six months at The Munich Times and then The Munich Eye

This week at enemy grounds in Ingolstadt
  • People hear again and again that print journalism is dead, but when it comes right down to it, some people just want to hold the paper in their hands.
  • You’d think that being a journalist opened doors for you, but often the worst thing you can do is say, ‘I write for a newspaper.‘ (I knew this one already, because I’ve been working for my wife’s journalist office for a decade now…however, I’ve seen it repeatedly while researching my own stories in the last six months – no one wants to talk to a journo. Unless they’re in PR and in that case they have nothing I really want to hear.)
  • Being a professional journalist sounds impressive, but it isn’t. Writing for The Guardian means something in my book. Having been published by some two bit publication? Not so much. Over the last half year, I’ve heard repeatedly, ‘He’s a professional journalist.‘ You know what that means? He says he’s a professional journalist. Nothing more. It’s a real profession, but very few people are making a living at it. Very. Very. Few.
  • Some say the future of news journalism is at the hands of bloggers. I certainly hope not. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading blogs and write a few myself, but do I really want Lucy’s Football giving me analysis on the European Debt Crisis? She can’t handle her debt crisis.
  • The Münchner Merkur isn’t a bad paper. I had no idea how well written it was and have used it as a gold mine to find ideas for stories. I’m still a snob about reading the Süddeutsche, but my horizons have expanded to include news source at which I’d previously scoffed.

The last week has been mostly about the Oktoberfest here in Munich on the old Miscellaneous Blog de Lahikmajoe. I’ll be getting back to that soon enough.

Realised this week that I joined my paper (then The Munich Times, whose name I preferred, and later The Munich Eye) exactly six months ago. What a way to celebrate the half anniversary, right? With an assessment of what I’ve learned.

Here’s to another six months of sometimes quality writing and covering the news and events going on in Bavaria’s capital. Hope you’ll be along for the ride.

do mention the war, please!

your blogger enjoying a proper pot of tea in Athens where the crisis began

There’s been enough sentimentality here for a while, right? That’s not what you normally come here for. What do you come here for, anyway?

I’ve been pondering the things that people coming here seem to enjoy, and the more personal I get…well, it seems that’s what people want to read. I’ve tried covering some relatively serious topics, or at least I’ve begun to introduce them, and it might be read, but no-one seems to want to talk about it. Sure, there are a few comments…maybe. But more often than not, it seems like people are politely waiting for another entertaining story.

Who would blame them? You don’t come here to be bored, eh?

I’ve thought about what I like writing about that might be interesting to the people with whom I regularly interact. Although politics is intriguing to me, I’m often bored by your run-of-the-mill political scandal. As soon as the Prime Minister resigns in disgrace or some government agency completely screws up a task, I’m already looking for what the story says about the society in general. The specifics of the events aren’t nearly as interesting to me as what they ultimately mean.

So the big story here for the last few years has been the European debt crisis, and to be honest there are far more experienced journalists and bloggers who can cover this from a financial perspective. I think I do a passable job of understanding those things, but writing about it is not my strength.

Instead, I’ve always been interested in the cultural aspects of the story. The stereotypes that the different countries have of one another. The divisions that’re ignored when times are good suddenly become very ugly when things go sour. The press has done a remarkable job of stoking the fire in some cases, by calling southern Europeans lazy or insinuating that the problem with the northerners is that they’re simply too rigid.

There was a series of articles printed simultaneously in a number of European newspapers this week (El Pais, gazeta, La Stampa, Le Monde, and my local rag Die Süddeutsche Zeitung) about the idea of Europe and the present situation in general. I was thrilled when I saw The Guardian was also taking part. Saves me from doing a lot of painful translation of what I’m reading.

Here’s how the project is explained:

Six countries, six newspapers, millions of readers. One Europe

The European Union is grappling with its deepest crisis in 60 years, a malaise that goes beyond the euro debacle and the enormous tide of debt swamping the continent. The union seems exhausted. Expansion has ground to a halt. Sluggish EU economies are being eclipsed by rivals in Asia and Latin America. “Brussels” has become a dirty word, no longer only in BritainEuroscepticism is on the rise across the continent. The taboo has been lifted on national stereotyping and scapegoating – lazy Greeks, bossy Germans, chauvinistic French, haughty Brits.At this critical juncture, six leading newspapers from the largest EU countries have come together in a joint project to build up a more nuanced picture of the EU and explore what Europe does well and what not so well.We begin by investigating the benefits the EU has brought to 500 million people and later today examine the national leaders labouring to steer it out of its current difficulties. Tomorrow we look at euroscepticism and national stereotyping. At the end of the week, you can take our “How European are you” test and see how you and other European readers rank.

Doesn’t that sound interesting? If not, say something now. Along with stories of a vomiting dog and windscreen meat, I plan to talk a great deal about this European crisis stuff. I could easily start with the page about German stereotypes, because they’re the ones I know best, but instead I’ll give you a link to British stereotypes: do mention the war, please!

I’m going to leave you with that. I’m hoping this is going to be fun.

Contemplating the Continental Breakup

the idea of Europe

I’ve thought quite a bit about how I’d introduce this topic. It’s complicated and nearly impenetrable. Notice I didn’t say impossible. But many Europeans I talk to don’t know where to begin.

Or they’re so overwhelmed with the whole thing that they shy away from even trying to start. Many people simply don’t want to talk about it.

That’s why I was pleased to hear Ira Glass turn his NPR radio show This American Life over to the people at Planet Money, who would very succinctly and understandably explain the European debt crisis.

They ask the question that many people in the US and around the world have been asking themselves since this situation exploded: Do I really need to be concerned about this? Like the story itself, the answer is more complicated than you might think.

Here’s the podcast:

I know it’s nearly an hour, but the whole situation is explained rather well. Go back, click on the link, and let the story wash over you. It is quite impressively made.

The most telling part of the whole piece happens between 27:50 and 29:40. The guy working in the Greek Statistics Office says that the newly-elected government informed the citizenry, ‘The deficit is closer to 13% not 6% (what was stated by an earlier administration),’ The male journalist’s voice explains that the money had been lent to Greece, ‘…based upon very specific information, and suddenly that information turned out to be very, very wrong. And they wanted to know, “How did this happen?”.

Then the female journalist’s voice goes on:

‘And see, it’s a little hard to answer that question. The Greek politicians explained, “The last guys – they lied to you. It was never 6%. We are telling you the truth. The truth is 13%.” (my note: always be wary when anyone says outright, “We are telling you the truth.”)

But when you ask the people at the government’s statistics office – the very people who came up with the numbers – …they say things like this: “Everyone here in Greece said, ‘What number is this? It’s outrageous.'” Instead of the Greek Statistic Office saying, “We messed up. Here’s what went wrong. Here exactly is how we’re going to win back your trust and make sure it never happens again.” 

No. Instead, the workers just kinda shrugged their shoulders. The government worker says, “Nobody knows.” ‘

The female journalist challenges him abruptly, ‘But you guys work in the statistics office…you’re the first people who would know that, because you work here.’He answers, ‘The people here who worked about this matter said, “We did our job very correctly.”‘

That’s part of the story right there. The people who made the mistakes were human and neither want to point fingers at their colleagues nor admit that they actually did anything wrong.

But now here I am. How do I even begin talking about all of it? Well, what’s most interesting to me is the stereotypes and cultural pitfalls that’re inherent in the whole thing. When they were doing the planning to bring Greece into the Euro, no-one wanted to offend the newcomers. Everyone in the room probably knew that the figures (for Greece‘s application to join the Euro) didn’t add up, but everyone’s feelings had to be taken into account.

 

When I was talking to some of my German acquaintances about this, I started by saying something like, ‘The impression is that the vast majority of Greeks make a game of not having to pay their taxes.’

‘No! That’s not an impression-that’s a fact,’ the German said. ‘The fact is that both middle class and even higher class people there do everything to avoid paying taxes.’ Here’s the thing. Here’s the crux of the matter.

Can you imagine paying your taxes fastidiously and then finding out that you’re paying for an untenable situation in other countries? That even if you dump money into that situation, the other countries’ systems will continue to go on as they did before?

The conclusion at the end of the podcast seemed to be that Germany should try being more like other countries. Or be somehow grateful that it has to bail out the others. It’s sort of a weird conclusion, but I think the Germans might be more willing to accept such a plan if it appeared it would even work.

Just because I live here doesn’t mean that I’m going to argue the German perspective. When I don’t agree with a policy or the direction things are going, then I say something. But all the way through this crisis the conventional wisdom is that in the end the Germans are going to pay. The fact that they’ve dragged their heels or questioned whether paying would do any good whatsoever has been met with outrage. Which is also rather curious.

The other thing here is that it’s easy sitting outside of the situation to assume you know what the players should do. The Hatfields and McCoys look ridiculous unless you actually are either a Hatfield or a McCoy.

What’s difficult for someone outside of Germany to comprehend is the blowback that’d occur if the German government were to accept the demands of other European countries to continue to throw money at the problem without stipulations. Without somehow believing that they were somehow setting up a system that’d make sure this didn’t happen again.

Does anyone (except for those on the fringe of Europe) really believe the Common Currency is going to dissolve? It might be talked about theoretically, but the vast majority of people I talk to can’t even comprehend the failure of the grand experiment that is Europe.

And strangely enough…even with the crisis and the cultural differences and all the other problems that are thrown about in the papers and on the television political shows…even with all of that, I tend to agree with my friends who say ‘How could there not be a Europe?’

How indeed.