Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Stephen Brown, editor in chief of POLITICO Europe, is dead at 57 – POLITICO

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Stephen Brown, the editor in chief of POLITICO Europe and a former news correspondent who reported widely from Europe and South America for Reuters for more than a quarter-century, died Thursday in Brussels. He was 57.

Brown led POLITICO’s European news operations from January 1, 2019 and oversaw its robust expansion to a staff of more than 100 journalists in Brussels, London, Paris and Berlin, as well as the launch this year of a French-language Playbook newsletter, newsletters dedicated to EU-China relations and transatlantic tech coverage, and a new podcast on U.K. politics, Westminster Insider.

Brown’s death, from a heart attack, was announced to the staff during an emergency videoconference by the company’s chief executive officer, Shéhérazade Semsar-de Boisséson. Speaking through tears, she described him as a tireless and boundlessly enthusiastic collaborator always eager to tackle their next project, and who was deeply committed to POLITICO’s journalism and to his family. She also expressed condolences on behalf of the entire company.

Other colleagues on the call described him as “the man at the center” and “the beating heart of the newsroom,” who was fiercely protective of his editors and reporters, and a steadfast defender of their work. They also described his keen ability to cut through the swirl of news developments to spot the angle most worth pursuing, often saying curtly, “That’s the story, isn’t it?” Invariably, he’d already answered his own question.

Stephen Brown with Shéhérazade Semsar-de Boisséson in the POLITICO office.

John Harris, POLITICO’s founding editor, who oversaw the launch of the European edition, recalled Brown expressing keen interest in joining the project early on.

“He had been deep within an established institution but I recall the first encounter — he was very clear that he was ready in his career to try something less traditional and more entrepreneurial,” Harris said. “This became even more clear once he arrived and started working. He intuitively understood what makes POLITICO journalism special — the passion for our subjects, the distinctive voice, the willingness to challenge familiar habits in how to tell stories.”

With Brown steering the newsroom, POLITICO Europe, which is a joint venture between POLITICO and German publisher Axel Springer, achieved profitability in 2019, its fourth year in business. Revenues, subscriptions and readership have continued to grow even as the coronavirus pandemic hampered live journalism and events.  

Rym Momtaz, POLITICO’s senior Paris correspondent, recalled Brown’s attentiveness and concern about the possibility that women journalists were subjected to sexism by male politicians or officials. “He was the first male boss to ever ask me those questions, to be the one to raise the possibility of sexism, it makes a huge difference for women,” she said.

The instinct to protect his reporters stemmed from Brown’s firm convictions about the mission of journalism — reasons he would often cite for why he loved getting to work each morning: to hold power to account; to expose wrongdoing; to explain complex issues; to bring injustices into the spotlight. In a profession crowded with cynics, he was an idealist about the power of reporting and its capacity for civic good.

While Brown had served in newsroom leadership since joining POLITICO in 2015 as deputy managing editor, he spent most of his career as a wide-ranging correspondent for Reuters. And though he eagerly embraced inventive forms of digital journalism in recent years, he retained a wire reporter’s instinctive suspicion of adjectives, and deep disdain for articles that ran too long.

Brown was born in London and lived in England, Australia and Austria as a child — early preparation for a future career in which he would live in at least eight countries and learn to speak seven or more languages. (Even he didn’t seem to know exactly how many.) He attended St. Lawrence College in Kent and studied modern languages at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, where he was active in theater and a co-founder of the university’s Latin American Society.

After working for a year at the Financial Times on its Cityline news service, Brown joined the Reuters graduate training scheme for journalists, and went on to assignments in Madrid, Lisbon and London, before transferring to Buenos Aires in 1994, where he later became the bureau chief for southern Latin America.

The region remained his great love, professionally and personally, having met his wife, Laura, in Argentina.

Stephen Brown with POLITICO Europe Managing Editor James Randerson, left, at a company event.

Brown returned to Europe as bureau chief for the Nordic and Baltic region, based in Stockholm, before serving as chief correspondent in Rome and later Berlin. He left Reuters in 2015 to join POLITICO, where the new pan-European publication’s multi-national, multilingual newsroom would prove a perfect home for the next phase of his career.   

“I have always thought that what makes POLITICO work is our determination to defend and vindicate timeless journalistic values, a commitment to accuracy, fairness, and the public interest, but also to creatively and ceaselessly adapt to a new media environment,” Harris, the founding editor, said. “Stephen embodied that as well as anyone at POLITICO on either side of the Atlantic.”

Harris said that as an editor Brown had found a gift for leading the staff. “He knew that running a successful newsroom is essentially about understanding people with all their individual strengths and weaknesses and bringing them together as a team,” Harris said, adding: “He was perceptive and empathetic at all times.”

Christoph Keese, the chief executive of hy, the Axel Springer Consulting Group, and a member of POLITICO Europe’s advisory board, recalled Brown as “wanting to build bridges and get scoops.”

Matthew Kaminski, who preceded Brown as POLITICO’s top editor in Europe and hired him into the new venture, said that Brown remained well-grounded in his roots, even as his many postings and languages gave him a worldly perspective.

“As much as he was a Londoner, and an avid fan of rugby, he was one of those rare people whom you would genuinely describe as a true internationalist, a true European,” said Kaminski, who is now POLITICO’s editor in chief in the United States. “Stephen had a habit of picking up the languages of his various postings with remarkable ease; you’d lose count of how many he spoke fluently, and then you heard him grill a job candidate in Swedish and realize you’d forgotten one.”

Paul Taylor, a former Reuters correspondent and now contributing columnist for POLITICO, who knew Brown for nearly 20 years, said Brown remained a reporter at heart, eager to help live blog European Council summits or to attend a leader’s news conference being conducted in any of the many languages that he spoke.

“He had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor and an engaging modesty that didn’t change when he became editor in chief of POLITICO Europe,” Taylor said. “He was also a great listener. Even if he didn’t immediately warm to an idea, he’d often follow it up later.”

And even as editor in chief, Brown continued to write long-form articles on topics that revealed his love for the more philosophical side of politics, including a piece on patriotism, in which he wrote: “Judging by the volume of jingoism in U.K. and U.S. politics in particular, it seems nobody has realized that patriotic slogans and a warlike demeanor alone can’t stop a virus — let alone solve the economic, social, racial and cultural divisions that have surfaced so painfully in 2020.”

He also took a long look at the apparent deterioration of diplomacy in the age of smartphones and social media.

Stephen Brown goes sledging in Davos.

Paul Dallison, POLITICO’s slot news editor and author of the satirical Declassified column, described Brown as an editor in chief who would summon coworkers to his office not for a reprimand but to share a laugh or listen to a song, and who could put a colleague at ease with a cheeky expletive.

Outside the office, he loved Nick Cave, cycling, rugby and water sports. He was a rower in his youth and, as a good swimmer who had worked several summer seasons as a lifeguard, he prided himself in staying fit despite the stresses of the news business.

Brown, who lived near Brussels, is survived by his wife, Laura, and children, Violetta and Theo; his parents, Sally and Allan; brother, Martin; sisters, Justine and Maxine; nieces, Hannah and Katie; and nephews, Oliver, Sam and Jack.

Even as he showed little mercy toward expendable adjectives and long-winded prose, Brown loved nothing more than a story with bit of zing, and was quick to share his enthusiasm even if it interrupted dinner.

“That lede made me spit out my Malbec — brilliant,” he texted a reporter recently. “Reading the rest now.”

Illustration by Dakota Randall for POLITICO.

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