Forum.eu’s Paul Ostwald on bursting Europe’s language bubbles

From where I’m sitting in the northwest of England, Europe sometimes seems rather far away. Years of seeing the continent through a Brexit-shattered lens have left me feeling very disconnected from my continental cousins.

Imagine my delight, then, at discovering a news site that lets me read journalism from across Europe regardless of its language of origin. I might no longer have a European passport, but I can at least maintain a European perspective.

Berlin headquartered Forum.eu was founded almost exactly a year ago, just as the pandemic was really taking hold. The site is fundamentally a news aggregator, curating stories from a network of publishing partners that includes newspapers and magazines from more than 10 countries.

Where it differs from most aggregators is in selecting just six or seven of the most interesting articles from its partners each day and translating them into multiple European languages. That means I can read Die Tageszeitung’s take on workers’ rights in the German asparagus harvest or El Mundo’s reporting on Spain’s mental health crisis.

There is big a question of how you take your content – that’s great, that’s already there – and make more of it?

Hear Paul Ostwald on how Forum.eu came about

So where did this idea for a pan-European, multilingual news website come from?

Forum’s co-founder and editor-at-large Paul Ostwald told me he started thinking about it when he was reporting from Lesbos, Greece, on the migration situation in 2015-2016.

“I realised I was standing with a bunch of journalists from across Europe who were all depending on, basically, the same sources. No one really spoke any Greek. We didn’t really speak any other languages beyond English. Everyone was writing the same pieces but in their own language.”

Paul had previously spent time living in the UK and recognised the special role English played as Europe’s Lingua Franca. “For everyone else, public journalists in languages other than English, there seemed to be this rule that once your text is out and read by the people in your language bubble, that’s it. That’s the end of it.”

The risks are too high. That’s why we have humans doing that work.

The start of it

Beyond getting good journalism out of its language bubble and to a wider audience, Paul saw a need for European problems – migration, climate change and now COVID – to be discussed at the European level. But, again, the lack of a common language was preventing discussion across borders.

“Timothy Garton Ash once said Europe’s problem is not so much the process but the 23 languages, and I think part of that is true. There is certainly a huge barrier, the language barrier, in European journalism,” he explained.

That’s where Forum comes in, publishing six or seven articles a day from its partner network with every article published in six languages: English, French, German, Polish, Spanish and Greek.

Translations are handled initially by DeepL, an AI translation tool wired into Forum’s CMS. Automated translations are then finessed by journalists on staff to reflect the nuanced meanings of potentially loaded words like country, nation and state that AI would overlook.

“The risks are too high,” Paul explained. “That’s why we have humans doing that work; good journalists and then copy editors to make sure that we really get everything right.”

Forum’s core team in Berlin is between five and seven people depending on whether you count freelancers. Everyone else, around 20 journalists and designers, is spread across Europe. “We’re not here as another Berlin-based startup that talks about Europe,” he said. “We’re actually in all the European countries that we publish in,” Paul said.

Stories for the day’s selection are pitched by the journalists on staff in a classic editorial conference, although remotely. “We have everyone from all the European capitals Zoom in. Then discuss, what pieces are relevant from their country, based on our publisher partners. It’s a fun call, I can tell you.”

With the partner lineup Forum has – news publishers like Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine, Spain’s El Diario, Poland’s Res Publica and The Telegraph in the UK – it could be publishing dozens of stories a day. Instead it restricts its daily story count to six or seven.

This is partly about resource limitations. “If you get me another 20 people and then another 40, we can talk about more articles,” Paul laughed. But there is another, more fundamental reason: Very few people read more than six to seven stories a day.

“The curation angle is hugely important. Someone takes time and effort to select the pieces that are really, really worth reading, right? What you’re getting is, not just all of it, but the best of what fits you.”

Social impact funding

Forum co-founder and CEO Nikolaus von Taysen is a founding partner of Bonum Ventures, the VC that provided initial funding for the news site. Paul explained Bonum is focused on projects that deliver social impact, but also that have a clear, sustainable business model.

“It’s maybe a very German way of thinking about the world, that if there’s a project that’s doing good, it has to be non-profit. There are a lot of cool, really great projects that never rarely become self-sustaining because everyone who invests in them doesn’t want them to actually be profitable, said Paul.

Forum’s take on a sustainable business model is, predictably, based on subscriptions; the site will soon charge readers EUR€4 (US$4.77) a month. “It’s pretty low priced, so that it’s really accessible to everyone.”

The subscription pitch is simple: Your one stop shop for the best articles from Europe, in your language.

“I think that means that you get the articles on debates in Europe that are really relevant, not just to your immediate local surroundings,” said Paul. “We are targeting people who are really interested in European questions.”

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The pan-European perspective sees Forum’s audience skew younger, toward what some have called the Erasmus generation, many of them having studied in Europe, outside their own countries. Paul sees this younger demographic as interesting from a commercial perspective, but also politically.

“It’s a very important group,” he explained. “It’s the people who are now really shaping the continent, driving a lot of the change that’s happening.”

The reader offer is clear, but what’s in it for Forum’s publisher partners?

Paul outlined three benefits: “The first is that, at no extra cost and no extra labour, you get your articles in six languages for your own use. Second, we share our revenues with the publishers. So without extra effort, their articles are being monetised in markets that are not their own.

“The third benefit is obviously brand building. A lot of newspapers have become media brands rather than newspapers. We’re building a European brand recognition for brands that have been largely tied to their national context.”

Forum is looking for partners that create content relevant to a European audience, but strong in their home markets on political, social and economic or ecological questions. “We’re not so much in the tabloid space. We don’t need to translate pieces on Brad Pitt… a lot of them are already translated.”

Paul is also interested in working with independent, smaller publishers. And although most of Forum’s current partner roster is newspapers, he would be delighted to welcome magazine publishers to the network.

“To be honest, I don’t think the division works that much anymore. Someone like the Economist, I guess, is more of a magazine because it’s a weekly. But they’re still, obviously, very strong on a day-to-day basis.”

Without giving away too much, we’re trying to think of ways that we can create spaces, and even revenue, for journalists and small outlets.

Sparking debate

Alongside partner content, Forum has also made forays into producing its own articles.

  • Luisa Neubauer, a climate justice activist,  has written Why We Fight about the “Fridays For Future” school strike movement in Germany.

These opinion pieces are designed to spark the cross-border conversation that lies at the heart of Forum’s mission. “We need to kick off the debate more widely. And I think these are an attempt to say, ‘Hey, let’s have that debate on our pages’”.

Eventually, Paul would like to host the discussions on Forum, but he is realistic about the difficulties in bringing user conversation onto the site. Discounting the work involved in translating comments to facilitate debates across language barriers, nurturing an online conversation is difficult.

“The truth is that is not how things work, especially in the beginning. People will discuss wherever they want to discuss. And if that is Twitter, then that’s Twitter.”

Paul is ambitious for Forum: “We want to have a product that is basically the central hub for European journalism, run by journalists and shaped by European publishers.”

But he is also realistic, keen to emphasise that the first step is to achieve sustainability and a level of profitability that will allow the operation to scale.

“Without giving away too much, we’re trying to think of ways that we can create spaces, and even revenue, for journalists and small outlets,” he said. “I think this will become more and more important. Substack shows individual journalists can really drive their own brand and their own company.”

That doesn’t mean Paul thinks big publishing brands are going away. “Some people say media brands will collapse and it will all be individual journalists writing on Substack. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s still too much that publishers do that is too crucial to the market.”

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