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Brexit or no Brexit, The New European will remain in print – but not as we know it

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

On the eve of 29 March, the day that could have signaled the end of its natural life, The New European newspaper is eyeing a lasting future as an upmarket transcontinental magazine.

Originally launched by Norwich-based publisher Archant as a four-week pop-up experiment in response to the 2016 referendum, the paper can become a “quality political periodical” covering Europe, it just needs to “grow up a little bit”, the editor Matt Kelly tells The Drum.

In a signal of its editorial ambition, The New European today devotes its entire 48-page weekly edition to a 25,000-word essay on Brexit by Will Self, with cartoons from Martin Rowson. Titled ‘A Plague on Both Your Houses’, it chronicles the extraordinary events of the past month in Westminster.

The decision to commission the work was inspired by Life magazine’s devotion of a 1952 issue to publication of the Ernest Hemingway novella The Old Man and the Sea. Life sold 5.3m copies in two days. “I have always wanted to do something like this because I’m a big Hemingway fan,” says Kelly of his editorial decision at such a critical moment in his paper’s short history.

“People would expect us to do a lot of ranty polemics on ‘we told you so’ and how much trouble we are in (with Brexit). But I thought it would be a good opportunity for The New European to be more reflective and do something that would have more lasting consequence.”

Although The New European is a partisan title, unashamedly aimed at those who wish the UK to remain in the European Union, Self’s exposition spares neither side of the Brexit divide. “It is an absolutely crucifying lambast against both Remainers and Leavers, a huge critique of the state of the nation, not just politically but socially as well,” says Kelly. “He has been writing it 1,000 words a day, and it’s quite breathtaking. It’s the kind of thing people will keep.”

While the newspaper won’t sell in millions, even a typical New European circulation of between 21,000-25,000 (depending on the cover design and the weather), represents an attractive proposition for the author, Kelly argues. “If that was a book that would be a very good sale. I’m not surprised Will was entranced by the idea.”

The New European never expected to last until 29 March, let alone to have a life beyond Brexit (if it happens). But the paper has become an established symbol of the pro-Remain camp and its branded foam hands with the message “Bollocks to Brexit” were prominent among marchers at the ‘Put It to the People’ rally in London last weekend. “If you are angry about Brexit, apart from rowing with your mate at the bus stop there’s very little you can do to demonstrate that; you can go on a march and wave a placard, you can wear a badge and you can carry The New European,” Kelly says.

Going upmarket

Outlining the title’s future plans, he wants like the paper to change-up its format and embrace higher productions values. “Where I would like to get to would be closer to a European version of (US heavyweight periodical) The Atlantic magazine; longer lasting journalism and higher quality writing.”

The Brexit saga has highlighted a paucity of coverage of European politics and culture in UK news media, he believes. “Europe is full of fascinating stories – people think of Brussels or Luxembourg, but Italian politics is in the most extraordinary state, German politics is in transition… Macron in France, the compelling stories of politics in Europe are endless and the UK media pays lip service to it.”

He is “absolutely certain” that “people will be happy paying a premium” for high-quality coverage of these issues both in the UK and across Europe. The New European sells for £2.50. “It’s only 48 pages but because there is no advertising in it and we like long-form journalism it is a long, long read. I think it’s fantastic value for £2.50, but change the format and you could charge £4.50.”

There might come a time, beyond this critical period in the Brexit story, when The New European morphs from being a newspaper. “I think newsprint is a more urgent format and Brexit is a more urgent issue right now, but when things become a little less hectic I think we could easily justify a significant price increase if we started looking a bit more like the qualities of The Spectator, for instance.”

During its three-year history, The New European has emerged as a platform for the UK’s political centre. Tony Blair is a contributor and his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell is the paper’s ‘editor-at-large’. The polarisation of UK politics and the emergence of The Independent Group of MPs in Westminster helps to define a position on the newsstand for The New European, Kelly believes. “In the middle is a new space and maybe The New European can be The New Statesman or Spectator of that new space.”

The Self essay is not the first time the paper has been given over to a single theme. It turned itself into ‘The New Feminist’ for a single issue last May, edited by activist Caroline Criado-Perez and featuring an all-female cast. “The entire paper was edited by women, written by women, photographed by women, cartooned by women, everything,” says Kelly. “I don’t know why we don’t do it every month because it sold really well.”

'We have pretty much given up on advertising in print...'

Commercially the paper relies heavily on an 8,000 subscriber base that has grown to match Brexit’s crescendo over the past six weeks. But lack of scale, and perhaps uneasiness over its defined editorial position, has made it unattractive to media agencies. “We have pretty much given up on advertising in print,” Kelly admits. It is generating revenue online, where it has built a following of 2 million monthly visitors. “Our audience is well defined we can get a good rate for that.”

Although its website carries the tagline “Brexit news for the 48%”, The New European aims to be more than a one trick pony. Its most recent edition features pieces on the violent history of South Sudan, the death preparations of a Vietnamese monk, the life of American surrealist Dorothea Tanning, and the 1945 tour of Britain by the Dynamo Moscow football team.

“I am really excited about seeing whether The New European has got another existence,” says Kelly. “It started life as a polemical vehicle about one issue and has broadened out into something that is still focused on Brexit but has much, much more layers of different types of content.”

In the charged atmosphere of contemporary politics, where MPs and journalists struggle to make themselves heard on Westminster’s College Green, it still pays to shout. Kelly isn’t afraid to argue his corner on social media where he has had spats with left-wing commentator Owen Jones (who accused The New European of pursuing a “homophobic trope” in a cartoon which showed him crying over Jeremy Corbyn’s wreath-laying scandal last year).

“Every time I have a row with Owen Jones on Twitter we sell an extra 1,000 papers,” says Kelly. “He doesn’t realise it but he’s been the greatest marketing tool for The New European out there – it’s money-can’t-buy stuff. There are very concrete benefits in being argumentative.”

But as the paper contemplates a life beyond newsprint it needs to find a more reflective tone, he says. “One of the things The New European is going to have to do when things get less frenetic is to grow up a little bit. We are explosively dynamic on the front covers and talk in loud, vivid words. But as things calm down I think we need to present ourselves a little bit more seriously, become a little less arsey in our attitude and a little bit more grown up.”

While readers “love the fact that (the paper) has got so much verve right now”, he worries that a bolshy approach can become monotonous. “I am absolutely phobic about being boring,” he says. “If The New European stops making money and being a viable business we will kill it very quickly.”

But just like Brexit itself, this publishing experiment looks like it still has a long way to go.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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