Europe still leaves it to UK and US media to tell its story globally.
This is the summary of a conversation about Europe’s journalistic vulnerability which started with this tweet: “Macron sees a need to write an open letter to the Financial Times, challenging an earlier opinion piece in the FT. He also could have responded via a continental European English-language newspaper of similar global influence — if only there were one“
This tweet was met with a question (in a private capacity) by Steven Everts, Senior Advisor on Strategy and Communications at the European Union’s Foreign Security and Policy Service, i.e. the EU’s Diplomatic Service:
My reply, edited for style:
“Yes, I don‘t see a business model that could finance the quality of journalism this would require, i.e. to create an English-language news organisation that could rival the global influence and reach of the most influential UK and US-based newspapers. Even if the funding were not an issue, we do not have the time it would take to establish such a new brand. It would be better now to work with existing national ‚papers of record‘ across the political spectrum in the European Union on increasing their abilities to create and then (crucially) also to distribute their English-language journalism to multinational audiences.
What is missing most in the EU is not one more English-language general news publication, such as France24 or DW, but more English-language analysis and high-quality opinion journalism, covering European as well as global affairs from continental European points of view.
Currently, the ‚stories‘ of the EU — the European Union’s history, its raison d’etre, its current challenges and future options — are told to the world primarily by UK media organisations whose global audiences and social media accounts — as crucial vehicles for content distribution — dwarf most continental European news organisations.
And don‘t get me wrong, UK news organisations often produce world-leading journalism which I admire. In my view, the FT currently is the world’s best English-language newspaper. Increasingly, though, the UK‘s strategic interests will no longer be aligned with those of the 27 EU member states, and it would be naive to believe that this won‘t influence the views of British journalists and journalism over time. It already does.
Or to put it more bluntly and in terms of geo-politics: Imagine the world’s primary news organisations to provide us with news and analyses on US affairs (business, politics, culture) were all based in Canada. We would find that completely absurd while the EU‘s situation is not much different with journalists in the US, Asia and Africa mostly having to rely on UK media to find out what is happing in and with the EU or in individual EU countries.
As you may know, I have been working on this topic for many years now, and over time my views have changed in two aspects:
Firstly, I no longer think we should launch new pan-European publications for this purpose but rather work with existing trusted national publications across the European Union.
Obviously, the EU is made of nation-states which will and should all remain hugely important reference points for identity and culture. A typical misunderstanding in much of British journalism is that one’s own nation-state identity and one’s identity as an EU Citizen were mutually exclusive. They are not but rather rely on each other. Having a regional, national and European identity is a feeling which the majority of EU Citizens express, as measured since many years now in the Eurobarometer surveys. With that in mind, and in the interest of time, I find it smarter to create English-language media spheres in the EU that are anchored in the already trusted national news organisations of each member state versus trying to create new pan-European brands, even if they had teams on the ground in all member states.
Such a network approach would also be more aligned with the networked nature of the European Union itself.
Secondly, I no longer think that simply translating already published content from a newspaper’s local language into English or cross-sharing content between the news organisations of different countries will be sufficient.
Translating and publishing key pieces into English is an important first step and has taught many news organisations that this can help remind the world of their existence and get them quotations in other news organisations. To achieve journalistic authority and global influence, though, such new English-language networks from continental Europe would need to go beyond just translating their local content or forging content-sharing alliances.
Content sharing across publications and languages is always a good start as that helps establish translation workflows and build personal relationships and trust across different newsrooms. For journalism to resonate with non-domestic readers and viewers, though, it has to be structured and written differently compared to journalism that was meant for domestic audiences only. Very often, cultural or historical references in a text will only work in one country but mean nothing in the other country or, worse, cause confusion there. This is why participating national news organisations would need to be able to finance specialised editors and audience development experts who can adapt their local content for their international audiences, and also commission, edit and curate new English-language journalism so it can ‘function’ well abroad.
In our time, though, when most all news organisations struggle financially and see their biggest future revenue opportunity in subscriptions from their most loyal, and thus mostly domestic audiences, this is a difficult pitch to make. At the same time, external funding — philanthropic or governmental — would immediately raise questions about journalistic independence.
Something has to give, though.
The last four years with Donald Trump or the foreseeable blaming of the EU by much of British media for the damages done in the UK by Brexit only give us a first taste for how incredibly exposed the EU is, journalistically.
Without having domestic English-language news organisations whose global reputation, influence and distribution power on the various social media platforms can match those of the UK or US, continental Europe will remain at a disadvantage.
Until then, a French President has to keep writing letters to an editor in London, which is no longer in the EU, if he wants to set the record straight with the world and reach the right audiences. (see also further notes below)
— — — further notes — — — — — —
I am preparing to give a talk on this topic next year. Some obvious other aspects and questions I’ll include then:
Why start in English? Isn’t the very idea of the European Union to be multi-lingual? Yes, it is. Publishing in English or in local languages is not a binary choice or mutually exclusive.
What is more elitist, to also publish in English or to stick to the view of Umberto Eco by which ‘the language of Europe is translation’?
Who would be the target audiences for such publications, and why?
Who reads non-domestic journalism anyway?
What about the work done already by various important news organisations, such as Politico Europe, El Pais English, The Local, Spiegel Online, Euronews, Deutsche Welle, France24?
Wouldn’t this rather be the task of the comparatively well-funded public broadcasters in Europe? Is there maybe a service the public broadcasters could provide the privately-owned news organisations with, such as coordination and translation services in the interest of providing readers/viewers with a broader array of European analyses and opinions on international and European affairs?
Why is it that international press reviews — where they still exist — hardly ever mention the comment pieces of broadcasting organisations from different countries, but only of ‘newspapers’? And what does that say about the importance of internationally known brands in reaching non-domestic audiences?
Does it really matter where a news organisation is geographically headquartered and where the majority of its staff live?
Isn’t this just a question of waiting for machine translation to become good enough?
What are the ethical ramifications of this proposal: Should journalism and journalists even worry about their nation’s or the European Union’s perception by the rest of the world?
Are there data points on how many per cent of journalists in key newsrooms in the US, the UK as well as Asia, South America and Africa can read in languages other than their own and English?
What do we know about the consumption of non-domestic journalism by citizens of the EU?
If this comes down to giving financial support from the EU Commission to participating news organisations in the EU so that they can publish key texts and videos in English much more frequently, could this be done in a way that does not raise any questions about government influence on journalism? If the EU supports cultural institutions across Europe, can it also support journalistic institutions at least with translation budgets and in a politically neutral way?
Have I forgotten that the Republic of Ireland is an English-language EU member state? No, I have not. Amongst many other topics, the coverage and analysis of Brexit by RTÉ and by the Irish Times, specifically by Fintan O’Toole, has been hugely helpful.
What could motivate reputable national newspapers/news organisations in any EU member state to take part in such a networked approach? Or, as Gian Paolo Accardo, the Co-founder of Vox Europe has asked me: ‘What’s in it for them?’
Does it really matter or influence its journalism and views on the world where an English-language news organisation‘s management HQ and primary newsroom are geographically located?
Does Habermas have anything to say on the issue? Well, Professor Jay Rosen and I had that conversation already a few years ago: https://www.niemanlab.org/2015/04/is-there-a-european-public-sphere-waiting-for-politico-europe-or-can-it-help-create-one/
Are there institutions coming to similar conclusions? See this policy paper by Germany’s largest foreign policy think-tank SWP Berlin, published after my initial post here. Page 4, right column: “In case of a no-deal Brexit, the EU will need an English-language communication strategy as the world will mostly look to English-language media then”. Source: https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/aktuell/2020A94_NoDealBrexit.pdf
If a key disadvantage of European news organisations lies in their comparatively smaller social media accounts as an important tool to reach global audiences, how could continental news organisations collaborate and cross-promote their content for each other on social media to optimise the distribution of their key pieces? (For reference, here are the Facebook follower numbers of some major news organisations’ primary accounts, as their Facebook accounts are still important drivers of audience discovery, next to Google. Gathered in Nov. 2020)
CNN, US: 37 million
New York Times: 17 million
Fox News: 22 million
The BBC, UK: 54 million
Daily Mail, UK: 20 million
The Independent: 10 million
The Economist: 9.5 million
The Guardian, UK: 8.4 million
The Telegraph, UK: 4.4 million
The Financial Times: 4 million
Deutsche Welle: 2.6 million
BILD, Germany: 2.5 million
ARD Tagesschau: 2 million
Spiegel Online, Germany: 2 million
Zeit Online, Germany: 0.8 million
Sueddeutsche Zeitung: 0.8 million
Le Monde, France: 4.6 million
Le Parisien, France: 3.3 million
Le Figaro, France: 3.1 million
France24 English, France: 1.7 million
El Pais, Spain: 6.1 million
El Mundo, Spain: 2.7 million
ABC, Spain: 1.6 million
La Reppublica, Italy: 3.8 million
La Stampa, Italy: 1.4 million
Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland: 0.7 million
De Telegraf, Netherlands: 0.5 million