EFE director: The European project needs help, and the media can provide it

[Casa de América/Flickr]

The European project needs a truly European public opinion and the media can help construct it. The EU institutions should work with national media to inform citizens and combat populism, José Manuel Sanz Mingote told EURACTIV’s founder Christophe Leclercq.

José Manuel Sanz Mingote is international director of the Spanish-speaking news agency EFE. In an interview with EURACTIV’s founder Christophe Leclercq, part of the #Media4EU series, he discussed the agency’s diversification and localisation models, as well as various types of content exchange and media cooperation. After Brexit and Donald Trump’s election he also talked about the media’s responsibility to provide professional fact-based content and to engage with young audiences in the battle against populism.

Let’s start with the main news, which is the election of Donald Trump. As a Spanish-speaking news agency you have followed it very carefully, also due to the importance of Latinos in this election. Do you have any comments regarding the role of the media and social media in this context?

Well, I will say that the outcome of the American elections has been a big surprise. I think that the results show that the media and the pollsters don’t understand the real sensitivities of the people. The media have a strong responsibility when it comes to shaping public opinion, so we have to be very objective in our assessment and analysis of political debates.

I recently interviewed John Peet, the political editor of The Economist. He explained that the legacy, fact-based media in the UK have lost the Brexit argument. Do you think it’s the same in the US? What could have been done differently?

Yes, I think this the case multiplied by 100 for Trump’s election, in the sense that its effect will be much larger than Brexit for Europe. Its impact will be overwhelming and worldwide.

EFE has a big footprint in America so you follow the Spanish-speaking press a lot. Are their reactions aggressive? Or do people think they have to get on and do business with the American administration?

In Latin America by now the reactions are moderate, so everybody is trying to keep the doors open and give the new administration time to maybe reposition itself and mitigate its initial attitudes. The key to explaining the result in the US is the response from the Hispanic and African-American communities: I think that those who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 didn’t do so at the same levels for Hilary Clinton.

Your agency has moved from a historically national role towards a large international network which has launched new initiatives such as innovative cooperation and diversification models. Can you mention some of them?

We were born in 1939 as a national news agency and moved to an international operation a couple of decades afterwards. We were very successful in Latin American countries. We include the United States as a Hispanic country since there are 50 million people speaking or having Hispanic origins there. We have several hundred clients in the mainstream media in the US and we started an operation several months ago aimed at enlarging our presence in the Far-Eastern Asian markets. For this initiative we are partnering with a pan-European entity called EPA, the European Photo Agency Association, which has a long-standing presence in Asia. For the moment the project is well on track.

You have previously mentioned other projects, including one about sharing correspondents with RTVE and another one related to cooperating with Lusa and with EURACTIV.

Yes, indeed we have a successful experience with our partner Radio Televisión Españolas, the public broadcasting organisation in Spain. We currently provide them with correspondents in Havana and in Buenos Aires.

Since the beginning of the year we have also started a strong cooperation with EURACTIV, which I think is very positive for the agency because we have experienced a real exchange of content with a truly pan-European experience of journalism. I think EURACTIV has in fact the only real European model in the sense that there is a focus not only on translation but also on the localisation of content. The failure to adapt content for national and local audiences is one of the reasons why certain experiences of multilingual journalism haven’t succeeded.

In previous interviews for this #Media4EU series we identified four hurdles hindering cooperation between media companies. You have already addressed two of them: translation and the journalists’ need to adapt. The other two concern the availability of IT tools and new revenue models. Regarding the journalistic mindset, many are willing to share content but few want accept it from others. Perhaps the fact that you are an agency means you are more inclined to exchange content. Is that the reason why these cooperation projects work well?

Yes, as long as we keep control of the final product we have no reservations about expanding content exchanges. The only thing is that we don’t want to see content produced by others being directly published, it has to be acceptable for our standards and our mentality. But coming back to the EURACTIV experience, our journalists are very a satisfied when they see their articles published and translated into English or German or French, so this is very exciting for them.

Let’s deepen the point about translation. Can you tell our readers how many languages you provide? Roughly how many translators are involved with EFE? How many are freelancers?

Obviously our main language is Spanish so most of our content is published in Spanish, not only text but also photos, videos and multimedia packages. However, we also produce content in English, Arabic, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese and Catalan. Concerning the English service we have 15 people in total, including a small team in Bangkok, another one in New Deli, one in Madrid plus our headquarters in Miami. For Arabic our resources are concentrated in El Cairo and for Brazilian and Portuguese in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro.

So you follow a very decentralised model, like EURACTIV on a smaller scale, but unlike the EU institutions which concentrate their translators in Brussels and in Luxembourg. Is that to be able to localise or is it for cost reasons?

It is for two main reasons: cost minimisation and the need to follow the rotation of the earth, to be a 24h news agency. In fact when Bangkok closes the bureau, Miami starts producing and translating items.

Moving to the issue of new revenue models, is it fair to say that agencies are used more and more, but the prices are going down? What do you do to diversify your revenue?

Our main clients continue to be the mainstream media, the bigger consumers of information, newspapers and televisions channels. We are under strong pressure from them to reduce our prices. Another factor is that, being a public company, we have the government as a client, which has its own restrictions. All this forces us to diversify our revenue model and we are trying to develop new areas which could provide us new streams of income.

Could you explain your strategy concerning the thematic websites?

The recent crisis has broken some taboos inside the company. First, we realised the necessity of being present on the web with new content apart from that reserved to our traditional wires, which are addressed to the general audience and offered for free. We’ve created 12 thematic portals, or “verticals”, in areas of public interest like Health, Environment, Entrepreneurship, Tourism, European Affairs, etc.

Secondly, in the context of these portals, we started exploring a new source of financing through sponsorship with institutions and private companies. For instance, we organised multiple workshops and forums at our headquarters in Madrid and at our main bureaus in Spain like Barcelona. These events gather stakeholders for a certain subject, and we provide the coverage. I have to stress that we are very strict in selecting the partners who share our principles and respect our editorial independence.

Is this financed by sponsors?

Yes, and this is this the second taboo broken by the crisis. In the past the model of sponsored activities was not well accepted in the company.

When you say sponsoring, do you mean putting a logo on the event’s programme or are you also talking about so-called native advertising?

No, native advertising is not an option right now, not even in the verticals. However, companies want their brand to be associated with ours. That is why we are organising these events.

So the main new revenue source comes from sponsored events, but how about advertisement?

Advertisement plays a small role in in our strategy, but we are open to windows for online advertising on our webpage.

About policy initiatives, a number of EU-funded media projects are disappearing. That was the case for Presseurop in 2013 and the radio network Euranet Plus may stop as well. Is there ground for any kind of EU projects in this area? Should they be different and move more towards innovation projects?

I think that if we support the European project, we need European media and EFE supports the EU. When we started 15 years ago we were pioneers in creating a news wire specialised in European Union affairs in Spain. European affairs is not a subject like any other, it represents essential information for our companies, our institutions, our citizens, professionals etc. So as a state company with an obligation to public service we thought that reporting on European affairs was our responsibility.

And what should the institutions do in this regard?

I think they do very little right now. They don’t realise that the European project needs a European public opinion and European media players who try to publicise Brussels’ activities and policies to domestic audiences. They have to see a little further and visualise the global European picture.

Who should take the innovation initiative? Should it be the EU institutions, like with subsidised projects, or should it be the media publishers on their own?

I think a combination of the two. The European institutions have to realise that this is an economic sector with its problems and challenges, and provide legal support to the media so they can enlarge their audiences and compete with powerful actors like the Anglo-Saxon global agencies, aggregators and new tech actors. However I think that as a news agency, we have a special role because we are obliged by our ethical code and by our societal obligations to be specialised in factual information, a key element in the battle against populist intoxication and bad journalism.

So, here is the dilemma: because your resources are shrinking, you want to invest more in these areas also to help combat populism but if you are helped by the EU institutions you could be tainted in your mission of neutrality. How can you square this issue?

We consider that the European institutions are also neutral. They have communication policies and messages but I feel that they are not interested in manipulating content. So if they let journalists report freely, they will benefit from this coverage because the information will reflect the reality and the preoccupations of the people.

Your perception of the neutrality of the EU institutions is a continental view, this would be seen very differently in the UK, which many think has limited the initiatives in this area. Do you think that Brexit will bring about new impetus for media projects?

I think this will be the case. Brexit has shown us that the worst-case scenario could happen. Now we need to wake up and realise that the European project needs help and that the media can provide it, if we are free to do what we know.

There has been a reorganisation of media competences within the European institutions, together with the realisation that the media has been addressed as a communication channel but never as a normal economic sector. Should a European media strategy be developed?

Well, it already exists to some extent. I don’t think that we need high level regulation or intervention from Brussels, but rather some form of support of good practices. Moreover, if the European institutions need to communicate, they should rely on the European media sector to fulfil these needs.

Do you mean buying services from the media like national governments occasionally do?

Yes, not trying to create its own media organisation, but addressing the players and contracting their services.

During the Rome celebrations of the anniversary of the EU in March there will be some re-launch initiatives for the European project. Should the media sector be included in this plan?

Yes, of course, I would be very surprised if this re-launching operation forgets the media sector. I think it is not the politicians but the media that have the key to bridge the divide between the people and the EU project as a whole. We are key players in this operation, so I expect that the EU institutions and national governments will be sensitive to this part of the challenge.

After march 2017 there will be first a series of national elections, and then the European elections in 2019. The big question is whether voter turnout will be higher, but also whether there will still be a majority of pro-EU mainstream parties or a coalition of populist parties. Do the media have a role to play or should they only observe the developments in the political sphere?

We have to be active in this process, and we have to connect with young people because they are the key to stopping this wave of populism and extremism. At EFE, we are very much interested in young audiences, in fact we are now debating how to enlarge our content in order to be more attractive to them. We always include the visions of interns and young journalists in our brainstorming session to learn from them what kind of multimedia content would be most successful.

Final point: during the Brexit campaign, the young UK citizens were more open to Europe but a lot of them didn’t vote. Is there a chance of increasing the participation of young people on the continent?

I hope so, we have time before the European elections, but not a lot of time. It’s true that here in Spain young people are tempted to buy into the Eurosceptic narrative but I think that we can counter these tendencies. The majority of young Spaniards are still pro-European, so we have to build on this.