Coffeehouse Europe

There are more and more collaborations between European journalists, but there is no media outlet that serves all of Europe. Is society ready for pan-European journalism? And what would it look like?

by Nina Rijnierse

This article originally appeared in Dutch in De Groene Amsterdammer in April 2021. This is a translation. Are We Europe was not involved in the writing of this article in any way.

It’s a drizzly Friday afternoon and in a small room in Brussels, fifteen young journalists are trying as hard as they can not to think about the city they are currently in. One by one they read out what they have just written at lightning speed on post-its. ‘A random video generator, with messages from all over Europe.’ ‘A song contest playlist, but then different.’ ‘Twenty people giving a tour in their own city and livestreaming it simultaneously.’ ‘A map showing the border of Belarus and Russia, with stories of how people are experiencing the conflict on both sides.’ ‘Digitally attending a birthday of a random European.’ ‘A map of European sounds: what does Europe sound like?’

This is the annual editorial brainstorm of the journalism platform Are We Europe, which attempts to do European journalism in a new way. Although they are close to the political heart of the EU in their modern building on Boulevard Barthélémy in the trendy Dansaert district, they prefer to look as far away from the European institutional bodies as possible. According to the editors, young people need different stories about what it means to be European. The fact that they do not yet know what “being European” means is why the magazine is not called We Are Europe, but Are We Europe. A question mark behind it is missing for marketing reasons, says editor-in-chief Kyrill Hartog. ‘You don’t buy a shoe from “Adidas?” either, do you?’

Are We Europe has been around for over five years. What started in 2015 as a blog by students from the prestigious liberal arts university Amsterdam University College has now grown into a website with ten thousand visitors a month and a magazine that comes out four times a year, to which journalists from all over Europe contribute. Each issue has a different theme, with the overarching motto of being “borderless journalism”. Last year’s issues on the platform and in the magazine included a photo series about Georgian youth who want to belong to the European Union, an investigative story about Lithuanian “elves” fighting online against internet trolls from Russia, a short story about Paris during a heat wave and an essay about an English coastal town’s fight against rising sea levels.

According to editor-in-chief Kyrill Hartog — Dutch father, Russian mother, raised in Spain — Europe needs a new kind of journalism that covers not just Brussels but the entire European media landscape. The corona crisis is making him realize this once again, he writes in an essay on Medium while living in Luxembourg in early March. ‘Twice a day, at lunch and dinner, I watch the French news on TV. I’ve memorized most of Macron’s speeches, listen carefully to epidemiologists’ recommendations, and know the death tolls. Bathed in all this Frenchness, it is easy to forget that Covid-19 is also a problem outside France, say fifteen kilometers from here, across the German border. Where are the images of German hospitals, I wonder. Or the voxpops of Belgian children sitting at home, bored to tears?’ The virus knows no borders, Hartog writes. ‘So why is it so hard to understand — let alone empathize — with what is going on in countries that are not our own?’

Hartog is not alone in criticizing European reporting. European politicians have ‘almost nothing to fear from the press’, argues Arjen Lubach in a Zondag met Lubach item on Brussels reporting early last November. His proposal: a European talk show, called ‘EurOp1’. Although Lubach’s argument mainly focuses on political journalism, in essence it comes down to the same message as Hartog’s from Are We Europe: according to them, an even more general medium, a pan-European journalistic project, is apparently missing.

In Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962) the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas describes how in the bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century more and more social and political matters were discussed in coffee houses and salons, in addition to literature, thus creating a public sphere in which the middle class could form its opinion. Exchange of opinion through independent journals played a major role in this. But the rise of mass media, which would primarily serve capitalist interests, ensured that this ideal public sphere was lost, Habermas argues. His theory predates the rise of the Internet and paints a rather idealistic picture of the eighteenth century. Yet the significance of good journalism for the public sphere remains interesting. In Why Europe Needs a Constitution (2001) Habermas observes that while there are media that transcend national boundaries, such as the Financial Times, The Economist or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, there is nothing ‘specifically European’.

Could it be argued that as Europeans we do not understand each other well because there is no real ‘coffee house’ where debate and information exchange can take place? Does such a pan-European medium have a chance of succeeding? If so, shouldn’t it have been created a long time ago? And what should it look like?

It’s not as if nothing is happening in the European media landscape. There are initiatives like The Black Sea, where writers and videomakers from the Balkans specialize in narrative journalism, or Oštro, center for investigative journalism in the Adriatic region. And in terms of a pan-European perspective, Are We Europe is not alone. Eurozine, a network of European cultural magazines that translate each other’s articles, has been around since 1993. News sites EurActiv.com and Politico Europe write mainly about European politics. Voxeurop.eu translates European journalistic productions. Forum.eu offers seven articles on Europe every day in six languages, from media such as The New York Times, Die Zeit, El Mundo and Prospect Magazine. The first round of translations is done by an automatic translation service.

There seems to be no shortage of enthusiastic journalists, says Thomas van Neerbos, director of the European Press Prize, which has been awarded since 2013 to the best journalistic productions made in Europe. ‘I see a lot of great projects coming up, but I also sometimes have the feeling that the same two hundred Europeans start a well-designed project and then create, read and share each other’s articles, and the rest of Europe just reads their own national newspaper. I think it’s a shame that there isn’t a big European newspaper.’

European media, large and small, do cooperate with each other more and more. For example, there is a collaboration between El País, Gazeta Wyborcza, La Stampa, Le Monde, The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung. Collaborations are forged at annual conferences like Dataharvest. Media can get joint funding from funds like Investigative Journalism for Europe. This is how a project like Money To Burn, about Estonian tree felling due to European biomass subsidies, can come about, which De Groene Amsterdammer also published about. But do these collaborations indicate that it is time for a single pan-European medium? Often each participating medium mainly chooses the angle relevant to its national audience from all the information. The publications are then published in separate national media.

Radio and television could perhaps be called the most “pan-European” to date, but they are not financially independent of the EU. For example, there is Euranet, a consortium of radio stations from different countries, for which the European Commission is the sole source of income. Television channel Euronews claims to reach four hundred million European living rooms in 160 countries, but is funded one-third by the EU, according to a report by the European Court of Auditors. Between 2014 and 2018, 122 million went to the channel. The court of auditors is also critical of EU citizens’ access to the channel and Euronews’ financial accountability, despite being 88 percent privately owned.

All in all, the European media landscape appears to be a puzzle whose pieces do not fit together. There is no lack of enthusiasm, but the European citizen is usually not the one who, apart from tax money, pays for it of his own accord.

Still, it is possible to get the whole of Europe interested in a single project, Van Neerbos believes. In his view, this does not require a major project such as the Panama Papers. It can also be a very local story that is told fantastically well. ‘I honestly don’t care if a story about a group of bakers who decide to do things differently is about bakers from Amsterdam, or bakers from Athens or Paris.’

Perhaps more important than the recurring observation that such a European medium does not yet exist is the question: what should it be about then? In newsrooms, the sentiment that Brussels is boring often prevails. For Brussels correspondents, it is sometimes difficult to get their pieces into the newspaper, and much news is left unreported due to the small number of correspondents in Brussels. A European medium could ensure that Brussels finally gets the attention it deserves.

But that’s not the direction Natalie Nougayrède wants to go, previously Russia correspondent and editor-in-chief of the French newspaper Le Monde. Since 2015, she has worked at The Guardian, where she writes columns on Europe and in 2018 introduced the Europe Now section, which has space for European (local) stories that go beyond Brexit news. ‘When we say the word Europe, we have to stop thinking that we mean the Brussels bubble, or national governments in the European organization,’ says Nougayrède. ‘Institutions in Brussels are important, but not very exciting. What is exciting is looking at the reality that people on this continent live in.’

‘The iron curtain still lingers in our heads,’ Nougayrède wrote in a 2019 column in The Guardian about the unrest in Belarus. ‘We don’t really know each other well in Europe,’ she says when the column comes up during our conversation. ‘Recognizing that is the starting point. There are still a lot of prejudices and stereotypes in Europe. And there is a lack of information to open people’s eyes.’

That lack of information is there, according to Nougayrède, because many traditional media outlets view European news from too national and comparative a perspective. ‘“Who is doing better with corona, that or that government?” or, “Who achieved more results in the last EU meeting, who has more money?” Media often make that comparison, when it is more interesting to look at how young people in different parts of Europe are doing, how we are making sure that living standards are improving, the environment, healthy eating, how minority groups are treated, how we look at immigration.’

A pan-European medium might be more likely than a national newspaper to afford to describe Europe from a less comparative perspective. But has there really never been a medium that tried something like this before? Well, there used to be: The European. ‘Europe’s first national newspaper’ was to have a short but turbulent life.

“It’s time for Europe to tell its own story,” British media mogul Robert Maxwell told journalists when announcing the project in 1987, according to The Guardian at the time. The newspaper was to promote “European culture, science and industry.” Maxwell had fled Czechoslovakia as a war exile in the 1940s and now owned the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, publishing houses, a record label, language schools and a soccer club, among others.

The European first appeared in May 1990. Maxwell actually envisioned a daily newspaper with a circulation of 650,000, but it ended up being a weekly edition of which 225,000 were printed. The newspaper’s logo was a white dove hovering over the continent with The European in its beak. The headlines on the front page of the first edition: ‘One currency for Europe’ and: ‘West Germans will pay costs of Soviet occupation’.

But after its founding, things quickly went downhill for the newspaper. Sales figures were disappointing. And in November 1992, Maxwell suddenly disappeared without a trace from his yacht near the Canary Islands. His body was found shortly thereafter, floating in the Atlantic Ocean. After his death, it became clear that Maxwell’s media empire was riddled with debt. Slowly but surely, a “web of four hundred interconnected companies emerged, closely intertwined by the late media tycoon,” according to a Time Magazine article published shortly after his death.

The financial malaise did not mean the end of The European after all. In 1992, the billionaire twins David and Frederick Barclay bought the paper, after which they increasingly turned it into a niche publication. Under the leadership of editor Andrew Garside, according to The Independent, sales went up from eighty to two hundred thousand copies a week, a third of which were sold in Britain. But after editor-in-chief Andrew Neil took office in 1996, the newspaper’s tone became more Eurosceptic. And despite implemented changes, such as a different format and eventually a continuation as a magazine, The European was making too many losses after eight years. The Barclays put the newspaper up for sale, but no new buyer emerged. After a final edition on December 14, 1998, it was finished.

With a different management, might The European have still existed? Or is a newspaper without a clear public sphere, with readers who do not speak the same language, doomed to fail?

It should not go unmentioned that there is now The New European, a British newspaper that is separate from The European, but has added the word ‘new’ because there once was an old one, according to the newspaper itself. The paper was set up in 2016 as a temporary pop-up campaign against the Brexit, but it still exists. Last February, TNE — including its website and podcasts — was sold to a group of prominent investors. The medium publishes mostly on European and political news. It is questionable whether it is a goal of The New European to follow in the footsteps of The European; the medium’s target audience is primarily the affluent over-50s, a BBC media journalist noted.

In any case, more than 25 years after the demise of The European and the optimistic 1990s, there are still fundamental problems when it comes to that European public sphere, says media scholar Stephan Russ-Mohl on the phone from his home near Berlin. He set up the European Journalism Observatory in 2004, which aims to build a bridge between journalists and media researchers. Until 2018, he was professor of journalism and media management at the Università della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland.

‘In addition to simply language barriers, there are also major cultural barriers,’ Russ-Mohl says, like Nougayrède. ‘Despite the fact that we know each other’s countries as tourists, most of us are not aware of how deep these cultural barriers are. This is true even in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, Germany and Austria.’ Russ-Mohl also emphasizes that media infrastructures in some countries are very different from each other. ‘And I mean the quality of journalism education, the lack of journalism about media, and the fact that there are few ombudsmen.’

On the other hand, he says, public broadcasters should also take the lead much more. They could afford to translate European programs into their own languages. ‘A role in this could be played by artificial intelligence replacing translators, making it easier to bring the same information to different Europeans. And don’t forget the importance of entertainment: we know so much about the United States because we watch American series and movies. If we want a European audience, we need to have less American and more European entertainment.’

So a European public sphere according to Habermas’s ideal image still seems a long way off. But one could also say that it is still too early: after all, it’s only now, for the first time, that a generation of young Europeans exists for whom it is more natural to think on a European level. They simply don’t know the era when customs officers still stood at the border and each country paid with a different currency. With an EU stamp on their passports, ‘generation Europe’ travels across the continent to go on Erasmus exchange and interrail vacations.

That this group of young Europeans represents a potential for a new kind of European journalism is something Natalie Nougayrède of The Guardian also sees. In 2019, she was awarded a research fellowship at Germany’s Robert Bosch Academy, investigating what a new, more cross-European media initiative could mean for the European media landscape.

As part of the research, she launched the Summer of Solidarity project in the summer of 2020, involving young journalists and media from across Europe, including Are We Europe and De Groene Amsterdammer. Nougayrède: ‘Europe was the epicentre of the pandemic. Something extraordinary was happening. I thought we should use that moment to explore what happened to us and share stories about it, as Europeans. And by that I mean not from the corona statistics or government decisions, and not just from the traditional gathering of facts, but from a more creative approach.’

Examples of productions made in the corona summer: The Chain, a chain letter in podcast form containing Europeans’ declarations of love to each other’s countries, a story about the Roma community in the Czech Republic joining Black Lives Matter protests, and a video about the parallels between quarantine and the sense of isolation experienced by queers.

Nougayrède is still processing the research results and does not want to draw any premature conclusions about what a pan-European platform should entail. In any case, it will not be a platform that unifies and homogenizes everything. ‘Europe is fragmented, so that diversity must be preserved. But there must be production and collaboration from a more cross-European perspective.’ According to Nougayrède, such an initiative can have different revenue models attached to it. ‘It could be donations, philanthropy, public money. In any case, the first steps should not be based on a strict revenue model where you expect to make a profit.’

After the brainstorm, I follow Mick ter Reehorst to the roof terrace on the editorial building. Together with Kyrill Hartog, Marije Martens and Ties Gijzel, he has been involved in Are We Europe from the beginning. Around us there is a sea of Brussels rooftops.

‘We always wanted to avoid going to Brussels’, says Ter Reehorst. ‘Brussels is not the center of Europe. But Kyrill and I both did a master’s in Paris. After our studies we didn’t want to return to Amsterdam. Brussels was in between. We happened to be there a few times for conferences and people were really interested in our story. It feels a bit contradictory at times, I think. But in the last two years I’ve been to the European quarter maybe three times, that’s it.’

A single issueof Are We Europe magazine costs thirteen euros. Of the print run of fifteen hundred, about a quarter goes to members, a quarter goes to bookstores and a distributor, and the rest is sold through the web store. Just over half of the income comes from subsidies from the European Cultural Foundation, the Adessium Foundation, and the Netherlands Stimulation Fund for Journalism (SVDJ), among others. In the search for the perfect revenue model, Are We Europe has set up the commercial branch, AWE_studio, in addition to the website and the magazine, which makes productions for museums, NGOs and European organisations. In addition, the platform is working towards a membership model, where members can contribute two and a half, four or eight euros per month. Before the end of the year, Are We Europe wants to grow from 500 to 2500 members.

For the time being, Are We Europe remains a niche publication. Pan-European, but read by a select group. ‘We’ve always said that our stories should be able to be read by both a miner in Croatia and a London city banker,’ says Ter Reehorst. ‘But of course that’s not the case. The subject matter, style and magazines in general obviously only appeal to a certain target group. We know that. But at the same time I do think that young people are more willing to read articles about other countries in English. And what you cannot achieve with an article, you can do with a photo or video. That can basically end up on the Instagram channel of a random Romanian.’

According to media scholar Russ-Mohl, it is inevitable that the elite will take the lead in developing a pan-European initiative. ‘If you want to achieve something in this field you have to start there, and then try to expand to a wider audience. But that’s not easy. If your daily news consumption consists of the Bildzeitung or The Sun, then it is unlikely that you will be interested in such ambitious projects.’

Being patient is also important, according to Van Neerbos of the European Press Prize. ‘I would like to say to those young creators: hang in there. Newspapers that are very big now have been able to quietly build an audience for a hundred years. It’s not that this broader view doesn’t work, but it’s just much newer. If new initiatives make sure they do it well, and cheaply, then they can last a while. And then I really believe that if the offer is there, eventually there will be a demand for it.’

As we descend from the roof terrace to the newsroom, Ter Reehorst returns to the plea for innovative European journalism he just made. ‘I don’t actually want to spend all day working on Europe, you know. I’m also just trying to make journalism a bit more fun.’

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