The view from Europe
The Old World puts its own stamp on new media
By J.D. Lasica
While online journalism’s roots run deepest in the United States, dozens of European news publications have taken to the Web since the mid-’90s, and many of them now rank among the best news sites in the world.
So today we give online news in Europe its due.
First, a disclaimer: We weren’t able to capture all the different flavors of digital journalism in every corner of Europe. Some sites — such as the new-look Irish news portal Ireland.com, or Publico, the excellent news portal in Lisbon, Portugal, or Switzerland’s stand-alone Web news site 20min, the 20-minute paper online — were left out of this roundup for space reasons. Sites in Eastern Europe were bypassed because online news is still in its formative stages there.
But we were able to take a quick snapshot of online journalism’s current state of affairs by sampling the opinion of a number of respected European journalists and academics.
Most of the experts we contacted underlined the diverse, deep-seated journalism traditions that infuse new media in each country. One observer, Mark Deuze of the Amsterdam School of Communications Research, even detected a fundamental cultural difference between northern and southern European approaches to online journalism.
“In northern Europe, new media investments and multimedia platforms seem to be much more of a concerted effort, while southern European training programs and some newsrooms depend much more on inspired groups of individuals,” he says. “Southern European journalism training emphasizes the role of the journalist as a writer and artist much more than the northern European tradition, which is more vocational and professional but much less fun.”
American news professionals could well pick up some pointers from across the pond, where online publications are experimenting with different content models, offering playful games pages and embracing weblogs.
For those seeking a broader look at online news on the continent, follow the pointers in our related story, Online news resources in Europe.
Creative ferment, experiments with 24/7 news sites and economic turmoil mark the online news scene in Sweden.
“The situation in Sweden for online news is a bit uncertain,” says Torbjörn von Krogh, editor of Pressens Tidning (Press Journal), a fortnightly newsmagazine about the media. “Very few publishers make money on the Net, but many want to. The specialized business press is beginning to charge for content or make it available only to the subscribers of the print paper.”
The tabloid Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest newspaper with a daily circulation of about 400,000, is the country’s biggest online news success story, with 1.4 million visitors a month. The news site, which burst onto the Web in the primordial days of 1994, has managed to avoid the tabloid tag, attracting a raft of young readers, winning a number of news site awards, and performing well financially.
Von Krogh points to Sourze as an inspired site aimed at young people who want to debate the social and political issues of the day. Pay a small fee (about $10) and you can have your article published, sometimes next to articles by more established writers. If your piece is the best-read article of the month, you win a prize of almost $1,000. “Everyone has something to tell,” as the site owners put it.
Paul Frigyes, a reporter for the magazine Journalisten (The Journalist), recently wrote several articles about online publishing in Sweden. “To be frank,” he says by e-mail, “these times are less about innovation than about payback. Online newspapers that have been free are now trying to charge for content, since the ad market plummeted last autumn.
“First up are the online business magazines, which are trying to sign up paying subscribers in a win-or-disappear effort this spring. The Web-only daily E24 is trying this route (charging a bit under 50 cents a day or about $86 a year), and we’ll see the results by April. They’ve signed up only 5,000 Web subscribers so far, and in February they announced they are considering launching a print publication. Dagens Industri, a daily newspaper and Web site, has a very refined functionality, which makes it the most interesting online publication in Sweden in my eyes. Click on a business’s name in a news story and it will take you to a backgrounder with stats on the company. In February they introduced tiered pricing for premium content like this.”
Clouding the financial outlook for content sites is the recent decision by SVT, the state-controlled public television network, to become a major news player by publishing 24-hour breaking news and Web versions of their broadcast programs. “It’s caused controversy because it makes it very difficult for other Swedish news sites to charge for journalism when they provide it free,” Frigyes says.
All in all, he says, “There’s a major shakeout going on. As far as journalists in general, I don’t think they put much faith or trust in online journalism nowadays.”
Karl-Erik Tallmo, a lecturer, publisher of the cultural Web magazine The Art Bin and author of three books, including Sweden’s first hypertext novel (1992), takes a similar view. He notes that a number of newspapers have begun scaling back their Web editions, removing search functionality and steering users toward paid archives. Some, like the big daily Svenska Dagbladet, are considering subscription models.
IDG-owned Computer Sweden, published three times a week, has a large site that recently staked out a novel approach by limiting access to readers of the print newspaper. But Tallmo calls it “restriction light” because the password is printed in the print edition and changed once a month, so many non-subscribers obtain the password easily.
Interesting things are also cropping up in small way stations on the Net. Journalists who dream of breaking free and setting up shop online should stop by journalist Ulf Wigh’s own news service, which he runs with his wife and associates in the town of Norrköping. Another modest-sized news service comes from the Web portal Spray. And two alternative news sites with a leftist-anarchist slant are Flashback and Yelah.net.
Cultural magazines offer a few cooperative efforts online, Tallmo notes. Swedish Web-only zines provide samples of their articles at the super-directory Tidskrift Nu. And Eurozine offers a network of cultural magazines from all over Europe.
France, the land that gave us Camus, Sartre and ennui, has what you might call a laissez-faire attitude toward online publishing.
Hervé Cassagne, who runs the French media mailing list JLISTE, describes the mindset this way: “The first reactions from ‘traditional’ journalists here in France were of great reluctance and fear that the Internet might lower standards and have a bad impact on the quality of news. And all sides agree that the Net should not be the realm of second-rate Matt Drudge journalism.
“However, I am convinced that this defense of ‘traditional’ journalism was only a way for some people to protect themselves, so that they would not have to change the way they practiced journalism. Now that the new-economy bubble has exploded, the resistance is all the stronger.”
The budget crunch has meant more pressure and fewer resources, he says. “That has caused many good journalists, especially young ones, to consider leaving the online medium for print because the opportunities for creativity seem so limited. Also, newsrooms have been set up in a way that separated the print and online staffs. Often they are not even in the same room, the same building or the same part of town. As a result, the online journalists are not really treated as part of the staff.
“Everybody has been through a huge crisis, and the main thought now is on how online news can survive.”
Cassagne says the news site doing the most interesting work is Télérama, the Web site of one of France’s leading cultural magazines. The site, he says, brims with interactivity, user forums and multimedia content. He also has praise for two Benchmark Group publications, the Internet business portal Le Journal du Net and the consumer site L’Internaute.
As for Le Monde, the internationally respected newspaper with a separate online staff (Le Monde Interactif), Cassagne says, “They are doing a good job at publishing online the articles from their print edition. They also manage to keep the online content up to date. However, the web site does not have a life of its own. That’s partly a financial issue. Almost nobody makes any money with online news here. And although they are planning to introduce subscription-only premium services, their main goal seems to be to get new readers and subscribers for the print edition.”
Cassagne says Le Mode undertook an intriguing experiment two years ago. It decided to largely discard the newspaper model by launching “tout.lemonde.fr” (all.lemonde.fr), a news portal that took aim at U.S. interlopers like Yahoo, AOL and MSN. But the experiment ended about a year ago, and the site returned to closely mirroring the newspaper’s content.
Other online journalists in France point to the business publications Les Echos and La Tribune as doing exemplary work on the Web. But beyond that, the pickings are slim. Le Figaro drastically cut back its site last December, le Parisien is nothing to write home about, and Libération, one of the oldest news sites on the Web, recently fired half its online staff.
Emmanuelle Richard, a Los Angeles-based correspondent for French media, says, “Frankly, I more often visit Quebec-based or Swiss-based sites to find news in French. Those countries have richer sites with friendlier archiving policies.”
“Online news media in Germany had a major breakthrough during 2001,” says Mathias Müller von Blumencron, editor-in-chief of Spiegel Online (whom OJR profiled a year ago). “Several publishers like Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsmagazine, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the leading papers, invested in the editorial staffs of their news sites, so that several high-quality operations compete in the marketplace. The tragic events of Sept. 11 gave a huge boost to readership and demonstrated for many readers that they can get in-depth, high-quality coverage on the Net.”
Spiegel Online — in 1994 it became the first major news magazine to go online, beating out Time.com by one day — delivers around-the-clock news coverage and attracts 15 million visits a month (unique visitors aren’t measured in Germany), making it by far the largest news site in the country. Arguably, it’s the top newsmagazine site in the world.
The site is run by former print editors of Der Spiegel (Europe’s largest magazine) and Financial Times Deutschland, and the staff was assembled from journalists at leading newspapers and newscasts. The online staff works closely with their print counterparts, Blumencron says, and the print magazine’s editors contribute regularly to the site. As a result, “The news on the site is closely watched by politicians, managers and journalists of other newspapers, and investigative stories, breaking news and exclusive interviews with leading members of the government are common.”
The advertising downturn has hit German media and Web sites hard, and every site had to scale back its staff, Blumencron says. “But the worst seem to be over. And for young talent especially, the Internet is increasingly becoming the entrance into serious journalism.”
Mark Deuze, the research associate in Amsterdam mentioned at the top, co-authored a detailed report for the European Journalism Centre on new-media training and attitudes toward the online medium by media professionals in a half-dozen European nations.
In Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium, Deuze’s studies show an emerging professional group of online journalists with a distinctively different view on the profession than their colleagues elsewhere in the media: more focused on connectivity, community and service. But overall, many journalists are critical of new media’s impact on their profession.
“Journalism is becoming more and more about managing information instead of telling stories,” Deuze says. “Journalists sometimes describe their work as ‘editorial cybernetization’: journalism that has become less about storytelling and more about managing information or data-crunching. Part of their jobs has become to process or story-board information that has come from outside the newsroom, leading some to wonder about the credibility of the information and journalists’ role in the news-gathering process. They don’t like it, and I can understand that. When I started in journalism, I wanted to tell stories, I wanted to write, which is still the dominant reason why people enter the profession.”
Deuze, who also wrote a report about new forms of journalism emerging online for Denmark’s First Monday, says editors in Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark are now realizing that their biggest priority should be to train their online staffs.
“A great many news staffs are feeling stressed out, aren’t up to speed on the latest technologies, and feel as if they’re merely managing information,” he says. “As one editor told me, ‘I don’t take my journalists seriously unless they take at least one month out of the year to get retrained.’ ”
“I think the crash has been felt less keenly in the UK because we didn’t have so far to fall compared to the US,” says Mike Ward, a former BBC journalist, author of the new book Journalism Online and principal lecturer in online journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, UK.
“Of course, the whole UK picture is distorted by the presence of the BBC,” Ward says. “The BBC is a big online player in the UK. It has a guaranteed level of public funding, so is far less vulnerable to market fluctuations. The BBC News Online brand continues to extend its influence internationally. But the corporation is also expanding its regional online operations, with new online centers opening up around the UK — recession or no recession.”
One of the world’s great newspapers, the Times of London, has a rather drab Web presence, relying chiefly on recycled stories from the print edition and on news agencies for breaking news. Last month word came it would soon begin charging overseas visitors for access to its site. Another paper with global reach, the Financial Times, also made headlines last month by announcing plans to move to a subscription model.
But the newspaper that has made the strongest mark in the online medium has been The Guardian, which has won a wide international following for its original online reports, Web specials, media coverage, multimedia Flash guides to key stories, top-rate weblog and a reasonable range of news audio, nearly unheard of on British newspaper sites.
Another site worth a look is Out There News, based in London, which bills itself as an Internet news agency and makes a virtue of bypassing the journalist to get right to the news source. The site encourages people to post their experiences in some of the world’s biggest news stories. (Check out, for example, the articulate journal of an Afghan describing the miserable conditions in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and the meaty reader discussion boards.) Out There News gave video recorders to farmers during last year’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease among livestock so they could post their experiences on the site. The result is a refreshing, engaging counterpoint to some of the formulaic news treatments of the mainstream media, particularly television.
Danny O’Brien, editor of the cheeky Need to Know and one of OJR’s 50 International Names to Know, says, “This may be a misperception, but I think that journalism in general is seen as much less of a profession in the UK than in the US. There are few journalist schools, courses or professional requirements over here. That has its positive side: Journalists in general are often more freewheeling and given more leeway to be creative. On the negative side: If all the facts are right in a British newspaper article, it’s either because we’re scared of a libel case, or it’s a fluke.
“I think this plays into the online journalism field here a great deal. There were very few purely journalistic plays in the brief dotcom boom here. The ones that did prevail were almost accidental, gathering success from the fact that their creators weren’t quite as hidebound as the US press, and weren’t desperate to gather as large an audience as possible because they were funding it themselves as an entertaining side project. The Register (an online IT publication) is the obvious pick here.”
Bill Thompson, a freelance journalist and broadcaster and a visiting lecturer in the Journalism school at City University, London, says the economic downturn has slowed expansion plans for new media in the United Kingdom but hasn’t been too disruptive. “There are few pure online writers over here, with most Web content coming from the Web operations of print publications or broadcasters. As a result, fewer journalists depend on online for their income, and that makes the situation a bit calmer than it was at the height of e-zine fever three years ago.
“Perhaps because the infrastructure has never been adequate — and over 90 percent of UK home users still have dial-up connections — online journalism over here has rarely stretched the capabilities of the technology,” he adds. “The good side of this has been a focus on good writing and solid journalism; the downside has been a failure to innovate, which has left online news sites peripheral in most people’s lives. There is good stuff out there, but few people would miss it if it disappeared tomorrow.”
A few weeks ago, 35 Internet journalists showed up at a meeting of NVJ (the Netherlands Union of Journalists) to discuss what was happening with Internet journalism in The Netherlands.
“The answer is easy,” says Jak Boumans, a senior consultant with Electronic Media Reporting, based in Utrecht. “The publishers have not gone into hibernation, they are reorganizing their assets and removing services. PCM, the largest publisher of national newspapers, lost considerable money in online investments and decided to scale down operations.” PCM disbanded its Interactive Media unit, returned control of its Web sites to its print publications, and declared that any news site would have to pay its own way.
“The same thing has happened at the other Dutch newspapers, such as De Telegraaf,” Boumans says. “So the newspaper journalists are in a down mood. On the other hand, journalists of the Sanoma magazine group are reasonably optimistic because the company took an early position in the Dutch market buying a search engine and developing services around it: news, women’s services, finances, dating. They’ve been affected by the advertising downturn but haven’t suffered any cutbacks yet.
“The journalists of the Dutch public RTV system are best off,” he says. “They have received an infusion of 60 million guilders ($27 million) from the government to build up their Internet presence and start experimenting with interactive TV programs. That has led to much discussion among journalists about whether media companies should receive government subsidies.”
Surveying the online news landscape, Boumans says, “It’s clear newspapers have not been able to come up with a lasting business model, other than paid archives. They haven’t done much beyond copying print material to the Internet. Online storytelling doesn’t exist yet in Dutch journalism.”
Recently I ran into Henk Blanken, Internet chief for de Volkskrant, a national newspaper. Blanken seemed glum at recent events, saying that the de Volkskrant site was nearly shut down two months ago but now operates with a pared-down staff. The new plan is to use digital media to try to generate income from new revenue sources aimed at younger readers, relying on mobile devices such as PDAs and cell phones for alerts, job information, dining reservations, movies, shows and news. “Publishers can see young people turning away from newspapers,” he told me. “Yet very few are taking any substantial steps to counter that.”
Meantime, a Web site founded by two 15-year-olds in the summer of 1999 is still going strong. Fokzine.net publishes a group weblog, à la Slashdot, and covers tech and programmer news but other subjects as well, if its “FOK! Lovemeter” is any guide. The site, popular among youths, made headlines during the first “Big Brother” TV show in The Netherlands when its posted live camera feeds on its site but the broadcaster kept censoring the footage.
The online news landscape in Denmark is fairly modest. Major players include Politiken, a leading national newspaper; TV2, the nation’s most visited news site, which is half commercial, half government-financed; and DR, the Web site of the Danish Broadcasting Corp.
Jeppe Kruse, who publishes e.magazine, an online news magazine on Internet issues, doesn’t pull any punches: “My opinion is that not very much has happened here. If you look at the three major Danish broadsheets, Politiken, Berlingske Tidende and Jyllands-Posten, you’ll notice designs that are substandard and confusing. What’s more, their archives aren’t accessible because they are either open only to subscribers or because they’re so poorly programmed. One exception, however, is Information, with a simple design and an archive that works.
“On the content front, and for journalists in particular, the story gets worse,” Kruse adds. “The prize-winning web site of the Danish broadcast corporation (DR) is regarded as the best news site, but journalists there mainly rearrange the broadcast news into themes. In the typical newspaper corporation (like Politiken), there are maybe two journalists working online, while there are more than 100 working on the print edition. Whereas journalists at the DR at least get to explore the possibilities of the medium, in other places we’re still only copying and pasting away or rewriting stories from the wires.”
Kruse points to a handful of successful niche publications: Borsen, a daily financial tabloid, has had success selling subscriptions to its web site “mainly because of the way it indexes and serves news and facts to people who really need them without delay.” Another subscription site, dk-nyt, publishes only regional news from Denmark — no national or international news. IDG’s ComputerWorld Online is also doing well.
“So, the state of online news in Denmark?” Kruse asks. “Poor, definitely, and maybe turning to the worse after the recent debate over whether newspapers can decide who can link to their stories. Newspapers here simply haven’t grasped the Web at all — yet. Only those which cover more narrow fields of interest are doing OK. What sometimes strikes me as strange is that 1,000 journalists are debating issues like this on a mailing list, and most of them agree that staff layoffs and closings of online editions are bad things. Most of them want to play around with the medium — they just never have the opportunity.”
Austria boasts a fairly high rate of PC ownership: As of late 1999, 45 percent of households owned a computer, 32 percent of adults had Internet access and 17 percent qualified as heavy surfers. Still, Deuze’s research suggests that few Austrian journalists place a high value on new media or online news. “Most rank-and-file journalists are more interested in working for print newspapers and broadcast stations rather than developing new multimedia or interactive reporting skills,” he says.
Traditional media dominate Austria’s Web community. For several years, Der Standard had the highest traffic, and it boasts a portal-like buffet of news, sports, games, weather and more. Next to make a move, Deuze says, was ÖRF, Austria’s public broadcasting network, which created a strong Web presence; a major reorganization is now moving it toward an integrated news approach, with the Net on an equal footing with television and radio.
The newest kid on the block is a purely entertainment-driven Web site called Krone Online. Boasting subject-related slide-shows as the main attraction, it took only several months for to become Austria’s most visited site. Finally, there is Taglich Alles Online, the Daily Everything Online, a portal for news, TV, chat, film, horoscopes and more.
“In Italy, the ‘new economy crisis’ has arrived a little later than in the US, but it has arrived just as painfully,” says journalism scholar Andreina Mandelli, professor of communication and new media marketing at SDA Bocconi Business School in Milan. “The crisis has made it difficult for online news media to raise capital until they show a profitable business model.”
Responding to that imperative, and to ward off cannibalization, Italy’s most important news site, La Repubblica, took an unusual step in February: It now charges non-subscribers access to the print content that it republishes online, while leaving its original Web content free for now.
“While online media in the US are reacting to the crisis by cutting staff, closing some content access and experimenting with new forms of content and advertising, here the situation seems more frozen and the attitude more passive,” Mandelli says. “The only area of investment activity seems to be in the mobile news area, perhaps because mobile users have shown a willingness to pay for content.”
Mandelli agrees with Deuze’s analysis of the different cultural traditions in online journalism between northern and southern Europe. But she also says the longtime tradition of Italian media being dominated by free-wheeling, creative publishers is giving way to more business-oriented managers, and that the current climate is a somber one. “The general attitude is, ‘waiting if not disinvesting,’ ” she says.
“The main online news publications in Spain have begun to wonder if it would be better, given the poor advertising climate, to charge for access to the Web site or at least the archives,” says Marilo Ruiz de Elvira, deputy content director of Prisacom. “But I do not think subscriptions would take place until the US media (apart from WSJ.com) begin to do it.”
Prisacom, which produces the Web sites of the Prisa Group’s newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations — including El País, 5Dias and many others — is studying different models of charging for and syndicating content, in addition to other income sources, such as e-commerce, e-learning, e-books, SMS alerts, music downloads, premium services through mobile Internet appliances and other possibilities, he says. But the market is not yet ripe and audience levels haven’t reached the necessary critical mass.
Still, as the main media company in Spain, Prisa believes the Internet will ultimately become “a wonderful tool for publishing and distributing our content, which includes music, TV and cinema productions, books and even technical know-how,” Elvira says.
Just below El País and El Mundo — the two largest newspapers in Spain — falls a second tier of news providers, including en.red.ando and Baquia, which frequently publish in-depth articles and analyses. Luis Angel Fernández Hermana, director of en.red.ando, says online journalists at this level are closer to the readers, who often interact with and supply information to the sites.
“But in general, journalists in Spain are not interested in the Internet, although they use the Net to search for leads, stories, sources and other people’s articles!” Hermana says. “And journalists who work at the portals are very demoralized: They do the same, and more, than journalists in a newsroom, but they see the Internet as a medium without any return.”
Like everything else in Belgium, online journalism comes in two flavors: Dutch in the north (Flanders region) and French in the south.
Johan Mortelmans, publishing manager of De Standaard Online, the leading newspaper site in the north, says, “In Flanders we never had the large hype about online news. Only a few newspapers have a Web site. And only one Internet provider, Planet Internet, has its own news desk. The Web presence of television and radio is rather limited. There is one independent online magazine, Mao, which started last year and has financial problems.
“Online journalism is just getting a foothold here,” Mortelmans adds. “Nevertheless, people like to check news online, and De Standaard Online constantly updates its site with breaking news. A lot of Belgians like to visit foreign news sites as well. The Internet is very popular because of widespread broadband here.”
Financial news sites are starting to make headway in Belgium. Uitgeversbedrijf Tijd, a media company that publishes a major financial newspaper and three magazines, has committed to the Web with Tijdnet, the biggest financial site in Belgium; L’Investisseur, aimed at the French-speaking region of Belgium; and Eurobench, a financial site for The Netherlands.
Coördinator Guy Muësen says Tijdnet offers financial news and data at no cost to readers of the newspaper with a 15-minute stock ticker delay; real-time news and financial data, available to Web subscribers; and news archives, available for a fee.
“We believe that online journalists need to develop specific qualities that are different from newspaper journalists’ skills,” Muësen says. “The future of online journalism is very bright. Once people get used to paying for online content, a lot more online journalists will be hired, and in the long term, there will probably be as many online journalists as newspaper journalists.”