Tabea Grzeszyk on Hostwriter winning the Google Impact Challenge

We happily congratulated Hostwriter – whose co-founder Tabea Grzeszyk was part of the TANDEM programme – when we learned they won the Jury Prize at the Google Impact Challenge Germany last June. In their own words Hostwriter is an open network that helps journalists to easily collaborate across borders.” After the dust settled down we seized this festive opportunity to talk with Tabea on her journey from starting Hostwriter, joining the TANDEM programme in 2015 to winning 500.000 euros in 2018.

Tabea firstly felt the need for Hostwriter when she was couch-surfing Lebanon and Syria in 2010, after she had finished her journalism training. She ran into Iraqi refugees by coincidence, and realized she never had read stories on the various ways Iraqi refugees had settled in. Later that year, covering Tunisia’s wave of social protest that would grow out to become the ‘Arab Spring’ she wondered again: “Why are we so few trying to write real insights into people’s lives by covering private matters, via contacts with local residents and experts?” Could “couchsurfing for journalists” be a solution? Tabea wasn’t alone in these considerations. After meeting Sandra Zistl and Tamara Anthony they founded Hostwriter in 2013. Hostwriter was to be a digital network for cross border journalism to connect people and projects. It would – so they hoped – also grow to be an example of inclusive journalism: sharing access and information with colleagues, not concurrents, and show the power of collaboration. The publication of the Panama Papers was great proof of how this paradigm shift from individual to collaborative work in journalism could turn out. “The idea was really in the air”.

As was proven once again by the online birth of Greek media startup Oikomedia – started by Elina Makri. Instead of being disappointed Tabea and her colleagues were re-affirmed in their belief there was a need for new journalism, one in which the two initiatives could approach each other in a non-competitive way. The outcome: Hostwriter and Oikomedia applied together for the TANDEM programme, with a project Collaboration instead of Competition: hostwriter + oikomedia. TANDEM is a cultural collaboration programme that strengthens civil society in Europe and its’ neighbouring regions by having two European collaborate on a longer term.

 Tabea and Elena, photo courtesy of Tandem

Tabea and Elena, photo courtesy of Tandem

The enrollment in TANDEM 2015-2017 offered Hostwriter and Oikomedia the framework and resources to really get to know each other. During that process the Danish journalist Brigitte Alfter published her ‘Handbook for cross-border journalism’, “that showed us again how international collaboration is the only way forward to battle national stereotypes. Even though international collaboration is the most difficult thing to do.” The two organisations ended their TANDEM programme with a panel discussion  “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Reporting Europe in Times of Crisis” at the prestigious New York Times Athens Democracy Forum 2016.

Ever since Tabea and her colleagues have been enlarging the platform role of Hostwriter, as they firmly believe in their mission: “Journalism needs a new matrix. We can no longer rely on national narratives, but need transnational storytelling to reach various national audiences. In that way journalism could also regain its’ legitimacy as a means for contextualizing and, possibly, being a driver for change. As of today we see how many regimes are immune for change, since politics and the public sphere overlap. I mean, readers, or voters, do often not see any consequences after publications. So the media needs to rethink themselves; we need to be more transparent on how we work, we need to work together and we need to be independent from ‘political’ money.” Not that all problems are over then, as Joris Luyendijk illustrates in his lecture at the European Investigative Journalism Conference, but these steps can help journalism recover from the crisis it was in.

It’s hard to survive as a freelancer today. “The digital era - with its focus on advertisement, clickbait headlines or watered down content - has pushed many journalists to become entrepreneurs. That’s a lot of fun, but it’s also not easy at all.” Now that the so-called crisis is over, and it looks like a bit more funding is available, “I am slightly optimistic about philanthropy stepping in.” And adds Tabea, not only because it nurtures the new ecosystem of journalistic start-ups, but also challenges the “legacy media to answer to the new wave of digital”. All in all, she sees a new journalism arise, in which “another way of storytelling, of reporting on underreported regions and beyond sectoral interest” are key notions next to transparency.

Hostwriter themselves could serve as an example, with their insights on making it to the Impact Challenge, reporting on the Impact Challenge and its’ aftermath. Asking Tabea what she would like to do with the awarded sum illustrates Hostwriter’s ambitions: “Have our collaborative Agora project repeated on all continents.”