Opinion Tech

Paul Ostwald: Building pan-European media is an important challenge to be solved

Response to a recent publication about Forum.eu

[Editor’s note: The prospects and challenges of creating successful pan-European media is a subject of intense discussion. Founder of Forum.eu Paul Ostwald wrote this op-ed in response to this article: Why the pan-European news site idea is so intriguing and the reality so impossible. Check out our upcoming discussion on this topic, part of our upcoming Media Revolutions series of webinars]

When I first saw that David Tvrdon had written a well-meaning critique on Twitter of Forum.eu, the platform I co-founded and work on every day, I gulped. It’s never a nice thing to walk into a Twitter conversation unpicking the idea you spend your days and nights working on.

But after that initial moment, I came around to a powerful realisation: David is largely right. That’s the bad news. The good news? I don’t think that’s a problem.

For those joining the conversation today, Forum.eu is a digital platform that enables you to read the best articles from world-leading publishers – The New York Times, El Mundo, Die Zeit and many others – in your language.

The idea behind it is simple: the challenges we face (think Covid, the climate crisis, and migration) can only be solved if we engage in discussion on a European level and across language barriers.

In his critique, David doesn’t take aim at the idea itself, but rather at two of the wider issues that have paralysed many a pan-European media project in the past: funding and audience. On the first of these, he notes that media initiatives often lack access to enough solid funding to enable them to develop into projects of supranational scope. Regarding audience, he argues that few Europeans actually have an interest in Europe-wide issues, making it nearly impossible for media projects to attract enough readers to be sustainable.

Let’s start with funding. Funding for European media projects is indeed scarce and the bureaucracy attached to it is often gruelling. An EU representative once gave me some informal advice on the subject: “hire someone to fill out the paperwork and put their salary on the cost proposal“ – a painfully Kafkaesque recommendation. Many European media entrepreneurs can tell similar stories.

While sources of funding are growing in number, at lot still remains to be done. The turnaround on many funding calls is long, the technocratic language used is about as accessible as that used on EU websites (i.e. it’s not), and, for the more ambitious projects, the sums handed out are barely enough to cover operational costs. The EU is making an effort here, but frankly things are just moving too slowly.

Foundations can be a good alternative to public funding. Europe is full of them and is also fortunate enough to be home to many conscientious and creative philanthropists. Whether for legal or personal reasons, however, they tend to invest in projects that have charitable purposes. This in itself is good, of course, but the nature of most of these projects is such that they lack robust business models, and therefore cannot self-sustain when foundations eventually shift their energies and resources away from them.

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The third option is to build a business model that scales. This is no mean feat, and I certainly don’t think that we have fully solved the riddle yet. The conclusion that I have come to is that no single solution suffices. Every media project in Europe will have to combine a variety of revenue streams. Subscriptions are definitely making a comeback and user donations are still a viable option for many impactful projects. The Guardian and the German publication taz have successful donation walls; others, like OKO.press and elDiario.es, have shown that a strong community can work wonders. Donation models are more sustainable than we often assume.

That’s a start and there are many more options still, ranging from specialised newsletters and podcasts to business intelligence and market analysis.

Yes, a neat solution with a single revenue stream would be ideal, but the reality is that no one has really tried this yet, probably because the situation is too complex to make it work.

Building a system of multiple revenue streams takes time and, more importantly, it takes a solid user base. This is David’s second point. He claims that Europeans simply don’t care enough about Europe-wide issues. I’m pretty confident that this is no longer true.

Take the topic of Covid-19, for example. At Forum.eu, we saw British readers wanting to know why Germany was doing so well (when it was), and Germans wanting to know why Britain was doing so well (when it was). Roles were reversed, but one thing didn’t change: reader interest in how other countries were handling the pandemic.

The same goes for the climate crisis. There’s no French, Spanish, Greek or German solution to the problem, and our reader numbers suggest that more and more Europeans are becoming aware of this and are keen to discuss across borders.

Of course, such readers are only one part of Europe’s population. We’re talking high-quality journalism here, not HBO shows. If we’d been clinging to the hope that the whole continent would discuss Janet Daley’s scathing critique of the European vaccination scheme in The Telegraph with as much passion as they discussed season 8 of Game of Thrones, we’d have been sorely disappointed. We need to be realistic. But at the same time, the trend I described above gives us good reason to be optimistic too. The community is gradually emerging, and that’s why I think Forum.eu is coming at the right time.

Finally, we must recognise that we need to do more to gain the attention of subscribers than HBO (sadly, sword fights and coronations are few and far between on Forum.eu, and so far we’ve never had them in combination). This is why finding new ways of telling stories will be crucial. We need to channel our efforts into rethinking the video, audio and text formats.

This might all sound like a daunting task, but the conversations that I’ve had with journalists, entrepreneurs and citizens make me confident that this kind of truly European platform is within reach. If 2020 has taught us one thing, it’s that lively, diverse and informed debate is the basis of democratic society, and we certainly can’t leave it to Google to figure out how to build a digital sphere for such debate (though I’m sure they have their brightest minds on the case).

Ultimately, I agree with David that we’re facing a chicken and egg problem. A unified Europe and a unified European public sphere seem to depend on each other. I don’t, however, think that we should leave this chicken and egg be and turn to other problems. This one is too important.

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