The language of Europe is English if we want our voice to be heard.

  • Everyone talks about global audiences, and some plan to develop new global media for global audiences. The idea of a Netflix of news is fascinating, but misleading.
  • So far, the experience of media startups such as Semafor show that the lens through which our European reality is shown, is still profoundly anglo-american. Why? For the simple fact that they own the common language of the globe.
  • The time has come for European media to tell our stories to a global audience and stop waiting for others to do it for us. The examples coming from Eastern European media startups demonstrate that this is possible. And, it can generate a sizeable business, too.

Global media for global audiences.

Everyone talks about global audiences: how to reach them, how to serve and how to monetise those audiences. It is a topic concerning brands, institutions, and media companies.

For brands, it is first a question of understanding which messages can be universal and which cannot. Keyword: localisation.

When it comes to media, the matter has always been more complicated: fiction, entertainment, and even more news media can only be born local and consumed through the filter of one’s culture and language (even if one is a polyglot).

Then came digital technologies, platforms such as Netflix and technology that transformed translation into something much more scalable, accessible, and even automatable in real time.

So, are we ready for a Netflix of news? The value promise of Semafor, the news startup launched in October 2022.

Are we ready to go beyond the fake globalism of American or UK media companies that speak to the world in English but always from London, Denver, Atlanta or New York and with a newsroom formed by a majority of British and American editors?

Here comes the promise of Semafor, the much-discussed news start-up. Semafor is an offspring of journalism stars and aims to be an English-language global outlet not dominated by US/UK-made news but more like Netflix, which commissions and buys local products to give them global visibility. Semafor targets “the 200 million or so English speakers with college degrees”.

This formula, bing “the Netflix of news”, is fascinating.

For it is true that with Netflix, series such as the Israeli Shtisel – acted in three languages, with an ultra-orthodox family at the centre – would never have attracted tens of millions of viewers worldwide without first being subjected to the most usual American remakes.

However, this formula ignores some fundamental differences:

  • an aggregator aggregates – it makes editorial choices when buying or commissioning to distribute, but it is more like a department store – whereas a journalistic product has its formula, its editorial line, its voice.
  • Can this ‘voice’ really be without the stamp coming from being led by American or British editors-in-chief? Can an outlet targeting a global audience be global in its outlook, too?
  • Third point: Fiction vs factual. Literary fiction has given humanity great stories that have appealed to people from the most diverse backgrounds without needing to be rewritten but translated (a process which is way more complex than translations for factual content). That happens, however, when such tales touch universal human chords. Classic tales go to the bottom of motivations, feelings and what since ever moved humanity. That is why they are “classics”.

Can the news be as universal as these stories are? I doubt it.

I mean: one thing is to reach a global audience. A different matter is to be natively global in the way of telling and interpreting the world facts. I do not see traditional media companies able to do that as of now.

Semafor? Neither. At least, not after its first month after launch. The review made by PressGazette gives you insights based on topics covered and volumes. But it is the voice that, still, is profoundly Anglo-American.

What does this mean for Europe and its stories? Who can tell Europe to Europeans and the rest of the world?

For some time now, Wolfgang Blau, founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network and former President, International and COO, Condé Nast, has been making a call to arms to publishers in continental Europe to equip themselves with English-language offers instead of leaving the task of telling the world about Europe to the London-based Economist and The Guardian.

Aware that any attempt to artificially create a pan-European media has failed, Blau turns to publishers who already have brands with a global appeal, such as El Pais, Le Monde, and Spiegel:

"(...) I find it smarter to create English-language media spheres in the EU that are anchored in the already trusted national news organisations of each member state versus trying to create new pan-European brands, even if they had teams on the ground in all member states." (On Medium, Nov 5, 2020)

"Secondly, I no longer think that simply translating already published content from a newspaper’s local language into English or cross-sharing content between the news organisations of different countries will be sufficient." (On Medium, Nov 5, 2020)

Faced with this prospect, there is no need to call in the experts to know why a native European news media has not risen to this challenge.

It is enough to have worked for a few years in any European publishing environment. And, then, looking at current business models.

  • For traditional publishers, on the one hand, there is a lack of economic incentives. They do not know how to monetise a global audience, if they were able to develop it.
  • When they offer pieces in English, they do so occasionally and as a form of PR. If they have a prominent interview, that will be announced and passed on by the agencies.
  • And as for editorial operations, most European newspapers are not equipped with desks dedicated to the internationalisation and localisation of their journalistic content, not even to write natively in English for an international audience.

Traditional publishers lack the incentive, the structure and even the human capital to take this path. Lacking, one might say, is the mindset.

European media startups might solve the problem and give Europeans the voice they deserve. They come almost entirely from Eastern Europe.

But do we have to wait for a big publisher to develop a global dimension to tell the world about Europe? Because if so, then the only candidate for that role is Axel Springer.

Yet, something has moved very quickly in recent years. Something that comes from Eastern Europe. There are many small newspapers and media start-ups, which, either to escape from systems controlled by local powers or to have their stories heard by other Europeans and the rest of the world, have gone beyond the limits of traditional journalistic publishing models.

From Poland to Romania, from the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the striking case of Ukraine, small newspapers have used newsletters, creator economy platforms (Patreon, SteadyHQ etc.), developed original subscription models, and used strategically social media - not only Twitter - to tell the world about their countries.

These are editorial staffs that don't face the problem of translation because the ladies and guys there are already used to writing in English. And, above all, they don't write in a self-referential and purely local way because they have already known the world, studied in several countries, and are - much more than many young Italian, French or German editors - natively European.

And they are digital natives too, which does not just mean social media savvy. They can work with data, think about product and user experience since every new project start, and create mixed media from their Macs and iPhones without expecting 'specialists' for this and that.

The Fix Media, a magazine itself created by journalists and media managers from Eastern Europe, draws a portrait - one year after its launch - of the news start-up The Kyiv Independent.

The newspaper was founded by a group of journalists fired by the editor of the Kyiv Post. Little did they know that within a few months they would become the leading voice of Ukrainian resistance in the world. Young, all-round editors, comfortable with platforms such as Patreon and, they quickly developed an open and multifaceted funding model so as not to miss any revenue opportunities.

Over time, they consolidated media partnerships and sold syndicated content. Yes, they also received grants and funding from publishers (such as Aftenposten in Norway) and free use of tools such as Chartbeat.

In just one year and under very difficult conditions, the Kyiv Independent proved that it is possible to tell one's story to the world starting from scratch, not standing on the shoulders of a big media company. Today, more than 90% of the readers of The Kyiv Independent reside outside Ukraine.

"However, the next global goal is already set up: becoming the main English-language publisher in the whole Eastern European-Central Asian region. “The Kyiv Independent will always be Ukraine-first, but at the same time, we want to explore other regions as well. We already have regular coverage of Belarus; by now we are the only media outlet that regularly covers the situation there in English. When The Kyiv Independent moves into regional scale, all our content formats will follow on that”, Rudenko said." (THE FIX MEDIA, 11.11.22)

Time to learn some lessons about how to continental Europe can be better heard.

In the days of the Russian invasion, Wolfgang Blau resumed the discourse begun in 2020 and asked the European media to systematically publish their analyses also in English:

An invitation that went unheeded in the West, while in the East and North-East we witnessed a flood of original voices and analyses, many of which were conveyed thanks to Twitter (ah, Twitter, I am already nostalgic for what you were for many of us), and to cooperation, collaborations, and the launching of new operations.

What do they all have in common? They went beyond Umberto Eco´s principle, according to which "The language of Europe is translation." A striking quote from 1993 that proved to be obsolete.

If you want your voice to be heard in the world, the language of Europe must be English, whether you like it or not.

And if you find, nurture and develop your audience, you will also find how to monetise it. The tools are there. The business models, too. Our sisters and brothers in Eastern Europe are doing it. It is high time that western journalism, too, took some dust off its editorial desks and put its heart beyond the language barrier.

We know that Europe can never speak with one voice, and that is not a bad thing. We Europeans are a polyphonic choir. But the score to be used and the system of notes on which to sing must be one, simple, intelligible.

We Europeans do not need our history to be told to us from Washington, London or New York. But from Bucharest, Tallinn, Kyiv, Gdansk and Paris, Berlin, Madrid. If the language to get it done is English, let us embrace it. And let embrace all the opportunities to bring it to wider audiences. The time has come.

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Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash