I should be proud of you, but I’m not
For 10-years-minus-one-day I published, compiled, wrote for, commissioned, and produced a magazine called Imperica. The reason why I’m telling you this now is because although it closed in 2020, I have put issues 1–6 back online, which you can read now.
You read this from everyone who comes out of a failing project, but I put my heart and soul into it and felt very upset for some time after it had closed — a time of heightened emotions for everyone, as it was in the hot, locked-down summer of 2020.
Since then, I have been working on projects elsewhere as well as with the wonderful IBM. However, I still reminisce about Imperica because it made me feel a little more complete. I was deep into art and artists, which I hadn’t been since getting out of film school; I made tons of friends and contacts (many of these relationships I then proceeded to burn, but that’s for another time); and had a sense of achievement every time the Publish button was clicked. The emotion in that is highly powerful but also rather toxic; that the sense of doing what one feels to be great work often transcends the sense of actually making money to survive, which is why founders are often emotionally burnt out for some time, irrespective of how long their startup lasted for.
Although Imperica — over time — covered practically every contemporary topic, what I also wanted to do was to run a publication that both expanded and championed European (by which I mean Europe-wide) creative and social affairs. Our exposure to content is increasingly skewed toward the US, as the big streaming companies knock over local/national TV companies and the big publishers knock over equivalent websites and publications.
For clarity, I am not knocking the US at all, but am in fact heavily criticising European companies and jurisdictions for moving too slowly. The only way that Europe can be on the same field as Netflix et al is for its broadcasters to furhter co-operate and perhaps to merge. There is a group of mid-sized media companies (RTL, ITV, CME, Telia et al) that just need to get together for scale. In public media, the same goes for the EBU which is an awesome organisation that needs to become the de facto pan-European broadcaster: a co-ordinator, commissioner, and creator of content that can be made available across the continent.
The other end of the supranational is the local and hyperlocal. The other issue here in terms of content and culture provenance is that, in the UK at least, local media has been destroyed. Regional TV and radio, a massively important cultural totem until the late-90s, has been allowed — by law — to be wiped out. Local press is sounding the death rattle. The problem is that we thought about this the wrong way. We allowed local media companies to merge and die due to the global reach of the Internet, rather than think of this global reach as a way to reinforce and even strengthen local media and culture.
The bottom line is that the European media sector in general is really screwed. European broadcasters and governments are still working out why you can’t and shouldn’t access Content X in Country Y. Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and Paramount don’t care — because the Internet doesn’t care.
The market in content is similar to the one in cloud hosting. The hyperscalers have been defined; it’s now up to everyone else to figure out what their proposition is to be, in the context of generic, volume demand being met by 4 or 5 global players. Somewhat inevitably, Amazon is a big player in both cloud and media.
There is hope. Whatever one might think of Bild, Axel Springer is becoming a truly global media and publishing powerhouse because it’s playing the US at its own game — buying US media properties such as Politico and Insider, and creating European properties off the back of them. I really hope that Springer continues to build on this strategy as it’s making them deservedly successful.
Springer is playing a much better game than other newspaper groups because it has wisely partitioned up its brands across territories and languages. The problem with the Guardian and Le Monde trying to go global is that they swimming straight into a tsunami. The NYT and WaPo have much bigger budgets and reach for global news, particularly in the Anglosphere. They need to realise their ambitions in a much narrower space (for example, being the primary English-language source of French news with Le Monde) than trying to do and be everything at the same time. Remember, if BuzzFeed News couldn’t do it, then there’s even less of a chance for companies with much heavier legacy assets in their cost base.
The European media context in 2023 is very, very different to when I started Imperica in 2010. If I was creating Imperica again, I would only do it in Europe (including the UK) with sufficient funding to make it a scalable, multilingual operation from day 1. This is not impossible, but it needs belief of a lot of people in that value chain to keep believing for some time — and I mean several years. Media investments can take years to come to fruition and the precarious situation regarding European media is as much to do with investors and banks having the patience to stick with an idea. Springer has enjoyed economic and strategic growth in part because it is now half-owned by venture capital. European media needs an active, energetic and experimental European finance sector to support it.
Overall, European media is at an important, perhaps critical, juncture. It is being outplayed in every way by competitors in the US, with consumers missing out on the plurality and diversity that media-literate societies require. The newspapers and broadcasters that were once woven into our social fabric won’t necessarily die but they will become marginalised at a time when radical opportunity genuinely presents itself.
That time is now.