Almost on a weekly basis, I am reminded that I live in the “rest of Europe”. I am based in Bratislava, Slovakia which joined the European Union in 2004. Since 2009 we have the Euro. On paper, my country looks like a legit EU member (as some others in this region) with all the possible perks.
Well, the reality is different.
Small countries lose most in fragmented continent
Early this year, I interviewed Gian-Paolo Accardo, co-founder and CEO of Voxeurop, an online media by European journalists that publishes in ten languages. The main topic of the conversation was whether we need a BBC of Europe.
We looked at the problem from many perspectives. I am going to spoil it for you and say we did not come to a final conclusion, the question remains open.
One of the issues we explored was the siloed existence of several European countries. Language is a barrier, both financially (translation costs) and in terms of distribution (i.e., finding the right audience).
Voxeurop translates its articles into four other languages apart from English – French, Italian, German and Spanish. It was not alone. At the time Forum.eu, a Berlin-based news startup, was making news with its ambition to shake-up the pan-European media market.
The idea was the same as for Voxeurop, to bring authoritative points of view and translate articles into several European languages. It seems, Forum.eu has failed, its social channels stopped publishing in May and the site has a simple announcement: we tried our best, but we were not successful – thank you for following us!
Gian-Paolo Accardo ended our interview with a call to unite and cooperate more as the market is huge, the fragmentation is real and it is unlikely there will be a united pan-European media voice.
A few months earlier Wolfgang Blau, a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and former President, International and Chief Operating Officer at Condé Nast posted a blog saying Europe still leaves it to UK and US media to tell its story globally.
Blau was once a believer in the idea of launching a pan-European publication published in English that would carry the European perspective globally (and especially after the UK Brexited). But he wrote he no longer believed in that idea as it would take a long time to build even if there was sufficient financial backing, which there isn’t.
Blau argued that without 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.
To correct that statement and get back to my original point, I would like to point out that the disadvantage is mostly being felt by smaller European countries.
For global companies, there is no single Europe
This summer both WarnerMedia and Disney executives announced they would delay plans to expand their streaming services across Europe. Much of the continent will have to wait for HBO Max and Disney+ till the summer of 2022.
The news came as a surprise to consumers in Central and Eastern Europe who were expecting a launch date announcement as autumn is around the corner and both companies had hinted on a 2021 expansion plan.
Once again, international firms successfully operating services in western European countries looked at the fragmented continent and made a judgment call. Like so many before them.
AT&T CFO Pascal Desroches (AT&T owns WarnerMedia but it is about to spin it off to a joint media company with Discovery) said that the company may delay the HBO Max launch in some areas of Europe until early 2022. Instead, they will focus on Latin America where they saw most of their growth in the previous quarter.
Disney+ will debut in three key Asian markets (Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea) instead of Central and Eastern Europe. The CEE expansion was pushed back from later this year to summer 2022.
Disney’s decision angered Tomas Vyskocil, founder of the popular streaming data platform Flixpatrol from Czechia, and Lubomir Tuchscher, the Executive Director of Slovak Associations for Branded Products, so much they launched an online petition.
It may sound like a petition goes far from making a point for an international company but the duo was successful with a similar action against Netflix in 2019. The streaming giant then responded to the call.
The two activists are not limiting their petition only to EU states but list the rest European countries: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
What’s their point? They say the company is ignoring 170 million people (plus another 140 million if you count Russia), and asking with the petition why do companies even 30 years after the fall of communism and the Iron Curtain still divide Europe into “Western” and “Eastern”.
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The rest of the world
In May 2020, Sophie Schmit, the daughter of ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, launched Rest of World, a journalism startup focused on technology and its impact on countries that get little or no tech news coverage.
Rest of World wants to document what happens when technology, culture and the human experience collide, in places that are typically overlooked and underestimated. In other words, not the USA or Silicon Valley.
The publication has been slowly gaining traction and I have seen its stories featured in my Twitter feed more often.
It also has an ‘Eastern Europe’ section, but not a Western Europe one. Even from the global perspective there is a feeling that Eastern Europe is underreported and underrepresented.
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V4 media united to get interviews with high profile politicians
In 2018, my colleague from SME Matus Krcmarik interviewed the French president Emmanuel Macron. He wasn’t alone, four journalists from four media outlets from the Visegrad countries were asking questions.
It was one of the first interviews the four foreign correspondents from their respective outlets had done together. Journalists from the Slovak daily SME, the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, the Hungarian HVG and the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita were able to secure a high profile interview. The rub? None would have been able to do so on their own.
This cooperation also brought longform pieces that they wrote and exchanged between each other.
Let me drive this point home with one more story from a Czech journalist who could not get Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, to give her an interview, not even answer her questions.
Years ago, Petra Prochazkova, the Czech journalist in question, was a foreign correspondent based in Russia. She reported on armed conflicts in Asia and Africa and worked for both serious Czech and Slovak mainstream media.
While stationed in Russia, she wrote, Prochazkova attended a press conference with both Navalny and Garry Kasparov.
Afterwards she wanted to speak to Navalny but he was surrounded with other journalists so she went to his office. The Czech audience did not sound interesting enough even to his secretary and wasn’t going to bother him. Nonetheless, Prochazkova waited for him and ended up speaking to him.
Navalny asked her how many people would read the interview and, according to Prochazkova, wasn’t satisfied with the answer. He did not accept the interview request and noted that he reaches millions on social media. Were she from a national German or French outlet, the request might have been granted.
You would think that the lesson is that small nations have to stick together to appear bigger. It is not. That shouldn’t be the lesson.
There is rather a question whether there is a united Europe or am I living in the rest of it.
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