Young, well-financed American news and social media companies are quickly establishing a controlling position in the international news flow. But why are no new European news brands emerging?
Business Insider, an American news web site, announced in June that it had begun recruiting editorial staff for its European operation. There are already editions in India, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and with 175 staff the company says it is set on nothing less than global domination.
With over USD30m in financing, including USD5m from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the claim is credible.
Business Insider is following in the oversized footsteps of The Huffington Post, which already publishes editions in ten countries including the UK, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. More than USD37m was invested in HuffPo before the company was sold to AOL for USD315m in 2011. Since then the staff has grown to more than 500 and its sites reach a reported 81 million monthly readers.
Even that pales in comparison to New York-based BuzzFeed. Since 2008 the company’s owners have invested USD96m and recruited more than 550 staff around the world. BuzzFeed’s frothy approach to the news now attracts more than 100m readers per month.
Given their vast audiences, these three publications apparently cover the news needs of today’s digital readers, from finance, business and politics, through local and world news, to sports, celebrities and cats. And all very entertainingly packaged.
But if these American news publishers are girding themselves for world domination, the American conduits to news already have an iron grip.
Facebook is now the first place many people see the day’s news. Twitter is no longer just where news is shared and debated but where it happens. News community site Reddit calls itself ‘the front page of the internet’ while The Drudge Report is capable of sending enough traffic to linked articles to bring down the servers of smaller news organisations. And then there’s Google.
Thanks to these new businesses, news has become one of America’s most visible exports.
But news isn’t just something for your eyes to do while your mouth takes care of lunch. News sets a community’s agenda, dominates the meeting and writes the minutes.
So we must think very carefully about where we get our news from and what that means for our community. And we must ask, where are the European counterparts to these rampaging American news brands?
Of course, enormous sums are being pumped into new media operations on this side of the Atlantic. But America has backed the future while Europe is betting on the past.
Indeed, all of the top three news sites in each of the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany are the digital versions of newspapers that were founded more than fifty years ago.
That’s fine for the old businesses themselves, but for the industry as a whole it presents a problem because fifty year old media companies are unavoidably corporate, parochial and slow moving.
New businesses – and especially American ones – are more ambitious, more aggressive and more flexible. They move a lot faster and that’s why we’re seeing a wave of new American news brands setting up shop in Europe and beyond.
It’s also a problem for anyone seeking a diversity of sources, opinions and perspectives. And it’s a problem for Europe itself, which has not only failed to distil an exportable world view but has also failed to produce any new news brands to export it.It’s tempting to point to language as the underlying reason for this huge difference. With twenty four official languages, it’s hard to build a critical mass of readers that allows a leap into a new market. But the UK has the benefit of English, while Germany and France are not exactly small home markets, and none of these countries have produced a new international news brand.
And since the local editions of The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are in the local languages, the editorial operations - the biggest cost of any news business – don’t benefit from economies of scale anyway.
Another possible explanation might be the difference in investment cultures. American venture capital takes an all-in approach while European investors prefer a slow-release mechanism. There may be something in this, but it hasn’t stopped Europe from producing other digital successes such as Skype, Spotify and Klarna – to name three from Stockholm alone.
Ultimately, the lack of new news brands emerging from Europe comes down to attitude. The fact is, Europe has an old world attitude to news; news is part of the establishment, a member of the elite club of politics and power.
While American news can be overtly commercial, Europe turns its nose up at such crassness. In America, a political blog can become a major news site in its own right; in Europe it would become a column on an establishment site. In America, readers judge the news source by its content; in Europe, it’s the pedigree of the news source that matters.
There is a belief in European media that there is no place for the kind of upstarts that are financed and feted and followed by millions in America. But this is quite obviously wrong, as the arrival of Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Business Insider demonstrate.
The European news landscape is changing before our eyes. The incumbents are slow and vulnerable, making them easy prey for fleet-footed, well-financed new brands.
America is dominating the global news flow because its ambition is not constrained by borders; now Europe must invest in new news for a global generation.
Because news is the glue of our society. It’s what binds us together, defining what we talk about and think about, catching our attitudes and prejudices and slinging them right back at us, amplified.
The question for European readers, investors and media executives is this: whose attitudes and prejudices do you want slung at you?
About The Author
Paul Rapacioli is the founder and CEO of The Local a new European news brand with nine country sites and claims four million readers.