Bild: A Bully Pulpit Up for Grabs

If the German paper gets new owners, it could sway an election

If it weren't for Germany's popular broadsheet Bild Zeitung, Edmund Stoiber wouldn't be campaigning for chancellor today. At least, that's the way the Bavarian Prime Minister tells it. In a May 2 article for the newspaper, Stoiber recalls that as a student in the 1950s he bought Bild for its sports pages but wound up getting hooked on its political coverage. "Bild sets the agenda," wrote Stoiber, who hopes to unseat Chancellor Gerhard Schr&oumml;der in September elections.

Germany's intelligentsia may snicker at the screaming headlines ("Rottweiler Chews Up Cute Poodle," "Verona Shows Us Her Panties") and the page-one pinups abutting supermarket ads for beef. Still, no sane politician would pass up a chance to get a favorable mention in Bild Zeitung--"the picture newspaper." Its potent brew of right-wing politics, sports, and sex sells some 4 million copies a day, but the paper is read by 11 million people by the time it's been passed around. That's more than any other daily in Europe. "No one disputes that Bild is influential," says Schr&oumml;der deputy spokesman Bela Anda, once a reporter at the paper.

Now this bully pulpit is up for grabs--just as Germany is gearing up for a contentious general election. Media baron Leo Kirch, who held a 40% stake in Bild's parent, Axel Springer Verlag, is now bankrupt, so his shares may fall into the hands of less partisan owners. That would be bad news for Stoiber, who leads the conservatives, but good news for Schr&oumml;der and other center-left pols long harassed by the paper.

If Bild tempers its conservatism, that will mark a new chapter in the paper's 50-year history. Founder Axel Springer was a die-hard cold warrior who defiantly built a 19-story office tower on the edge of the Berlin Wall. Bild has mellowed since Springer's death in 1985, but all editorial staff still must pledge to uphold his basic principles, which include unwavering support for the U.S. and the free market.

Most likely, Kirch's stake will pass into the hands of a Commerzbank-led consortium of KirchMedia creditor banks. The consortium has offered $800 million on a bet that the value of the shares will eventually climb.

But there's speculation that Springer's 59-year-old widow Friede--who controls just over half the publisher's shares--may be ready to cash out herself. After all, Axel Springer, which publishes some 300 magazines and newspapers around Europe, is under growing strain. Circulation of Bild, its flagship, is down 16% since late 1997. Its higher-brow broadsheet, Die Welt, is losing money. Like all publishers, Springer is suffering from an advertising slump. Its sales slipped to $2.58 billion in 2001, from $2.61 billion the year before, yielding a net loss of $172 million--its first ever.

Rumors that Springer may be up for sale got a boost after CEO Mathias Döpfner met with News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch in London earlier this year. A Springer insider calls the speculation "nonsense." Still, there's no question that Bild, even with its problems, would make a choice acquisition. "Bild is a mega-brand. Everyone in Germany knows it," says Wolfgang Bock, a partner at Mercer Management Consulting in Munich.

But the prospect of Murdoch in Germany is alarming to Schr&oumml;der's Social Democrats. They fear Murdoch would steer Bild even further to the right. Some banking sources say Schr&oumml;der went so far as to press the Essen-based WAZ Group, which owns several regional papers, to buy the Kirch stake, or at least part of it. That would have shifted the balance of power leftward: Bodo Hombach, one of four members of WAZ's management board, is Schr&oumml;der's former chief of staff.

Schr&oumml;der spokesman Anda denies the Chancellor is meddling. Maybe he doesn't need to: Bild watchers detect a greater willingness to skewer politicians of any persuasion. Witness how Bild roughed up Wolfgang Schauble, then chairman of the center-right Christian Democrat Union, after he was implicated in a campaign financing scandal. "If you do something wrong, Bild will attack," says Markus Söder, chairman of the media commission for Stoiber's Christian Social Union. Of course, if you devour a poodle, Bild will get really excited.

By Jack Ewing, with Susanna Scherer, in Frankfurt

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.