Perspective: Can Politico Europe Find “Hot” News in Brussels? (4/27)     Print Email

mzeiner01By Markus Ziener, Professor of Journalism in Berlin and former Washington and Moscow Correspondent for German Business Daily Handelsblatt

For a reporter, generating exclusive news or “hot” stories in Brussels can be quite a challenge. It is relatively easy to share a drink at the bar with a EU bigwig, to have chicken and pommes frites even with a EU commissioner in one of the restaurants at the Place du Luxembourg or to get invited into one of the many background circles where the latest inside stories are traded. Compared to Washington where access to hardcore news is more limited to established channels, Brussels is an open book.

This is nice for journalists freshly descending upon Brussels because they are in the loop relatively quickly. But it’s bad for those who want to do nothing less than shake up the whole place.

And nothing less than shake-up is the aspiration of the Brussels-based European edition of Politico, the American-German news website that hit the Internet last week. (Politico Europe will also publish a paper edition for distribution in Brussels, London, Berlin and Paris.)

“We want to build the dominant news organization on the continent for European politics and policy making”, says John Harris, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Politico Europe as the publication was launching as a joint venture between the U.S. site and Axel Springer. The publication commences with a staff of 40, with more hires to come, built on the Brussels based European Voice, purchased last year.

When Politico started out in Washington in 2007 the website was something genuinely new and fresh. Reporters, politicians, lobbyists – they all have to read Politico since in most cases Politico presents facts and insights like no other media. Legendary is Mike Allen’s daily blog “Playbook”, a mix of gossip and hard news. If you subscribe to it you will find it every morning in your inbox. Allen skillfully taps his vast network of informants in DC. But will there be room for a Mike Allen in Brussels?

Ryan Heath, former advisor to past president of the EU Jose Manuel Barroso will give it a go with “Brussels Playbook,” that is available for daily email delivery.

If, however, one judges the European Edition of the journal Politico from its first days the stories that were supposed to turn Brussels upside down were well hidden. A lengthy interview with the president of the EU commission, Jean–Claude Juncker, was not exactly a show stopper. Juncker was quoted as sending a few warning signals in the direction of Greece saying that bankruptcy of Greece should be avoided. He said that the trade agreement between Europe and the US still needs more explanation work.

But what really made headlines, Politico style, was that Juncker talked about some health issues related to problems with kidney stones. Obviously Juncker didn’t expect those remarks to be published and was not amused when it happened otherwise. With this indiscretion Politico broke a Brussels convention – to distinguish between official and not-for-print private remarks.

In Washington there are, except in rare occasions, no private comments if one talks to a reporter. Everything said in a conversation is open for publication – unless explicitly stated otherwise. In most European capitals this is not the case. In Germany for instance the reporter often presents the wording of an interview to the interviewee to authorize – before publication. When the German edition of the Financial Times came on the market in the year 2000 the newspaper also tried to break with this tradition. In the end they utterly failed – since no one prominent wanted to talk anymore with Financial Times Deutschland.

So. Will Politico succeed in establishing a different kind of journalism in Brussels? A journalism that is not part of the cozy Brussels machinery? Many EU bureaucrats will secretly hope for this to happen. Very much to the dismay of the EU commission the news outlets reporting from Brussels focus mainly on what is important for their home country. What is therefore missing is a genuine European voice that could help mold a European consciousness. Due to language barriers, lack of money and courage such a news outlet has not seen the light of day yet. Politico’s expansion into Europe is an interesting vote of confidence for Europe. Whether Politico can be a truly European publication with a difference is an open question. But in any case: It’s a worthwhile try.