Mathew Lowry

 

There’s never been a better time to innovate in media, so it’s good to be back to EurActiv.

Eight years ago I helped launch BlogActiv, before leaving for the world of EU communications agencies. Give or take a month or two, my 6-month stint fell in the middle of EurActiv’s 15 years of life so far. It’s good to be back, albeit part-time*, to help the Media Innovation team with the next stage in EurActiv’s evolution.

Because once you look back, it’s actually quite a story. But it’s the next few years which interest me most.

Not fitting the mould

Personally I think EurActiv gets a raw deal from some in Brussels, a city where most people find it much easier to criticise someone else than actually do something themselves.

After all, for any observer of online media or EU affairs these past 15 years, EurActiv just doesn’t fit. Consider:

  • It’s that rarest of objects: an EC-funded project that resulted in a self-sustaining, successful business. Most don’t.
  • And not just any sort of business: an online media business, born in the first dotcom. Which survived the first dotcom crash. Most didn’t.
  • Not just any online media business, either – an EU-focused media business. Few of them get past their second birthday.
  • And not just one business – EurActiv.com is produced in three languages by teams in four capitals, plus there’s a network of franchises in ten more countries, each covering EU affairs from their national perspective, in their national language. Together they publish localised news and opinion on EU affairs in 12 languages.

I’m not brown-nosing for my new gig here – I’m just asking you to guess how much it would cost the EU Commission to do that by outsourcing it via a communications project? Now do you understand why I think the cultivation of the EU online public sphere and sustainable EUropean media should be the core goal of the EU’s communication strategy?

Legacy media and digital natives

Easier said than done. After all, it’s not as if Europe’s media industry is exactly blazing with optimism and innovation (see EU wants to require permission to make a link on the Web).

To understand how it got here, you first need to consider how the online media landscape has changed since EurActiv launched in 1999.
Back then, legacy media were still outsourcing their websites to web agencies as they struggled with the upcoming revenue plunge a few could dimly see approaching. But they still had no idea just how bad things were going to get.

In parallel, a bewildering array of content startups were busily burning through venture capital as if it would never stop. But it did: those startups are now a distant memory.

Today, the legacy media that survived have fully digitised their newsrooms, upended their processes, created new content forms, adapted to social media and incorporated native advertising. All of that … to face their fifth (or is it sixth?) existential threat in the form of programmatic advertising, mobile uptake, ad blockers and the almost complete loss to social media platforms of distribution control. Grim times.

Watching these struggles, a new generation of digital native media recently emerged: Buzzfeed, Vox, Upworthy, Quartz, Vice, Circa and more are (or were) technology companies that do news, rather than news organisations adopting technology they barely understood.

After revolutionising everything from journalism’s business model to technology, they have raised hundreds of millions in venture capital to expand globally (see Venture-backed US media: over-funded & over here?).

Finding its own path

This is why I find EurActiv rather interesting. It took a different path from the outset, creating a business/editorial model that was probably controversial back then, but now looks conservative compared to the brand journalism focus of many of today’s digital natives (eg Politico Hires Dell’s Managing Editor to Build a ‘Brand Journalism’ Team), and the adoption of native advertising by legacy media (The Financial Times readies paid posts for advertisers, New York Times adman gushes over native advertising performance).

I’ve spent a grand total of 6 months working at EurActiv, so I’m not well placed to say how or why they did this. What I do know is how it feels to walk back into the office after eight years away.

Somehow, it still feels like a dotcom startup. The news- and translation desks are still right next to the IT guys. There are still tiny rooms for stand-up meetings and still (apparently) the weekly team stand-up every Monday. Workshops are still being held with paying members – something other news operations only just started doing (see New curated programme of unique events brings the Guardian to life for readers). There’s still a big bowl of fruit at the entrance and team photos in the kitchen. Everything’s still bright yellow.

But it doesn’t feel like any standup I knew from the first dotcom. There is no table tennis, beanbags or pinball machines. No beer in the fridge or cuddly mascots. There’s no sense of getting rich quick by selling broadband content or petfood by post.

Instead, they’re thinking about the next innovation in news. It was blogs, so is it now blog integration … or the Blogpocalypse? Is it Facebook Instant Articles or Google AMP, brand journalism or native advertising, news atomisation or storytelling, automised semantic curation or machine translation, EurActory or PolicyLine?

Perhaps all of them, or none? Whatever. It should be fun finding out.

* PS My EurActiv gig is part-time, so if you’re looking for help with your communication strategy, you know where to find me.

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Comments

  1. Mathew, welcome back indeed!

    I’m glad you didn’t check this post with me before publishing, because we would have mostly agreed, OMG…

    Especially on this point, which a few (former) ‘anti-onliners’ in the Brussels press corps may appreciate:

    “It took a different path from the outset, creating a business/editorial model that was probably controversial back then, but now looks conservative compared to the brand journalism focus of many of today’s digital natives [ ], and the adoption of native advertising by legacy media [ ]” .

    Readers may also appreciate this other BlogActiv post: my (dis)counting of 20 (yes!) former EU media attempts. So far, the more ambitious, the more likely to fail…

    https://euroman.blogactiv.eu/2014/09/11/media4eu-0f-20-media-groups-to-%E2%80%98go-european%E2%80%99-most-failed/

    @LeclercqEU

  2. “Brussels, a city where most people find it much easier to criticise someone else than actually do something themselves”
    Mathew, my experience tells me that this is widespread a vice in Europe. Missing a pro-active proposal makes criticism void.
    Thanks for your contribution.

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