Erasing the barrier with a pen

Newspapers in Schleswig - Holstein

So close, and so far away. Germans and Danes in the Southschleswig didn’t use to share more than a border. But a new journalistic project has given them a place in each others’ lives– at least every Saturday.

By: Anna Rydholm and Ana Munoz Padros

Have a look at our video here


Siegfried Matlock is a German living in Denmark. But he is also the editor-in-chief of Der Nordschleswiger – a newspaper for the German minority in the Schleswig-Holstein region on the Danish-German border.


In 2008, he had the idea of working together with the Flensborg Avis newspaper, whose target is the Danish minority on the other side of the border. This idea resulted in a project called Unter Nachbarn / Blandt naboer (German and Danish versions for Between Neighbours).


It consisted of a brand new section appearing in both newspapers every Saturday, focusing on people living in the region. The topics were not hot news, but issues that concerned people’s life, often told in a mirroring way, by comparing Danish and German lifestyle.


Two bigger majority newspapers also belonging to the region – German sh:z and Danish Jydske Vestkysten – would later on join the project. It was decided to apply for EU funding through the Interreg 4A program. After some unavoidable struggling with bureaucracy, 60% of the project could be financed through the EU until March 2011.


The support also meant that a Project manager could be hired. Angela Jensen, former journalist and belonging to the Danish minority herself, was appointed for this office. She says that the funding was welcome, but not crucial.


“It depends on the newspapers; the smaller ones have lot of problems right now, whereas the other two manage well without support”.


Angela Jensen, project coordinator

From concurrence to cooperation

Four newspapers working together might be an even greater challenge than the usual competition among them. Firstly, they had to deal with the language issue, as not all of journalists, nor readers are bilingual. Therefore, Unter Nachbarn / Blandt naboer is published in both languages in the four newspapers.


The way of working together chosen was a rotation system: each week a journalist from a different newspaper was responsible of writing the weekly article. Angela Jensen explains the method that led the whole project.


“The idea was to use the other country like a mirror”.


By reading these comparisons, people could now find out how the neighbours they were separated from by a line drew in a map – live and behave.


This project would not have any reason to be, if there was not a desire of knowing more about the other Schleswig – Holstein inhabitants. This is something Mr Matlock reckons.


“Relations between Danes and Germans have never been as good as today”.


Cooperation and integration across the border has improved significantly during the latest years. Mr Matlock does not hesitate to say that the Unter Nachbarn/ Blandt naboer project has contributed to this development.


“It has been a break in the wall for both minorities. Now they can get information they never got before”, he asserts.


Besides, the public target is not only the minorities, but everyone who lives in the region, or have an interest in these cross-border issues. Both minorities and majorities, on both sides of the border, now seem to take more interest in each other.


According to Mr Matlock, this is a development of integration and mutual respect for each others’ different identity, rather than assimilation. This approach is also reflected in the comparisons made in the articles.


Journalistic challenges

But the differences were not confined to paper and ink – they were also present in the everyday work at the four newspapers. It soon became clear that this project was not merely about crossing a border between two countries – it also concerned barriers in terms of language, culture and journalistic traditions.


This fact was something all the participants had to relate and adjust to, which meant that old and safe ways of doing things sometime shad to be changed. Angela admits that there was some hesitance in the beginning.


“Of course the idea of working together was new and different for everyone. All the newspapers were independent publishing companies, and suddenly they had to share information, articles and photos and publish things together. The editors-in-chief were a bit concerned since they didn’t fully know what was going on”


However, as the project developed, the four newspapers managed to find solutions to most of the challenges they faced.


The peril of translations

Not surprisingly, the language barrier would prove the hardest to overcome. Angela Jensen, who has worked a lot with translations herself, says that the translating of a text from one language to another is far from a straightforward process.


“Translation is not that easy as you might think, since there are so many small things that can be misunderstood. It is very important to be aware of that”.


In most of the cases, bilingual journalists from Flensburg Avis and Der Nordschleizwiger made the translations. This meant that the minority papers, despite being considerably smaller than their majority colleagues, came to play a crucial part of the project – something that probably gave them more influence than otherwise would have been the case.

Siegfried Matlock, editor in chief of Der Nordschleswiger


Mr Matlock says that he is very satisfied with how the cooperation has worked out in this respect.


“In the end we have turned out to be four equal partners in the same level, being a small newspaper has definitely not been a problem for us”.


Gerard Nowc from the sh:z admits that the language barrier has been a greater obstacle for the two majority newspapers, not merely journalistically but also when it came to communication among colleagues. This was something he experienced personally during the conferences that was arranged once at month to discuss the project.


“I speak no Danish at all and that has been a problem at our conferences, since I cannot understand the Danish speakers. I have to look happy, and then ask my colleague if I can get a copy of her notes”.


To Dua or not

These conferences also brought up another challenge the project partners had to deal with– namely the issue of cultural differences, politeness and social codes. Angela says that even an easy thing like addressing her colleagues could be a bit hazardous initially.


“At the very start you had to be aware of what you called people. In Denmark it is common to address everyone, even people you don’t know closely, with du*– and I am quite Danish-minded about this. However, in Germany they have a different comprehension of what is considered polite, so there are some colleagues at the sh:z I would never say du to”


A third, and perhaps even more demanding challenge was the issue of different journalistic traditions. The opinion shared by all partners involved is that German journalism generally is more text-based, whereas Danish newspapers write shorter and favours pictures.


Oliver Havlat, Editorial director for the sh:z online news desk and responsible for the online part of the project, describes Danish journalism as somewhat more current than its German counterpart.


“We have some kind of traditional journalism in Germany still. The texts are longer and the pictures are smaller. The Danes have a more graphic approach to the reading experience– it’s more colourful, the pictures are bigger. I think is more modern”.


These differences were something the journalists had to keep in mind when they wrote for the project. Angela Jensen says that it in the end came down to producing material that could easily be changed to suit all the participants and their different needs.


“This was sometimes difficult for the journalists who asked why they suddenly had to write more or take more pictures. The newspapers all needed different things, although the topic was the same, and that’s also why we needed me. It took a little time before we could find a good way to do it”.


Taboos are not universal

Finally, there was also a significant difference in how the papers dealt with sensitive topics. Or rather- what they considered to be sensitive topics. Angela Jensen thinks that there is a gap between Danes and Germans in this sense.


“I remember when we wrote about sex shops on the German border, a tradition that prevails since the 70s when these institutions were totally taboo in Denmark. However, my Danish colleague who wrote the article was very open about this topic, and put everything there in a rather straightforward way”.


“When I got it I understood that it could never be published in a German newspaper, so we had to change it a bit. In the end they all published the article but in totally different versions, people are interested in this subject”.


A journalistic opportunity

Despite the extra work, the participants from sh:z and Der Nordschleswig all seem to be very positive about the project, and share the opinion that it has helped them to improve their respective newspapers.


Angela Jensen thinks that the Unter Nachbarn/Blandt Narboer project represents traditional journalistic craftsmanship – something that becomes more and more rare in an increasingly instant world.


“I think it is a great opportunity for the journalists to do this– to take the car, go out there and meet people, and then come back and write the story. This material cannot be produced by an international agency, it is something we produce ourselves and that is special for our newspapers”.


Scary IT

But if the journalistic challenges were more than welcome, other aspects of the project were less popular

Internet, friend or foe?

One of the objectives of Unter Nachbarn/ Blandt Narboer was to develop a proper webpage there the articles could be published.


All the material would be easily accessible, and the newspapers would benefit from getting more experience in on-line publishing. This ambition turned out to be hard to carry through in reality, since many journalists were not very interested in new technique.


Oliver Havlat says that he still thinks that the project has helped the newspapers to realise the opportunities of Internet and online-publishing. All the newspapers have links to the project stories on their respective homepages, and they remain in the top of the most read things– although the last article was published in December last year.


At Der Nordschleziger, Mr Matlock describes the project as a “fantastic chance” when it comes to working towards the web. A common hope seems to be that presence on the web will attract new readers.


Feedback, and future

If the result of a publication is measured under a reader’s perspective, the Unter Nachbarn / Blandt Naboer project has been a success. Economically speaking, the participants in the project cannot say if they have increased the number of sales or not, but according to Oliver Havlat 1800 visits per month were made to the cooperation section in the sh:z webpage.


The visit counter also asserted that the activity calendar was the section most preferred by internet surfers, which can be seen as a sign of that the readers are willing to participate in cross-border activities.


Officially, the project will end this month, but the partners seem determined to continue– although under different forms. The partners are currently discussing how this will be done. Gerard Howc hopes that the talks will result in less mirroring and more actuality.


“It would be great if we could focus more on political and societal issues. Of course it is important to inform the readers about the different conditions in our countries. But we could go deeper; write about schools, disabled people and the access to kindergarten instead of birthdays and Christmas traditions”.


One idea that is being discussed is to develop a model of an “Open archive”, which means that the newspapers will be able to pick articles from each other, translate and publish them. Mr Matlock says that he think this model would increase the actuality of the project, and in the longer run- the integration in the whole region.


“To put these four newspapers with their different cultures together, and to make them work towards one goal was difficult, but it succeeded. We now have a feel of trust, and I think that is a good step forward”.


*To Dua
Du in Danish is an informal form of you. 

The more formal and polite form is De.

This form is rarely used, compared from in German.


JydskeVestkysten Esbjerg, Denmark. Launched in 1991. Circulation around 70,000 copies.
der Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitungsverlag (sh:z) 

Flensburg, Germany. Circulation of 199,918 copies (summing 15 newspapers)
Flensborg Avis Flensburg, Germany. Founded in 1869. Circulation around 6,000 copies.
Der Nordschleswiger Åbenrå, Denmark. Founded in 1946. Circulation around 4,000 copies.
















About Anna Rydholm