Inside Story

Face to face with journalism’s future

Politico’s takeover of a sleepy weekly at Europe’s political epicentre promised great things. But something went wrong when the big stories began to break

James Panichi 26 March 2018 7611 words

Opening up: European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker forced Europe’s lobbyists to reveal more about their activities. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

It was six o’clock one morning in late 2014 and my editor was calling to tell me to wear a suit to work. Something wasn’t right: journalism in Brussels is strictly smart casual and he knew it. Sure enough, I arrived to find our small office overrun by a squadron of beaming Americans, their laptops perched on all available desk space and big-lettered signage all around (shouty caps: POLITICO). Vacant office space in the once-palatial Residence Palace had been snapped up and the maintenance guys were lying on the floor, digging up wiring.

The rumoured takeover had happened — that much was clear. The small, understated policy publication I had joined three months earlier had been bought out by Washington’s hottest media operator and I — along with my paper’s very polite, mainly British staff — was going to have to deal with it. I could feel the beads of sweat gather somewhere between my hairline and my hastily knotted tie.

To their credit, the Americans sensed the unease and were quick to flick the switch to vaudeville. Within hours of landing in European Voice’s offices, Politico’s top brass unleashed a svelte PowerPoint presentation that gave us the good news first. The pie chart summarising Politico’s business model in the United States — the one that turned it into the industry’s great hope — was projected onto our wall’s cracked plaster. And the figures left us in no doubt as to what the US contingent and their German financial backers, Axel Springer, had in store for their EU operation.

The plan was to throw large sums of money at the project, employing at least fifty journalists across Europe in a hiring spree designed to dwarf comparable news outlets — and all with the promise that within three short years the venture would be paying for itself. The numbers on display told a convincing story — enough to knock the stuffing out of my conviction that journalism had been on borrowed time since news first appeared online. Politico’s narrative was one that I could warm to: quality journalism could flourish at the very time that newspapers around the world were either retrenching staff or shutting up shop altogether.

The pie chart was telling us that advertising revenue no longer mattered — in fact, it was a sliver so small as to be insignificant. Sponsored events accounted for a slightly larger slice, alongside other bits and pieces that they didn’t need to explain because our eyeballs had locked onto the biggest, brightest chunk of the income stream. The Americans called them “verticals”: streams of thematic articles about policy issues, oozing with detail, gossip, leaked documents and old-school scoops. They would be promoted by email and protected by a rock-solid paywall and would cost subscribers a small fortune. They were the engine room of the new model.

I knew enough to understand that Politico wasn’t Robinson Crusoe on this front: trade publications and newsletters had been providing specialised reporters with a dignified living for decades. Yet what they described to us that day was an unusually ambitious project to monetise in-depth journalism at the technical margins of policy-making. The formula had been perfected in the media company’s coverage of the US Congress, where teams of reporters would examine every controversy gripping obscure committees, knowing that subscribers would need the information badly enough to pay the asking price. Someone, somewhere, was ready to cough up money for granular reporting. You didn’t need a lot of readers, just a small pool of rich ones.

The verticals’ appeal to a general readership was limited — me, I wouldn’t wish an agriculture policy subscription on my worst enemy. But these specialist emails and the articles they linked to were gold for those with skin in the game. The readership was small but highly influential, meaning that the expert reporters were largely unknown in the real world but rock stars to their well-heeled subscribers. More importantly, their reporting didn’t need to be dumbed down. If anything, the burden was now on the journalist to tell the punters — who spent every moment of their working day immersed in these policy areas — something they didn’t know already. Our brief, should we be chosen for it, was to be smarter than the smartest people in town.

Testing times: Politico’s Brussels office not long after the American takeover of European Voice. Jonas Roosens/ID Photo Agency

That said, there would be plenty of action in front of the paywall as well. As had been the case with Politico in the United States, the big political yarns would get a good run, with the freely accessible stories setting the agenda. This journalism would allow itself to be tweeted or posted to the platform of your choice, laden with key search terms to ensure articles were googled and found. But if there was one point the Americans wanted us to get into our European skulls it was this: the paywalled verticals would be doing the heavy lifting. All the fancy political stories and, to an extent, even the free daily flagship newsletter (to be called “Brussels Playbook”) were part of an elaborate marketing ruse. The stuff in front of the paywall was the gateway drug that would lead the city’s elites into a life of vertical addiction.

So there I was — overdressed, but happy. Newspapers across the globe were being hit by the exodus of advertisers to online platforms and reporters’ ranks were being depleted, yet the strut of this gutsy American upstart was telling us that it wasn’t over yet. Here was a business model strong enough to future-proof our careers. They had found a way out of the doom and gloom and I had stumbled into it, finding myself on the proverbial ground floor.

I bought into the hype without a moment’s hesitation — I was a true believer from the get-go. For a reporter in his mid-forties with no plan B to speak of, anyone telling me there was even the ghost of a chance that I could make it through to retirement without having to retrain as a telemarketer was speaking my language. They were going to end the uncertainty; this would be my game changer. I would take to my work at Politico with the zeal of a new convert to Catholicism. After just a couple of Sundays, I’d be fulminating about the evils of Vatican II and pushing to reintroduce the Latin mass.

Politico co-founder John Harris was on hand to tell us that soon our newspaper, the venerable but not always venerated European Voice, would cease to exist, to be replaced by something bigger and more ambitious — capital-J journalism would be centre stage. You could have heard a pin drop as he spoke, in no small part because none of us were entirely sure whether we’d still be employed by the end of the week. Any new editor coming in to start up a European operation would be entitled to a clean slate; defenestration was in the air. We were asking ourselves the simple question that any employee of a merged or acquired company would ask: do I still have a job?

It was an understandable reaction. Looking back, though, I wonder if we missed the point. When a new media business promises a new paradigm, the one question a journalist should ask herself is: what’s in it for me? It sounds mercenary, but the moment you hear of new plans to monetise news, the question must always turn to the value of the journalism required to power the business model. How badly would they need the contents of my brain and how much would they be willing to pay for it?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since, of course. But at the time of my first foray into the world of specialised journalism I was still naive about the industrial model that underpins it. I now know that the pie chart they showed us wasn’t the one we needed to see; understanding how the money was spent would have been more helpful. But because reporters are never in the job for the pay — if we were, we wouldn’t bother — we can usually be relied upon to be awkward about putting a dollar figure on the work we do. We need to get over that.

Chopping wood

It was on a train journey through the French countryside a couple of years earlier that I had started to grapple with the inequities of my chosen profession’s pay scale. I’d moved to Europe from Australia with my family in 2012 and by now things were starting to look good. My wife had found her feet in a new job and our daughters, after a needlessly unpleasant start in the francophone system, were happily ensconced in an international school. They were even starting to resent my showing up early to pick them up — always a good sign.

Until then I’d been spending my days working on bits and pieces, helped along by the user-friendly set-up of institutions of the European Union, or EU. The buildings’ workspaces have wi-fi on tap, mildly subsidised canteens with healthy options, and free radio and TV studios for those who need them. Some Italian freelancers had taken me under their wing, showing me which coffee shops to frequent and what to ask for to get a recognisable espresso (un petit, bien serré).

It was doable. I could whip up a five-minute radio report for the English-language service of Deutsche Welle by harvesting the quotable quotes from the European Commission’s midday press briefing, then visiting a couple of members of the European Parliament and popping by the offices of an NGO or an industry association. Everyone was happy to talk — even government officials, whose counterparts in Australia run a mile from the fourth estate. English was the lingua franca and almost everyone worked within the small radius of the European institutions. No taxi vouchers or travel allowances were required: I could hoof it.

Getting to grips with the legislative processes and the institutions would prove trickier. Members of the European Parliament may refer to themselves as law-makers, but in this town, everyone legislates. Bills come to light in the European Commission, which is the EU’s executive, then weave their way through parliament, then back to the commission, then occasionally back to parliament, before being signed off by the European Council — a super-senate representing EU national governments.

Along the way there are acronyms and institutional idiosyncrasies designed to trip up the inexperienced reporter. There are position non-papers, trilogues, Coreper I meetings (not to be confused with Coreper II meetings) and wall-to-wall paperology (a word a commission spokesman once used, in all seriousness). “Council” could mean the European Council, or the Council of Ministers, or the Council of the EU, according to the function it’s carrying out at the time (I got it wrong a few paragraphs up — but purely in the interest of clarity). Then there’s the Council of Europe, a non-EU human rights body based in Strasbourg.

Happy to talk: the European Parliament building in Brussels. Pietro Naj-Oleari/European Union PE-EP

Of course, you could spend hours marvelling at the bureaucratic bastardry that led officials to name two, unrelated institutions respectively the European Council and the Council of Europe; indeed, most newly arrived journalists spend their first year in Brussels gaping at the EU’s idiosyncrasies. Not me. I was determined to suspend the disbelief and get cracking.

My one lucky break was a gig with the French news agency Agence France Presse, filling in on the English-language desk for someone whose appointment had been delayed by head office. My editor in Brussels was a Franco-Australian veteran who patiently taught me how to strip away the EU jargon that permeates the writing of inexperienced reporters. She would remind me that we were dealing with legislation written by non-native English-speaking lawyers for the benefit of non-native English-speaking lawyers and we had a duty to grapple the language into submission — to bring it back to life.

I didn’t get ahead of myself — I was there to “chop wood,” as another hardened Australian EU reporter described it to me over lunch one day. It was our lot to report on the small, daily announcements coming out of the commission and keep it simple. Yet my editor demanded that, with every stroke of my keyboard, I show evidence that I was taking sides in the EU’s war against clarity. English, more than any other of the bloc’s twenty-four languages, had the tools to fight back.

At the end of the writing process, my brain would hurt. But once my story had been filed to Paris for a second read we would unwind over a cup of tea, chatting about Melbourne real estate while awaiting the all clear. My editor still owned an apartment on the St Kilda side and there was no way she would ever move north of the river — I was wasting my breath.

With my stint at Agence France Presse over, I started to look around for other things to do — which is how I ended up on a train to Lyon. A European TV station was looking for freelancers to cover shifts in its Brussels bureau and had called me down for a chat. It would be more woodchopping but, I reckoned, my EU reporting skills were getting sharper and this would help them along. Plus, a day in Lyon — why not?

The studios were deep in the city’s leafy outer suburbs and the very large newsroom was crammed with what the Australian mining industry would describe as a fly-in fly-out workforce. An editor told me that they’d bring in freelance journalists by plane or train for two- or three-week stints, then give them a week off. The station broadcast in a range of European and neighbouring languages; the young and enthusiastic reporters saw this as the start of a career in TV.

Their job was to take an English or French news item produced by a central news desk, work a script around agency images in their own language, then lay down a voice track. I sat the test without breaking a sweat — then again, any journalism graduate with a couple of months’ experience under her belt could have done the same. It wasn’t rocket science, but I guessed nobody in the newsroom was on a rocket scientist’s salary. In fact, at the end of the interview the producers told me that I would be able to invoice between €100 and €150 (A$160 to A$240) for a day’s work — the standard fee for the hordes of freelancers descending on Lyon.

Poorly paying jobs and unpaid internships are a European way of life. It’s how the continent’s establishment goes about finding work for its children: mum and dad support the kids for years while they go from one work-experience gig to the next. Those who pay their own rent can’t afford it and drop out; the children of the wealthy go the distance. It’s probably no coincidence that the only non-European faces you see in the EU quarter belong to the caterers and the cleaners: Europe’s elites have this one stitched up.

Not that I cared — my wife’s job was paying the bills and I could afford to give this gig a wide berth. After contributing to Belgium’s onerous social security system, €150 a day would have left me with barely enough money for lunch. But I chuckled at the thought that these deals were being offered under the nose of Europe’s militant trade unions and the ever-vigilant national governments, always keen to denounce what they saw as the excesses of Anglo-Saxon industrial relations.

The exploitation had a certain logic. Journalism work of this kind was badly paid because you didn’t need to be a specialist to do the job. The news was as general as it comes: a natural disaster in Portugal, an electoral victory in Bulgaria, a political scandal in Malta. Anyone who can type words into a search engine can whip up a story and, in most cases, the journalism that’s produced is given away, free — itself searchable for the next underpaid journalist or intern writing a rip-n-read on a natural disaster in Portugal, an electoral victory in Bulgaria, a political scandal in Malta. It was a vicious circle of near-worthless content, produced cheap by subsidised media outlets for an ill-defined audience.

When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys — or so the saying goes. But what if a well-groomed primate is all you need to get the job done? Why would you pay more than you need to (labour laws not withstanding)? As I dozed off on the long trip home, the truth struck me: journalists who could cover the big European stories were a dime a dozen. Anyone with a blog could upload 500 words of readable political analysis. But those who could make their way through the complexities of EU policy-making must surely be harder to come by. And if so, they must be worth more.

If I wanted to make a living here, I’d have to avoid competing with attractive young generalists working for a hundred bucks a day. I needed to specialise. Which is why I began sniffing around European Voice — the one publication I would always see on the desks of politicians, lobbyists and Eurocrats. It had been established by the parent company of the Economist in 1995 and had been sold to a successful French-Iranian businesswoman in 2013. It was up the nerdy end of the spectrum and could be relied on to preview key parliamentary committee meetings and get down and dirty with the mechanics of legislation. Anyone outside the EU bubble would have found it both incomprehensible and mind-numbingly boring. For what I had in mind, it was perfect.

They didn’t have an Italian speaker on staff and there were a handful of Italian politicians holding key positions in parliament who spoke little English. I saw a chance and pitched a few ideas for the paper’s “profile” section. I eventually managed to get through to them (they never responded to emails or returned calls) and they commissioned one profile, then another, then allowed me to venture deeper into the policy detail.

As a freelancer, I interviewed the head of an industry body representing the owners of European mines, then a lively Belgian from Antwerp who was the top lobbyist for the association of European port operators. I caught up with the secretary-general of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Groups of States — a hollow receptacle for EU foreign aid. I had a coffee with the head of the global association of customs agencies. I met Sharan Burrow, who was (and still is) the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. It was more than schmoozing lobbyists: I was finding out what legislation kept them awake at night and who they were talking to. In a world where everyone is either writing policy or out to influence those who do, Brussels was a fascinating place to be.

After about six months, the newspaper commissioned what became my pièce de résistance: a profile of Federica Mogherini, the frontrunner for the EU’s top diplomatic post. Today she’s a household name in Brussels, but at the time she was an unknown quantity. I spoke to people who had observed her political career in Italy and came up with information that no internet search would have caught. I was getting off the treadmill of recycled news.

I wrote off everything I did for the paper as an educational project — had it been for the money, I wouldn’t have bothered. But I remember feeling upbeat when, eventually, European Voice advertised a position. I bumped into the paper’s editor at a European Council leaders’ summit and asked whether I should apply. “I’m not saying you should apply,” he said. “But I am definitely not saying you shouldn’t.” I was encouraged by his words — though, now that I see them in writing, I wonder why.

The interviews were gruelling: I spent a total of three hours speaking to the newspaper’s editor and its publisher. I was running out of things to say. If nothing else, the process forced me to research the history of a paper that, in its heyday, had employed up to eight journalists and had covered all the EU policy battles that mattered. Its alumni had gone on to have stellar careers with the world’s top mastheads. Then had come the cutbacks — the Economist never gave it a chance, according to disgruntled journalists who were there at the time.

It was only when they offered me the job that I realised how bad the pay was. But, in what I now realise was a worrying pattern, I was presumptuous enough to think they would reassess my worth once I had started churning out copy. And, on the plus side, the work turned out to be more interesting than I could have imagined. My beat included inter-institutional affairs, which took in the EU budget, the never-ending stoush on governance issues and the war of words over which institution had the political legitimacy to impose its will. I also covered what a sovereign state would call home affairs: security, anti-terrorism, European policing efforts.

There’s a PhD to be written about why so many editors struggle with the management of people. The obvious reason is that journalists are promoted on the strength of their ability to write and report, not because of their emotional intelligence. And our newsroom was so predictable: my editor was the best journalist in town, but the atmosphere at the paper was bleak. When one of my new colleagues asked to use my stapler, I joked that the request could turn out to be my only social interaction in the office that day. He looked at me awkwardly, then shuffled away.

Dalli, I’m home

About a month into my time at the paper, my editor alerted me to something that came within my inter-institutional affairs beat. The EU’s moribund lobbying register was starting to show vital signs, with organisations and individuals signing up at unprecedented rates. The information they gave was often wildly inaccurate, but the message was clear: even the most recalcitrant of lobbyists were grappling with how best to emerge from the shadows.

The reason for this renewed interest in the EU’s transparency database was no mystery. When former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker was installed as president of the European Commission in 2014, one of the first things he did was to make good on a promise to strengthen the commission’s transparency arrangements — an issue that had dominated the election campaign.

Turning point: the fall of EU commissioner John Dalli ushered in new transparency rules. Wiktor Dabkowski/ZumaPress

The controversy had begun in 2012 with the so-called Dalligate scandal, which revealed the high-level access gained by tobacco lobbyists to commission officials as they worked on sweeping health reforms affecting what were then the EU’s twenty-seven member states. It was a complicated case with many victims — among them, oddly, the very tobacco company that had reported untoward advances on the part of rogue lobbyists, only to find itself blamed for the entire affair. The scandal, which centred on an EU commissioner from Malta, John Dalli, revealed how ill-equipped the bloc was to deal with industry pressure at key moments of the law-making process.

Accepting that business as usual was no longer an option, Juncker moved fast to give the EU’s Joint Transparency Register — which until then had been something of a joke — a much-needed shot in the arm. Under the new rules, Juncker’s commissioners — the members of his executive — would only meet with lobbyists who had signed up to the register. The same rules would apply to the commissioners’ political staffers, as well as the department’s top public servants. In addition, all meetings between lobbyists and these key policy-makers would appear on an online register of meetings, available through the commissioners’ websites.

It was a decisive move — and a controversial one. Juncker had chosen not to make the register compulsory, avoiding legislative changes that were unlikely to have been accepted by the council or by the national governments that controlled it. Instead, he offered the largest lobbying contingent in the free world both a carrot and a stick. The register would remain voluntary, but those who hadn’t entered their details in the database would be frozen out of meetings. It would become compulsory in all but name.

The vociferous transparency advocates in Brussels were quick to mock the changes, arguing that the new regime was a glorified code of conduct that only covered the most senior commission officials. Because the register was not legally enforceable, they argued, the information provided was almost never vetted. Small lobbyists could exaggerate their expenditure to big-note themselves in the eyes of potential clients; genuinely influential operators could downplay the money they were throwing at the operation. Under the US regime, these inaccuracies could have resulted in prosecution and — in theory, at least — jail time. Not here.

The critics had a point. Yet when I started fiddling around with the database I was amazed to discover how much information it contained. Every entry included a description of the lobbyist, the policy areas of interest and an annual lobbying budget (albeit an unreliable one) — gold for a reporter trying to find out what was going on. Once that information was cross-referenced with the list of meetings that started to appear on the commission’s website, and once you added in the EU’s free and user-friendly freedom-of-information access, it was at least possible to gain a glimpse of the world that lay beneath. I filed a few stories on the register’s new lease of life and shoved my notes into a manila folder for a proverbial rainy day.

Track and trace

In the week of Politico’s takeover, I found myself shooting the breeze over coffee with the office intern, Quentin Ariès. He was from Brittany, nerdy enough to know his way around an EU spreadsheet better than anyone I had met and not above swearing in his French region’s Celtic language. He had been working on a database to monitor changes to the EU’s transparency register and had helped me with a story of political backstabbing in the European Socialist Party a few months earlier — although his by-line had been dropped off the article, much to his (and my) irritation.

We agreed that inter-institutional affairs were where the great, unreported EU stories could be found: the tussle for political power among the commission, the council and parliament; the clash over money in the lead-up to the annual budget; the work of OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud agency; the increasingly assertive voice of Emily O’Reilly, the Strasbourg-based European ombudsman. But how could we pitch this kind of reporting to our new bosses, who had repeatedly articulated their contempt for what they simply called the “unreadable European Voice” (it had the same ring as the “failing New York Times”).

I later came to understand that the new office culture was part of our American editors’ unusual worldview. It wasn’t the Euroscepticism of the British, whose resentment was that of an aggrieved house-buyer who discovers the plumbing is shot and the wiring needs to be redone. For my new bosses, it was more euro-bafflement. They just didn’t understand why those European nation-states that had always bumped into each other like Hobbesian dodgem cars would now voluntarily cede sovereignty in the name of a bigger ideal. Italians are Italians, right? Poles are Polish-speaking Poles, goddamn it; Germans are the same Germans we have always known. What were they doing meeting in the same assembly, debating along party lines, pretending it wasn’t all about national interest?

In other words, the role of quality journalism would be to take a sledgehammer to the shaky edifice and watch it all crumble. The Eurocrats, the elected politicians and the appointees of member states would all scurry back to their national capitals and everything would return to normal; the nation-state would resume its rightful role as the sole actor on the world stage.

For us to suggest a beat reporting on the fissures in EU institutions — rather than pitching stories that questioned the existence of the institutions themselves — wouldn’t have got us far. If we wanted to keep our jobs, we would have to put forward a conceptual framework that our editors, most of whom had been recruited from US legacy media, would feel comfortable with. Which is when we returned to our manila folder. A beat covering lobbying, transparency and governance might just be sexy enough to save us from the scrap heap; it was the universal language of power that the Americans would be sure to understand.

Conventional wisdom has it that even the best jobs involve an element of drudgery. Not this one. For a journalist with an interest in investigative work, it was unadulterated fun. We began to cover lobbying that was so deeply embedded in the legislative process that we struggled to make sense of it. We delved into “comitology” — the tweaking of already approved legislation — and the related composition of expert industry groups. We moved onto the appointment of special advisers and the unreported lobbying by both NGOs (which should have known better) and big industry.

One day Quentin and I stumbled across evidence that the tobacco lobby had stacked the membership of an industry standards association. Then we found that a milk producer in Ireland’s north had listed a meeting with a European commissioner on Ireland’s lobbying register, inadvertently revealing that the commissioner had failed to reveal the same meeting on his own website. We wrote about it all, often eliciting sheepish concessions and backdowns.

We would hang around parliament, always confident that the Italian and French parliamentarians we spoke to accounted for 90 per cent of the political mischief. We reported on the political fights for influence, on the strings-attached Chinese money sloshing around think tanks, and on the sad and largely unreported human tragedy of whistleblowers, whose brave and often heart-wrenching contribution to European democracy went unacknowledged. We would find out about raids on EU agencies by the bloc’s anti-fraud office, about the misuse of parliamentary allowances, about Russian oligarchs working furiously to sidestep crippling European sanctions.

More than anything, though, we would mine the transparency register. As the only reporters parsing the database full-time, we were the ones who could explain how lobbyists were circumventing the EU’s transparency measures, stacking consultative bodies, twisting the arms of obscure industry organisations and purchasing the deep institutional knowledge they needed. We wrote about a system of revolving doors that left EU bureaucrats free to take leave to work for the very interests they were paid to regulate.

It was a small but important patch of reporting real estate and, for over a year, we owned it. We would go weeks without paying attention to the news cycle: our stories came not from press releases or conferences, but from conversations we had around town with policy nerds unused to journalists paying them much attention. We took pride in the fact that many of our sources had never been contacted by a journalist before and were unlikely to be contacted by one again.

And our bosses, to their credit, supported us even as the pressure started to mount. American journalists can strike foreigners as utterly humourless — but often it’s just that they’re serious about their jobs. And they like nothing more than fighting the good fight — something that puts to shame European reporters’ clubby relationship with national government officials.

Politico provided a solid ethical framework that served us well when we started to focus more on the tobacco industry. We looked into the Big Four’s attempts to push a “track and trace” packaging technology; we examined the role the European Committee for Standardisation — an obscure industry standards body — had played in the dispute; we spoke to sources about how the commission’s controversial agreements with the world’s leading tobacco companies had started to unravel.

Confidence and commitment

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, of course. You can set a spellcheck to American English easily enough, but the language divisions of the anglophone world can’t be wished away with software. American dates wreaked havoc among staff and readers alike, while the US use of the adjective “liberal” in a European context, where liberalism denotes progressive centre-right values, ultimately proved too confusing to sustain.

Adapting to the obvious stuff was a piece of cake: “to protest” is always transitive; stuff happens Monday, not on Monday; aluminum replaces aluminium. But for every Britishism that the editors spotted, there were many that got through simply because the Americans misunderstood how the words were being used. In US English, a firm is a partnership — anything else is a company; a scheme describes something sinister — anything else is a program; you only “reform” something that’s bad to begin with.

Then there was the hurdle of American work culture. In a British or Australian workplace, a self-deprecating sense of humour is usually read as a sign of confidence; in our office, the only sign of confidence was confidence itself. The Americans would see long working hours as evidence of commitment to the job; someone in tears at her desk at 11pm as she struggled to finish a newsletter was welcomed as proof of a journalist’s professional zeal and devotion to the cause. Frantic email exchanges late into Sunday night to add the final touches to a story filed the previous Tuesday was seen as the attention to detail required to make it in this business. Colleagues undermining each other in their race to a story was the hallmark of healthy competition in the newsroom.

It was all bullshit, of course. As a former colleague at the ABC once put it, disorganised editors have no human rights. Even if we were living in a world where specialised journalists grow on trees, there’s only one way to run a media organisation: the right way. The workflow requires management; editors need to engender a positive and supportive office culture and make sure that all journalists are keeping their heads above water. When a reporter burns out and leaves, she takes valuable expertise with her. And finding a qualified replacement isn’t just a pain — in Brussels, it can be close to impossible.

Not that any of this resonated with me at the time. I told everyone that I was grande e vaccinato — grown-up and vaccinated. Our desks were full of files and we would take over the conference room’s whiteboard to strategise, confident that we could take on the world. Our editors stepped back and let us do our thing, happily paying our bills every time we met lobbyists for lunch or a coffee. In return, we provided content for a subscription-only weekly newsletter on lobbying, which hit the in-boxes of industry associations, NGOs, public affairs organisations and law firms somewhere around midday on Mondays.

The job was fine. The problem was the sorry state of my bank account.

Skills shortage

Politico had been under the misapprehension that the supply of the specialised labour it needed to drive its business model would be limitless. With a kitty full of cash and an in-tray bulging with the CVs of junior Brussels lobbyists looking for a career change, the new managers were convinced that hiring would be a walk in the park. Reporting positions would easily be filled by eager applicants; those prominent by-lines who didn’t come forward of their own volition for key positions would be headhunted.

When I later found myself, with a new employer, having to fill specialised reporting positions, it dawned on me that there was no glut — that of the hundred applicants for a job as an antitrust reporter, you’d be lucky if you could shortlist two. Those who had spent years chopping wood in the EU, who knew the ins and outs of the legislative process and could sift through the worthless padding of a commission press release, were extremely rare. And those who were out there were happily ensconced in a career path with credible mastheads and they had no interest in jumping ship. As for bringing someone in from outside the EU — forget it. It would take journalists years to get up to speed, and without a couple of European languages they would never be able to pull their weight.

What I can now see with great clarity is that the shallowness of the employment pool places top-shelf, technical journalists in a position of power. This is human capital that simply can’t be replaced by software or an algorithm; deploying a posse of even twenty junior reporters and office interns won’t give you the output of a single, expert EU journalist.

Yet, even after a year at Politico I was still accepting the logic that told me I was replaceable. And it wasn’t just an issue of self-esteem — I realise now that my thinking had been skewed by fifteen years of public broadcasting, where there was no real connection between the worth of the journalist and the value of the content produced. My job at the ABC was to shovel free, generalist news at a mass audience, daring it to watch, listen, read, stream and podcast at any time of the day. Because no one would ever have to pay for the content, I had no idea what it might be worth. By implication, I had no idea what my ability to produce that content might be worth to an employer in an open market.

As a producer of generalist news at the ABC I had been eminently replaceable — in fact, the young producer who took my job at Radio National when I left did just fine and cost the broadcaster substantially less than I had. But in Brussels I had taken a different tack: I had chosen to specialise and, as luck would have it, I had wound up working for a media organisation where highly specialised news was driving the entire operation. This was the one time in my career when I should have been striding into the editor’s office, demanding a pay rise.

Yet a year into my time with Politico I was still earning less than I had four years earlier at the ABC — an organisation not known to splurge on its off-camera staff. My low-key requests for money didn’t appear to be resonating with the editors — and it wasn’t just me. None of the journalists working down in the engine room, the verticals, was getting paid very much. I searched for a business logic to this discrepancy, but found none. It was human error linked to the fact that old habits die hard.

It transpired that the paywalled part of the operation — referred to as “Pro” — simply wasn’t firing our managers’ imagination as much as the big political stories that we were giving away free to readers. We were pursuing not the policy gold but the broadsheet deep read: the colour pieces on the worsening situation in the Balkans, the in-depth analysis of Portuguese politics, the “Wither Europe?” features that all of the world’s big mastheads were churning out daily.

Under the strict logic of Politico’s own business model, this journalism was worthless, because no one would pay a red cent for it. Yet the writers producing it were at the top of the pecking order and our bosses were on the lookout for more, hoping to lure big names from prestigious international papers. All the while, those working away in the verticals were paying for it all.

What we had all been slow to understand was that the gateway drug was, in fact, the main fix. Those assigned to manage this new model of journalism had been recruited from legacy media and grafted onto the new paradigm; their competitive instincts were directed at the embers of the mastheads they had left, not at the publications that may have competed with the verticals in the future.

It’s not that you can blame Americans for seeing print media as the main game: the Nixon administration wasn’t brought down by Gawker. But it soon became apparent that I had backed the wrong horse. I had made a clear-eyed choice to specialise, believing that this would get me into a different league. I was wrong. The money was ending up in the shopfront.

It wasn’t the pay itself that worried me — as my dapper Italian father loves to say, we Anglo-Saxons can’t enjoy what money we have (“You die rich, but you live poor”). If anything, my professional crisis was part of a broader reflection on the worth of specialised journalism as the media industry finds itself stuck at a crossroads.

The Laminex model

My first contact with a universe of pure, uncontaminated, specialist journalism hadn’t been auspicious. I met the Australian founder of MLex, the company where I now work, at an Indian restaurant a few blocks away from the commission, and he had been under the misapprehension that I’d be able to keep up with a conversation about Aussie Rules. When it became clear that I was too out of touch to be of use, we were forced to make polite conversation about journalism.

Here was a reporter who had turned a start-up media company into a global success on the assumption that news about regulatory risk could be monetised. Anyone with money at stake would be prepared to subscribe to get information on EU regulation of cartels, or chatter about whether the commission would give an important merger the nod. It was as technical as all get-out, but the model had found a sweet spot: a niche market that could bring in subscriptions.

In this firmament, all content is valuable and every word written needs to be sold. The notion that you would give journalism away in the hope of enticing clients is treated with derision.

You’re either working on the delivery of news that someone’s prepared to pay for, or you’re professionally worthless. If you manage to provide content that can give your clients a winning edge over their competitors, marketing takes care of itself — word will get out that you’ve got the goods. You don’t drill into your paywall recreationally; you don’t chuck money out of the window in the hope that it will blow back in through the front door.

The accepted corollary of such a hard-nosed approach to monetising news is that the reporter’s ability to deliver content lies at the heart of all discussion. In this world, the relationship between a reporter’s expertise and her value to the company is measured, discussed and reviewed; resources are cautiously allocated in accordance with that agreed value. This unapologetic acceptance that you can put a dollar figure on a journalist’s worth is predicated on the assumption that the writers you employ can deliver sharp, well-informed policy news that’s a few steps ahead. Which isn’t impossible, once you’re on a roll.

I began to see in this pure model of specialised news not just my future, but journalism’s future as well. It was a heady and slightly terrifying moment. Until then, I had seen my very first gig in journalism after university — writing for an industry publication covering laminated kitchen and industrial benchtops — as a stepping stone towards my destiny in generalist news. Now it turns out I should have stuck with the Laminex and the Formica: the specialist news offered the stronger business model.

My farewell drinks at Politico were an upbeat affair. My immediate editors were there to wave me off and we ate pretzels, sipped bubbly and had a laugh as we looked back at the adventure we had been on together. My farewell speech singled out the handful of European Voice survivors — it felt like a lifetime since we had been swept up by this whirlwind. After a final hug and a Belgian kiss (strictly one cheek), I dashed to the metro and reached my girls’ school in the nick of time. They were thrilled to see me, and I promised them a relaxing weekend. It had been a long day for everyone. ●

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.