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Lewis Crofts on Brexit, Brussels, and finding a niche in the media market

Lewis Crofts

For many years it has been common knowledge that with the growth of digital media platforms, newspapers and print journalism have been in a downward spiral. A fall in sales and advertising revenue has left many news organisations in a tricky situation and it would appear to be an ever-discouraging profession for aspiring journalists. However, a former Oxford student took advantage of the rise in digital content, and as a result, has helped to establish one of the most unique and well-respected news organisations in the world. Based in Brussels, MLex is a subscription-only independent media organisation that provides exclusive analysis and commentary on regulatory risk, helping companies to gain invaluable market insight. While other newspapers struggle to identify their ever-changing readership, MLex has managed to find a niche in the market and is now seen as a ‘must-have’ subscription for some of the world’s leading companies.

I talked with MLex’s Editor-In-Chief, Lewis Crofts, on how MLex developed such an original business model and how it has gone on to become one of the corporate industry’s most valuable news outlets. ‘I moved to Brussels about 15 years ago to work on a publication writing about the European Union. We found that there was quite a lot of newsworthy material that people wanted to read but which you just couldn’t get into a normal newspaper, because, quite frankly, it was too nerdy! And yes, it was nerdy, but it was also of interest and usually had a massive financial impact. We started to realise that there were people out there who would benefit from this information, yet they weren’t getting it from Bloomberg, Dow Jones or the Wall Street Journal. So, we thought, let’s just start our own news operation.’

Beginning a news organisation from the ground up can be a daunting task, but with its specific focus on the European Union, Lewis believed that MLex would have a unique advantage over other news media outlets. ‘There were two decisions that we made from the outset, the first, that we would write about what the EU really had power in, like trade, economic policy and regulation. The second was that we decided on a paywall. Other newspapers around 2006 were experimenting with online subscription services. However, we founded ourselves on a subscription model from the start.’ Using these two simple rules, MLex offers its subscribers exclusive content which is regarded as vital information for companies operating within the European Union. MLex’s growth has been unprecedented, starting out in 2006 with just three journalists in a basement to having over one hundred staff worldwide. ‘The growth has surprised us, but regulation is global, so to report as much as you can, you have to set up not just in Europe, but in countries such as America, Brazil, and China. We’ve also just recently expanded the operation to Australia.’

Lewis is now an influential journalist dealing predominantly with European regulation. I asked him whether this was the career that he had originally intended. ‘When I was studying at Oxford I knew two things — that I wanted to live abroad, and that I wanted to write. I didn’t really know what that meant. I moved to the Czech Republic and to Germany, always experimenting with different types of writing and struggling at it along the way. I even wrote a novel about the Austrian painter Egon Schiele that was published about 10 years ago. But, being a novelist isn’t particularly lucrative, so I knew I had to pursue journalism. I was living in the Czech Republic at the time and there weren’t really any big stories that were particularly interesting. However, this was just as the EU started to expand into the country, so I ended up gravitating towards the European Union and Brussels. I never thought I would be writing about topics such as regulation, but I am a journalist and you have to go where the stories are.’

I wondered whether even now, as a full-time journalist, there was still the possibility of a second novel? ‘I did want to be a published author…there are lots of non-literary reasons why you want to write that first novel – you want to see your book on the shelf and give your mum a copy for Christmas. But when you come to write your second novel, a lot of those reasons evaporate. It’s a much purer enterprise. You want to write because you enjoy telling stories and engaging with the reader. I’m quite busy now, being a journalist with a family, but I’m still writing, and still working on the infamous second novel.’

Lewis, who graduated in 2000 with a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages from St Catherine’s College, described his experiences at Oxford and how they helped to shape his career. ‘The whole Oxford experience of reading loads and writing copious amounts, working to deadlines and gathering as much information as you can to produce a piece of work…well, journalism is well suited to this process.’ Lewis also attributes some of his diverse thinking to many of the individuals he met as an undergraduate. ‘I got a ‘blue’ in hockey, and through my involvement with the team I managed to meet so many different postgrad students who introduced me to a variety of new topics. I was also lucky to have tutors who were engaging and funny, so all in all, I loved my time at Oxford.’

Reading for a degree in modern languages at Oxford usually gives students the chance to study abroad, and this opportunity was especially significant for Lewis. ‘While at Oxford I studied French and German, and what usually happened, unsurprisingly, was that most students chose to live in Paris for their year abroad. But I ended up in a small provincial town in Germany, and I absolutely loved it. It was a defining moment for me and I also ended up meeting my future wife there!’

A career as a journalist can place you in unique and unusual scenarios. I wondered whether there were any of Lewis’s previous articles that he remembers particularly well. ‘I’ve worked on quite a few interesting stories over the years. I particularly remember an article I wrote for the Financial Times on the diamond trade. It was a big piece about how the trade functions. It involved me going to the Antwerp diamond district and investigating how these diverse groups come together to make the trade function. Also, at MLex, we expose a lot of cartels and corruption which is always very exciting. It’s always attractive to take on companies and regulators who are purposefully trying to hide a story.’

Lewis has managed to develop a successful news organisation during a period of large-scale change in the industry. I quizzed him on what he thought were the key features of creating an original business model in an increasingly digital world. ‘Digital media has made it simpler to make a company of any sort. However, sometimes that ease of use can make you overlook the need for a strong underlining idea. You need to have a solid product first — the digital aspect is just a delivery model. Digital platforms are exciting because you can get your product into peoples’ inboxes quicker, but you still must have that innovative idea. In Brussels, we knew there were bits of news that people didn’t have access to, and for us, that was key. And yes, you do take a lot of risks along the way, but now we have competitors operating in a similar way to us, which is proof that we have a successful model.’

Finally, I asked Lewis about Brexit and its impact on MLex. ‘Brexit is great for the media and particularly the media in Brussels. Subscriptions for newspapers such as the Financial Times have gone up and there has been an increase in circulation of British newspapers in Brussels.’ In a time when print media is in decline, this is significant. ‘For years when I was in Brussels, EU stories in British newspapers were hidden on, say, page 39, but Brexit has brought it forward right to the front page. This is great for our business because we concentrate on EU law. So, the question of ‘How do you extract a country from the web of EU law?’ is perfect for our expertise. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but it will persist. If it’s not going to plague the politicians for much longer, it will continue to plague the companies and the courts, which in turn, is good for MLex.’

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