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Mathias Doepfner, CEO, Axel Springer SE

rachel idzerda The Globe and Mail

It's a summery afternoon in June when I arrive at the headquarters of Axel Springer SE. On the plaza in front of the building, employees are sitting on chunks of the former Berlin Wall, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and basking in the sun.

The location of the German media giant is no accident. Its eponymous founder deliberately chose this spot to build his office tower – a calculated affront to the notion of a divided Germany, expressed through real estate.

In keeping with company tradition, the current chief executive, Mathias Doepfner, is not averse to bold statements. These days, though, they're not so much about geopolitics as about the future of journalism, technology and privacy.

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Last year, Mr. Doepfner penned an open letter warning against Google Inc.'s market domination and its "totalitarian" attitude toward personal data, a move that won him both praise and brickbats.

On the business side, he has proven equally audacious. For months, he negotiated to take over one of the world's flagship newspaper brands – the Financial Times – only to be outbid at the last moment by Japan's Nikkei Inc. in late July.

The ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buy the prestigious salmon-coloured business daily says much about where Mr. Doepfner intends to take the 59-year old company, Europe's largest newspaper publisher. Mr. Doepfner envisions a future for Axel Springer that is international, English-speaking and entirely digital. But as the pursuit of the Financial Times demonstrated, it won't be easy arriving there.

We meet for lunch at an oval table outside his glass-walled office on the top floor of Axel Springer's tower. The backdrop is a panoramic view of Berlin. A former music critic who stands six-foot-and-seven-inches tall, Mr. Doepfner is wearing a skinny dark-blue tie and a slim black suit whose jacket has a camouflage pattern lining. As we tuck into open-faced sandwiches, he mixes candour with coyness.

Mr. Doepfner makes no secret of his appetite for acquisitions and seems to relish Axel Springer's role as possible suitor. I note that the company has been linked to potential takeovers of Forbes and the Huffington Post.

"I can tell you, and rightly so, we are looking at all of them," he says with a grin.

But he gives no hint that he is already deep in negotiations to buy the FT.

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It's now evident that Mr. Doepfner's drive to expand is tempered by an equally strong desire not to overpay. (He later commented on the failed deal in an earnings conference call. "We would have loved to have bought the FT," he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "It fitted perfectly into our strategy, but the price was too high.") Nikkei bought the publisher for £844-million ($1.73-billion) in late July.

Axel Springer's flagship publication is Bild, a tabloid offering a daily fare of provocation, insult and entertainment that dominates the German market. The company also publishes the highbrow conservative daily Die Welt and owns a portfolio of specialized websites focusing on everything from finance to sports to classifieds. It's a partner or investor in a host of new media ventures, including Politico Europe, Business Insider and Mic.com.

Like publishers elsewhere, Mr. Doepfner is trying to reduce the company's reliance on print advertising and to boost revenue generated by digital media. Axel Springer has made big strides: digital products accounted for 60 per cent of the company's €1.58-billion ($2.29-billion) in revenue in the first half of this year, up from 54 per cent in the same period last year. Especially promising are the classified-advertising properties under the Axel Springer umbrella, where revenue jumped 57 per cent in the first half.

Converting a new generation of newspaper readers into paying digital subscribers is proving difficult work.

The number of digital-only subscribers to Bild and Die Welt – about 330,000 – is still dwarfed by their combined weekday print circulation of 2.4 million. Mr. Doepfner calls the digital subscriber figures "a nice start" but not something "we can be happy with at all."

Mr. Doepfner, who owns a 3.1-per-cent stake in the company, talks with zeal about the promise of digital journalism. He believes that within a decade, printed newspapers will only exist "as a kind of nostalgic, vintage item," much like vinyl records. Instead, they will be published on thin, flexible electronic paper, he says, picking up his immaculate white cloth napkin to demonstrate. "You can fold it, you can roll it," he says. The prototypes already exist, he adds, and will become mass-market products.

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Stories delivered on such electronic paper could be constantly updated, operate without space constraints, incorporate multimedia elements and interact with readers, he says. "Digital journalism should be and could be and will be much better than printed journalism," Mr. Doepfner says. With one caveat, he adds: It won't be better if the business model is not intact.

Axel Springer has introduced "paywalls" for its newspapers, although Mr. Doepfner detests that terminology. "If you erect walls, you cannot be surprised that people don't like it," he says, a sentiment with particular resonance in Berlin. But whatever media organizations call it, they need to charge for their product, he asserts. If journalists don't believe that their work is valuable enough to merit being paid for, he says vehemently, then "we should change professions."

It's time for a cup of coffee. There's an elegant espresso machine on a ledge near the window, and Mr. Doepfner makes an espresso for me and a ristretto – black, no sugar – for himself.

I take the opportunity to ask him about a striking work of art just behind his desk. It's impossible to miss: a large wooden Star of David painted yellow and studded with bent nails along every edge. Mr. Doepfner explains it's a work by Guenther Uecker, a famous German artist, who created it on the 30th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Germany and Israel.

"I saw it and I found it particularly emotional," he says as the coffee machine hums. "The whole topic of reconciliation between Germany and Israel and the fight against anti-Semitism is very important for me and for the company. I thought, 'Even if it is a strong signal, why not send it, ja?'"

His office provides ample evidence of his passion for art, but his first love was music. He says his two favourite composers are Gustav Mahler and James Brown. He professes fascination for everything from techno to funk to opera, with one small but significant exception. "The worst thing is everything that is related to folk and country music," he says. "If you want to kick me out of a room, that's the most efficient way."

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Born in Bonn, Mr. Doepfner moved to Frankfurt with his parents at the age of seven and harboured dreams of becoming a bass guitarist. He studied musicology and wrote a doctorate that explored the evolution of German music criticism after the Second World War. After working as a critic himself, he started dreaming up new magazines – "totally unrealistic" concepts, he now says – and began presenting them to publishers. They didn't bite, but one major publisher hired him as his assistant.

From there, he became a newspaper editor and then moved to Axel Springer in 1998 as editor-in-chief of Die Welt. Four years later, he became chief executive of the company. His savvy financial stewardship of the firm proved that he was both "Schöengeist und Teppichhändler" – both an aesthete and a carpet-dealer, as he once described himself in a documentary.

Mr. Doepfner's open clash with Google began in the context of ongoing tension over European competition policy.

He hesitated for a day or two before writing his long open letter to Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman. He considers Mr. Schmidt a friend – when the American executive is in Berlin, they spend time in nearby Potsdam, where Mr. Doepfner lives – but the relationship between Google and publishers is more "frenemies," he says.

He describes the ensuing debate over Google's role in Europe as gratifying. The letter "opened people's mouths," he says, whereas before they didn't dare criticize the search giant. "I'm pretty sure that it will lead to [a] fair solution where Google can still prosper and grow and be one of the smartest and most successful companies in the world, but there is also room for new startups with great ideas."

Reflecting on his unconventional career path shuttling between the editorial and business sides of journalism, Mr. Doepfner says his current role is perfect, because he gets to do both. "I enjoy it every day, I have to tell you," he says, almost like a confession.

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Apparently in Germany, it's still a tad strange to declare that you have fun in your job. When asked about work, the more conventional response is "it's very hard, very difficult, lots of challenges and so on," Mr. Doepfner says with a laugh. "You could not say, 'I'm enjoying it, I love to sit in my office.'"

That's changing with a younger generation of workers, he adds. But in at least one way, German culture remains the same. We agreed on an hour for the interview – and now, to the minute, my time is up.

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Mathias Doepfner, CEO, Axel Springer SE

Age: 52

Place of birth: Bonn, Germany

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Education: PhD in Musicology from the University of Frankfurt

Family: Married, with three children

Home: Historic villa in Potsdam, former imperial capital just south of Berlin

Favourite composers: Gustav Mahler and James Brown.

"I have always had a very broad range of interests" in music, he says, ranging from Italian and German opera to "everything that is related to rhythm and blues, soul, funk, jazz, rock … Techno I also find very fascinating, very interesting and different."

Favourite orchestra: Vienna Philharmonic

Favourite concert hall: Berliner Philharmonie

Favourite museum: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Favourite place to eat in Berlin: Grill Royal, an upscale steakhouse frequented by movers and shakers that overlooks the Spree River.

Hobbies: "It's music, it's art – more and more I'm collecting myself. To answer specifically, I'm collecting female nudes over 500 years. The third [hobby] is collecting old red wines, from the first half of the 20th century."

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