EXCLUSIVE! Blogger attacks Politico Europe! – a review of Politico’s european operation

IMG_9576It is now 7 months since the US publication launched its European operation. Enough time to reflect on what does, and does not, work with it. In this blog entry I am going to try to give a fair and balanced view of the publication so far. I have canvassed views on my personal Facebook profile, through Twitter (original tweet here), and some people have emailed me in confidence, and this blog entry draws on that. I have no access to any aspect of Politico PRO (I am too poor to have cash to subscribe), so this covers what is available for free on the Politico Europe website, free by e-mail, and in the printed edition.

Who is it for?
From the outset this question has perplexed me. Is Politico Europe a publication about EU policy? Is it about everyday European Union politics? Is it about connecting the politics of national capitals? Is it to take EU politics to a wider audience than ever before? Or a combination of all of these? Its predecessor, European Voice (EV), had a heavy EU policy focus, something that Politico Europe – in its free, public parts at least – rather lacks. As one Brussels sage said to me, “It’s taking the Brussels bubble for granted” and I cannot disagree with that. Now that might of course be a good thing – EV was often dry and very narrow, so something broader could actually be beneficial. But armed with European Voice’s database as the backbone for its e-mail newsletters, it is building from Brussels outwards, and it should not be complacent as it’s the only show in town. EUObserver and Euractiv may be under pressure, but they are not out. Mark Rhinard calls Politico Europe “airy and empty” (tweet here), and Jonathan Millins calls it “an elitist tabloid” (tweet here) – is that the aim? If so, who is the audience?

Is it good journalism?
Building on the point about its audiences, there is a general consensus among the people that I have spoken to (and this reflects my own view) that in terms of style, Politico Europe is a step forward in comparison to EV, and is a cut above the other dedicated EU news sites. EU institution people, lobbyists, and even a few journalist friends from other outlets, describe it in positive terms when it comes to how it is written. Refreshing and digestible.

However – and this is by far the most common criticism – it is littered with factual errors, and questionable choices of words to describe complicated procedures. “They have enough journalists – can’t they employ some fact checkers?” one Brussels journalist not employed by Politico said to me, and that is a very fair critique in my view. For example this piece on Schengen is so poorly worded it made me wince, and the words (in this) “the Commission, a parallel but larger institution that sits across from the Council” are awful for an EU publication. That lack of real depth to the reporting, and the lack of genuine investigative journalism, are also fair criticisms – although after all Politico has to survive, financially, so the bar here cannot be set too high.

The headlines of stories are often sexed up into clickbait, and then the article that comes afterwards then says rather little that is new. “You have the feeling you read it somewhere else already” a friend remarked to me. “The In crowd to Commission: Back off!” is a case in point – the title is exaggerated, and the piece basically turns one line in a Commission report into a story, when nervousness about the EU institutions’ role in the UK referendum is nothing new. The title of this blog entry is of course written with Politico in mind – be glad I don’t sex up all the titles of all my blog entries!

I am also aware that there is fear inside the European Commission at how Politico journalists operate – officials have at times been clear when speaking at events that they are expressing a personal view, not an official view, and this then appears in Politico the following day as an exclusive. This means Commission officials are – more than before – just going to refer journalists to a spokesperson for a bland official line instead. This will make the Commission more paranoid, and mean Politico is in danger of losing valuable sources – that is no good for either side.

Is it biased?
The answer to this is yes – it leans right. I do not think that unbiased reporting is possible, but that the sort of media of record of the Brussels bubble now is more obviously ideological than EV means there is now a problem of balance. Progressives I know dislike its political line, while some right wingers I know very much welcome it. Its coverage of the Greece bailout crisis, and formation of the left wing governent in Portugal, were I suppose typical of a publication that is backed by Axel Springer. It also seems that personal experience – on Brussels taxis versus Uber for example – has a disproportionate impact on editorial choices at Politico Europe. I don’t blame Politico for this bias (it’s their editorial call), but let’s get away from the idea that Politico Europe is somehow middle of the road, somehow objective – it is not.

Other things
The American spellings, and especially the American dates, are really annoying. English, and not English with errors (as @Queen_UK aptly put it on Twitter), is an official language of the European Union, so a major Brussels publication ought to write that way too. Some of the clichés about Europe give the impression Politico Europe is being written more for an American audience than for a European one.

There is general and widespread appreciation of Ryan Heath’s Playbook – no one expressed a negative view about it to me. It seems to be a genuinely interesting addition to the EU media scene.

Politico journalists seem to be too in love with themselves, and with their publication, and do not react very kindly to critique. I was on the receiving end of it from Tunku Varadarajan, while Alice Stollmeyer has been on the receiving end this week from Matthew Karnitschnig and Matthew Kaminski for pointing out problems with their Energiewende reporting (Renewables International fisked Politico’s reporting here). In the early days, calling Le Soir “world’s biggest socialist student newspaper” was over the top – if you are a new publication in town, going out all guns blazing against other publications is perhaps a bad idea right at the start.

So there you have it. Politico Europe has changed the Brussels media landscape, for good and for bad. It has a refreshing style, but makes errors. It leans right, and uses annoying Americanisms and clickbait headlines. Its Playbook is widely appreciated. And in the meantime it still has not quite found a defined role.

I was commissioned to write one piece for Politico on 20 May 2015, for which I was paid. Politico has quoted things I have written elsewhere on its site. I count a number of Politico employees among my friends (some of whom are friends on Facebook and hence can see discussion prior to this story on my Facebook profile). I have no current business relationship with Politico.

[UPDATE – 30.11.15, 1100]
Politico Europe Editor Matthew Kaminski points out to me on Twitter that they do correct their errors, and that I do not mention that in this blog entry. Fair enough. Thanks for the interest, Matthew.

[UPDATE – 30.11.15, 1615]
After well, let’s say, some rather lurid accusations being made by Politico Europe (especially this from Tara Palmeri) that accuse me of having some business vendetta against them, here are the clients I am working for – through all of November, December and January:

  • Quadriga Hochschule, Berlin – moderation, webinars, 1 speech
  • Comment is Free, The Guardian – 1 comment piece
  • DG REGIO and ESPON (European Commission) – moderation of 2 events
  • Clear Europe – social media training course
  • Politix.io – comms advice
  • IFAW EU office – comms advice and training
  • College of Europe, Bruges – course in online comms for EU policymaking
  • University of Maastricht – course in online comms for EU policymaking
  • European Movement International – training course about social media in politics
  • ECPA – social media training course
  • Committee of the Regions – moderation of a conference panel
  • DG Connect (European Commission) – social media training courses (2)
  • ECIPE – speech

Do tell me, Politico Europe team, which of those is a rival to Politico Europe?

[UPDATE 30.11.2015, 1630]
Maybe it’s that part of this site is mirrored on Blogactiv here that’s annoying Politico so much? I’d forgotten that. That auto-cross-posts, and I have no financial arrangement with Blogactiv or Euractiv, and they don’t tell me what to write or do. There, like with Politico, I know a few of their journalists, that’s all.

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  4. Woody

    I saw your reference to a twitter-spat with Tunku Varadarajan, and did a little Googling on him (sorry, the verb is promoting a big Politico sponsor, but, heck, it’s part of the language). What popped up? An article entitled “Going Muslim”. That sounded gratuitously, emptily provocative, pretty Politico, so I clicked on it and found a piece on a mass shooting at Fort Hood by an American soldier. And here’s the beginning: “’Going postal’ is a piquant American phrase that describes the phenomenon of violent rage in which a worker–archetypically a postal worker–‘snaps’ and guns down his colleagues. As the enormity of the actions of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sinks in, we must ask whether we are confronting a new phenomenon of violent rage, one we might dub–disconcertingly–‘Going Muslim.’”

    Re-read that. I advise you to re-read that. And then wonder when you last read about a mass shooting. (Today, was it? Yes.) Judging by his reactions on Twitter, I bet Tunku would feel pretty close to ‘going Muslim’ if we Europeans suggested that the Fort Hood killings were just a variation of that well-known homicidal illness, ‘Going American’.

    (Of course, he’d complain that I hadn’t read the article and absorbed all its subtleties and great contribution to the public debate. But, heck, even if that were the case, which it isn’t, misreading subtleties is what happens when you’re addicted to clickbait, however shitty and misleading.)

    Politico clearly loves trolling people. I think its trolling deserves a name of its own. ‘Going Tunku’ sound good?

    Here’s the link: http://www.forbes.com/2009/11/08/fort-hood-nidal-malik-hasan-muslims-opinions-columnists-tunku-varadarajan.html

  5. goatse

    To tell the truth I profoundly dislike the playbook. Seems to me that Heath is trying to be snarky and funny while he’s just being a passive aggressive attention whore

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  7. Emma

    I am so glad you wrote this, Politico has come in and swamped the Brussels media with their obviously right leaning politics and events. A lot of this needed to be said and I’m glad you did. What a shame they didn’t take it too well.

    I had meant to write when I saw your request for comments about them to say I find their reporting very sexist too: they reported on the change in Hungarian government lately with one headline that stated: woman out, woman in (or thereabouts).

    And their language is appalling: we don’t need EU politics to be dumbed down to that extent.

    THANKS for doing this work Jon, it was needed.

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  9. Roderick

    I agree with Max’s comment below. We’ve had ‘the emperor has no clothes’ syndrome in Brussels over the last seven months with Politico. They’ve done their American song and dance and we’re supposed to be awed into submission. People only whisper the blatant flaws but won’t say it publicly. What’s worst is that the cult of high-fiving that exists within the organisation has apparently made the journalists think they are immune to criticism.

    Part of the reason for the lack of policy depth is that most of the journalists there have only recently arrived in Brussels so they don’t have the contacts or the depth of knowledge to fully understand what’s going on. I personally looking forward to this publication thinking we would finally get some accurate news about the EU read outside of Brussels. Unfortunately they seem to be writing for an American audience and it is full of the same clichés and inaccuracies as the national papers. A disappointing outcome, but this is what happens when we import Americans to do what Europeans should have done for themselves in the first place.

  10. aaron mcoughlin


    I think your piece is very restrained and fair comment. Politico’s reaction is way over the top.

    Their coverage of substantive legislative issues is often poor, spare, and full of simple errors.

    Tim King seems to be the only one who knows what he is writing about.


  11. Max Kopf

    Politico journalists have spent the last 7 months being believing their own hype that they’re the future of EU journalism, and being wined, dined and stroked by the Brussels elite who believe the same and want them on-side. Nobody has dared point out their flaws in a serious, thought-out, structured way.

    Enter this piece from Jon. And like clockwork, an ugly, thin-skinned response from several Politico journalists, replete with ad hominem attacks.

    Of course, the best part is that Politico understands journalism but not PR. It was the fight that put this story on my radar and that of many others, not Jon’s piece. As long as their journalists continue to sulk and snipe instead of taking *any and all* criticism constructively, the title they’re all blindly defending will continue to lose credibility.

  12. Mark Johnston

    Thanks Jon, it’s consistent with all the reactions I hear. Commercial realities will catch-up with editorial choices eventually.

  13. Mark Johnston

    Thanks Jon, this pulls together in one much of what I’ve heard from many people since the start. Seven months is enough to test the editorial model but not enough yet to test the business model. I felt in April (when some of us met some of the team before launch day) that it would take a year or so to settle down into whatever it becomes, and that view has not changed.

  14. mathew

    A timely and interesting post which I hope will encourage further discussion, particularly of Politico’s business model, which you didn’t touch upon.

    This is a wider issue than just Politico, of course, but they are one of the first of the new generation of ‘digital native’ US news publications to set up in Europe (click me for mlre), and probably the first to cover EU affairs. They are therefore, for me at least, a sort of testcase for whether European media is going to have to follow the American model of native advertising and brand journalism.

    It’s ironic that when EurActiv launched some 15+ years ago with ‘sponsored sections’, plenty of traditional media got themselves into a tizzy about the line between editorial and business within a news organisation. Today, EurActiv’s model is quite conservative next to Politico’s, and noone blinks. The question is this: is the US model the only one now available to European media, or can we find something better?

    (disclaimer: currently part-timing at EurActiv)