behind the news

Will Politico fill a media void in Europe?

A look at how a pan-European outlet might fit into the continent's news landscape, as Politico branches out
September 12, 2014

As of Tuesday, it’s official: Following some early predictions, Politico is launching a European edition, a 50-50 joint venture with one of Europe’s largest publishing houses, Berlin-based Axel Springer. The new media company is setting out to cover  “not just Brussels but European politics and policy more broadly,” according to a staff memo sent out Tuesday from Politico CEO Jim VandeHei and Editor in Chief John Harris. A press release that same day read: 

Axel Springer SE, one of the leading European digital publishers, and POLITICO, the dominant Washington, D.C., political news publication, have joined forces to launch a European edition of POLITICO, a new digital political media offering in-depth coverage of European politics and policy.

Both Axel Springer and POLITICO have signed an agreement for a 50/50 joint venture. The new media company will be headquartered in Brussels.

Those six sentences are about all that’s official, though the press release states that more information will be announced in “the coming weeks.”

Thus, though we know that the venture will be headquartered in Brussels, where the European Union is based, it’s unclear how the focus between the EU and country-specific politics will be balanced. It’s not even clear whether the new outlet will be English-language only.

Media outlets have further been speculating whether Politico Europe (as the Huffington Post suggests the company has been tentatively named), like its American counterpart, will find its largest source of revenue among a relatively small pool of subscribers. Behind the Politico paywall, highly detailed information on specific topics is available. If the venture instead focuses on free content and advertisers, the latter would need to be found among large, non-national European companies.

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One thing is sure: Whatever actual timeframe “the coming weeks” refers to, the end of it should prove very interesting. Though media precedent in the region suggests that it’s hard to grow an audience for European, as opposed to country-specific coverage, the qualities that constitute Politico’s appeal—an ability to turn dry policies into narratives that are passionately followed by core readers—just might be a formula for success.

Ambitions and ideas for pan-European media projects that cover European and EU politics have been tossed around on the continent for years, not least as part of the European Union’s goal to fulfill its motto of a “unity in diversity.” Unified media has been part of that goal, and the EU has subsidized several such projects.

But establishing pan-European media outlets has proven a serious challenge. Even though the decades-old EU is based on the premise that the member states act and feel as one entity, the 28 member countries have distinct identities and interests, so a one-size-fits-all outlet does not necessarily fit anyone. Add to that the simple fact that the European Union has no shared language; only about half of all Europeans speak a second language at conversational level (and only for 38 percent is that language English, the language in which Politico may well decide to publish).

Further, news cultures within the European countries are firmly rooted in trusted legacy media that publish and broadcast in national languages about national issues. But many European legacy media have been dangerously slow at innovating, as The Guardian reported a few months ago, which may be a sign that it’s time for new media blood on the continent.

But an outlet like Politico was never going to swoop in and fulfill the Union’s decades-old dream of a shared, general media anyway. That dream has probably proven itself unrealistic by now, not least due to a lack of interest in EU matters among the general public, as illustrated by the decreasingly low voter turnout for European elections.

Rather, any media outlet that focuses narrowly on EU and European politics will be catering to a small, educated elite. In the case of Politico, the same is of course true of the company’s US brand. But there has still turned out to be a sizable readership out there, as Vandehei noted in a 2010 interview with CJR.

While most among the European super-elites that Politico may be eyeing for subscriptions will read English, the language barrier still cannot be entirely ruled out.

“If I were their advisor, I would say you have to do a French and English edition,” says Michael Brüggemann, a researcher at the University of Zurich, who has studied pan-European media outlets.

Accordingly, some of the existing players on the market for EU-focused media outlets—the competitors that a new outlet would face—are multilingual. That includes EuroNews, a multilingual TV channel, subsidized by the European Commision, that broadcasts European news gathered from national and international sources, and aggregates from national TV outlets. A more relevant competitor to a Politico-style outlet is the online news site EurActiv, partly funded by the EU and available for free in 12 European languages*.

European Voice, an independent, English-language newspaper about the nitty-gritty goings-on within the EU, is a more narrowly focused niche publication, but one that’s highly read by a small community in Brussels, according to Brüggemann.

Finally, the Financial Times, the London-based English-language daily, is probably the one more general go-to media source for European readers who take an interest in EU politics and economics.

“You would need a strong profile and be able to show readers what they would get that they’re not already getting from national media, the Financial Times, and EurActiv,” says  Claes de Vreese, professor and chairman of political communication at the University of Amsterdam, about the opportunities for new media outlets to the market.

Politico Europe (let’s just stick with that name for now) might find a space to own some politics and policy coverage of broader scope, De Vreese says, because the Financial Times focuses mainly on business and economics.

For a new initiative to work, it would need to be ambitious and confident from the get-go, and establish itself as a source for national media, he says. If the Wall Street Journal is right, the venture has “eight figures” worth of ambition to get the project off the ground.

Brüggemann too believes there may be an economic base for a new European media outlet if it offers something different from the existing outlets. “That depends on their stories,” he says. A focus on critical, investigative stories and an analytic stance towards the EU institutions might be a niche that an independent, non-EU-subsidized outlet could pursue. He adds however, that an office in Brussels is far from sufficient to cover EU politics—that requires at least a base in Berlin too.

Maybe there is a void in Europe’s media landscape, then, but how Politico and Springer plan to address the inherent challenges is yet to be seen. While Politico brings its unique take on journalism, Axel Springer brings a knowledge of the European media world. In between the two, something noteworthy may well be in the books for Europe.


*The piece has been updated to reflect the accurate number of languages.


Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.