Oct 21, 2021 - Economy

Axel Springer CEO admits "mistake" on Politico paywall

Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE speaks in Berlin earlier this year. Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka - Pool/Getty Images

Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner told Politico staffers in a company-wide Q&A Thursday that it was "a mistake" to tell The Wall Street Journal last week that he planned to institute a paywall.

Why it matters: Politico staffers have told Axios they feel bait and switched after Döpfner's comments, which were less than two months after he told staffers "We're from Berlin, We don't like the concept of walls."

  • "They are playing fast and loose with the paywall thing," a staffer told Axios prior to the company-wide call Thursday.
  • Axios has obtained audio from the call.

Details: When asked whether Politico's free website would go behind a paywall Döpfner said, "The answer is no. Absolutely not. No decision has been made. My answer honestly was very unfortunate. It was my mistake."

  • "The immediate answer — do you implement a paywall? I said no but then I elaborated how important paid content is for us and I believe in that. That is actually the main reason we acquired Politico because it was based so much on a subscription model," Döpfner said.
  • He also noted that we should call it "paid content or subscriptions and never again paywall, because I truly think — apart from the Berlin Wall — it is a negative psychology. Wall excludes people or keeps people imprisoned and that's not what we should do. It's an offering, so in general, something positive."
  • "Whether concretely in the case of Politico, the B to C (business to consumer) part of the business should be either partly subscription or completely subscription-driven, that is something we would like to discuss with you and be assured — we would never — if we had made the decision or think we should make the decision, announce it publicly before we speak to you. Our approach would be to ask you what do you think is right," he said, noting they took a similar approach with Insider.
  • "Basically you decide and we would discuss it with you and if you have good reasons not to do it, we don’t do it and if you want to try it, we try it, but no decision has been made and that was just because of my unclear communication for it ... I cannot blame the Wall Street Journal for it, only me."

The big picture: Axel Springer announced it would buy Politico in August, adding to its growing U.S. media investment portfolio, which also includes Insider and Morning Brew.

  • Döpfner's Politico-wide call followed a report from The New York Times that alleged that Axel Springer dismissed allegations of abuse of power by a top executive. (Axel Springer removed that editor Monday following the report.)
  • Three sources familiar with the matter tell Axios that Döpfner's remarks last week around paywalls, as well as his suggestion that Politico staff would need to follow Springer’s guiding principles, have been brought up by union organizers to staffers in an effort to build support.
  • "They are definitely trying to gin up frustration in order to push the union drive over the finish line," one staffer said.

Between the lines: Dopfner also denied reporting from the same New York Times story about his negotiations earlier this year with Axios.

  • From the Times: "On July 29, Mr. VandeHei, the Axios chief executive, told his board of an unusual situation, according to two people at the meeting. Mr. Döpfner, he said, had floated the idea of installing Mr. VandeHei as the chief executive of the Politico-Axios combination. But Mr. Döpfner knew that Politico’s leadership team, still bitter over Mr. VandeHei’s departure to start a rival publication, would object. So Mr. Döpfner proposed that they keep the deal secret and announce it only after it was too late for Politico to withdraw, Mr. VandeHei told his board."
  • Döpfner said at the town hall: "Robert [Allbritton] was always aware that we were continuing our talks with Axios because we didn't know whether the Politico deal really goes through."
  • "At a certain moment where we found out, now Politico's really serious and is determined to do that and we are determined to do that, there were some issues where we for a moment thought could we do a minority investment in Axios and other ideas, but we basically then said that Politico is our priority, then the Axios talks were stopped."
  • "There was at no point the idea, as it was written — I think — that Axios top management should become editor-in-chief of Politico or something like that."
  • An Axios spokesperson said they would not comment on private discussions.

Addressing management, Döpfner said, "And we have always truthfully informed Robert (Allbritton) and Duncan (Evans) about our talks and our ideas. From today, there is no intention to acquire Axios. We are super happy with Politico. If you can be the shareholder of the number one and of the champion in the field, there is no need to do anything else."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include Döpfner's comments on Axios.

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