Since the beginning of the 21st century, new cross-border digital media platforms have emerged – such as Cafébabel, a magazine sharing stories by and for young Europeans. Could those new forms of participatory media powered by digital technology unify people around new global narratives? Four characteristics of participatory digital media are of particular relevance today: they support new forms of cross-border investigations, they allow stories to circulate across linguistic and cultural silos, they support stories natively framed from a global perspective, and they gather audiences that reach beyond national borders. Thus, new media platforms, in Europe and beyond, might offer a path towards a deeper sense of shared belonging beyond the borders of languages, cultures, and nation states.
At a time when the digital media revolution has brought forth an age of global conversation and financially pressed newsrooms must diminish their correspondent networks abroad, transnational approaches to journalism could be the solution to provide the citizens of the world with the information they need, and unify people across borders around new global narratives. This is of particular relevance in light of the challenges we face today: climate change, tax evasion, or the ongoing refugee crisis, all reach across national borders and require new approaches.
Cafébabel, which started in 2001, is part of this new approach, as the first multilingual participatory magazine made by and for young Europeans. The platform is anchored in the continent’s core values of tolerance, peace and respect for diversity – even as it supports a robust discussion of shortcomings in the current political project and its inability to meet the challenges of our global societies. In that respect, it can be seen as an expression of the European project, born of a desire to avoid the future possibility of conflict between the nations that had just experienced the atrocities of the Second World War.
Cafébabel is part of a broader trend towards the development of new forms of media. The first participatory digital media platform, OhMyNews, was created in Seoul in 2000, and published a Korean, a Japanese and an international English platform. Most of the content was written by freelance contributors – ordinary citizens rather than professional journalists. In recent years, many more outlets with similar models have emerged around the world. Citizen journalism platforms such as Global Voices or even Huffington Post or Medium, as well as participatory translation projects such as Amara – an inclusive subtitling platform for worldwide video contents – play a role in creating more inclusive global narratives and bridging cultures to uncover stories underrepresented in mainstream media.
Transnational approaches to journalism could be the solution to provide the citizens of the world with the information they need, and unify people across borders around new global narratives.
Four developments made possible by those new forms of participatory digital media are of particular importance today.
The first is a capacity to develop world-wide investigative projects using the power of the crowd. Bellingcat for example, launched in 2014 by British blogger Eliot Higgins, combines open source technologies and social media to investigate global stories such as the conflict in Syria or Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. The Italian project Generation E partnered up with several media outlets such as German CORRECT!V and journalism++ to crowdsource data on Europe’s migration wave. “The Migrants Files”, which it developed, have been the biggest investigation into the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean area so far.
The second is a capacity to get information and stories out of language silos. Since 2006 Beijing-based Yeeyan operates a platform crowdsourcing the translation of Western news into Mandarin – and has gathered a community that counts over 600,000 members today. Meedan – a word meaning ‘town square’ in Arabic –created an online forum to reveal and discuss contrasting perspectives on events between the Arabic and the Western world, through human and machine translation. Cafébabel took on a similar challenge for the European continent, and publishes stories in six languages. In the biblical story, the tower of Babel was a construction of human pride, and resulted in punishment for humanity, which was dispersed around the globe, and separated into different languages. The magazine aims to reverse the curse of language barriers, and bring people back together around a multilingual public conversation in a virtual café.
The third is the capacity to develop a natively global understanding of current affairs. News do not stop at the border, yet often, journalists remain attached to their local context. So that citizen journalism can create more integrated narratives, a particular editorial approach is required that breaks the typical national-foreign correspondent bubble. Contributors must focus not only on their national readerships, but brainstorm topics and angles that might engage readers from different cultural backgrounds.
Finally, participatory media is in a unique position to create a unified audience across borders. In particular, participatory outlets developed online are in a good position to cross borders through social media channels, newsletters and content partnerships. Strategies for further audience development include harnessing the Facebook algorithm for automated content distribution according to the geographical location of the reader. Teaming up together via content syndication presents another strategy for future cross-border journalism. New syndication platforms for independent European media, or the more recent Newsmavens (‘womensplaining’ European news in English), financed by the Google digital news initiative, point the way.
With continuous globalization, digital disruption and decreasing revenues in the media sector, sharing resources and relying on a strong community becomes more crucial. “If it had to be redone, I would start with culture.” This famous sentence attributed to Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU – although he might have never pronounced it – contains a very simple truth: it is mostly culture that ties the people in Europe together, and the development of a unified culture is at the core of peace-making.
Cafébabel’s primary purpose is to accompany Europe’s integration process. When Europe is ready to speak with a common voice in the world, we’d be probably ready to go more global. With decreasing demographics on the ‘old continent’, participatory journalism by and for young people will have to watch out beyond European borders to reach new audiences. Recently, cafébabel featured a multimedia piece on a European initiative empowering girls in Nepal through skateboarding. This kind of stories could be springboards towards more global conversation between continents – and why not one day the creation of a local hub on another continent.
People have been willing to die for national narratives – and continue to this day. If we want to build a joint sense of belonging to our increasingly integrated planet, we must build the conditions for a sense of common destiny. For this, participatory digital media has a crucial role to play.
Katharina Kloss is editor in chief of Cafébabel, award winning media by and for young people in Europe. After European journalism studies and various media experiences in Germany, France and the UK, she has worked as a journalist and editor in Paris since 2007. Fluent in 4 languages, she is especially interested in cross border approaches. Her stories are also featured on arte, L’Express, New Eastern Europe or ParisBerlin. In 2017 she has edited XYZ, a crowdfunded book featuring a best-of Cafébabel features from the last 15 years.