It is a sad week for the “European Public Sphere”. If this concept ever existed, Presseurop was probably a rare example of how it could look like. But earlier this week we learned about the end of presseurop due to a lack of funding. Here is the official announcement. Presseurop is actually quite a remarkable service that translates opinion pieces from newspapers across Europe (which also makes it a rather expensive service to run). It is truly multilingual – and also has quite a sophisticated comment section. If you don’t know presseurop check it out before it disappears.
But let’s get to the core of the problem of the whole service: it is an EU funded project. Now it would be easy to say that the EU should not fund websites or media projects. But it is more complex than that: It basically opens the debate about public funding for media services – think of the BBC or ARD/ZDF that also rely on public funding (often based on a fee license). Now I don’t want to compare the BBC to Presseurop. The real question should always be whether a media service has editorial independence. I always found Presseurop balanced and – especially in the heat of the eurocrisis – a reliable source of opinions that reflected the mood across Eurozone. The problem is that as soon as you get EU funding (and that is even more so for media projects) people seem to think that you are a mouthpiece for the institution that funds you. In the case of Presseurop that is not the case, the case of EuroparlTV shows a different picture (I know both projects rely on different funding models and follow different communication logics – but the external result is similar: publicly available media services funded by the EU).
Two newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch – The Times and the Wall Street Journal - attacked the Commission’s funding stream for projects such as Presseurop (and some would argue that they were instrumental in bringing down the call for proposals!). The European Commission made a tactical mistake here. By publishing a call for proposals that is basically tailor-made for Presseurop – but at the same time using language to suggest that all sorts of media could be supported – it really opened itself to criticism. At the same time, we should not forget that Murdoch’s papers also routinely attack the BBC – for the same reason: public media funding. I happen to think that public broadcasters are a good thing and it may be time to think whether we need a similar structure on the European level.
The case can be made that Presseurop should be a public good – not hidden behind a paywall or run by a private company – as it provides a service that allows us to get a European perspective on political issues (something that private sector does not seem to be able to deliver). And since Presseurop merely translates articles (there is almost no original writing!) we can argue that the material is essential reading for an informed vote at the European Parliament election.
Now you can sign a petition here calling on the EU Commission to renew its funding. But is it really the right approach? Would it not just repeat the mistake to channel EU funding into EU media projects?
So what about private funding?
Newspapers and media organisations across Europe should have an interest in services like Presseurop. It acts as a multiplier and reaches new audiences in different countries. (and to be fair: Presseurop never reached its full potential) Obviously newspapers struggle financially and it is also hard to argue that the original article is behind a paywall or in a paid print copy – and the translation is freely available. But still, there is a case to be made to involve a range of newspapers and other media organisations – and find new funding models in cooperation with them.
Another idea is the paywall/subscription model. Obviously different media outlets have different experiences with these models. The question is also whether there is a large enough customer base that is willing to pay for such a service. Nevertheless, it should not be ruled out – if done cleverly I am sure readers are willing to support the service.
And what about the big European foundations that love investing in European projects (yes I am looking at you – NEF, Bosch, Gulbelkian, Compagnia, Körber, KBS, OSF, Volkswagen, Erste etc.) To fund essay competitions, think tank pamphlets, publications, conferences, scholarships and exchange programmes is a nice and cosy way to spend money – but why not invest in a big project that may actually reach beyond the elites?