Author: David Bola
Photo Credit: Laurie Diaz
This April, our team was invited to Brussels to take part in the kick off event of Reset!, a new network of independent cultural structures based in Europe. This network aims to empower these figures on a European level, by spotting key points, threats or opportunities influencing their activities.
After this sequence of identification, made through exchanges, study visits and workshops, the network will condense these conclusions in a manifest with concrete propositions for independents, to be brought to the European Commission’s attention.
In this first event, we had the opportunity to meet with Mick ter Reehorst from Are We Europe, a Belgian media organization specializing in independent slow journalism in Europe, and Guilherme Marques from Canal 180 a Portuguese TV channel and media project focused on the stories of European independent creatives.
The videos embedded in this piece have been produced by Canal 180 and published through We are Europe.
Can you introduce your projects?
Mick – I’m Mick Ter Reehorst, and I’m the founder of Are We Europe, which is a nonprofit media collective based in Brussels. We have an office right across the canal from where we’re sitting here in Brussels, but we also have people in Amsterdam. We officially started in 2017 and we really started working full time on it in 2019.
What it is now is three things. We are a magazine, a media. We are a content production company. For example, we did productions for cultural partners from Bozar in Brussels to the European Press Prize and the Photo Museum in Antwerp. And then we are a community of freelancers and creatives from all over Europe. We have over 750 people in our network, journalists, podcast makers, designers, photographers, video makers in almost every country, often in their early career. It forms a sort of ecosystem, in the sense that we use the same freelancers for our media. But we also say, “hey, partners, you can use this network of creative freelancers too”.
The mission of Are We Europe is really to show that if you talk about Europe, it doesn’t only need to go about politics and economics, but it can be about culture. Culture is also about cross-border collaborations, and I think that’s where we come in. But in essence, we are a media that publishes on European identity with multiple arms.
Guilherme – I’m Guilherme from Canal 180, which is a project that started in Portugal in 2011. At that time, the media landscape was very different from how it is now, things like social media and the internet as we know it today were still at an early stage. So we started at a time where YouTube and Vimeo were just starting.
We are a TV channel, a TV channel through cable broadcast but at the same time we run like a video production company that works as the main funder of this independent media project and independent TV channel. That’s what connects us with Are We Europe, that we manage to run a media outlet that is totally independent and that we can do basically whatever we want as long as it is aligned with our vision and our ideas and our concerns.
Would you say that economic independence is what makes you editorially independent?
Guilherme – I think that the meaning of the word independence is something that can also be discussed. Eleven years ago, when Canal180 started, social media were beginning but there was not this dependence on algorithms and all the difficulties that it’s now leading to. There were a lot of different channels and good opportunities to spread your content. It was simply easier to make its message and content known.
Right now, we are facing an important challenge. How to involve a community? How to spread your message and the content that you produce? How to not be a hostage of the big tech companies? But still, we depend on Instagram and Facebook to spread our message and the things we produce.
I think digital sobriety is also an important topic that needs to be talked about. For me, one of the key things is what we are doing here right now: getting to know each other, discussing new ways of being together and sharing.
Mick – I don’t think we are independent. In the back of our magazine, since this year, we’ve been putting the “in” of “independent” in brackets, because we want to be quite dependent. We don’t want to be dependent on structural funding from the government or others. But we want to be dependent on our members, partners and sponsors.
Obviously, we’re editorially independent and we choose our own themes, we build our own projects. There’s no financial investor telling us what to do. We also don’t take structural funding from the EU (which would be very logical on a European level), nor do we take national grants, though we do project-specific grants. So we have the luxury to choose our projects and then we find the funder for it, but that comes from us. I think in that case we are independent.
We love to do random projects and we always want to ask our members and partners what they want us to do, which place they want us to go. We could never do it by ourselves because we’re small! That’s why we love to be part of these kinds of networks (editor’s note: Sphera, Reset!…). You can be dependent on each other and therefore be independent.
On the dependence on big tech companies, we cannot break through and get the same views and likes some of the big media do, but also some of the Instagram influencers do. It’s really difficult to push your own narrative through in an organic way, and there we are dependent on these gatekeepers. But luckily, our model is not built around traffic and click baiting like Vice has become. Our model is diversified.
David -That’s a cool way to look at it because you’re obviously dependent in a sense. You choose where you want to be dependent and who you want to depend on.
Mick We do that on shared values. That’s why I think working with all these partners is great, because I really believe that in the European space there cannot be one player that’s going to dominate it all. There shouldn’t be a European-wide BBC or a European media company like Fox that owns everything. It would just make it completely uniform.
I love the fact that there are plenty of small independent media, but together we can do projects that have an impact in Portugal through a Portuguese partner, in Romania through a Romanian partner. We don’t believe that we’re going to be the big new media. What we do is work with a local partner here, a regional partner here, another Pan-European partner there. That’s what I think the future of our media is, doing collaborations and having local impact because we are limited, we’re in English, we’re quite highbrow. It’s difficult to reach people in the countryside of Romania with that. We know that we can’t do it by ourselves, and I think, therefore, we depend on partners.
Is the language barrier something that has slowed down the growth of your media?
Mick – For us, it’s been a big question. Everyone asked us “why are you only in English?” We think it’s the most cross cultural right now, especially with the UK being a bit out of Europe. In that sense, it’s a bit more neutral, and we try to Europeanize English as well. Make our language more accessible. I think it does work because in English we can reach all of our European partners. If we would only do, let’s say, French and German, it would be limited. If we would do five languages, it would still be limited. So whatever you choose, it’s never good enough. And therefore, English is the only way to get the 1% of every country to notice us. From then we can go local.
We also publish in other languages. When we did a project on music, every article was also in the local language. But still, even when we have an article available in Romanian, it’s difficult to reach Romanians who don’t speak in English. Therefore, we always want to work with local media partners. There are just amazing partners there that I think do great work in their respective languages. We can amplify them and they can get out content.
Guilherme – I really like this motto I heard during Reset!’s kick off event, “let’s go together, but not alike”. And it’s very related to what Mick said because the language is something that is very deeply connected with the media work.
Even for videos or more visual work, you have to use language. It’s a big challenge to keep your identity. Seven or eight years ago, when we started the channel, everything was in Portuguese. But for the content that we released outside of the TV broadcast, we decided to make it always available in English. What’s very difficult is to keep connected with our audience. As our audience is mostly from Portugal, maybe 80%, it’s very hard to find this balance of making something that connects with the people that follow us, but at the same time, keeping our identity.
You are an entry point from outsiders to Portuguese audiences and the other way around. Having content in Portuguese and in English is a good way to shed light on something that’s happening in Portugal and connect it to the rest of Europe. Is this role of being at the meeting point of two cultures something that Are We Europe also assumes?
Mick – One of our biggest stories was the one we did in Moldova in 2018. Our English language story was the most shared ever between Moldovians because they felt, “hey, this is a story about us in English that now the whole world can see”. In Moldova, in Romania, there are great media, social media influencers, journalists, independent podcasters, etc. There is a very vibrant media space in most countries.
We don’t want to compete with them, we just want to bring the extra level, like, “hey, what if we bring your story and we publish it in English and then other people can read it?” But it’s different from what the BBC does because they just bring news and zoom in on places, while we do local stories that people are proud that they get shared. That’s what we think can be our added value, to bring in the cross border element. It’s all about us trying to be a channel for local, regional, national things and not compete with the local media.
Guilherme – When you talk about a very specific theme within a very specific community, for example the project you did in Moldova, are you raising a discussion inside that community? And how are you bringing the theme from someone in Brussels in Moldova? What are the challenges that you are facing to raise a discussion within a very far away community?
Mick – I think that’s our promise to our readership, that you will get local and regional stories from all over Europe. If we think it’s a good story that fits this theme, we bring it to you. It’s not what you get in the Guardian, where you get an update about what’s happening in Romania, if there’s an election happening in Hungary, etc. We try to bring stories that have a really different style, for a specific audience. Not everyone will need it. Not everyone needs to know about all specific things in Moldova, but to the people that do, we keep our promise.
And obviously in the culture scene, there’s a lot of this happening because the people are more excited to say, “oh, I’m going to go to Belgrade. I read up on the big clubs. I read up on which music is coming.” And culture travels a lot. Musicians and artists travel a lot. So it’s very cross border and it needs media to amplify that. For the stories that deal with social issues, it’s still quite difficult to bring a local story from Moldova to an audience in Brussels.
Guilherme – It also goes beyond the language. For example, having an illustrator from Portugal doing the visuals for a reportage in Moldova adds a lot of value. But you have to do it with a network of freelancers that share a common language of creativity.
Mick – I think it’s a good point, you need to find a shared understanding. For our magazine, we need illustrations. Someone who is an illustrator will read a story that’s about something happening in Portugal. But the illustrator would be from Estonia. That’s also cross border collaboration. There’s also the question of representing visually sensitive topics like migration or mental health.
Your respective media platforms are not based on quick reactions to events, but rather the opposite with a slower form of journalism. Is this a choice made by going against the trend in the media world? Is it something that you think is also representative of your work?
Mick – Absolutely. I think people were starving for information maybe ten years ago. And now it’s an “infodemic”, as people are saying it’s too much. So we’re also really trying to slow it down. Nowadays everyone has a phone and Twitter – that’s the quick news. I think taking a slower news approach of going into a topic is something you can only do after it’s taken shape. We try to also shed light on solutions oriented things that have been happening and that have value to our readers, but also that is different from what they can get from other channels, because we will never be the fastest nor the best in that game. I think we can add much more value with a bit of depth.
Guilherme – That’s something that relates to what The Shift Project (editor’s note: The Shift Project is a french think tank focusing on the topic of decarbonating activities in every field of work. See here their report on the cultural sector.) is saying, that you don’t always need to grow. Sometimes you just need to keep things small. And it’s a way of keeping some independence in terms of structure and money involved. It’s also a tool. It’s a way to work within an area without being the fastest.
David – Keeping a small scale also prevents compromises. To grow faster than what you can, you may have to spend a lot of Facebook advertisement money, or to work with a company that’s not really ethical. Not trying to be the most read or the most seen is also a way to protect your independence.
Guilherme – It’s also a way to make things that are more timeless.You get more sustainable content that’s more likely to still be relevant in two or three years.
That’s really good advice for someone who’s starting a media project. We talked about networking, we talked about scale… Do you have any other advice to help develop emerging media platforms?
Mick – What we have found, and maybe what we have done wrong, is that we were very broad. All of our topics were all over the place. So I would have two pieces of advice. If you want to start something new, build around one specific topic and be really good at that. It can be very local, for example mobility in Lyon or nightclubs in the Balkans. If you do that really well, there will always come other opportunities and the rest can come. So choose a focus because you can always build it out from there, but it’s difficult to zoom back in.
And the other advice is really to build it around the people. You can have such a great brand and a great business model. But if you don’t have the right people in your team and if you don’t work with partners and external advisors that keep you sharp, you’re gonna miss something.
Guilherme – For European-scale projects, I think that it’s very important to stay connected to the place you are based in and to be relevant to the community that’s around you. Even when you are more digital-focused, you should think in a way that you also have a role with your local community. That’s something that we did with our “180 Creative Camp”, an annual gathering during summer. Your project then gets out of people’s email inboxes and exists in the physical space. Even if it’s only a week per year, it’s very important to have this physical connection because that’s what stays. It’s very timeless, in the same way as the physicality of a printed magazine.
Mick – I was always so impressed by the summer camp week you guys always ran. That’s such a good starting point for the whole year, it gives you energy, it gives you creativity. It was such a genius idea. That’s also what we’ve been trying to do, because we have a team here in Brussels, but none of them are reporters. So we need to go to these places. Not to write the story like me as a Dutch person as there are great people there that can tell the story way better. That’s why we do these design sprints where we bring a multimedia team of people together during one week.
When you go there and you work together for a week, you go through this process, but you also see each other. You talk to each other over a beer about the cultural differences, language, but about the history of the places, like “Hey, what happened in the 80s here in Romania?” It’s that kind of stuff that you would never get from digital contact alone. I really love the physical touch, it brings you so much more than just being a platform.
Jimmy Wales, one of the co-creators of Wikipedia has said that the biggest threat to journalism is the fact that the local press is slowly dying. There are not a lot of stories coming from neighborhoods or small towns. How can you work on strengthening local news stories with your platform?
Mick – Big question. I was just at the Perugia Journalism Festival and there were organizations that are very local, like The Bristol Cable and Bureau Local. They do amazing stuff on a local level. I think the problem with newspapers is that they try to cover everything from national politics to international politics, sports, … all in one thing.
I think the future of journalism is way more decentralized, more focused on a single topic. And then local news can come in great, because you can have a very specific podcast or newsletter. What most local media ecosystems should know is that you don’t need to be covering everything that happens in a city. You can just add a little tiny thing, find your own niche and then be really good at that.
I think that the future of local news is a very big network of twenty, thirty, fifty small media. We can strengthen it by giving money to that. And then obviously there needs to be something that makes them collaborate with each other because if they’re all Islands, it doesn’t work either.
Guilherme – I was asking Simon from Sphere Radio in Leipzig if they have plans to go beyond digital radio and become an FM radio too. He told me that Germany has plans to shut down FM broadcasting to digitalise everything. I didn’t know that. It’s a good example of what not to do, because it’s very important to keep the local channels. They allow to connect with people, especially the elderly, that still consume this media through an old radio in the kitchen. It’s the same with newspapers coming in the mailbox. We should keep the channels open and keep alternatives to the all-digital in order to have diverse audiences.
This piece is powered by Reset!, the network promoting independent cultural and media actors in Europe. Are We Europe and Canal180, featured in the article, are among the original founding members.
About the Interviewer
David Bola is We are Europe Media‘s content editor. Formerly working at Radio Nova as a freelance journalist and hosts a monthly residency on Piñata Radio, with Ludotek, a show focused on video game music.