The EU has brought countries together more than even before, but the lack of a common debate is problematic. The Leading European Newspaper Alliance (LENA) is working towards this goal by bringing together seven newsrooms from seven European countries.
Javier Moreno is Director of LENA and former editor-in-chief of El País.
He spoke with EURACTIV founder Christophe Leclercq as part of the #Media4EU series. LENA groups seven media organisations: Die Welt (Germany), El País (Spain), La Repubblica (Italy), Le Figaro (France), Le Soir (Belgium), Tages-Anzeiger (Switzerland – DE) and Tribune de Genève (Switzerland – FR)
The network of El País grew in Latin America under your leadership. How did it work, and how long did it take?
Indeed, after I was bureau chief in Mexico, we made two attempts at localising and growing the El País brand in Latin America. Our first attempt, in the paper era, did not work. Thanks to the internet, the second one succeeded.
Between 2010 and 2014, while I was editor-in-chief, we managed to become the leading Spanish-speaking media network. This is thanks to our decentralised approach, despite the obvious opportunities for concentration offered by the internet. Based on the same experience, I have also learned in Mexico that headlines and other elements had to be different from the Madrid ones. Moreover, we also had mixed teams, combining Latin American energy and country knowledge with journalistic experience from Spain.
So to what extent is this an inspiration for European exchange networks like LENA?
There are major differences of course. At LENA, we talk about six different companies and seven titles, using four different languages. This means that the eventual goal is different, and the process slower. Still, we can learn from leveraging the internet, not trying to centralise and mainly creating a human dynamic between journalists.
Trump got elected, despite the opposition by the mainstream media. Do you think that here in Europe the media could help counter populism?
It’s very complicated. Obviously if you think that populism is the wrong choice for a country, which I do, then there is room for the media to fight against it. I would like to think that this has been our job for years. Only in the wake of what’s happened in the US we’ve realised we’re probably not doing a good job in debunking falsehoods. This has allowed populism to gain momentum. So I think this should be probably our first concern in the coming years.
Do you think we should push for more diversity of views and more input from other media? Would that help national debates?
Well I don’t think that the Brexiteers can complain about not being heard. I see your point because when we look back at what has happened in the United States, there are many people in the industry saying that for years we did not pay enough attention to the voices of those who in the end came out in favour of Trump. I think this is a discussion that the US media needs to have.
In our case, I think we can complain about many things but not about this because I would say that 90% of the tabloids in the UK were pro-Brexit and they run pages with all kinds of stories, both false and true about it. I’m not sure that this is a sin we have committed.
If you take a European issue like migration, the debate is very different from country to country. Could media exchanges like LENA and others help increase understanding?
If you are asking me in general, you are for sure right. However, in LENA’s case, immigration is high on the priorities of both the political class and the citizens in all countries our newspapers are based in. In Spain, we had a huge increase in immigration in the past 20 years. We are on the most southern border of the European Union, directly in contact with the African countries where many immigrants come from. Italy and France are in the exact same position, so there is not a single country in the LENA alliance where this is an issue that needs attention. We are all perfectly aware that this is a central issue for the future of the European Union.
Within LENA, could you describe what type of contents and formats are best suitable for exchanges? Is it typically European topics or national stories retaken in another country? Or is there a cultural dimension?
I would say it is a mixed bag, you never know what’s going to work. From my experience, national stories are not easy to share because when national political developments are reported within a country, usually they are written with a sense of urgency and with focus on details rather than on the context. This is because your readers probably already know a lot about that issue. This makes the story difficult to understand for readers from another country. From to time a story will be shared on the platform because it relates to something important happening in your country but that happens rarely. What does work very well is features about all kinds of social, cultural or scientific developments and obviously also stories from foreign correspondence.
Foreign correspondents from outside or inside of Europe?
Outside. Each newspaper has different scenes. El País has a network of correspondents in Latin America which no other newspaper in Europe has, while Le Figaro and Die Welt have other strengths. This makes these exchanges very interesting because you can expand in new areas.
Is the cooperation to use these correspondents proactive? Do you send them suggestions because you know a partner is interested or is it only ex-post syndication of what has been produced?
It’s mainly ex-post. However, sometimes when news breaks somewhere, and this is something which proves that the alliance is more than just a passive exchange platform, we can say: ‘we have someone there, just to let you know, so you can expect a story in two or three hours time’.
OK so we could call this advanced warning. Does it go even further, so that let’s say the German contact person expresses an interest for some development in Latin America and then El País provides something relevant to the alliance?
We’re not there yet. That would be very interesting for the future but as I said, baby steps. Launching this alliance and having it up and running is already very complicated because you have to take into account all the different cultures, newsrooms and the way they work. I think it’s some kind of miracle that we have already achieved this much after just a year and a half. So we shouldn’t push for more than what newsrooms can both deliver and absorb. Right now, I’m a more than happy that we’re not just exchanging content but also having people realise they have an asset on the field should something happen.
Does your proactive approach work well? Roughly how many joint interviews have you conducted in the last year?
Well it depends, probably about 30-35. Some of them are, let’s say, completely LENA-driven, meaning I organised and negotiated the interview. Some examples that come to my mind include Christine Lagarde and Bill Gates (ES, DE, BE, IT, FR, CH-DE, CH-FR)
Would you say that the syndication potential increases significantly the chance of the interviewee agreeing in the first place?
Yes, it helps a lot. Obviously when I ask for an interview I always do so on behalf of the alliance, but when correspondents know they’re in a weak spot to get an interview they can always use this ‘trick’. This is very good because it shows that the desire is not just something we have to build up vertically, it’s also growing bottom-up
Is it right that there is no systematic approach to translation between the different media partners or do some have a dedicated team?
No, so far each paper has taken care of their own translations because costs and country needs differ greatly with the alliance. For example, probably La Repubblica and El País need more translating than the others because we have what you could call the ‘French chapter’ and also the ‘German chapter’ with multiple publications written in those languages so sometimes they don’t need to translate as much.
This is why it would be very complicated for us to take care of translation as a whole, but we have already experimented in that sense. We sent several journalists from all newsrooms for two months in the United States for the elections, producing every day pieces for the web and videos which needed to be translated under very clear and strict timetables.
Why didn’t you make it permanent?
Because this was a one-off experience, we wanted to see how it worked and learn from it, and also because it was so intensive. Journalists had to send between two and five pieces every day within certain deadlines, the whole operation had to run like clockwork that’s why LENA took charge of the translation as a whole.
What’s the typical lead time to pick a story? Let’s say an article is published at 9:00 on El País. Is it a matter of hours or days or weeks until it will be retaken by another partner?
Well it depends on country, they can decide, but from a technical point of view, they can take it immediately. Sometimes the articles are uploaded well in advance on the platform so you could run the story theoretically at the very same moment on every paper. Let’s take features as an example: they are a particularly beloved item to share because they are timeless and then they don’t go as much into the specifics of national political entanglements which make them more comprehensible across borders. So for example they will get uploaded four days to a week in advance with a warning sign reading ‘please do not publish before day x at time y’. So you can work in advance, you can have it translated, if you want to run it in the print edition you can lay it. The only condition is that you cannot run it before the original newspaper.
About the revenue model of the partnership: if I understand well there is a flat membership fee and then no charge for the retake of articles. Are you trying to experiment with ad-hoc revenue models like sponsored events or other types of support?
Yes, that is one of our goals and we’re looking at different projects with interest. To tell you the truth, we haven’t had a big breakthrough yet. Our goal isn’t to make money but to prove ourselves and the market that partnerships are possible. We will be more than happy just to break even and not have to pay.
Do you think that what you are doing is visionary for the sector? Can it inspire others? Can it contribute to the eventual restructuring of the media sector in Europe?
Describing this alliance as something that is going to change the future of the media landscape in Europe in the 21st century is off the mark. What we do is trailblazing in the sense that it’s very difficult to bring together not just seven newspapers or seven companies, but seven newsrooms with very specific devices that connect them very well with the societies they’re addressing. There is sort of a symbiosis, of permanent feedback between a newsroom and a specific society, which does not necessarily translate well to other societies.
The European project has brought us closer than ever in our history and we sense that there is a lack of common public debate on issues which affect us all and which will come to define our future. So beyond sharing content, beyond making the most out of the dwindling resources we all have in the industry, we also have a lofty goal, i would say, which is to contribute to the common public debate, to have a stronger European public opinion.
So I think that if you run an interview, not seven different pieces, the same interview with the same bylines of three journals from three different newspapers, you can make a difference. We’ve really just started this, it’s is not a not yet a five-year-long project. When we reach that milestone, I think it is again too ambitious to say they we’ll be able to save the European Agenda, but we can have an impact. The potential is there.
There are a few other exchange networks like the investigative partnerships and others that are very specialised. Let’s imagine that before the Parliament elections in 2019, five or ten among them would be working well and be sustainable. Would that make a difference for Europe?
Ah, my dream is that it would make a difference! And we are working to achieve this goal.
Would this ground for the EU to actually help this development? There has been a series of subsidised media project which are now phasing out; there are financial innovation projects which have no editorial implications. Would LENA apply?
Absolutely, although we would have to decide on a case-by-case basis.
Would the focus be on technology developments or organisational developments?
Technology would be the main goal. If a project can be a game-changer in the industry, obviously it would qualify for subsidies.
For example, technology enabling more efficiency in the translation and in the content exchange processes, would that be a priority?
Yes. Obviously we have just started taking responsibility for translations during our US election project, so we are asking ourselves questions such as: ‘Do we want to upscale this experience? How do we do it? Using which technology? How can we fund the process? ‘. So these developments are highly relevant to LENA.