“A good journalist knows how to tell stories happening at a given time. But this story is evolving in a way none of us can predict,” said Serge Michel, reporter-at-large for the French newspaper Le Monde and editor of Le Monde Afrique, the paper’s edition covering Francophone Africa. “So if you follow a family and they integrate well into the city, it’s one story. If there are problems, it’s another story. We don’t know what will happen.”Le Monde is one of the four news organizations in The New Arrivals project, coordinated by the European Journalism Center and funded by the Gates Foundation, along with Spiegel Online in Germany, The Guardian in Britain, and El País in Spain. Each outlet has committed to following specific families (or, in the case of El País, members of a soccer team) for the duration of the project, while also examining the community-level response and efficacy of government policies and processes for asylum seekers.
The outlets represent four countries that are each their own case study for the next chapter of the migration story in Europe. In France, National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is gaining steam on an anti-immigration, anti-European Union platform. Angela Merkel is facing pressure in Germany — from all sides — in an election year as the country grapples with a swell of around a million refugees. Running through the core of Britain’s exit from the European Union were fears around immigration. And Spain, which hasn’t seen the same surge in asylum seekers as other countries in Europe, has long had refugees arriving from countries in West Africa.There’s plenty of precedent for this cross-European collaboration, and inspiration to be drawn from the largest-scale reporting collaboration — the Panama Papers leaks shepherded by ICIJ. El País, the Guardian, and Le Monde are already part of a European newspaper alliance called Europa (with Italy’s La Stampa, Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, and Germeany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung), which has since 2011 shared reporting on Europe-wide issues, including the refugee crisis. El País is also part of the Leading European Newspaper Alliance with six other European outlets, which ran a two-month experiment to share coverage of the U.S. election last fall across all its member papers.
El País, The Guardian, and Le Monde also already run sections of their sites funded by the Gates Foundation; Gates was interested in funding a collaboration that would test a more medium- to long-term approach to covering the migration crisis than was already being offered through many news organizations.
Talks with these publishers (chosen by the Gates Foundation) began late spring last year. Editors spent a full day last July in the El País newsroom brainstorming, finally settling on the idea that each organization would choose a single family to accompany and cover for a year and a half. (For a while, the project was called “Four Families.” But that proved too narrow a focus, so the group took up The Guardian’s suggestion, “New Arrivals.”) The European Journalism Center came on board soon after to coordinate workflows and content sharing, including moderating a closed Facebook group for the participants to communicate on and managing shared assets like data, photographs, video, and other behind-the-scenes information, according to EJC director Adam Thomas. The group held several other editorial meetings in their home cities before officially launching the project this month.
“I know it can be hard enough to coordinate one’s own internal work, and it adds another layer of complexity when you have other media organizations with other deadlines and readerships and their own internal rhythms to fine-tune as well,” said Mark Rice-Oxley, special projects editor at The Guardian, who has coordinated its previous multi-newspaper collaborations. “But I also have seen that you end up with something much more powerful, particularly in this very competitive and content-rich world we live in.”
“A lot of numbers have been thrown around about refugees, but [the Gates Foundation] wanted us to report on specific cases, families, groups, so we could cover what these people are going through, what they fear, and why they ran away. They also didn’t want to focus on a single route — for instance, just those running away from Syria and going into France,” David Alandete, managing editor of El País, told me. “With this selection of papers in [The New Arrivals] project, it’s four different countries, four countries with such different ways of dealing with migrants, and four very different scenarios.”
Spain, for instance, Alandete said, doesn’t have the same influx of Syrian migrants as Germany, “so we don’t have the same Syrian story to tell, but at the same time, we are used to dealing with refugees and migrants, because Spain has a border with Morocco in a couple of cities.”
Among the people whose progress El País is following are team members of the Alma de África (Soul of Africa) soccer team, some of whom arrived in Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain by sea or by crossing the fence from Morocco into Melilla, a Spanish enclave.
“For all of us, it was something we all wanted to do more of, which wa, trying to address the fact that nobody really bothered to follow those migrant families after their arrival,” Michel said. “Le Monde is in quite a different position from the others, just because the migrant family we’re following hasn’t been able to get to France from Israel yet, and the situation for them in Israel is tenuous.” (Esther Gabriel, one of the family members Le Monde is covering, is a standout heptathlete. A small French village is waiting to receive the family, who settled in Israel from Sudan in 2010 but now faces expulsion from the country.)
Each outlet will be publishing at least one story a week as part of the initiative — likely more — and produce several longer form pieces throughout the 500-day period, with a heavy focus on visual content and an eye on drumming up social engagement. The outlets will also be able to make use of the EJC’s Impact Monitor tool. Funding is being used to hire freelancers, particularly good video journalists (Le Monde, for instance, needs reporting help in Israel).
“Partners will be collaborating around stories that are interested in trends and stories on a continental level and — where appropriate — will be sharing and translating each other’s work to help it reach new audiences (and bring in-country perspectives across national borders and language barriers),” Thomas added in an email.
Everyone — from the foundation side to EJC to the publishers — was quick to emphasize that beyond the mandate to cover migration, publishers have total editorial control.
“We have lots of discussions about how much we do, with any of these foundation projects, and we’re careful to make sure…that it doesn’t capsize the organization where suddenly this is a significant percent of our total editorial output,” Rice-Oxley said. “We’re still a mainstream news organization that has interests across lots of fields, including refugees, and part of our broader refugee coverage will be taken from what we’ve done in [the New Arrivals project].”
Will these papers be able to find sympathetic readers outside their usual audience? Rice-Oxley suggested the new audiences will be found on social. “The thread on Facebook for our video of Said Ghullam Norzai and his son Wali Khan Norzai was remarkable,” he said. “Often those places can get quite ugly. It was clear we had new readers there, some of whom weren’t necessarily aware they were reading a Guardian story, and I saw a lot of people there saying ‘I had no idea, this is amazing, we need to be more compassionate.'” (The Guardian now has a “How you can help” page up in response to a wave of interest in the project.)
“We’re all worried about how the media is being perceived in Europe — the other day I saw Breitbart publish a story on this collaboration, about how the ‘globalist papers’ are teaming up to present a sympathetic view of refugees,” Alandete said. “Our project shows we do all share common issues, that maybe say, the Brits, who are not used to getting this type of migration, can learn something from Spain.”