son­ntag before he was appoint­ed edi­tor-in-chief and pub­lish­er of Bild and Bild am Son­ntag in 2001.

Dur­ing his 10-month stay in Sil­i­con Val­ley in 2012/2013, Kai Diek­mann dealt exten­sive­ly with dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion and looked for new ideas for dig­i­tal growth.
Since April 2017, he is mem­ber of the polit­i­cal advi­so­ry board of the US-Amer­i­can trans­porta­tion net­work com­pa­ny Uber.