Reform or Repair A distress call from the engine rooms of public broadcasters

By Peter Welchering

Abstract: Public broadcasting is under fire. That is not new. Too closely aligned with governments, political bias towards one party or another, unbalanced programming, red tape and high-handed executives, some of them remarkably self-serving – I have been hearing these points of criticism ever since I produced my first piece for West German public broadcaster WDR 40 years ago.1 But in the past, at least until the Schlesinger affair, there was a general truth, encapsulated in a quote by Johannes Ludwig, speaking in the voice of a public broadcasting executive in February 2009: »It’s like water off a duck’s back.« And: »Public broadcasters think they can get away with it.« (Ludwig 2009:6) The Schlesinger case, however, has rattled the smugness of public broadcasting bigwigs. Now at least, they could no longer refuse to engage in a reform debate, as they had before. One group, however, has hardly been heard at all in this debate so far: freelancers, with or without contracts. In other words, the very people who produce most of the broadcasters’ daily programming, who work in a legally sanctioned form of sham self-employment, who often live in precarious conditions. And it’s not for lack of eloquence. No, the distress calls from the engine room are ignored because broadcasting policymakers and executives would actually have to muster the courage to reinvent public broadcasting if they took the S.O.S. seriously. Many don’t want to go there.

Translation: Kerstin Trimble

A colleague from Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb), who wished to remain anonymous, painted a terrible picture in a Medienmagazin podcast episode on 1 July 2023. It is very unflattering to executives or public broadcasting policymakers, but many colleagues feel that it is an accurate rendering of the realities of many contracted or uncontracted freelancers at public broadcasters.

»Public broadcasting is like a giant vessel. They keep adding new decks at the top, yet another sun deck, and then another one. And up there, they are sipping champagne, eating canapés, and feeling very important. And below, the galley slaves are toiling, rowing for their lives. They are given some bread and water now and then. And when the vessel does not move, they say: Oh, we need to shed a little weight. So they toss some of their galley slaves overboard. Before long, the whole ship will sink. They’ve resisted genuine reform and real structural change for so long that they’d rather let the ship go down than change anything about their privileges.« (Wagner 2023: from 35’30”)

This metaphor has been the subject of intense discussion among freelance journalists.2 At numerous trade union events, many colleagues expressed that their colleague at the rbb had painted a very apt picture. The rbb journalist herself says she drew it back in 2021, prior to the Schlesinger affair, but has received a great deal of encouragement since, and not only from other journalists.

Some small momentum towards reform in the fall of 2022

In fact, many media researchers and communication scholars deem the current situation in public broadcasting as critical. This is what media researcher Lutz Hachmeister had to say about public broadcasting executives in Handelsblatt on 26 November 2022: »Today, the media are ruled by power-conscious technocrats who grew up entirely in an incestuous system« (Jakobs 2022).

Even WDR Director-General Tom Buhrow, previously considered extremely resistant to criticism, called for »a debate on our direction and on a new social contract« for public broadcasting that is »free from taboos« in his speech to the Hamburg Übersee-Club on 2 November 2022 (Buhrow 2022). This set a new tone. Many executives were in shock. Some tentatively opened up to discussion of reform. Others retreated even deeper into their trenches. Since then, media policymakers have been trying to cover their bases, but some of them still don’t even know where to run to.

A frequent accusation from the engine room is that far too many broadcasting executives don’t even care about programming anymore, but only about their paychecks, which they are trying to maximize with a passionate grifting mindset.

These accusations are harsh. And they are often based on the experience that executives have turned their backs on journalism and only pursue their own economic and political interests. They are often based on the experience that something like a journalistic leadership culture has been irretrievably lost. NDR Director Joachim Knuth, who is not exactly known for welcoming participation in his sphere of control, let alone for a pronounced interest in a functioning management culture, even felt compelled to commission a study on the working atmosphere at NDR (Reimers et al. 2023).

Loss of trust in executives

The results were, and still are, alarming. »Many employees don’t trust their management,« Stephan Reimers said right out of the gate when he presented the results of the study (Reimers et al 2023:7). The system is referred to as a »two-tier society«. »NDR is a government-owned broadcasting company,« and senior officials seem to have strayed far from journalistic standards. »Employees often despair over this.« (Reimers et al 2023:7) The working atmosphere is one of mistrust and conflict. Incompetent and overwhelmed executives are making life difficult for the engine room crew.

Many of the hard-working engine room crews are no longer able to meet the mandate of public broadcasters as laid down in media-state treaties because a large part of the management staff no longer pursues a journalistic mission, but entirely different objectives. That is why the journalistic engine room is opera­ting without any support.

Targets play a key role in this, as longtime ZDF editor Wolfgang Herles notes: »Editorial managers are degenerating into mere product managers. At ZDF, they sign annual target agreements. And the mighty boss of the main programming department assigns grades.« (Herles 2020: 34). These target agreements vary according to each broadcaster. At rbb, for example, during the Schlesinger era, there were targets for saving personnel costs and fees. Executives who saved a lot of money on fees received generous bonuses. This created a devastating situation in some sub-sub-companies of rbb with no collective bargaining standards whats­oever.3

Other companies concluded target agreements on digitization without having a clear digitization strategy. Other target agreements were about social media reach. The more likes on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or TikTok, the better the target score. Journalistic standards and quality reporting no longer played a role in these target agreements.

Intransparent, meshed structures prevent good journalism

Such target agreements often resulted in editing and production being outsourced, and not only in the talk show sector. Broadcasters usually end up spen­ding more money on outsourcing than on in-house production because talk show hosts’ production companies are asking a pretty penny, but since some of that money comes from other pots, the »target budget« was still met. Such accounting tricks not only come at great cost to us, the fee-paying public, but above all the freelance journalists whose working conditions at many outsourced production companies can only be described as precarious.

In an interview with broadcaster WDR (which is, after all, a member of the service-industry union ver.di), Sabine Rollberg, long-time editor-in-chief at European public service channel arte, pointed out that this kind of outsourcing contradicts the principle of independent journalism »because actually, WDR editors are permanent employees so that they may have the material security to be creative, innovative, and immune to blackmail« (ver.di-Senderverband WDR 2021).

But those days are over. More and more editors work as precariously employed freelancers, often under fixed-term contracts that expire after a year or two.

»It makes them more gullible, more compliant,« an ARD executive told me on the sidelines of an event about the future of journalism.4 Of course, such management policies don’t exactly foster journalistic debate about pieces and program elements in newsrooms and at broadcasting companies. This has led to a creeping decline of the culture of error that is naturally associated with such discussions, and of journalistic quality standards (cf. Welchering 2018).

Sabine Rollberg pointed out a second important development in this context, namely »that people no longer wanted specialist editors, but generalists. A specialist editor is in a far better position to resist hierarchical interference or paternalism, and that is vital for quality programming.« (ver.di-Senderverband WDR 2021) The general disdain for specialized journalism at the C-levels of public broadcasting is probably part of this development.

Of course, the hierarchy has always argued that specialized journalism is far more expensive than generalist daily journalism. For example, fee agreements for specialist articles stipulate slightly higher fees than agreements for general articles that do not require a great deal of research.

A general journalist working on a flat rate is more likely to spawn a few quick articles on a specialist topic without spending much time researching the subject. They don’t have the time to do that. And it is also irrelevant for their evaluation. This is why hierarchs keep using the famous »savings argument« as they dismantle specialist journalism.

In any case, »saving« has become the hierarchy’s universal argument. »We will keep saving until everything is broken. That’s the mantra I’ve been hearing constantly for over 25 years,« the anonymous rbb journalist states in the Medienmagazin podcast (Wagner 2023: from 34’11”).

They cut fees for freelancers, research resources, per diems, travel expenses, and equipment. »But in doing so, they also cut the editors capability to create a good piece.« Nothing has changed about that, quite the opposite.« (Wagner 2023, from 43’11”)

The chopping block hits freelancers particularly hard. Cutting them has been, and continues to be justified either by saying that the income from fees is too low (which, after all, flushes more than eight billion euros into the system), that restructuring is necessary to enable digitization, or that the cuts are a strategy to position the broadcasters for the future.

In addition to outsourcing, new intermediate cross-media structures or digitization actually cost an enormous amount of money. The journalistic engine room often wonders how these very expensive structures contribute to the program mission. So far, the hierarchy has been pretending not to even hear this question.

Consultants with slide decks, rather than space for journalistic work

Consulting costs are another argument for cutting freelancers in the journalistic engine room. In fact, directors, heads of departments and other executives are apparently being advised into the ground. On the »sundecks« of almost any media vessel, fancy slide shows on digitization – whatever that means – or on »investigation« are used as a smokescreen to obscure the fact that research capabilities have been cut across the board.

Up on the deck, executives are punch-drunk with their own medial importance and societal significance. It clouds their perception. Meanwhile, down in the machine room, people wonder what these fancy graphics on the slides actually have to do with the program mission that everyone down here is slaving away to fulfill for a pittance.

In other words, the mood in the engine room is getting bitter. In part, it has boiled into anger. The »climate report« on the working climate at NDR mentions a »disconnect« and an immense »loss of trust between managers and employees«. Here are the employees’ grievances: »Our editor-in-chief is dodging issues related to content and instead, is focused only on the broad strokes. We are supposed to fill them with content. We feel abandoned because the conditions are paralyzing and we are overworked to the point that we have zero elbow room.« (Reimers et al 2023:11).

The authors of the study concluded: »Many employees distrust their top leadership. They feel the executives have no objective view of the problems on the ground.« (17) The authors led interviews with employees who described their everyday work for a public broadcaster in rather drastic terms: »I don’t trust this leadership team to handle this. They speak in platitudes. I feel that these people are unaware of the seriousness of the situation. I feel that none of them have the big picture in mind.« (17)

At ARD-aktuell, such problems have been simmering for some time.5 »The editors-in-chief consider their position a mere rung on their career ladder. Neither one of the three knows how we work and why we work the way we do,« the report on ARD-aktuell states. (Reimers et al 2023:51)

The general sentiment is: »The mood at ARD-aktuell is at an all-time low. The chasm between the editor-in-chief and all the other editors is huge.« (Reimers et al 2023: 50) The general verdict goes: »There is no more trust on either side« (ibid 51).

The lousy mood in the engine room of ARD-aktuell is not a new phenomenon. It was already building up under Kai Gniffke as editor-in-chief. Conflicts intensified as cross-media offerings were expanded. The management devalued journalistic standards for news coverage. They no longer played a major role.

Buzzfeedization wreaks havoc

In addition, there was no discernible journalistic strategy behind the expansion of cross-media offerings. The conflicts thus came out into the open. »The editorial team at ARD-aktuell is growing enormously. However, many of the new, young colleagues still lack experience. They’ve never done a TV segment before, which means the veterans’ workload is not alleviated at all,« the Reimers study summarizes the conflicts within the team (Reimers et al: 50).

At first glance, this could easily be interpreted as a generational problem. Upon closer analysis, it turns out to be a suppressed dispute about journalistic standards that goes far beyond ARD-aktuell. The debate is held between the following poles: Should we adhere to the ideal of objectivity or emotionalize the news to boost our reach? Should we conduct in-depth research or optimize production with shallow content? Is our tone geared towards news or entertainment?6

Some colleagues who left the editorial department of ARD-aktuell »are still being badmouthed« (ibid, 51). And, one may add: This negative talk is coming mainly from executives and is addressed at employees who refused to accept, and then quit over, cutbacks on quality in the news division.

It was made extremely difficult for some critics of the NDR to find employment with other editorial departments at other public broadcasters. Such developments obviously put a considerable strain on the working atmosphere, cause a massive drop in performance, and dampen journalistic commitment.

But lamenting the conditions does not help, either. We need solutions. We need a public broadcasting system that remains capable of fulfilling its programming mandate in the future. We need to move away from trench warfare, which ties up unnecessary resources that are needed elsewhere in quality journalism. Quality journalism does not belong in the institutions’ trench-warfare or close-quarter combat.

Ten demands towards a solution

This applies not only to NDR, but to all public broadcasters. The state-level chapter of dju at the service-industry trade union ver.di in Lower Saxony/Bremen has led a very intense debate on it. They brought a motion and wrote a policy paper »for a reasonable reform of public broadcasting«.7 The paper was discussed at the ver.di national conference from 17 to 22 September and incorporated into the main motion of the national conference of media, journalism, and film. By passing the main motion, the positions of the motion and policy paper have also been adopted.

We demand a fundamental reform of public broadcasting. Public broadcasting is mired in a deep crisis, from which it can only emerge by way of comprehensive reform.

»This reform must start from our fundamental mandate of providing information and and basic news services, and it is geared towards media policy and a collective bargaining. ver.di acknowledges its responsibility both in terms of collective bargaining and media policy. On this basis, we formulate 10 demands for a sweeping reform of public broadcasting, which must be preserved as a pillar of democratic decision-making (participatory function) and social control (watchdog function).«

From this, we derive ten demands, which are being discussed very intensively, not only among freelancers. These ten demands come straight from the journalistic engine room. And this is probably also why they are so easily ignored by the executives on the commando bridge, and by media policymakers on the shore.

Implementing these ten demands would mean a profound reform of public broadcasting, which would deprive its executives of many a comfort. The control bodies would have their work cut out for them. Broadcasting policymakers would be dealing with a broadcasting service that is very much distanced from government. That notion does not necessarily sit well with many media policymakers who consider themselves primarily footsoldiers of their political party.

These are our ten specific reform proposals, which essentially stem from the journalistic engine room:

  1. Eliminate uncontrolled power in the hierarchies of public broadcasting by way of greater participation.
  2. Adjust salary and fee structures and reduce exuberant salaries at the executive and leadership levels.
  3. Abolish party representation at the executive level, and instead, enable participation of all social groups.
  4. Strengthen those who actually make the programs, especially freelancers (creator-driven broadcasting).
  5. Liquidate subcontractors and stop outsourcing entire shows and programs to production companies. Institutions must adhere to collective bargaining agreements and stop the tariff-dodging and fee dumping that has been practiced by production companies and subcontractors.
  6. Reduce exorbitant consultant costs, instead make greater use of employees’ skills.
  7. Harmonize retirement benefits for all employees (statutory pension insurance, ARD-ZDF pension scheme, instead of excessive corporate retirement benefits).
  8. Establish broadcasting councils as genuine supervisory bodies. To achieve this, it would be helpful to elect council members instead of appointing them.
  9. Check structures for redundancies and eliminate them.
  10. Make committee work in broadcasting companies transparent.

Now, we must actively inject these demands into the reform debate and implement them with employees at broadcasting companies. Media policymakers and broadcasting council members will also have to respond to these reform demands and express their views. In addition to the »Climate Report,« which describes situations at public broadcasters far beyond the NDR, the »Broadcasting Council Letter«-initiative, launched by the task force »Information Quality in Germany« could provide another empirical basis for this discussion with their long-term media analysis, which highlights how some of the issues mentioned here impact programming (Broadcasting Council Letter 2023). Further empirical research on this complex of issues will certainly be initiated and conducted as the debate continues.

About the author

Peter Welchering has been working as a radio, television, and print journalist (including Deutschlandradio, ZDF, and various ARD stations, Frankfurter Allgmeine Zeitung) since 1983. He has held various teaching positions at journalism schools in Germany and in other countries. Since 2001, he has been running his own media office. One of his main focus areas is journalistic training and further education.


Arbeitsgemeinschaft Informationsqualität in Deutschland (2023): Rundfunkrat-Brief 1: Ostdeutschland, accessed on 2 October 2023

Buhrow, Tom (2020): Wir müssen die große Reform wagen, jetzt. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, dated 2 November 2022. (accessed on 23 September 2023)

Fromm, Anne (2015): Klar ist das trivial. Buzzfeed-Chefin über Teilen. In: die tageszeitung, dated 1 August 2015,!5216615/ (accessed on 23 September 2023)

Herles, Wolfgang (2018): Wie ARD und ZDF ihren Auftrag verraten, in: Geuchen, Anna; Walther, Christian (eds.): Von wegen: Lügenpresse. Analysen und Ansichten zur Renaissance eines Kampfbegriffs. Berlin: Peter Lang, pp. 29-43.

Jakobs, Hans-Jürgen (2022): »Wie in Schlumpfhausen« – Dieser Medienforscher sagt, was bei ARD und ZDF falsch läuft. Handelsblatt, 26 November 2022. (accessed on 31 October 2023)

Krause, Sophie (2017): Das deutsche »Buzzfeed« – Aufmerksamkeit ist alles. In: Tagesspiegel, 21 September 2017. (accessed on 23 September 2023)

Ludwig, Johannes (2009): Vorwort, in: ibid. (ed.): Sind ARD du ZDF noch zu retten? Tabuzonen im öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunk. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

Rainer, Anton; Buß, Christian (2022): Wenn wir das tun, wird es Halligalli geben. ARD-Intendanten Buhrow und Gniffke über ihre Reformpläne. In: Der Spiegel 51/2022. (accessed on 22 September 2023)

Reimers, Stephan; Cyriax, Hans-Ulrich; Brauch, Melanie; Mielke, Phelina; Prox, Henning; Rissler, Dagmar (2023): Klimabericht. Analyse von Unternehmenskultur und Betriebsklima im Norddeutschen Rundfunk, Hamburg, Drucksache des NDR.

ver.di-Senderverband WDR (2021): Hinbringen, nicht abholen. An interview with Sabine Rollberg, 21 February 2021. accessed on 22 September 2023

Wagner, Jörg (2023): rbb: Ein Jahr danach. Medienmagazin-Podcast of 1 July 2023, (accessed 5 July 2023)

Welchering, Peter (2018): Courage journalism. Why we should not just let our profession be abolished. In: Journalism Research/Journalistik, 1(2), pp. 55-63.

Welchering, Peter (2020): Opinion or attitude Clarification in a journalistic debate on values and knowledge. In: Journalism Research/Journalistik, 3(3), pp. 220-229.

Welchering, Peter (2021): Flachwitz statt Fachjournalismus. Zur Buzzfeedisierung des Nachrichtenjournalismus, Seminarpapier für das Seminar »Berichten über Wissenschaft. Einführung in den Wissenschaftsjournalismus, Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, winter semester 2021/22


1 I have been working in and for public broadcasting since 1983. From 1990 to 2001, my main focus was on the publishing industry, first as managing editor and trainer for young editors at Heise-Verlag, then as editor-in-chief of Computer-Zeitung. During this time, I also produced the odd piece for public broadcasting. Since 1994, my employer granted me permission to pursue side gigs, which I did regularly for the show Computers and Communication on Deutschlandfunk. From 2001, I had my own media office. I was fortunate to experience the good days, when you had two or three weeks to really do a deep-dive and thoroughly research a topic, you could travel and speak to sources, and your article would undergo some tough, but fair scrutiny and debate at your editorial office. I experienced the times when the results of my research were discussed and broadcast across several editorial offices and even on multiple channels, for instance, a piece I did on the Ministry of the Interior and its plans to sell biometric data in 2006. Even back then, public broadcasting was subject to sometimes massive criticism. But this criticism had an impact on the broadcasting companies. Even under a super tough, conservative-leaning program director, I was able to push through a piece that was critical of the conservative CDU, albeit after intense discussion. These debates were tough, but there was space to have them. Today, we are facing a completely different situation. This type of discussion is made ever more difficult, even impossible, by entrenched positions, partially ideologized journalism, and a need to swim with the mainstream (cf. Welchering 2020). They do still take place, even with executives, but they are the exception nowadays. This type of debate must return as a natural part of everyday journalism at broadcasting companies.

2 In conversation with colleagues, I was warned not to use this metaphor. They said that while it was apt, it was also very harsh, and could harden the fronts further. I was also warned and admonished about writing this piece. Most of these warnings were well-intentioned and meant to protect me. I thank you all for that. I did consider all of your admonitions and warnings very carefully. And I wrote the piece anyway. On the one hand, this is owed to my conviction that it is still possible to have such debates in public broadcasting, even if the guardrails for them are narrowed by various executives. Secondly, at the age of 63, I am nearing the end of my professional career. To cite a comment by Düsseldorf-based criminal defense lawyer Udo Vetter on humorist Harald Schmidt, I benefit from the »blessings of a finished nest egg«. »That is, a sense that you are un-cancellable.« (Tweet from 22 September 2023) And that gives me a certain degree of freedom when I write such a piece. Yes, the picture of the public service broadcasting, as drawn by our anonymous colleague, is a shocking one. But it is accurate, and it sums up the structural problems well. I can only keep reiterating that. So perhaps it can be a starting point for a debate on reform, in which we, the ones who make the program, the contracted and uncontracted freelancers, can also be a major voice and assert our interests. We, down there in the journalistic engine room, have to finally drive this reform debate forward and bring change to the often-untenable state of affairs at our broadcasting companies. If we fail, the ship of public broadcasting will sink in a matter of a few years. We must stop that from happening. It is up to us to make a critical analysis and actually push through reforms. We can only do this together. We need to identify problems and approaches to reform, no matter how much certain hierarchs may moan and groan about it. And most importantly, we must not be discouraged from having this vital debate. We cannot allow others to dismiss this debate as »hully gully«. Neither are our debate contributions »howling« or »squealing«. We must not put up with a chairman of the ARD, or certain directors, or other ARD executives disparaging our calls for reform (cf. Rainer/Buß 2022).

3 This is why I feel that massage chairs and pre-oiled hardwood floors are just the tip of the iceberg at the rbb. The real scandal lies in overvaluing the commando bridge and undervaluing the engine room, as is reflected in the many hierarchy levels and the financing structures: All these subsidiaries and their subcontractors practicing fee dumping and tariff evasion has resulted in many journalists being underpaid and undervalued.

4 This assessment is not an isolated opinion. Broadcasting executives have told me about this kind of »leadership directives« dozens of times

5 After a massive dispute with then editor-in-chief of ARD-aktuell in 2013, I stopped working for this editorial office entirely. The issues raised in the NDR climate report were similar to the ones back in 2013. It is not just a complete failure of individual executives and their severe lack of journalistic qualifications, but above all, it is a structural problem.

6 As a union representative, I have spoken to many colleagues about precisely these points and poles of contention, not only at the NDR. Some speak of a veritable »culture war,« which shows how difficult it is to mediate between the parties here. In a seminar paper, I described a tendency in this debate at the NDR as »buzzfeedization« (Welchering 2021). By this, I am referring to a trend that former employees of the portal Buzzfeed brought with them when they switched to executive positions at the NDR or its affiliates and research alliances. Without trying to reproduce the entire seminar paper here, let me just give you one example: On 1 August 2015, Juliane Leopold, who worked for Buzzfeed before she joined ARD-aktuell, told the newspaper die tageszeitung (taz): This is all about creating content that people love to share.« And a little later in the taz interview, she admits: »Sure it’s trivial, sure it’s entertainment.« She also advocates for a less sober, even enthusiastic approach to topics, because »for us, it is crucial that our articles appeal to emotions.« (Fromm 2015) Clearly, this publicity-based outlook is at odds with the journalistic orientation of veteran news journalists. And Daniel Drepper, who also worked for Buzzfeed before joining the NDR, WDR, and SZ research network, sums up his publicity-based outlook in an interview with the Tagesspiegel on 21 September 2017: »If users would rather see a foreign mini­ster reading 21 lame jokes instead of talking about German foreign policy, then I have to take note of that.« This is, of course, quite different from the content orientation of veteran NDR investigators, such as Patrick Baab, who exposed the Barschel case a few years ago. Patrick Baab is still a point of reference for many NDR editors (despite the debate regarding behavior during his last research trip to the Donetsk region). I heard this in numerous conversations. This is how an NDR colleague summed up the conflict of this publicity-based buzzfeed outlook with traditional news orientation: »I create specialized journalistic content in business reporting. For example, I report on the background behind rising raw material prices and the implications for consumers. This is very different in method and style than a buzzfeedized post about »eight problems all women have with body hair«. This perhaps shows the main fault line of the conflict and why a ceasefire between the antagonists on this »main battle front« is difficult to mediate, and has yet to be mediated successfully.

7 I was involved in writing the paper and the demands for a reform of public broadcasting. I would especially like to thank Annette Rose, my colleague on the board of the Lower Saxony-Bremen chapter of the dju at ver.di, for intense discussions and for her useful suggestions.

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Peter Welchering: Reform or repair. A distress call from the engine rooms of public broadcasters. In: Journalism Research, Vol. 6 (3_4), 2023, pp. 234-244. DOI: 10.1453/2569-152X-3_42023-13631-en




First published online

December 2023