The Jolly Teapot

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5 Jan. 2022

Can Ben Smith’s new media venture be the one I’ve been looking for?

David Gelles on the New York Times, announcing that former BuzzFeed editor-in-chief and NYT columnist Ben Smith is leaving the Times to launch a new media startup:

Ben Smith said in an interview that they planned to build a global newsroom that broke news and experimented with new formats of storytelling. He did not provide details on what beats or regions would be covered, how much money they planned to raise or when the new organization would start. There are 200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience.”

It’s always exciting to see a new publication project like this, and even more so one that is targeted right at me, part of the global audience mentioned here. This is where I disagree with Gruber when he writes:

Not sure what Smith is angling for with his idea that targeting college-educated readers is somehow novel, though. That’s exactly the demographic who reads the Times.

Gruber seems to miss the global part of the audience mentioned, and I think the word global” is the most important from Smith’s interview. As one of the 200 million people mentioned, I’ve been frustrated for years with the Times, and even more so with publications like the Washington Post, Axios, the Wall Street Journal or BuzzFeed News: they appear to be global publications, but they really are American publications, with a decent global coverage angle on the side, even on the international homepages.

I read the Guardian on a daily basis now, and if it is mainly focused on the English-speaking countries and especially the UK obviously, at least it covers Europe news well, and I find the France coverage to be much better on the Guardian than on the New York Times for instance.

That’s why I am paying close attention to where the two-Smith venture — Ben Smith partners with Justin Smith, former Bloomberg media CEO — can go from there, because like I said, it is targeting me, and, despite being an American project, the fact that they insist on the 200 million potential readers globally means it could be a media that I could end up paying for: the one I’ve been trying to find for a few years now, or not, to go with the excellent Courrier International, in French.

Speaking of international news coverage, this bit from Wolfgang Blau’s Medium post back in 2020, Europe still leaves it to UK and US media to tell its story globally:

Why start in English? Isn’t the very idea of the European Union to be multi-lingual? Yes, it is. Publishing in English or in local languages is not a binary choice or mutually exclusive. What is more elitist, to also publish in English or to stick to the view of Umberto Eco by which the language of Europe is translation’? Who would be the target audiences for such publications, and why? Who reads non-domestic journalism anyway? What about the work done already by various important news organisations, such as Politico Europe, El Pais English, The Local, Spiegel Online, Euronews, Deutsche Welle, France24?

Hopefully it will be ready soon, because, like Blau also said in his post:

Isn’t this just a question of waiting for machine translation to become good enough?

I believe the translation itself is already more than good enough to be honest, but I think the issue lies within the automation part of the translation.

For example, if I want to share an article from a French news website on Twitter, where I’ve been tweeting in English for more than 10 years, what should I do? Tell the readers to translate themselves? Share an already translated article? Maybe I’m missing something but I think it’s quite complicated, and the extra step required ruins the magic of the translation tech itself.

I believe the day when we don’t have to think about it, and when it is more elegant and more universal than Google’s Translate toolbar or Twitter Translate feature for tweets for instance, is the day when the whole media world will change, along with a good amount of written-in-English content.

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