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Voxeurop CEO: There’s no pan-European fourth estate. We need more than a BBC of Europe

Excerpt: Interview with Gian-Paolo Accardo, co-founder and CEO of Voxeurop, an online media by European journalists that publishes in ten languages

The question of pan-European media is probably older than you think. Given that The Fix aspires to be a pan-European media industry publication, it’s a topic close to our hearts. But the question is open whether Europe needs its own, large-scale BBC or NPR. Or is it just a nice to have?

One of the people who care deeply for this topic is Gian-Paolo Accardo, an Italian-Dutch journalist. Accardo previously worked as deputy editor of Presseurop.eu (and before that, several Italian and French publications).

European Commission funding for Presseurop ended in 2013. With colleagues from the newsroom, Accardo decided to continue pushing for a pan-European media outlet. That’s how Voxeurop was born.

As Accardo told me, financing is one of the most challenging aspects of setting up a pan-European media. (This is something Paul Ostwald, co-founder of Forum.eu stressed in his reply to my column on the impossible reality of a large EU media).

Right now Voxeurop is partially funded by members (a membership scheme was launched in May 2020). They also get funding from organizations that get, based on their membership tier, communication and advertising services from Voxeurop (like event coverage). Paying members have access to premium articles in preview and a special newsletter. The membership program is still being developed.

In the interview we talked about VoxEurop’s model, European media funding, the idea for a large-scale pan-European public service media possibly funded by the EU and whether Europeans feel the need for such an outlet.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Estimated reading time: 15 minutes.

Gian-Paolo Accardo, Source: Francesca Leonardi | Flickr

Do you syndicate your content to other publishers around Europe?

We publish basically two types of content. The first kind we produce and can syndicate to partners. We usually do it when we believe it’s high value. For example, during the European election we created a project called 27 Voices for Europe. Though actually there were 28 in the end.

We asked one media partner in every EU country, including the UK, to write a story on what was the main issue in the European election campaign in their country. We syndicated the stories among the partners, meaning that every partner delivered one story and got 27 in exchange. 

It was a zero-cost operation, but with high value because everybody knew they would get stories they couldn’t otherwise get by themselves. For example, The Times of Malta, the top newspaper in Malta, doesn’t have 27 correspondents, in every EU country. So they couldn’t afford such coverage, but we provided them with what they needed. The same goes for Internazionale, and so on. 

We sometimes run this kind of pan-European editorial operation and syndicate the content. We also do interviews with Europeans, especially people from think-tanks or other thinkers, or people from the cultural environment. We syndicate those interviews.

We also do exclusive stories like a series on the European Migration and Asylum Pact. It was a set of stories by Francesca Spinelli, which we syndicated to other media.

And sometimes we set up deals in which media give us the right to use an article for half price and we provide them with the translation they are free to use for their own purposes. 

For non-English media this is interesting as they get an English version of their stories they can circulate. It occurs especially with the Spanish, French, Italian and the German news organizations.

This trend is also coming to Central and Eastern Europe. I recently interviewed Veronika Munk, editor-in-chief of Hungarian independent news startup Telex.hu. They have an English section because they want to get independent journalism from Hungary out into the world. 

But let’s get back to Voxeurop. You recently redesigned your website, which looks nice and has articles in several languages. Who would you say is the target audience? What is the share of readers by language version?

Voxeurop inherited the infrastructure of Presseurop. It was published in ten languages, so Voxeurop is also in ten languages. But now we basically only use five of them because those five are, as they say, the most strategic. They are also the ones for which we have resources: English, French, Italian, German and Spanish.

We sometimes also publish new stories in Polish and Romanian. And we have archives in Dutch, Czech and Portuguese. But currently only the five major ones are updated regularly. The audience is 25% English, 15% to 18% French, between 8% and 10% Italian. Then comes German and Spanish, both are around 7%. 

We still have viewers in the other languages, although it is not as regularly updated. But we publish 100% of our stories in English, let’s say 90% in French and then maybe 70% in Italian and a bit less in German and Spanish.

Our audience is mostly what the French call CSP+. That means educated, urban, and with a medium-high income. We’re not the first place they go for news, rather where they go for a more in-depth or different view on European issues. 

We’re not focused on the EU, but on general news. A few major issues – civil society, climate change, rule of law, sometimes culture or sports. But it has to have a European angle. So its either stories that are pan-European or are about something happening in one country that could be a good idea, a best practice, could serve as an example or tell something about that country that is relevant for others.

More from The Fix: Hungarian startup Telex crowdfunded almost €1 million to launch, now it’s looking to sustainability

We started this debate after a series of articles published by The Fix. First my column, which said it is almost impossible to have a pan-European media that will be sustainable on a large scale and become like the BBC of Europe. Then came the reaction of Paul Ostwald, the founder of Forum.eu, who said basically, yeah, it’s hard, but the times are changing. Then you said you have some thoughts about this. I’m really curious to share your thoughts with our audience.

This shows there is a quite lively debate around this issue. Unfortunately, I’d say it’s a debate that is involving only, as for now, people who are committed to it. It doesn’t seem to go very much outside the sphere of committed Europeans or at least people with a pan-European vision or those who feel the need for a media landscape that would fit the public sphere that European democracy needs. 

I mean, we have at the European level the same institutions that we have at the national level. We have a parliament, a government, a judiciary. But we don’t have the fourth estate that every government should be accountable to. 

This is a problem in terms of democracy because European institutions are not as accountable as they should be towards the European people.

They are conscious that it is a problem. But it is not their business or it’s not within their scope to solve it. 

Among committed Europeans there is a view that a fourth estate at the European scale is necessary and citizens have to be aware of it. Which is what pan-European media are working on. 

We don’t need to be focused on Brussels and European institutions. But we always have to have a look at them. It’s also in their own interest to have a media landscape or some news media that are keeping an eye on them. 

If the question now is why isn’t such a media sphere developed, as you said earlier, it’s a question of money, essentially. It takes a lot of money to have pan-European coverage. When you see the budgets of those very few news organizations with pan-European coverage like ourselves or Forum.eu, Euronews, Politico Europe or EUobserver – those are very small budgets compared to the challenge. 

Also, we have very little public support and overall funding. EU funding for media is currently around 20 million euros. They plan to extend it to 70 million euros in the next MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework – Editor], meaning 2021 to 2027. 

But it equals the estimated budget of Euronews for a year – 60 million euros. It’s very little and it’s almost a hundred times less than the BBC budget (almost £5 billion in 2019). It’s hard to have coverage to reach half a billion users with such small amounts.

More from The Fix: Paul Ostwald: Building pan-European media is an important challenge to be solved

I want to touch on the issue of translation, which is pretty labor and cost heavy. Is it necessary to be translating from the start? Can’t you start with English-only and see where that gets you, and add translation later if necessary?

OK, so this is almost a philosophical question and there are two schools of thought. One believes translation is not necessary, English is sufficient because most Europeans can read English and understand it.

In my opinion, it’s questionable.

Polls indicate only one European in four, so 25%, are able to fully understand a text in English.

So you wouldn’t reach the whole population – let’s say, the most educated ones. Which is okay if that’s your purpose, but then your purpose is not to reach the average citizen. 

The other school of thought, which I belong to and I understand also Paul Ostwald does. And a few others, Wolfgang Blau, who has been thinking and working on the concept of pan-European media, believed in a pan-European English speaking media. Now he’s turning to multi-language.

Let’s say we believe that if you want to reach people who already have news consumption habits very much rooted in their own culture, you have to talk to them in their own language. First of all, because it’s easier and people tend to be a bit lazy in their news consumption because it’s not their professional activity. So they don’t want to make additional effort unless it’s their job or they are really committed to it. Also because if you want to be well understood, you have to speak in one’s native language. 

I believe that there is a strong political stake in it. Let’s take for an example Hungarians. Hungarians are among the Europeans who speak and understand the least foreign languages. May seem strange because no one understands Hungarian outside of Hungary, maybe some places in Romania or Slovakia.

So it’s very easy for Viktor Orbán’s propaganda to be effective in Hungary because it’s not challenged. Only by a few Hungarian independent media. Sadly, they don’t reach the overall population. So if you want Hungarians to get news from outside of the country that is different from the government’s propaganda, you need to speak Hungarian and translate into Hungarian. 

You can apply this to several other countries, especially to South and Eastern European countries. But this is the reality. If you want to talk to Bulgarians, you’d better speak Bulgarian. Same goes for Greeks. Italians are also on average, except for maybe the younger ones, not very comfortable with English or foreign languages. So you have to go through translation, and that means cost.

You said funding for public service media from the European Union is in the tens of millions. Anyone who’s seen the budgets of BBC, NPR, PBS… knows that to sustain something on that scale you should be in the billions, not in the millions. Maybe even tens of billions, but let’s keep it in the lower side.

A couple would be fine (laughs).

We see grassroots initiatives like Voxeurop, Forum.eu, outlets like Are We Europe, and others. So there is some push coming from the public, but the market is fragmented and there is not a lot of money. In the long term, can these grassroots movements scale and that will be enough, or should there be an organisation like PBS, NPR or BBC of Europe? Do we need the European Union to step in and commit billions for this cause as that’s the next step to being Europeans?

I think the two can move forward at the same time. On one side you have public broadcasters that have or need huge budgets. For them there would need to be huge EU financial support. But for the EU to make a decision and to implement such an effort, 27 governments would have to agree. 

Until now, the only push for such a pan-European broadcaster, TV or radio, came from MEPs and the European Commission. Ultimately it’s member states who decide within the European Council if they are okay to fund it. They haven’t shown any sign of being willing to commit huge budgets for such a media. They are okay with a few millions here, a few millions there. 

The 70 millions for media projects earmarked in the next MFF is three times what the Commission was spending until now. So it’s huge progress, but definitely not enough for a pan-European broadcaster. It will help funding small to medium sized media projects. 

This brings us to the second type of media, the grassroots ones, as you call them. This is correct, because traction for setting them up comes from individuals who believe there is a market and need for such media. 

But almost all are small media, rather niche. They struggle to find a way to scale up, which is essential if you want to reach a broader audience and reach sustainability. This is the situation right now. We have to deal with it. 

Even with sound business models, like subscription-based or membership-based ones we are seeing lately, you need a lot of subscribers or members to break even and develop. It’s hard in Europe to find the same ways of developing like in the US. There is very little venture capitalism in Europe, especially in the media sector, which is considered as highly risky. 

The market situation is not the best. Funding channels are not very developed. There are a few foundations who support journalism, but they all tend to go in the same direction at the same time, which is currently investigative journalism. That’s fine, because you have a lot of investigations going on with regards to the EU institutions and organizations. 

But then foundations decide what an independent organization will investigate. If it’s too systematic, it can be an issue with regards to the independence of those organizations. 

Some of our series are funded by foundations and they have to agree on what we propose to them. If they don’t, then we won’t be able to cover those topics or we will have to struggle to find the funding. 

American organizations also jumped in. Currently major funders of journalism in Europe are Google or Facebook, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They are pouring millions into journalism in Europe, but they also have their own agenda. The market situation is not completely transparent.

What if people in Europe don’t really care about each other? People in Slovakia don’t really care about what’s going on in Austria and not even in neighbouring countries, like the Czech Republic. Is this just an idea of a few intellectuals, destined to be niche, also in the future? Or is there a chance for it to become a truly general media which would reach maybe 10% to 20% of Europe?

If you want to reach a pan-European audience, at some point you need to cover EU institutions.

What happens in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and so on has consequences on all citizens. For some policies it has more impact than the national government’s decision, especially for agriculture, fisheries or chemicals. 

People have to know there are some decision-making processes going on in Brussels and be aware of it so they can make informed decisions when they vote. This makes the institutions accountable to citizens. You cannot do without covering the EU at some point. 

Then there are phenomenons that don’t know borders. Borders are very mental, something that has been there for a lot of time, a flag, a currency for some time. 

The best example is a Covid-19. It completely ignores borders. Even when countries try to set up their borders to keep it outside, they don’t succeed because people move from one country to the other. 

Illustration from the article on COVID-19 vaccine contracts byVoxeurop, the pan-European online media.

Another one is migration, and global warming, it completely ignores borders. We need coverage that explains to readers, viewers, listeners what is at stake beyond their borders because simply it has an impact on them. 

A pollution phenomenon in Poland can have an impact on the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Migrants coming from Greece have an impact on Serbia or Hungary. A disease that comes from China and lands in Italy ends up in the Czech Republic. 

We cannot simply trust what national governments are saying, because they only have a national view on the news and their capacity of action is limited to one country. Some important decisions are taken at the European level. This is why citizens need to be informed at the European level. It’s quite simple. 

More from the Fix: Berlin-based news startup aims to shake-up the pan-European media market

But should there be a big pan-European media, like a BBC of Europe?

Ideally, there would be many of them, also for media pluralism reasons. I mean, we don’t want to have a single European Pravda that would be the single voice of pan-European news. 

A pan-European TV or radio broadcaster. Why not? In terms of independent media, the more views the merrier. If you look at national markets and the variety in terms of national media, then there is at least as much room for different pan-European media with their own editorial line, identity and focus.

There’s so much to cover that I’m not worried at all about the market being too crowded. Also the size of the market and relatively small size of media that operate in this market. There is a lot of improvement for collaboration among them, like content sharing, syndicating, sharing resources in terms of journalists taking part in different projects together. 

We saw this at our own level because we are part of several networks, the largest being the European Data Journalism Network. Thanks to this network we are able to cover issues we would never be able to do alone. Most partners are small to medium independent news organizations and don’t have the resources. By joining efforts we can come out with interesting, innovative and fresh coverage.

The main page of Voxeurop, the pan-European online media.

Look at Euronews, which is to date what is the closest to what we are talking about. They still don’t manage to be the one-stop shop for European coverage. It’s also because Euronews has yet to find its own identity. For years people had issues identifying Euronews with anchors. It was a kind of faceless news organization. Pretty much like the EU, a faceless organization. 

One way could be that you have no national broadcasters. Public national broadcasters would allocate some time to strictly pan-European coverage. A few radios are doing it. Radios that are part of the Euranet network get funding from the EU for producing stories that are pan-European. It might be 15 minutes per week, which is, of course, not a lot. But it also tends to be about the size of the budget. National public broadcasters could have the same type of arrangement.

I think the only TV station that does it rather well is Arte. Arte is a rather positive image and it’s not faceless. They do a good coverage of European affairs. Now they are in French, German, Italian. I’m not sure there are other languages. 

They are doing a good job. But they are rather highbrow. It’s rather demanding in terms of attention and also education. I don’t know. Do we really need [a pan-European channel] after all?

That’s a good question.

Because it seems that only committed Europeans feel the need for one. Average citizen would say, yeah, why not? But in the end…

But isn’t it a chicken and egg problem? What should come first. Should you build the BBC of Europe or should there be people in the streets demanding a kind of BBC of Europe.?

I don’t see any demonstrations, people asking for it yet (laughs). But I would say Europe needs one. Especially the EU needs one because it needs to be accountable and more transparent. 

But I don’t see the budget for it coming any time soon from the EU or from the member states. So I’m optimistic and I think there is a need for one, but I don’t think there will ever be one that size unless there is a revolution in the heads of government and of states who suddenly decide that it’s really a priority. 

It’s really down to the priorities of the government, which is also understandable. I mean, we’re facing a health crisis, a social crisis that is far more important than having pan-European media coverage.

More from The Fix: Pan-European media space: emerging European media community needs support

Sure, but we are also facing an information crisis. Misinformation is on the rise. So there are reasons to set up something on a larger scale.

Yes, but national governments believe solutions to these kinds of issues are national. Of course, the EU is funding some fact-checking and counter-disinformation initiatives. Some are in-house like the EU Stratcom. 

But they have a few flaws, and they are not very popular among journalists because they are a bit too intrusive. Then there are some fact checking organization projects going on that the EU funded and are run by independent organizations, but it’s really small scale. 

To be more effective, they would have to have direct links to a national news organization, which most of them don’t. There are some national news organizations that are part of these consortia, but most don’t even know that they exist.

How about we end on a positive note. Do you have a final thought on the matter?

One thing I forgot to say – I feel a very strong need for more cooperation. Because the size of the financial cake is rather small and the market is understood to be small, there is more feeling of competition than collaboration.

I did the same thing myself when Forum.eu came out. My instinct was ‘oh-oh’ they are also going to take a slice of the cake. Are they going to be a strong competitor? Are we in danger?

Then I realized the market is quite big. There is a lot of room for cooperation because there’s a lot of complementarities. So instead of trying to save the world alone, it’s better to try to do it jointly. 

In the end, all of our organizations are too small for the size of the market and its challenges, even if some are able to scale. It’s so huge, the language barrier, the cultural barriers are so big.

If you want to go out of the small English-speaking elite, then you need to cooperate at some point.

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

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