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  • Magic Connections:German News Agencies and Global News Networks, 1905–1945
  • Heidi Tworek (bio)

In March 1917, a German satirical magazine, Kladderadatsch, devoted an entire special issue to a very particular type of business. In over thirty pages of poems, articles, and cartoons, Kladderadatsch polemicized against the British news agency, Reuters. One cartoon (figure 1) featured an evil gremlin gnawing on a world with green oceans, while his gnarled fingers grasped the globe and telegraph cables extended from his sharpened fingernails. “Lies are the law of the world! Reuters cable network teaches that,” the caption declared. But why, in the midst of one of the most crucial phases of World War I, did a German magazine focus on the news agency as the most nefarious aspect of Allied propaganda? And why did the magazine, like German elites, believe that the news agency, combined with cables, held such power to influence opinions and shape the course of the war?

Magic Connections explains why German elites became so invested in the global news business and attempted to reform one of the very premises of modernity: the organizational structure of global communications. In the early 1990s, Anthony Giddens posited that the “pooling of knowledge represented by ‘news’” was an essential condition for the globalization of modernity, while Arjun Appadurai classified “mediascapes” as one of five dimensions of global flows.1 Magic Connections combines business history with this global perspective to trace how infrastructures, ideas, and individuals created news.

German elites focused their energies on one type of firm to control the collection and dissemination of news—news agencies. The first [End Page 672] news agencies emerged in the mid-nineteenth century almost simultaneous to submarine telegraphy. As cables connected more parts of the world, news agencies became the key method for newspapers to receive global reports. Apart from major papers like the London Times, or Vossische Zeitung, most newspapers could not afford foreign correspondents. Many papers did not even have journalists in their capital cities. They relied instead upon news agencies for global, and even national, news. To express the difference in commercial terms, news agencies were in many ways “news wholesalers,” distributing their material to their “retail clients” (newspapers) to repackage short, staccato sentences into articles and reports for their particular public.2

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Figure 1.

Cartoon, Kladderadatsch, 70, Nr. 13, March 31, 1917, 208. (last accessed August 7, 2014).

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, news agencies became the indispensable nexus of media networks: they both collected and [End Page 673] disseminated news to newspapers and, indirectly, to reading publics. In deciding which events to report, news agencies often functioned as the first gatekeepers of information. Like in other businesses, supply chains could substantially shape the commodity. With news, though, elites increasingly saw the product as vital for far more than just communications.

Certainly, news agencies can be studied as profit-seeking businesses in their own right. Recent work by business historians and economists has sought to understand how media businesses functioned or how they used subsidies to survive.3 Scholarship has also focused on the Anglo-American realm.4 But for German elites, profits within the news business were often of secondary concern in comparison to the broader benefits of disseminating news from Germany throughout the world. For industrialists, news could be a loss leader for German exports. For politicians, news could serve as “soft power” at home and abroad.5 Magic Connections thus examines how elites used private and public mechanisms both to control the news business and to exploit it for wider aims.

In the first half of the twentieth century, I argue that a “news agency consensus” emerged amongst German elites—a belief that news agencies constituted an effective mechanism to influence broader political, economic, and social expectations. Some of the most prominent German politicians, industrialists, academics, and journalists across the political spectrum thought that news agencies represented the best means to improve Germany’s international reputation, to cement and augment its position in foreign trade, and to create internal integration at home.

I argue that the news agency consensus emerged from a combination of two...