Kuciak was shot in February as he investigated links between the Italian mafia and political corruption in Slovakia for digital news outlet Aktuality.sk and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. His death revealed the lengths to which criminals, corrupt officials, shady businesspeople, and others would go to quash a story in the Central European country.
European politics and culture have created a different financial and editorial mix for journalism startups than those on the other side of the Atlantic
Slovak journalists were more frequently threatened than Denník N (“Daily Independent”) co-founder and editor Matúš Kostolný had imagined when he and his colleagues launched their news website in January 2015. At the time, they were worried mostly about their integrity as journalists. A few months earlier, Penta Investments, a company implicated in privatization scandals in Slovakia, became a major investor in their then-employer, Denník SME (“Daily We Are”), the third-largest newspaper in the country.
SME had reported on the worrisome connections between Penta executives and Slovak politicians. Staffers like Kostolný were concerned their new bosses might meddle in the newsroom. “We were working together in the most serious newspaper in Slovakia,” he says. “When the paper changed, and the oligarch entered the publishing house, I found a reason to leave. I didn’t want to work for these people.”
Denník N and other European journalism startups illustrate the unique pressures driving media innovation on the continent today, especially in smaller countries that lack a traditionally independent press, widely read languages, or affluent audiences like those in Britain, France, and Germany.
In formerly communist countries like Slovakia and Poland, for example, the chaos that arose after the fall of the Berlin Wall helped corrupt politicians and organized crime collude to dominate local media. In Southern Europe, tough economic times and the refugee crisis led journalists to launch new projects. Entrepreneurs in Scandinavian countries face similar issues despite their region’s wealth; financial pressures and other challenges—like the rise of fake news—make it imperative to try something new.
European politics and culture have created a different financial and editorial mix for journalism startups than those on the other side of the Atlantic. American startups tend to fall into two categories: either tech-centered—think news-aggregating apps—or focused on niche beats, like investigative reporting, that have suffered as rapid technological change, fragmented audiences, and corporate cutbacks have devastated newsrooms. The former often enjoy funding from venture capitalists whose primary goal is winning a return on their investments; the latter have access to well-endowed foundations seeking to compensate for market shortcomings.
European startups in countries with relatively small populations are less attractive to American-style venture capital, and Europe doesn’t have as robust a culture of philanthropy as the U.S. does. After the 2008 financial crisis, for example, German, Swiss, and many other investors who had bet big on Central and Eastern European news outlets in the 1990s and 2000s decided to protect their core holdings, selling their shares—opening the door for rich locals with the cash and desire to influence public policy, according to Grzegorz Piechota, a former news editor at Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza (“Electoral Newspaper”) who is now a researcher at Harvard Business School.
“Basically, you’ve got oligarchs buying out media all over the place,” says Piechota. European foundations and other donors, meanwhile, might provide important seed money for startups, but not the millions that American philanthropists have given over the years to sustain efforts like ProPublica.
Smart European startups are capitalizing on the strengths of their smaller markets and the inexpensive cost of reaching audiences online. They secure money from public-minded investors who want to support a free press that serves as a watchdog on government, develop crowdfunding and a subscriber base of readers who have watched quality news in their native languages disappear, and offer ancillary services, like website design and media consulting, to earn extra money. In countries like Slovakia and Spain, ambitious startups have become major players in the media. Others cultivate specialties, producing news for schoolchildren, hiring refugee writers, and focusing on foreign news.
European journalist-entrepreneurs, like those around the world, aren’t sure if they’ll succeed. Nor do they feel they have the option of not trying. “We’re living in a country where it’s a possible to kill a journalist,” says Kostolný. “But we cannot be afraid or lose the freedom to write what is important to write.”