european flags
Credit: By tristam sparks on Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.
Ten years ago, Paul Rapacioli and James Savage spotted a niche for an English-language news site in Stockholm, their adopted home. When they launched The Local, the first readers were the 12 students in Rapacioli's Swedish class for ex-pats, who would receive weekly email round-ups of local news stories written by he and Savage.

The Local now has offices in seven countries across Europe – employing 16 journalists across the network and attracting over four million unique visitors a month – and is on the verge of opening its eighth office in Austria.

"What happened early on is we realised that we didn't have any money," Rapacioli told Journalism.co.uk, "but if we can get the global media writing about the stories that we're covering, and citing us, then that's the way to lift our profile."

As the organisation celebrated its 10th birthday on April 9, Rapacioli reflected on how the number of foreign correspondents at large, international news organisations had plummeted.

Cost-cutting to cope with the tectonic shifts in the journalistic landscape has become a regular strategy for media organisations. As a "wide range of pressures undermine the role of the foreign correspondent", according to a 2010 Reuters Institute study asking whether the role is "redundant", organisations like The Local step in to fill the vacuum.

"They [large organisations] use us as their de facto foreign correspondents," Rapacioli said. "And because they use us for the countries we're in already, as soon as we launch a new country that gets plugged into the same network. It's a great position to be in and our readers will transfer from one title to another."

This is not to say that reporters from The Local are the only journalists covering the countries in English, but where other organisations may report from a "parachute perspective", said Rapacioli, the Local has journalists "on the ground in these countries who are there all day, every day, living as part of the community".

"We find the stories that are closest to the ground," he said, "and we do a lot of them – 10 stories a day or more from every country that we're in – and it's when you step back from that that you see the whole story across Europe.

"It's like a pointillist approach, I suppose, to journalism. Painting a picture of Europe through 350 stories a week across the sites."

As the Swedish site is the longest established of the various offices it gets the most traffic – one million unique visitors a month, according to Rapacioli, of which 80 per cent are from outside the country – to be a real source of stories for bigger news organisations.

Two of the biggest stories for the network "of all time" have come from Sweden, he said, the first being the 2011 story of a drunk elk stuck up a tree near Gothenburg after eating too many fermented apples, or this year's story of a 40 centimetre rat caught in Stockholm.

elk in tree
Screengrab from TheLocal.se

The latter was initially reported by local news site Aftonbladet. The Local wrote a piece with new photos and interviews in English the next day that was then cited and referenced by the BBC, The Independent and The Huffington Post, among others.

"Generally the things that go nuts outside the country are the kind of quirky stories that would be big in any newspaper," Rapacioli said. "But also the stories that confirm or confound a prejudice that the world might have about that country.

"So for France we had a French academic who wrote about how if the French spoke better English they would be less miserable. She's quite a respected academic so the Telegraph loved it and picked up on it and all the British media just leapt on it."

When The Local reported on Swedish riots last year, world media "leapt on this opportunity to see Sweden falling off its perch", Rapacioli said, to the point where they commissioned a follow-up piece to calm the hysteria that had built up outside the country.

In Germany, The Local reported on the fact that Angela Merkel was denied access to her NSA file before the Guardian, the original source for most NSA-related stories since Snowden, approached Glenn Greenwald last year.

"What we're able to do is have huge economies of scale by having it all in English across all of our sites," he said. "One language, one platform, one international audience, one brand and that's the nub of the business.

"It means we can have one central editorial team here [in Stockholm] to support our journalists all across Europe. What we try to impress upon our journalists and really try to create is that we may have journalists in seven different countries but we still talk about it as a 16-person newsroom where they're constantly communicating through Skype."

From the end of April, Austria will join Sweden, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain and Switzerland as The Local expands across Europe, this time as a franchise.

"We needed to establish ourselves in the core countries and then thought if we can find the right people around Europe to start with – but then outside of it understand exactly what we're trying to achieve to follow the methodology that we've established – then this could be a really good way to expand," Rapacioli said.

"Austria is the first franchise edition and we've got a few other discussions going on that is a really exciting way for us to expand."

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