Three men and three ‘fat sisters’ – 50 years of Gruner + Jahr

Shortly after three German publishers merged their interests in 1965 to create a company that would ultimately become Europe’s largest publishing firm – Gruner + Jahr – a lively debate erupted in the printing industry. The magazines in their new Schöner Wohnen (Better living), Zeit (Time), Capital, Stern (Star) and three women’s magazines, ‘Constanze’, ‘Brigitte’ and ‘Petra’. Germany’s influential Spiegel newspaper joked that “three men wanted to live better (Schöner Wohnen). They have the time (Zeit) and the capital (Capital). A lucky star (Stern) shines from newsstands, and the dowry includes three fat sisters ‘Constanze’, ‘Brigitte’ and ‘Petra’.

But the formation of Gruner + Jahr was no laughing matter. It was the birth of a stellar publishing business. Over the past 50 years Gruner + Jahr has:  

• sold 20 billion magazines worldwide;

• collected 312,867 recipes in its magazines and on its websites;

• published 1,224,772 advertisements in its magazines;

• published interviews with every Federal German Chancellor;

• spread around the globe – today Gruner + Jahr titles are available from 143,427 retailers in 70 countries; and

• published approximately two million articles and three million images on its websites.

Two names were more than enough

It started on 30 June 1965 when three men sat down to hammer out a contract. Those who recall the event said it took time – a lot of it. Eventually the contract was signed in the garden of John Jahr’s thatched villa in Hamburg, accompanied by champagne and strawberries.

The signatories were Gerd Bucerius, then 59, his fellow publisher John Jahr, 65, and the 39-year old printing company owner Richard Gruner. To this day people ask why Bucerius’ name was never part of the new company name. The answer is simple. Bucerius didn’t care. Two names were more than enough, as long as there were strawberries and champagne.

No surprise then when employees of Gruner +Jahr celebrated its 50th birthday in June they ate strawberry cake and drank fine champagne. They celebrated half a century of publishing innovation which yielded a company that offer classic brands in print and online.

Turbulent times

Like the uncertainties in the publishing industry today, pressures existed on publishers as far back as those early years when Gruner + Jahr had to negotiate their new venture through takeovers and acquisitions. The entrepreneurial challenges took an early toll. By 1969 Gruner decided to sell his shares and retire.

This allowed Jahr and Bucerius to increase their holdings, but sold off 25 percent to multinational media corporation Bertelsmann. Through the years Bertelsmann steadily increased its shareholding to become the whole owner.

Back in the early years the Gruner + Jahr flagship publication – and financial backbone – was Stern. But it was not all plain sailing. Stern came under numerous attacks, least of all when Stern took a controversial stand against the ban on abortion in 1971. In 1983 it survived another crisis when it published fake diaries purported to be written by Hitler.

Then, when privately owned television came to Germany in 1984, Stern was hardest hit as advertising revenues dwindled. Yet, by adapting to the changing environment the magazine not only survived, it grew stronger. By 1993 it was a popular news weekly.

New beginnings

Despite turbulent years Gruner + Jahr developed a healthy stable of new magazines. The first new magazine, Essen & Trinken (Eating & drinking), was launched in 1972 by John Jahr’s daughter, Angelika, and is an established classic to this day.

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More titles followed, like Geo (1976), the science magazine P.M. (1978), Art (1979) and a magazine for entrepreneurs, Impulse (1980). More recently Groner + Jahr started Gala (1994), Neon (2003), View (2005) and Viva (2012), to name but a few.

Some of the ‘fat sisters’ had ‘offspring’. Brigitte developed extensions, including Young Miss (1995), Brigitte Woman (2001) and Brigitte Mom (2009).

Together with the development of a rapidly growing digital arm, Gruner + Jahr continue to invent new brands, such as Flow and Beef. This autumn will see more new titles, including Stern Crime and Barbara.

Spreading wings

Gruner + Jahr was one of the first German magazine publishers to enter foreign markets when – in 1978 – it bought a Spanish publisher. It also entered the American market with the purchase of monthly magazine Parents and teen magazine YM.

One of the biggest successes was the launch in 1979 of Prisma Media in France. It remains one of France’s largest magazine publishers. This model started an international strategy which resulted in Gruner + Jahr expanding into more markets. Today Gruner + Jahr reaches readers in more than 70 countries with over 500 media activities, magazines and digital offerings. Almost half of revenue is generated outside Germany.

The digital revolution

Gruner + Jahr embraced the development of the internet. As early as 1995 GEO, P.M., Stern and TV Today had websites. Today, is one of the leading German news sites while has the greatest reach in its segment.

In its core markets, Germany and France, digital properties in 2014 accounted for 17 per cent of revenue. New digital titles include Roomido, a portal for room design and furnishing, Tambini, an ecommerce platform for parents, and Finderzimmer (Room Finder). The acquisition of the digital marketplace Danato further extends the e-commerce business.

The future

Last year Gruner + Jahr ended an important part of its history. By selling Brown Printing in America, the company not only parted ways with its last remaining printing company, it acknowledged that digitalisation forever changed the way media companies will work. Today, Gruner + Jahr has its future set in becoming the leader in disseminating information in the digital world. New Chief Executive Officer Julia Jäkel has been set the challenge to reinvent and reposition the company in a radically new media world; and set it on course for the next 50 years.

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