Specialist publications are uniquely positioned to give insight into highly emotive current affairs developments. They can also build bridges, agrarheute’s Simon Michel-Berger tells Adri Kotze.
- Current affairs developments can provide niche platforms an opportunity to tell the story best.
- A specialist platform can be a one-stop shop for its audience.
- Expertise and respect bridge gaps – in newsrooms and in society.
As a tide of anger against environmental policies sweeps across European farms, agricultural journalists find themselves at the forefront of political, environmental, and economic reporting.
It’s an exciting time to be a journalist in agriculture, says Simon Michel-Berger, editor-in-chief of agrarheute, a specialist German platform reporting on all aspects of agriculture. Agrarheute provides insight into topics such as crop cultivation, technology, and animal husbandry. It analyses markets and discovers trends, but with German farmers blocking city centres, highways and motorway slipways with tractors in nationwide protests against planned cuts to agricultural fuel subsidies, it is at the centre of highly charged politics and emotions.
There is growing public discontent with Olaf Scholz’s coalition government, and fear of radicalisation of the protests, (The German farmers’ association has distanced itself from far-right groups.)
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It is hard not to agree in principle with efforts to curb emissions, but also difficult not to feel for the farmers. German farmers, like their counterparts elsewhere, are under immense pressure and struggling to make a profit after an energy crisis and the pandemic. The issue here is that the government wants to cut diesel subsidies for farmyard vehicles, but farmers say higher bills and lower wholesale prices for products such as milk are pushing them into bankruptcy. Since the early 1990s, every second farm in Germany has closed down.
“We used to be a sort of very niche group of people dealing with agriculture,” says Simon, who has a background in political science and economics, but emphasises that he has grown a deep emotional connection to farming.
“Now we’re finding ourselves at the focus of general attention about not just the big issues of our day like climate change, but also very specific issues like farmers protests out there on the street.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us from the specialist media to be able to tell our story to a broader public, which finds it very interesting to learn more and is turning towards us to learn more about what the issues are that farmers are dealing with.”
The specialist expertise at agrarheute is invaluable to staying relevant – along with the ability to adapt.
Simon says they distribute around 47 000 copies of their print magazine every month and have more than 8 million website visits per month.
The magazine was, in its original form, one of the first monthly publications on agriculture in Germany after the end of World War 11, but has continuously reinvented itself.
“We have a very long history, but we’re always trying to adapt to the current challenges. Since every farmer in Germany these days is using a smartphone to get herself or himself informed about current affairs and any issues that will concern them, our strategy has been to be present where farmers are turning their eyeballs to, which is basically smartphones and the internet, and using a strategy whereby we’re focusing quite substantially on using Google to promote our stories,” Simon explains.
“We have been able to achieve a substantial increase in our reach to the point where we’re actually one of Germany’s largest specialist media [platforms] in terms of reach.”
A key element to agrarheute’s success has been to provide farmers with immediate access online to market movements such as wheat and fertiliser prices. It’s a one-stop-shop for the whole farming family, with relevant information ranging from very specific and practical advice, such as alternatives to products that are no longer available, to legal requirements for their hobbies, the weather and, of course, current affairs.
About half the people working for agrarheute come from a farming background, Simon says, which can create tensions with colleagues from an urban background. Crucially, they have brought people with these different views together.
It helps to treat each other with respect, he believes.
“A concrete example [is that] for farmers, the issue of property is incredibly important – what it means to have property, take care of property and to be a good steward of the countryside. People who come from a city background who do not necessarily own property may find it a little unusual.
“This is something we’re trying to bridge in our organisation too, to bridge the gap between urban and rural lifestyles and ways of approaching things.”
This, Simon says, works when people talk and find solutions, with both sides learning from each other, such as when agriculturalists learn from people using cutting-edge technology and people using modern technology understand what farmers actually want.
“Nobody has the silver bullet to solve all problems,” he says. The foundation of agrarheute’s success, Simon adds, is getting different people together to use all their strengths and respect each other’s weaknesses, “just trying to put them together in a way that works”.
- Watch the full interview with Simon here.