Mathew Lowry

With independent journalism increasingly looking like an endangered species, a EU communication strategy that helped European media build the European Public Sphere would be a smarter longterm move than propaganda and brochureware.

This is a longer version of an article I contributed to an upcoming book about EurActiv’s first 15 years.

Democracies need media to survive in much the same way that fish need the medium of water to survive – they don’t eat it, they don’t drink it, it’s just the only medium they can actually exist in.

Our media – from traditional newspapers through to blogs and social media platforms – carry our political debates. Without it, no democracy – just press releases.

European issues, viewed nationally

Which is why European democracy – and hence Europe – has a problem: while political and economic issues have become inextricably European in scale and nature, our media still frame the debates through national lenses.

Instead of a European policy debate, we have 28 national debates about Europe – each from a national “how can we get the most out of it” perspective – plus a 29th in the Brussels Bubble, an echo chamber in which generations of Eurocognescenti debate amongst themselves in their own impenetrable jargon.

This doesn’t seem that well understood in Brussels – echo chambers tend to blind their inhabitants – but those outside the EU seem to see it pretty clearly – just this month:

A truly European debate can only be supported by something called the European Public Sphere, the lack of which used to be a rather academic topic, discussed with much handwringing by young political scientists as they prepared their EU Commission entrance exams.

Today, however, there is little doubt that the hapless flailing of Europe’s leaders wrestling with today’s crises is caused partly by the fact that they’re working within a EUropean context, but answering to voters who see issues mainly from national perspectives.

The greatest irony is that these crises:

  • are pushing EU issues onto the front page, thus making today probably the best moment to encourage the development of the European Public Sphere
  • unfortunately coincide with another crisis – the one facing independent media, without which the European Public Sphere cannot exist.

Europe needs a healthy independent media capable of underpinning the European Public Sphere. As it happens, EurActiv’s path over the past 15 years helps illustrate how this can be achieved.

Born in the first dotcom

Eight years ago I helped launch BlogActiv before returning to EU communications. Give or take a month or two, my short stint fell in the middle of EurActiv’s 15 years of life so far.

As I pointed out recently when I returned, EurActiv’s story is quite unique:

  • 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.
  • and not just any online media business – an EU-focused media business. Few survive.
  • and not just one business – the EurActiv network provides free access to news and opinion on EU affairs in 12 languages, localised to 12 countries.

That uniqueness can be traced back to when EurActiv launched. Back at the turn of the century, legacy media were still outsourcing their websites as they struggled with the upcoming revenue plunge a few of them 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: today, those startups are a distant memory.

The legacy media that have survived so far, meanwhile, have digitised their newsrooms, upended their processes, created new content forms and adapted to social media. All of that … to face their fifth (or is it sixth?) existential threat in the form of programmatic advertising, ad blockers and the loss of control to Facebook.

The digital natives arrive

Watching their struggles, a new generation of “digital native” media emerged in the US: Buzzfeed, Vox, Upworthy, Quartz, Vice, Politico, Circa (RIP) and more are technology companies that do news, rather than news organisations adopting technology they barely understood. As such, most are powered by completely different ideas of what media can be.

On the one hand they represent a collective breath of fresh air, releasing the news industry from its ‘dead tree’ paradigm and exploring new forms of telling society stories about itself.

But unlike the first batch of dotcoms, they have new business models which have raised serious concerns for the future of journalism, and hence democracy.

They’ve also raised hundreds of millions in venture capital and are expanding globally (see Venture-backed US media: over-funded & over here?), so it’s time for Europe to look at what these business models mean for Europe.

A native advertising future

So where does EurActiv fit in this picture?

Nowhere.

Unlike the dotcom startups it launched alongside in 1999, EurActiv created a sustainable business model based on ideas – like ‘Section Sponsorship’ – which were quite controversial at the time. 15 years later, it’s clear that this insulated EurActiv from the worst excesses of the advertising-driven “publish anything to get clicks” model pushing today’s online media in a race to the bottom.

Today, however, Section Sponsorship looks laughably conservative compared to the digital natives’ brand journalism and native advertising, where companies, political parties and even churches pay for content created by the media’s own journalists.

This paid-for journalism is not published as an ad. Instead, it appears as part of the independent journalism, and is almost indistinguishable from it. The articles may be labelled, but the terms used – “sponsored content” (Slate), “presented by” (Huffington Post), “paid posts” (New York Times) – are designed to not draw attention to the fact that the media is now pushing a corporate interest.

And it works:

  • of the 71% of readers who noticed ad content in a Triplelift study, 62% percent didn’t realize they were looking at an ad (Digiday)
  • in four of the six groups shown a native advertisement in a Contently study, the majority interpreted native advertising as articles

European media had little choice but to follow suit – today you’ll find “paid posts” in the Financial Times, The Times and Sunday Times, the Guardian and even The Sun, to name a few British papers.

What was worse-than-controversial 15 years ago, in other words, is now commonplace. So what’s in store in another 15 years? An online swamp of ‘pay to play’ brand journalism written on behalf of industry, political parties, NGOs and anyone else with a marketing budget?

Europe’s role

The EU public sphere is unlikely to emerge in such an environment, so it’s odd that the EU’s communications strategy seems focused on bypassing European media entirely with multimillion TV and social media advertising campaigns.

One of the TV ads run during the 10 country, €13m "EU working for you" television and social media advertising campaign, piloted in 2014.
One of the TV ads run during the 10-country, €13m “EU working for you” television and social media advertising campaign, piloted in 2014.

 

Of course, given how some media behave towards the EU, one can hardly blame the Institutions for taking the opportunity to go direct to citizens.

Nevertheless, an enlightened EU communications strategy would focus on helping European media build the EU Online Public Sphere.

Such a programme, encompassing everything from research and innovation support through to authentic engagement by EU Institutions on quality media, would probably look more like an industrial policy than a communications strategy.

Given the importance of independent media industry to European jobs, culture, multilingual diversity and democracy, I fail to see the problem.

As an added bonus, the longterm benefits to EU communications would be profound, for one simple reason:

A healthy EU Public Sphere will carry the EC’s message more efficiently than any communications project ever could

An alternative overarching EU communication strategy?

The alternative is risking letting independent journalism die, and leaving European democracy to the tender mercies of Facebook’s algorithms and corporate-funded journalism.

Further reading

 

 

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