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Nov. 30, 2017, 9:43 a.m.
Reporting & Production

At this EU-supported online outlet for young Europeans, its readers are also its writers and translators

Cafébabel’s articles — all of which are available in multiple languages — inhabit a Europe where Italians might care about a climate policy issue in Portugal or Spaniards might be interested in an up-and-coming artist from Switzerland.

Twenty-four official languages are spoken in the European Union. Cafébabel dreams of a being a place that unites many of them.

Its articles — most of which are available to read in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Polish, plus sometimes even more languages where relevant — inhabit a Europe where young Italians might care about a climate policy issue in Portugal, young Spaniards might be interested in an up-and-coming artist from Switzerland, and all young Europeans might care about the future protections of whistleblowers on a continental level. (Not Nigel Farage’s Europe, in other words.)

Self-styled as an online “participatory” magazine, Cafébabel publishes stories about the intersection of life and culture and politics in six languages, powered mostly by communities of volunteer, unpaid writers, translators, photographers, and videographers across cities in Europe, and edited by a small central staff fluent in multiple languages in its Paris headquarters. (Though it recently put its sixth official language edition, Polish, on hiatus after having some trouble building a big enough community.)

“Most of the time we have the text of stories we publish in all languages. We’re shaping a new editorial agenda for young Europeans, so what we publish should be interesting to all Europeans,” Katharina Kloss, Cafébabel’s editorial director, told me. “What we try not to do is only politics, or institutions. National politics doesn’t cross borders easily. We’re looking for stories that are cross-border or cross-cultural. We’re trying to grasp the attention of our readership through culture, lifestyle, and society stories — and young people in Europe do share common cultures.”

Anyone who wants to write for Cafébabel can join the network to pitch stories, or respond to an assignment call. Those who are willing to translate can log into the site’s Medium-like platform to choose published articles that still haven’t been translated into Cafébabel’s language editions. In total, the site has seen about 1,500 contributors over the course of its 16 years in operation; its full-time staff fluctuates between seven and 12.

The nonprofit organization is officially based in France, but under the larger Cafébabel umbrella are several volunteer-assembled groups that publish city-level verticals — some of which are legally registered as entities that can, for instance, fundraise separately in their host countries. Some of the city-based volunteer networks are stable; sometimes local teams will disappear as volunteers graduate from university or move or become too busy, but re-emerge as new volunteers develop an interest.

Anyone registered with Cafébabel can publish a story into its “Community” section (labeled as “unvetted” if Cafébabel’s editors haven’t edited them), but those pieces are published only to the author’s personal profiles. For any hope of being read, writers need to need to submit pieces to topic-level groups on the site created by other users. Edited stories published in the main Cafébabel “Magazine” begin as pitches to editors in the publication’s central office. Other stories in the magazine are specific assignment requests (e.g., interview this activist, attend that festival and interview attendees) made by editors that are then claimed by participants.

Once stories are published, they surface as candidates for volunteer translators to tackle; editors in the central office then vet the translation work as well. Kloss is careful to describe the process of pitching and editing as “co-constructing” a story, and the process of translation as “translation and adaptation.” The site has decreased publishing volume for edited stories, to focus more on multimedia and longform stories, putting out around five to seven stories across all editions per week (including translations of stories, that’s around 30 pieces).

Cafébabel editors are responsible for both the initial rounds of edits to contributors’ stories and editing submitted translations in the languages they’re fluent in.

“Editors co-construct a story with the writer. If the story is a portrait of a person, for instance, and the writer is not a trained journalist, we explain what goes into a portrait, that they need to spend some time with the person they’re profiling,” Kloss said. “Then there is a second process: translation editing. A French writer has a very different style from an English or German writer. We have to explain references — if a writer refers to a Spanish TV journalist, the German public wouldn’t understand it. From one public sphere to the other, there’s a lot of other work we have to do. We don’t do literal translation; we do journalistic translation.”

Kloss pointed to a recent story about Lisbon as a city well-suited to “digital nomads” who city-hop while always working remotely. A young German who can work remotely and therefore live anywhere might identify with the lifestyle portrayed in the story, even though the story focuses on Lisbon’s digital nomads (you can read the story in five languages, though notably not in Portuguese). Another series, which originated from the publication’s central Paris offices, spotlighted unusual belief systems emerging in Europe as younger Europeans turn away from the traditional church.

“We try to cover what we call ‘glocal’ subjects. The idea is to highlight local initiatives, local actions, local actors that have a global or European impact and resonance,” Anthony Papadimitriu, Cafébabel’s communication and partnerships officer, said. “We are a media organization, but also an NGO, and it’s also important for us to help promote civic activities.”

Cafébabel’s audience is primarily made up of European millennials who have benefited from and believe in the benefits of a united Europe. It has a modest readership of about 250,000 unique visitors per month across all its language editions, mostly from larger cities in Europe. The top countries its visitors come from are France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the U.K., Poland, the U.S., Mexico, Belgium, and Switzerland. (The English edition of the site is the biggest draw, followed by the French edition.)

“We have no political color, but the people who come to us believe in certain values around the European Union,” Kloss said, a German citizen who’s lived in Paris for the past 12 years without having to obtain French citizenship. “I think our magazine speaks to this generation that has enjoyed these freedoms for a long, long time, and to those who are fighting to be able to enjoy it. There have been many European-level magazines popping up, such as Politico Europe, but they specialize in institutional European affairs. Our magazine focuses on on-the-ground coverage that tries to get at a generational tone of Europe.”

This has always been the vision: The publication was first launched in 2001 by students in the Erasmus exchange program. (One of those founders, Adriano Farano, might be familiar to Nieman Lab readers as the founder of video startup Watchup, recently acquired by Plex.). The majority of its funding comes from a European Commission grant, which has to be renewed every four years. Additional funding comes from one-off grants for specific projects: Cafébabel will, for instance, commission more ambitious, graphics-heavy series for which it uses paid freelancer photographers and videographers.

In the past couple of years, the organization has started to test other revenue streams, ranging from sponsored content to partnerships on live events and figuring out how to build out its content agency. (Being a nonprofit registered in France means it can’t take in more than 20 percent of its annual budget from commercial activities.) It’s in the middle of relaunching the website, which will debut early next year. It’s also working on reviving its shelved Polish section, and considering relocating editors back to their home countries.

When I expressed some disbelief that hundreds of writers seemed willing to put in so much work on stories for no pay, Kloss and Papadimitriu pointed out the educational touch to Cafébabel’s processes, as many of its contributors are students who receive close editing and something akin to journalism training when they pitch and write for the magazine. Some university classes have also created profiles on the site and use the platform to practice translations, allowing students to see their classroom work live on in published form.

“There’s political context to remember here: We’re in the middle of constructing something together that motivates people. Europe itself is still quite fresh, the Union itself is only just 60 years old, and we’re in the middle of that historical building process,” Kloss said. “And then le carotte, as we say here in France, is that people enjoy seeing their work translated and read in other languages, and that they become part of a network of people they can meet in real life. They can make good contacts, have real exchanges offline.”

“The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563.

POSTED     Nov. 30, 2017, 9:43 a.m.
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