Why there is no European journalism

This is an extended version of a short talk I gave at Newsgeist (video below), a Google-organized gathering of media executives at Helsinki in May 2015.

A story of horses

On January 16, 2013, British newspapers lead with a shocking discovery: There’s horse meat in Tesco burgers! Two weeks later (Feb. 8), the French media, who had so far mocked the British horse-eating aversion, announce that traces of horse meat were found in Findus lasagna. Horreur! One month after the British started it (Feb. 22), Germans see in the Tagesschau that Aldi’s Rindergulasch contains horse meat, too. Ungläublich!

This story was a European story from the start. Whoever sells anything from a EU country usually sells it to customers in 27 other countries. This include horse meat packaged as beef.

But the story was covered at the national level, at least in the first weeks. Why is it a problem? The rush to get something out pushed quite a few journalists to fall for the simpler narrative, where the Romanian slaughterhouse that slain the horses was the bogeyman and French, German and British companies were the naive victims. In fact, the bad guys were Dutch and French [1].


Any story about trade is European in scope. As are stories about organized crime. About foreign policy. About migration. About religion. About culture. About pollution.

By opening borders, the Schengen Treaty has created many Europes the Member States did not plan for. Because no one wants to see them [2], journalists must step up and fill the void. Current solutions fall short.


Looking the wrong way

A few months ago, Dutch startup Blendle became the darling of European media commentators. The service lets publishers erect mutualized paywalls, so that users can pay once and access news anywhere, much like iTunes does for record labels. To me, this sounded an awful lot like Piano Media, an older startup that, starting in 2011, put up mutualized paywalls across 3 European countries. Piano raised more money, signed more publishers and covered more users than Blendle. Despite this track record, anyone I mentioned Piano Media to had never heard of it. Piano’s problem was that it was based in Bratislava and that it started with Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia.

European journalists pay close to zero attention to what is happening in neighboring countries. A piece of news, such as Blendle’s launch, has to travel to the United States and get coverage in Bloomberg or Techcrunch before it can be talked about in European capitals. Lack of language skills is one hindrance, but you don’t have to search too long before you find 28 English-speaking Twitter accounts covering your beat from each European capital.

Lack of confidence is more important. Continental journalists do not trust themselves to make the right calls when they read about a new development in a nearby country. Unless it is about cuisine or fashion, a French idea will have a hard time gaining traction. This is why European journalists are still surprised, for instance, when they hear that Paris is the most dynamic city for news startups [3].

English is a problem, not a solution

Most pan-European journalism operations work in English (we at Journalism++ do, too). Many of them publish in English. This is a problem. A language brings with it a set of assumptions about the world it describes. Almost all European languages, for instance, (Scandinavia is the exception) use two distinct forms of address to express the relationship between speakers (e.g tu vs vous in French). Some languages even have three. Try that in English.

By far the larger issue with the use of English regards personnel. An operation that runs in English will give native English speakers a head-start in their job application. English may not have a class-system embedded in pronouns, it nevertheless discriminate more than continental languages in its use of grammar and vocabulary. Except for tabloids, it is unthinkable to have writers on staff that speak only high school English.

This drive towards recruiting native English speakers means that Brits, Irishmen and women, Americans or Australians disproportionately staff European newsrooms that operate at continental scale. Needless to say, their experience of the European Union is fairly different from ours, on the continent.

Translations will ruin you

VoxEurop (formerly PressEurop) and, to a lesser extent, Cafébabel, a 6-language magazine for the Erasmus generation, translate all their content in as many languages as possible. The obvious problem lies in cost. Translators do not come cheap. Even if you have a network of volunteers, as Cafébabel or VoxEurop do, you still need organizational power to find translators and vet their work. The resources you put in translation do not go into marketing, for instance. And if you plan on creating a new brand, you will need as much marketing as possible.

More importantly, a translated text will have little resonance with a local audience. A story, even translated, will not be read in the same way by your users in Kensington and in Varna. It needs to be localized, so that local agents are given preeminence, links to the local situation are highlighted and local comparisons are made. Today’s Europe may be more integrated than ever, but the phrase “our archenemies from the 1980’s” will not have the same meaning on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

If your audience can relate to a pan-European set of ideas and references, then your audience probably also reads English well and you can do without translations.

Heralded by The Guardian, some newsrooms now translate stories in the language of its audience. Die Zeit’s German-Greek front page in July 2015 was noteworthy. While it remains a positive evolution, it does not qualify as European journalism.

Politico.eu, Euractiv or EU Observer are successful European outlets, but they are European insofar as they cover European institutions or cater to employees of European institutions. They will never have the agenda-setting power of Le Monde, L’Espresso and 26 other market leaders combined.

Networks of local journalists are the solution

European journalism is needed. It is not there yet because European journalists do not look around, because the English language and British people have too much weight and because the traditional pan-European approach to content (translations) is doomed to failure.

What works are networks of local journalists. Local journalists working together solve the issue of translation and localization, because they are, after all, local journalists. By putting together research, they can transform local stories into European ones, quite easily. For the process to be easy, the information that is shared needs to be structured. Think tables and databases, not piles of paper sheets. Such data-driven journalism helps gather information ; it also helps publication. An appealing visualization or interactive application can be translated in all 24 European languages at low cost.

Organization and collaboration does not happen out of thin air. It requires project managers to coordinate meetings, verify research, edit texts, find the right partners and apply for funding, when needed. Such project managers can be found in newsrooms, but, more often than not, work in smaller, more agile organizations outside of big media outlets. From Washington, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists does this job at the global level, as it showed with its OffshoreLeaks or SwissLeaks stories.

In Europe, Journalism++, the company I co-founded, plays the same role. The Migrants Files is one European investigation we conducted, among others. We organized data on the costs of Fortress Europe with several journalists, then shared it with 16 news outlets in as many European countries. The story was on several front pages of daily or weekly papers, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional investigation. Because most of the journalists we worked with were on their publisher’s payroll, the amount of cash needed for the project was fairly low. We have several other stories coming up that are all European in scope, and data-driven.

Concretely, all it requires is a common database, where information on the topic will be jointly gathered and shared. In the case of refugee deaths, for instance, we centralized all the information we could find from dozens of sources in over 10 countries. Once we had a good understanding of the processes at work and their Europeanness (e.g we showed that Italian policy towards refugees had an impact on arrivals in Greece), the journalists who were part to the consortium could “relocalize” the story. They conducted interviews with local stakeholders and published in local languages. By publishing under the same project name, a consortium of national media outlets can achieve impact at the European level. This approach lets a story reach both local audiences, what the likes of Politico.eu cannot, and European decision-makers, what national news outlets cannot do on their own.

If this read like advertising for Journalism++, it is because it is. I strongly believe that we contribute to making Europe better by providing European journalism. I also believe that there is room for more project coordinators like us in Europe. We receive more and more support from media outlets, foundations and other private organizations.

We sensed actual change among publishers in recent months, where the distaste for collaboration is slowly giving way to more willingness to try things. The creation of the Leading European Newspaper Alliance in March 2015 is a good example. Whether they remain at the experiment stage or whether they succeed in changing the way stories and built and in creating true European journalism is entirely up to them.

Notes

1. Read this AFP story [fr] for an illustration of sloppy journalism.

2. Of course, Europol for crime, Eurojust for justice, Frontex for migration or even the European Commission for trade do exist. Unfortunately, even if they produce high-quality reports, they have few resources and a built-in inability to communicate that prevent them from having any discursive impact.

3. Yes it is. A combination of lots of redundancy, very generous compensation packages and a government program that pays your former salary for 2 years when you start a company brought many unemployed journalists towards entrepreneurship. That many of these ventures fail quickly is another problem.


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