Asked whether media alliances for editorial projects really work, INMA’s panel of experts Tuesday in Hamburg responded with a definite yes, sort of, depends.
The editors were from German, Belgian, and Polish media houses that had all collaborated with 13 other newsrooms in last spring’s “Europe Talks” effort. That initiative was designed to generate direct one-on-one, face-to-face conversations between people with markedly different political views on key issues in the then-upcoming European parliament elections. The project ultimately attracted 16,000 participants in 33 countries.
All the editors on the INMA Media Innovation Week panel said they felt “Europe Talks” was a major accomplishment from the standpoint of getting disparate, sometimes competing news media to work together for a greater cause.
Most of the editors agreed the project was more of a success as an event that they were able to promote to their readers than it was for the significance of any actual journalism it generated.
At least one editor lamented that, for all the effort, it seemed to have only limited effect on changing people’s minds and or countering the extreme polarisation that characterises much of European political debate today.
“The idea is very simple,” said Sebastian Horn, deputy editor-in-chief of Germany’s Zeit Online. “It originated in our newsroom in 2017 just after (U.S. President Donald) Trump got elected and just after Brexit (was endorsed by a majority of Britons). That idea was: Let’s introduce you to someone who thinks differently but who lives nearby.
“Early on in 2018, we were approached by media in other countries as well who said: We are facing similar polarization... . So we started building a platform, software essentially, that can be used in every country.
“So far we’ve been to 12 countries,” Horn noted, calling such a wide-ranging collaboration “probably the craziest idea to come out of all this… . We could have never done this alone.”
“In Belgium, we teamed up with our competitor,” said Karel Verhoeven, editor-in-chief of De Standaard. “Because this is a project of collaboration, it was very natural that we did so with our competitor, especially to get other types of people than just the type who read your paper.
“Because in the end, it’s not about you competing with others on the news market… . I think now one of our tasks is to set the stage for a democratic debate.”
“I would really like to go more deep into this project,” said Aleksandra Sobczak, chief of digital newsroom at Gazeta Wyborcza. "People in Poland really need to improve how they discuss things… . I think what this project has shown is that when we see each other, when we see the real person, it’s a more even discussion.”
She added, however: “I think it was driven by media, but it was difficult to sell it, frankly. The stories weren’t popular enough (with readers). They might have changed people’s opinions in a very little amount but it was not much.”
Verhoeven agreed: “These projects are mostly time-consumed, costly efforts, and then you end up with a lot of journalism that you simply cannot write into your own newspaper… . It is as much a branding exercise as it is a journalistic exercise.”
The panel did not address any other types of editorial projects that might benefit from an alliance of media houses.
“There seems to be continued interest in the project,” Horn said of the contacts he’s received since “Europe Talks" concluded for 2019.
Verhoeven seemed to demur at least slightly, commenting that “there’s a limit to what you can do with these huge collaborations, compared to journalists one-on-one working together.”