Alexis von Mirbach (2023): Medienträume. Ein Bürgerbuch zur Zukunft des Journalismus. [Media Dreams. A Citizen’s Handbook on the Future of Journalism.]

Reviewed by Gabriele Hooffacker

What’s on citizens’ minds when they think about media and journalism? What are they critical of? How do they define good journalism, and what do they consider necessary conditions for quality journalism? The answers to these questions are obviously essential for the democratic functioning of the media and for democracy itself. This is why the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts launched the research network »Future of Democracy« (ForDemocracy) in 2018. In the context of this project, Michael Meyen conceived The Media Future Lab, which he implemented with Sevda Arslan and Alexis von Mirbach, a student assistant, students at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich, and numerous partners. 33 people contributed to the »Citizens’ Conference on Media,« the result of which is presented here as a book. The previous publication, Das Elend der Medien [Media Misery] (Mirbach/Meyen 2021) had triggered heated discussions (cf. Tröger 2022; Mirbach 2022).

First, let me say that the title A Citizen’s Handbook is a bit misleading. While seven chapters are indeed dedicated to seven work groups, describing their process and outcomes (more about the Citizens’ Conference in a moment), a substantial portion of the book (three chapters) addresses the difficulties of exploring the subject. So it is both a citizens’ handbook and an explorative book.

Obstacles for the project

Research projects such as the Media Future Lab (2019-2022) operated under restrictions imposed by the pandemic, which entailed certain methodical constraints: Some of the planned larger conferences were replaced by small group discussions and guided interviews. Nevertheless, between the »fall of 2019 and the fall of 2021 (including the Citizens’ Media Conference), we conducted just over a dozen Media Future Labs with nearly 200 participants« (Mirbach 2023: 52). The project was implemented in three phases: The purpose of Phase 1 (summer of 2019) was to generate expert knowledge from media practitioners, media policymakers, and professional media observers. 19 experts were invited to hold a series of lectures and discussions with students at LMU Munich. At this point already, the project encountered criticism, which persisted throughout the project and certainly hampered its implementation. In this case, the project was accused of »left-wing bias,« as voiced by students in their evaluation of the event (Mirbach 2023: 43). Phase 2, the »Citizens’ Conference,« consisting of numerous decentralized meetings of the seven groups and their subsequent evaluation, was also affected by unexpected events. Following media coverage of Michael Meyen, an entire group in Munich cancelled their participation in the project (ibid.: 63f.). Phase 3 (summer 2020), intended as an online debate on journalistic quality, was kickstarted prematurely and somewhat unexpectedly by a blog entry by Mirbach. Mirbach writes: »I wrote about a journalist from the alternative media. The piece caused a scandal, which was covered by Süddeutsche Zeitung and Telepolis.« (ibid.: 18)

Methodology and results

Methodologically, the research project followed the »Future Labs: Criticism, Utopia, Proposed Solutions,« as well as Erik Olin Wright’s concept of »Real Utopias«. Mirbach describes the theoretical framework in detail (especially in chapter 2). Countering the accusation that his selection of discussion partners was not »representative«, he maintains that the project was about media criticism, which is why critical voices had to be heard. The book also keeps circling back to the role of »alternative« media (for a debate on this in »Journalistik,« see Hooffacker 2022; Meyen 2022).

Yet the involved citizens did not always stick with the research team’s instructions to propose concrete solutions. This is what makes the outcomes in the book so interesting. The Radio LORA work group led by Fabian Ekstedt met the project objectives almost perfectly. Among other things, this group proposed a »Voluntary Journalistic Year (FJJ)« (chapter 7) [akin to the »Voluntary Social Year« that is popular among German high school graduates, translator’s note]. Subsequently, 30 students gathered general solutions and utopias on the topic of »media dreams«. The work group »Basis« addressed the financing of journalism, proposing a blockchain solution (Chapter 8). The work group from Tegernsee looked at the social integration of journalism and science. In addition to the havoc caused by the pandemic and the criticisms that had been riddling the project, this group also threw the plans and specifications for the project out the window (chapter 9). The Zwickau-based work group completely derailed the project, calling into question whether journalism could even make any difference in society at all (chapter 3, p. 88ff.). By contrast, the Munich-based work group (Chapter 4) was highly productive. Among other things, it came up with a constitutional utopia, envisioning a »Council for Sustainable Information of the Federal Republic of Germany« (Mirbach 2023: 119).

The Leipzig work group (Chapter 5) made a connection with public broadcasting and explored what participation might look like in this area. The group eaborated five statements and a vision of a »social communication platform«. In Chapter 6, the work group »Standing Audience Conference« developed approaches for an audience complaints website and a citizens’ foundation modelled after consumer testing agencies. At the beginning and at the end, Mirbach addresses the ARD future dialog, which was held almost simultaneously. This project included a large-scale citizens’ survey. However, considering or implementing its results is the domain of audience councils or »media policy« (Mirbach 2023: 266). Compared to the ARD Future Dialog, the Media Future Lab deserves credit for focusing on citizens’ participation by documenting and reflecting on their utopias (»media dreams«) as well as on the process of participation. This is, perhaps, the added value of this project documentation.

About the reviewer

Gabriele Hooffacker, Prof. Dr. phil., (*1959), is co-editor of Journalistik. She teaches »Media-Appropriate Content Preparation« at HTWK Leipzig. Gabriele Hooffacker serves as editor of the textbook series »Journalistische Praxis« (Journalistic Practice) at Springer VS, which had been founded by Walther von La Roche (1936-2010); as well as the series »Leipziger Beiträge zur Computerspielekultur« [Leipzig Contributions to Gaming Culture]. She is a jury member for the Alternative Media Award. Contact:

About the book

Alexis von Mirbach (2023): Medienträume. Ein Bürgerbuch zur Zukunft des Journalismus. [Media Dreams. A Citizen’s Handbook on the Future of Journalism.] Cologne: Herbert von Halem Verlag, 272 pages, EUR 27.