Mathew Lowry

In response to @SocialEUJ, because Twitter sometimes (usually) doesn’t give you the room one needs …

On November 8, MEPs will discuss ’10 concrete political proposals’ for creating the European public sphere via digital media, developed by IHECS (Institut des Hautes Etudes des Communications Sociales) and their partners via Socialeuropeanjournalism.com.

The site looks good. At first glance, it also gives the impression that the ideas were developed bottom-up:

This exercise didn’t represent any political movement or union, and was basically a grassroots dialogue.
Ten flagship proposals in support of citizen-centred European journalism will be discussed with MEPs

So much for bottom-up

A bit of digging turns up some anomalies, however. For a start, there are only 7 draft flagship proposals. Perhaps the other 3 will be published the day of the presentation to MEPs?

Anyway, most of the 7 ideas have been viewed under 30 times and have garnered a grand total of (count ’em) 10 comments: two received one each, with one getting 8.

Moreover, three ideas were submitted by one person (Esther Durin, who appears to be the site’s editor), while another three were submitted by someone called ‘Social European Journalism’, who’s ‘about’ link points to a 404 Not Found page. A site editor’s abandoned profile, presumably.

So much for a rich, bottom-up dialogue with citizens about developing a rich, bottom-up dialogue with citizens. This is unsurprising – many of IHECS partners’ are quintessential denizens of the Brussels Bubble.

And one of them is listed as Bloggingportal – when I asked the editors about this, they were as surprised as I was. Either they are taking our name in vain, or they can’t tell the difference between a list of partners and a blogroll. Ouch.

Is this what we need?

Interestingly, the one proposal not apparently submitted by the site’s editors was the one that received 80% of the (10) comments:

“… creating the first interactive meeting place of 4 groups of key stakeholders in European Affairs: EU journalists (correspondents), EU Institutions representatives, European NGO’s and National/local journalists. … these actors hardly ever manage to meet at the same place, which is unfortunate because when they do, they generate a rich and rare pluralistic debate on EU policies.”
My proposal: an interactive platform to boost pluralistic debate in EU

As Ronny Patz tried pointing out in the comments, this is probably another example of a platform proposed without seriously considering whether it actually offers anything to its target audience. The web is littered with empty communities, meeting places and virtual watering holes that seemed necessary for the Greater Good, but didn’t offer the actual participants what they needed.

Perhaps I am being unfair – it’s possible that there is a demand for the above platform, beyond funding a few interns in the Brussels Bubble.

Still, there are two questions which the MEPs should ask of each and every proposal:

Have you done audience research?
Do you have a razor-sharp focus on who your audience is? How you are going to offer them something original which they actually need?

What happens when the funding dries up?
How will our investment make a meaningful, structural difference to the European online public space after we stop pumping in funds?

The problem with the exercise is that these platforms are conceived as projects, not businesses. This has two consequences:

  • they will have difficulty competing for peoples’ online time with professionally-run online platforms – websites where a drop in traffic means bankruptcy and unemployment for the owners and editors.
  • few people will invest their time in a platform that will die after a few years, when the public funding comes to an end.

Such general platforms – as opposed to communities aiming at specific EU programmes & policies – therefore have a particularly bad case of Chicken-and-Egg.

What the European online public space actually needs is a healthy ecosystem of sustainable media businesses, not a series of one-off platforms that come and go like moths in the night, driving media start-ups out of business with the help of public funds.

Still, as mentioned before, this is not a simple debate – state-funded media can be excellent, and when it comes to EU affairs there is a case to be made for answering market failure with public support, particularly if its oriented towards creating something which can live without support after a few years. Unfortunately, public procurement practices work against such projects.

Update (3/11/2011): I just stumbled across an answer to this post over on the Socialeuropeanjournalism.com. Odd that they didn’t post it here, or mention it on Twitter. Not that their response actually answers my points. I did reply, but it seems to have gone into a black hole – no ‘comment being moderated’ message, or anything professional like that. But then even some professional agencies can’t get the basics of blogging right…

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  1. So how do we get this “healthy ecosystem of sustainable [EU] media businesses”?

    Maybe the European Commission should fund a startup seed capital initiative like what Y Combinator is for the Silicon Valley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y_Combinator

    Imagine there would be a startup fund for media business giving away 10.000 – 25.000 EUR for every online/media startup dealing with EU affairs? As with Y Combinator, people could be invited/forced to come to Brussels and get started here.

    What do you think?

  2. It’s not a bad idea to develop, but first I’d want to see whether the EC has ever managed to do anything like this before. Have any examples?

    Now traditional public procurement results more in time-limited EC comms projects, rather than sustainable media businesses, so a Calls for Proposals would seem to be the better approach.

    Thinking as I type, I see a more fundamental problem. The whole point of startup seed capital ventures like the mighty YC are that they take a stake in the company – they’re trying to make money.

    Now imagine if the EC funded a startup. They’d then probably massively cooperate with it in terms of advertising, use of its services, membership, etc. It would become ‘the platform’ to be on.

    The EC would then be a part-owner of the EU online public space. Not good – as well as sustainable, it has to be independent – and be seen to be independent.

    Which is another reason why seeing the EP fund any of the projects proposed by the ECJ will probably fail. Funded by an EU Institution, they’ll face a credibility gap.

    Thx for droppin’ by …

  3. Dear Mathew

    I already answered on your post on my blog. But you seem to like multiply the supports…

    Those who know us since the begining know that the ideas of proposals posted on the website were elaborated by more than 50 persons, in 2010 (many journalists/students/ media specialists and NGO representatives).

    The website didn’t exist and was created on their demand, to post the proposals and widen the debate. Until July the 15th, a forum was opened. The goal of the website (blog and forum) was to open temporary the debate. The 15th of July, the forum was closed and discussions continued with other organisations that have the same objectives.

    The proposals were from the start elaborated with many free lance journalists.

    Now that we want to submit them to MEPs, I think that’s normal that other organisations involved in the dialogue with the institutions, on the same questions, can be associated to the initiative. We are stronger together than separated.

    The website should have been closed now. But you will be surprised… We were asked to continue. Because, beside the proposals, we also are interested in highlighting interesting media initiatives and legislations, in EU and abroad.

    Now, the website’s just been changed. Peope who follow us know that this is a transitional phase.

    If you think that our 2011 proposals ( 2nd step after the physical meetings of 2010 – more elaborated) aren’t good, we would be glad to receive your views and take theme in account for a next step.

    Thanks

    PS: If your goal is to discuss, please chose one support.

  4. Hi Esther,

    Let me tackle the last point first. You first engaged with me on Twitter. I couldn’t respond in 140ch so I posted something more substantial here in response to your request. You chose to respond to my post on your blog (a bit odd), and didn’t mention it to anyone, so I only stumbled across it by accident.

    I responded to it there – i.e, on your blog – so I followed your lead. However, I suspected (correctly) that my comment was put in your spam queue, so I had no choice but to alert you on Twitter. Where you seemed to confuse the pingback with comments, and comments with posts.

    Since then we have continued the conversation on your blog. So I was surprised to find you back here. Moreover, complaining that I was the one using too many platforms!? 😉

    Anyway, once again, thanks for your clarifications. I think the phrase “those who know us“, used repeatedly in your comment, confirms the impression that this is very much Brussels talking to itself.

    Clearly, you and “the people who know you” understand your process, so to you it all seems crystal clear. I was simply giving you honest, unvarnished but (I think) constructive criticism about the impression your website gives a visitor who is not part of your inner circle.

    This is called User Feedback. If you don’t like it (and you clearly didn’t), any of the platforms you are considering will fail.

    Which brings us full circle, back to the point I made in my post. I was going to say that I would look forward to seeing your proposals, but given the way you react to criticism, I’ll probably not bother. What would be the point?

  5. Mathew,

    I’m sorry but you show a little bad faith…

    Maybe I should have right a post on the process in the website.
    But another time, I explained you how the process followed several steps. Next step of consultation starts next week. I’ve told you we will be glad to take all your comments, all the comments into account and make theme progress or abandonate them !

    I just put “for those who know us” because your comment refected the fact that the history of the processus wasn’t clear enough.
    The discussions in 2010 vere shared by people from Belgium ( right most from Brussels) but also France, Spain, UK, Portugal, Moldavie, Romania, Italia, Germany… Since the Website, people from US, China and Nepal, for example, participated.

  6. Please, my criticism wasn’t meant to be harsh – I was sincerely trying to help by emphasising the importance of audience research and focus. I stand by my initial observations in my post, where I pointed out the apparent lack of user demand for many of the ideas, and the almost complete lack of conversation about them.

    You have now set the record straight in the comments since. I’m impressed that you got comments from Nepal! 😉

    But my criticism was based on what you had on your website, and the contents of your first comments and Tweets. While I didn’t mollycoddle you, calling my criticism unconstructive, and then accusing me of bad faith, seems a little unfair and out or proportion. It also reinforces the image that you are not actually that interested in what people have to say about the proposals. Probably not the impression you wish to give.

    If you don’t take my mild form of criticism well, then you shouldn’t be discussing EU affairs online – you will get a lot worse as soon as you stick your neck out of the Bubble! For a foretaste, see my experience of launching Blogactiv.

    Anyway, best of luck with your presentation to the EP.

  7. The choice is not just between State / EU media and no good media: indeed, thoughtful competitive contracting can also help. This is called industrial policy.

    (However this debate got started, let me say that it is relevant, so thanks to _all_ of you)

    I support some points above. Notably this:
    ‘state-funded media can be excellent, and when it comes to EU affairs there is a case to be made for answering market failure with public support, particularly if its oriented towards creating something which can live without support after a few years. Unfortunately, public procurement practices work against such projects.’
    And this:
    ‘Now traditional public procurement results more in time-limited EC comms projects, rather than sustainable media businesses, so a Calls for Proposals would seem to be the better approach.’

    Let me point to the example I know best (recall that French people don’t do self effacing coments as well as others!). EurActiv started on its own, then won a series of two calls for proposals (INFSO, eContent programme). This co-funded its whole multilingual and Eastern network developement, probably one of the best communication investments the EU ever made…

    And much cheaper indeed than some consultancy projects, whne they lack continuity and value added. In addition to defining the target sharply, as Matthew suggests, I woudl also suggest to assess the results of projects…

    On one occasion, for an innovative cross-institutionnal project, I suggested informally to consider a call for proposals, to make sure their would be competition not only on terms but also on concepts and on implementation quality: having at least two potential winners. Instead, a heavy call for tenders was triggered, and then the institutions involved tried to over-control, and fell out… The rest is (unfortunate) history…

    Those who wish to continue the discussion offline can contact me directly.

    Christophe Leclercq

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