Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Feature

Building pan-European media: why is it so hard?

  • The age-old dilemma - reporting on Brussels from Brussels, or from member-state capitals?
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Why don't we have a true pan-European media? It's a question I ask in all earnesty as editor of a news outlet called EUobserver. Yes, we publish about the EU and Europe, and yes, our intended audience are European citizens — but at the same time, we focus on a niche (EU affairs) that a limited audience is interested in. Unfortunately.

Same goes for other — better-known — examples people might throw my way. Euronews focuses mostly on news and business. Arte is all highbrow arts and culture. Laudable, both of them, but not of general interest necessarily. Admit it, the only time you've watched either of them was in a hotel room.

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Politico Europe, meanwhile, has — through virtually limitless funding after Axel Springer's billion-dollar acquisition of its US parent — carved out a space that appears on the surface quite European. But, like us, it focuses on the goings-on in Brussels for the people in Brussels rather than the consequences of the goings-on in Brussels for the people truly affected by the goings-on in Brussels.

One would think that with our daily lives entwined economically, socially and politically with other countries on our continent, a Guardian, or New York Times of Europe that covers all of these entwinements from news to lifestyle to culture to politics would be an obvious thing to have.

Ah, but the Guardian and New York Times already exist to do that? Well, yes. But at the same time, that's 1) not their main bread-and-butter and 2) they tend to do so from a national (Anglo-American) perspective for their core readership, as our previous editor in chief James Kanter finely noted in a piece on The Atlantic.

Sometimes, that makes me, as a person who identifies more as a European than as Dutch (where I live) or German (my nationality) feel weirdly alienated. Both from having a concrete identity — what does it actually mean to feel 'European' — and from receiving information about the people on this continent that's not framed through national perspectives, politics or cultures.

In a 2006 speech called Opening up Fortress Europe, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas lamented the fact that "there is no European public space."

According to him, the existence of such a public space, where ideas from citizens all over Europe are shared and acknowledged could work miracles, like mitigate resentment of EU laws being written into national law (because of a feeling of lack of agency on the part of EU citizens, and a tendency of national politicians to just 'blame it on Brussels'), but could also create more understanding and reciprocity between citizens of the EU.

As Éva Biró-Kaszás wrote about Habermas in the Journal of Social Research and Policy in 2010, "This strategy is not about finding the largest common denominator (by trying to interest everyone, one usually ends up deterring most) but about revealing and, where suitable, promoting differences and diversity as a natural and desirable part of a shared Europe."

Pan-European media could show citizens of Europe that the EU is not just a bureaucracy machine that produces rules, but a society made up of people who might share some similarities with you — or not, which is also valuable information. In turn, this knowledge could empower citizens of Europe to take a united stand against better internationally-organised phenomena like multinationals or the tax-dodging rich.

It's a sentiment echoed by many of my friends and contemporaries that I've spoken to. They'd like to read more about Europe, but are intimidated by the complexity of legislative processes and structures, or simply don't know any place to go to get what they want.

Not all hope is lost

The lack of such a public space or media has not gone unnoticed. With over nine million EU citizens having studied abroad through the Erasmus programme, a young and large audience has emerged that is interested in stories from across Europe — with media of all shapes and sizes rushing in to meet that demand.

The past few years have seen the emergence of a number of new media projects aimed at this so-called 'Erasmus Generation'. The outlets are pan-European not only in outlook, but also in the way they are run and how they approach the stories they select to tell.

They're also helped by a number of factors, the most important being the willingness and familiarity of individuals to pay for subscriptions or donations, the very clear pan-European impact the Russian war on Ukraine has had on European citizens, and the relative low bar of entry of setting up a new media outlet online.

As editorial steward of one of the EU's oldest pan-European online media outlets, I felt it important to look at some of the younger initiatives to find out what they are doing, how they're approaching the hetero- or homogeneity of Europeans, the challenges of publishing for a cross-border audience and what they think is missing in European media.

And also to steal their ideas and incorporate them into the future of EUobserver.

Let's start by introducing the youngest of the bunch: The European Correspondent. The initiative launched last November and consists of a series of returning newsletters, each focused on a region of Europe.

The newsletters contain links to stories of European significance in national newspapers, with a line or two of context added by the correspondent in the respective country — and the expectation that readers use an online translation tool to read the content.

A screenshot of The European Correspondent's website, featuring a story published by EUobserver

"I joined initially because I've been seeing that the only European news there is, is political, very much EU and policy focused, but nothing that actually covers the continent from a way that isn't political alone, but also, economy culture, language, anything, really," Belle de Jong, leading editor at the European Correspondent tells EUobserver.

The publication is newsletter-only, and for now relies on donations from individuals and foundations and the time and effort of voluntary correspondents across Europe. The newsletters individually cover European affairs, southern, eastern, western and northern Europe, highlighting stories from Greenland to Greece.

Echoing Habermas, de Jong says "Even more than making people aware of regulatory things, I feel like there isn't a European public space except the one filled with diplomats and journalists. I think that's a major long-term goal, just to even have other media cover Europe beyond its niche topics or politics, and create this space for people to discuss and debate and be informed."

According to Tim Kohnen, who heads up the European affairs newsletter at the European Correspondent, "We're trying to connect people with similar problems. An example of that is the housing crisis. We've reported on that from the Netherlands, but also from Portugal. It's a structural problem. We try to make people aware that it's not happening only in their own country or their own city, but also in other places. And why it's happening, and what can be done about it."

For now, the publication links outwards to stories in national outlets, but Kohnen said that the plan is to produce original stories making sense of pan-European affairs.

Experimentation

The European Correspondent is explicit about being an experiment, a work-in-progress in finding out what exactly a European story is, and how to report it.

Another outlet that started as somewhat of an experiment is the podcast The Europeans. Last year, it celebrated its fifth anniversary, but when speaking to producer Katz Laszlo and host Katy Lee, they still appeared searching for an answer on what exactly it is they're covering.

"I think part of the point is that we feel like there's European culture, but we don't know what it is. It's just like, 'what is European culture?' is kind of the outset I think," Lee said.

The Europeans hosts Katy Lee and Dominic Kraemer

Which is probably why their podcast has covered topics ranging from how EU legislation is really made, to cheese-based conflicts between Greece and Denmark, to Poland's queer history to, of course, the housing market, and the subtle art of subtitling.

The podcast is chatty but at the same time deeply researched, bringing on guests and experts, but also allows hosts Lee and Dominic Kraemer to banter about the matter at hand. It features returning segments, one of which is closed off by a jingle that features a tune played on a neolithic-era conch. It's fun.

Laszlo recognises part of their listeners might be from what might be called the Erasmus generation, but also notes that their audience also features people who have worked abroad, or have families living in different countries.

Both think that national media don't do a good job of covering what EU institutions do, with Laszlo citing the 'EU made me do it' line that some national politicians, in this example Dutch PM Mark Rutte, employ to their advantage. "But he is the EU, because he's in the Council," she says, with a tinge of disappointment that local media is not calling that out.

At the same time, they don't overlook the peculiarities of the EU institutions, and what they could improve. Lee: "We did a segment about jargon a few weeks ago, and it was just so frustrating. In the making of that episode, I was just reading their press releases. And as a journalist, it was curious to see how they can even consider using this as their external communication. This is the way that you want to communicate with the world? I think the more interest there is, the more pressure there will be for them to communicate."

But quintessentially, the stories they aim to make are not necessarily explainers of EU politics, but those celebrating both the similarities and differences between the people living on our continent.

"The stories that I love making for this podcast either are stories that make you sit back and think, wow, we live in a really diverse continent, or, wow, this person on the other side of the continent is going through something really similar to what people right here go through. It's one of those two things, or sometimes both at the same time," Lee said.

Money, or the lack thereof

One theme that unites all the publications I spoke to -– including ours — is the anxiety-driven quest for funding.

This is harshly exemplified by Euronews, which saw advertising income dwindle until being bought up by a Portuguese private equity firm late in 2021. The investor has ties to the Orban government, sparking fears of becoming a(nother) propaganda mouthpiece for his increasingly illiberal government.

But among the smaller fish, the same goes. Finding advertisers is hard when you're not raking in the eyeballs, and especially so for media with an audience spread out across different countries. Advertisers tend to operate on national markets, so they could care less about having listeners in Spain and Hungary when wanting to get Germans to buy toothbrushes.

EU institutional funding is available, but also takes pretty much a PhD in bureaucratic fluency to navigate. Filling in endless application forms eats away at scarce resources, and returns are far from guaranteed.

Project funding exists, but it is just that; project funding. It's possible to find sponsors or supporters for specific endeavours or topics, e.g. fighting misinformation, or cross-border medical journalism, but if you're a broadly interested outlet looking to cover other topics, you're out of luck.

Foundations, the support of which we gratefully enjoy, are another possible source of funding, but most stick to funding national projects, with very few exceptions.

And then there are memberships, donations and subscriptions, which are becoming more prevalent as income for media, and can be a steady source of revenue, but are also dependent on lasting support and can take a hit during economic downturns. All the publications we spoke to rely on this source of funding.

Are We Europe, another pan-European publication run out of Brussels and Amsterdam, found another way to supplement their income. Next to their thematic paper magazine featuring cultural stories from all over Europe, they run a content studio, producing enticing podcasts, articles or videos for mostly NGOs.

"I think it's a great model," Mick ter Reehorst, founder of Are We Europe, says. "We go, 'Hey, blah, blah, blah, advocacy group, or European adjacent organisation, we'll make the content for you.' Even the parliament has come to us many times to ask for a podcast or videos. It's been an interesting model that funds our journalism. Obviously, there are some questions there about editorial independence and integrity, but our editorial line is completely independent."

Are We Europe focuses their editorial efforts on underreported reports with cross-border appeal — plus slick design. Their magazines look modern and appealing, as does their website. But their stories aim to be quality journalism as well, and at a first glance, indeed about topics you don't read about elsewhere.

An Are We Europe magazine.

Their latest magazine, for example, features a story on the younger generation of Norwegians, who — after a close vote in 1992 to not join the EU — never got a say in the matter. One can understand the appeal for a younger generation of readers interested in European stories.

Then again, the magazine is not advocating unification or a feeling of shared identity. Funnily enough, none of the outlets spoken to seem to go for that.

"I think Europe should be much more about fostering understanding. People don't need to be like, 'I feel united with this French person' or 'Oh, I feel like I'm the same as a Lithuanian.' No, but at least we need to get to know each other a bit. And that is where the European media sphere comes in. It shouldn't be about magnifying differences. But it should also not be about trying to push some sort of unifying European identity on people."

Again echoes of Habermas, who in the same speech argued that more understanding for other cultures within nations could lead to more understanding among Europeans, "from the Portuguese winegrower to the Polish plumber." If they somehow hear from another, that is.

Ter Reehorst shared his plans about the future of Are We Europe. He hopes that in order to make more of an impact and to reach more readers, the platform will start working more with national and international publications to distribute stories to a wider and possibly more interested audience.

"That's what we're going to do in the next year, we're going to be a partner of local or national media, to help them collaborate with other media organisations across borders," ter Reehorst says.

The plan is to use their expertise in methodically approaching cross-border storytelling to help partners work on stories together effectively. "So we're going to make sure it looks good, we're going to make sure it reads well, we're going to make sure it's on their website, and we're going to make sure it reaches the right people."

He also thinks collaboration can help smaller pan-European publications make more money. By forming some sort of collective, audiences might reach sizes that are interesting to bigger advertisers, plus sales efforts can be concentrated rather than each small team struggling on its own.

Old-fashioned print sales

Another newcomer on the European media scene, The European Review of Books, was surprised to find another source of income; magazine sales in physical shops all over the globe.

"Most people I told about our project were surprised it didn't already exist," Wiegertje Postma, co-founder of The European Review of Books, told EUobserver (full disclosure, Postma is a good friend and taught me all that makes me not bad at writing and editing when she was my editor at VICE). There's a New York Review of Books, a London Review of Books, you name it, but no European Review of Books.

Issue #1 of The European Review of Books.

The magazine started in 2021 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, and has published two book-length issues to date, featuring essays, fiction, poetry and more. Its own tone is intellectual but sardonic, and describes itself as an "English-language magazine that resists, or plays with, the seeming hegemony of English." Writing featured in the magazine is published both in the writer's original language and English.

"Normally, when a book from let's say Albania gets any attention, it's because it was noticed and run through a kind of Anglo-American funnel. It has to be vetted, in a sense, by the Anglo-American world," Postma explains.

And the few books that are directly translated from one European language to another reach smaller audiences, even though they might very much deserve to be discussed on a pan-European level.

Postma and her cofounders George Blaustein and Sander Pleij are explicitly trying to create a kind of European space of ideas, one that is not mediated by Anglo-American outlets, but exists in between academics, writers, artists across Europe.

Obviously, this is no small feat. Finding out which historian in Romania or writer in Greece has interesting thoughts (and is not somehow problematic) is not easy when it's not handed to you on an English-language platter. "Finding the people and the stories does take up a lot of time," Postma says. As does the editing process afterwards, with some contributors preferring to write in their own language.

"It's always easier to make a story with a British or American writer, but sometimes it's just more valuable to have people do it in their own language, and translate it afterwards," Postma says. "Having the two languages published side by side does show that English as lingua franca is interesting, because it's versatile, but also has its limitations."

With their experiment, which apparently is going well with physical copies in ever greater quantities selling out across the globe, The European Review of Books is setting a bar for intellectual discourse on a European level, or in their own words "thicken the 'European' intellectual atmosphere."

The European experiment

All publications featured are explicitly set up to experiment, and pretty much all of them have the word literally in their manifesto. They're all searching for some kind of European identity, but not necessarily with the aim to find a concrete answer.

Some search for it through the common framework of legislation we've set up. Some through exploring commonalities and differences in people or culture. Some through finding solutions in one area that might work in others.

But all searches are based on some kind of belief that there is something that connects the people living on this landmass, whatever it may be.

I think the most important conclusion is that the 'European public sphere' Habermas spoke about might be in the process of being built, in many different forms in many different places by many different people.

So it does exist. But not as an easily-identifiable monolith. It exists between and above the lines of outlets that each find their own angle or hook to experiment with what being European means, and do so building off what others have tried or haven't yet. It's a conversation not in articles or podcast episodes, but in media publications rising and falling, which makes it hard to notice.

And maybe this is going too far, but may I posit that 'European' just means that there is a sense that there is more binding us together, and some curiosity about what it might be? A willingness to embark on a quixotic search for commonalities based on pretty much random borders and geography, possibly. Or maybe it's just being human?

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