Cafebabel.com Breaks Down European Borders with Grassroots Media

    by Mark Glaser
    October 11, 2006

    In all the various efforts to unite Europe under the framework of the European Union, European Commission, and Euro currency, there is still one effort that has largely failed: creating a truly pan-European media outlet.

    But a group of college graduates who met in Strasbourg, France, thanks to a European exchange program, have broken through with an innovative Internet magazine called cafebabel.com, running stories written by hundreds of volunteer contributors around Europe and translating them into seven different languages. The site is run as a non-governmental association out of Paris, meaning it is essentially a non-profit, and receives money from public and private grants as well as advertisements to pay its staff of nine people and boost its site.

    Recent feature stories on the site cover the change in attitude of squatters in Amsterdam, and the difficulty of women hitting glass ceilings in politics and in business in Europe.


    Not only is the site a true pan-European effort, but its content focuses on societal and political issues relating to all Europeans. Plus, cafebabel.com has local teams in 20 European cities who help set up events and conferences to debate issues and come together face-to-face in forums.

    i-f8c15d2ec6df51d71115a0ebaa80ef6c-Alexandre Heully.jpg

    I first learned about the site in a comment on MediaShift by cafebabel.com co-founder and PR manager, Alexandre Heully (pictured here), who noted that my Guide to Citizen Journalism was bereft of European examples. Heully, 26, told me the site was started in 2001, when he and the other founders were in college, and now is run by folks ranging in age from 25 to 30. He said 70% of cafebabel.com readers are between the age of 20 and 35 years old.


    Also, Heully gave me this breakdown on the readership of the various language sites on cafebabel.com:

    English : 24%
    French: 23%
    German: 14%
    Spanish: 13%
    Italian: 13%
    Polish: 9%
    Catalan: 4%

    The following is an edited transcript of my email and phone conversations with Heully, who described how cafebabel.com works editorially and why he thinks pan-European media efforts have floundered in the past.

    Tell me why you decided to start the site — what were your goals and aspirations?

    Alexandre Heully: Well, at the beginning cafebabel.com was a dream. The dream of creating a true European media that goes beyond national politics. What we wanted to do was to give Europeans a new media where they could express themselves, debate, and read articles analyzing current affairs from a European perspective — and in several languages!

    And the working principle was that of participatory journalism: believing that any European citizen, no matter what his language or journalistic skills, has the potential to express himself and give birth to new ideas. This is why we stated in our charter that we wanted to contribute to the emergence of a European public opinion.

    When we launched the first version of the website in Strasbourg in February 2001, cafebabel.com was published in four languages: English, French, Italian, and Spanish. One year later, we developed a professional website and our network gained six new local offices in Europe. And in 2003, Adriano Farano [editorial manager], Simon Loubris [development manager] and I decided to create the European central office in Paris.

    Today we have six full time journalists and one intern in Paris and three other employees taking care of the web development and communication. The editorial team’s mission is to determine the editorial line of cafebabel.com, launch calls for proposals throughout our network of writers, edit all the texts and translations we receive and above all ensure high standards of journalism: Proofreading and fact-checking are an essential part of their work.

    We now publish in seven languages — English, French, Italian, Spanish, German (December 2003), Catalan (May 2004), and Polish (February 2006) — and have dramatically increased our readership with over 350,000 visitors and 1.5 million page views per month. Our network has also expanded to 500 voluntary contributors present in 20 local offices in Europe.

    In early 2007 we will launch a new website based on Web 2.0 technologies. We will create an innovative media where all users will have their personal spaces, chat rooms, forum, blogs, etc. In this highly interactive website, readers will be able to interact with each other, react to articles, and directly propose content to be published on the website.

    What was the thinking behind voluntary contributions? Why do that instead of paying people? How has that worked out?

    Heully: First of all, there is a belief that journalism should not be limited to an elite coming from journalism schools or specific circles of respected writers. If we want to build a more democratic society — which is one of our aims — we need to allow all citizens to participate in it, and to debate with each other. This is the only way we will be able to allow new ideas to emerge in our society.

    Then, there is also an economic argument. When we started cafebabel.com, we had strictly no money, and it was totally impossible for us to pay the authors for their work. Plus, if you add to this the cost of translation, you’ll realize that the initiative of cafebabel.com was not economically sustainable at the beginning.

    Up to now, allowing people to participate in an innovative media project and the idea of having your article published and read in seven languages has allowed us to publish over 1,300 articles (not counting the translations) during the last three years. And we still have to reject articles every day.

    Do editors get paid, but not writers? How does that split work? Do you plan to pay some citizen contributors as OhMyNews does?

    Heully: At cafebabel.com, neither the authors nor the translators get paid. The only people that get paid are the six editors in charge of the linguistic versions, the two people in charge of the communication department and the one responsible for web development and administration.

    When we started cafebabel.com in 2001, the media market was clearly not ready in Europe to sustain a media initiative such as this. This is why we decided to create an NGO-like structure, and to rely on public and private grants.

    However, now that the audience of the website has developed and we have launched advertising on the website, we are thinking of ways to remunerate journalists and translators for their work. In this respect the models of OhMyNews — paying authors according to the popularity of their articles — or NewsAssignment.net — relying on private or citizen donations — are both interesting. With the new website we’re going to launch in 2007, we are exploring ways of remunerating authors and translators.

    Do you think ad revenues will be high enough online to support you?

    Heully: With a strong increase of our traffic in 2006 — we doubled the page views between November 2005 and March 2006 — we decided to launch advertising in the French, English, German, and Italian versions of the website. The advertising revenues are not high enough to reach a break-even point to sustain the whole structure. However, the trends I noticed in the English, French and German markets are very encouraging. I think that if we are able to increase the traffic of our website as well as the quality of our content we will get significant incomes from advertising. To this extent, I’m very optimistic about our upcoming redesigned website!

    Have you broken major stories on your site? Explain which ones.

    Heully: Given the fact that we publish in seven languages, we need to plan well in advance the subjects we treat on the website. We mainly focus on analysis and opinion pieces and fill the gap left by national media that lack our unique European perspective.

    In 2004, apart from the Financial Times, we were the only ones to assess the European Commission when Romano Prodi ended his term as president. During the European parliamentary elections, our analysis explaining the lowest turn-out in EU history was republished in the second largest daily French newspaper, Le Figaro.

    During the Paris riots, we also dedicated a full dossier on the issue, Euro-Ghettos — State of Emergency? detaching itself from the French national perspective and analyzing the situation in other EU countries.

    Our strength also lies in anticipating trends in European culture and society. For example, thanks to our unique network of European journalists, we published a full dossier on job insecurity among young Europeans called Generation Precarity. Three weeks later, prestigious weekly French magazine, Courrier International, pinched our title for their cover page!

    Did that bother you that they stole your headline and story idea like that?

    Heully: Well, indeed, it was quite a surprise to see our title on their cover page! But, in this kind of situation, it’s almost impossible to prove that they counterfeited us. We will never know if they came up with the same idea (which is also possible), or if they actually copied us.

    In any case, it’s pretty flattering for us! And the funny thing about this is that we also have an editorial partnership with the website of Courrier International. At the beginning of this partnership, they were pretty patronizing with us (yeah, you’re young journalists…). But now, the relation has changed, and they really appreciate what we do. You can check the Zone Cafe Babel we have on their website now.

    We also have other editorial partnerships with websites like EurActiv (EU portal), Cicero Magazine (German political magazine), or ang.pl (Polish portal). And we also have a weekly partnership with a leading Spanish regional newspaper called Correo de Andalucia. They publish an article from cafebabel.com in their Sunday edition (400,000 copies) in a page with our logo and description. This is great publicity for us in Spain.

    Have you considered a print magazine to go with the site? Do you have plans for one?

    Heully: Launching a print magazine has always been something we have widely discussed. And we even have gone pretty far in this project when, in 2005, we proposed an original European supplement to the most prestigious national newspapers in Europe. This project was so ambitious that many newspapers were really impressed by it. However, as you know, the paper press industry is very depressed in Europe and, when it goes with high quality editorial products, the answer we always got was: This is a beautiful project, but we can’t afford it!

    So we decided to focus on our strength on the web. But we still keep in mind the idea of launching a print version. Anyone interested?

    Why haven’t pan-European publications succeeded in the past and how are you different than them?

    Heully: In my opinion, the first reason for this failure is that print media so far have been unable to adopt a “true” European perspective. There has been numerous attempts at launching European publications, but they always crashed on national boundaries. First the language, second the national advertising and consumer markets, and third this incapacity that journalists — and politicians — have to think Europe-wide. If you want to create a pan-European publication, you cannot do it only between French or Italian or German people. This would inevitably end up being a national publication on European issues. This doesn’t make a European publication.

    I think that what makes us strong is that we managed to overcome linguistic, political and cultural boundaries. And I’m really confident there is a niche market for a European publication. With the increase of mobility in Europe, there are plenty of young Europeans who are tired of national politics and media. My generation feels that we need to go further, to move ahead and to project ourselves in a European dimension. And I think that the web allows us to reinvent a new form of journalism, taking advantage of this huge unexploited potential that we have in Europe: our high level of education and our cultural diversity.

    Do you think European media has been open to citizen journalism?

    Heully: When you look at the mainstream media in Europe, where the print issue is concerned, citizens are not involved in the process. However, the main national media, such as BBC News, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde or Libération for example, have developed innovative websites allowing for more user participation. This consists mainly of posting comments, discussing issues in forums, having a blog or even sometimes proposing pictures. But this remains still marginal, because “traditional” journalism culture is unfortunately still reluctant to open to citizen journalism.


    What do you think? Can an online publication such as cafebabel.com solve the problem of creating a pan-European media, and does its system of citizen journalists and translators hold promise? If you’ve used the site, tell us what you like or dislike about it in the comments below.

    Tagged: europe media criticism travel

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