Thursday, 18 March 2010

The case of the disappearing Brussels journos

Take a good look at the Brussels press corps, because in a few years it may have disappeared into thin air. That's at least the concern running through the EU capital at the moment, as the number of accredited journalists in the city plummets.

Today I stopped by an extraordinary meeting of the International Press Association (API) that was called together to specifically address this question. I had come by because my company is dealing with a separate issue, the harassment of journalists working in the International Press Centre by the Belgian authorities. As it turns out though, these two issues are probably not unrelated.

In 2005 there were 1,300 accredited reporters in Brussels, more than the Washington press corps (a fact the EU was very proud of at the same time). Today, according to a blog this week by the Economist, the number is just 752. Well, 753 as of yesterday, when I received my accreditation. In the past year alone, almost 200 journalists have left Brussels.

The API meeting was called to approve a resolution demanding immediate action from the EU to stop the hemorrhaging of Brussels journalists. A noble aim to be sure. But during the meeting I couldn't help but feel perplexed by the remedies that API is demanding.

 The resolution states that the decrease in journalists is partly due to an increase in communication from the EU over the past several years. Since the EU constitution was rejected in 2005, the European Commission has been in overdrive to communicate to the public. This has included the launching of several EU-funded (and controlled) media outlets, including Europarl TV, dedicated to video coverage of the European Parliament.

They've also begun to issue an almost absurd number of press releases, ranging from the inane to the completely pointless. An American reporter I know who moved from Washington to cover the EU last year once remarked, "It's as if they're desperately trying to justify their own existence with every press release." As a journalist who covers the EU, I find myself every morning trolling through dozens of useless press releases, trying to find anything of actual consequence. As has often been observed, the amount of communication from the EU has drastically increased over the past few years, but the quality and substance of the information hasn't. It's still incredibly difficult to get access to the behind-the-scenes information from the Commission where the actual decision-making is happening.

However this uptake in communication has, according to API, lulled the national newspapers and wire services into thinking that they don't need dedicated EU correspondents in Brussels anymore. After all, if they can stay in their national capital and receive the press release, then watch the press conference in a live video feed on the internet, why do they need anyone to be physically there? Lorenzo Consoli, head of API and Brussels correspondent for Italian news agency ANSA,  explained at the meeting that this meant that when he goes to the midday briefing (the daily press conference by the commission) by the time he gets back to his desk and writes a story his colleagues in Rome have probably already published what the commission announced, because they were emailed the press released and watched the press conference feed on the internet. This kind of EU reporting-from-a-desk is what I've been doing the past year. It's possible to do, but it's not possible to do it well.

A reporter based in Brussels will know the background of the issue that's being written about, and a reporter in Rome will not be able to do as good of a job. So, the API is asking the commission to embargo the most important press releases and announcements, releasing them only to accredited Brussels journalists. That way, they say, editors will not be able to cut their Brussels correspondents because they will need someone there in order to get a 'first look' at the information. This system is already done with sensitive financial announcements that can have an effect on the markets, with selected journalists getting the embargoed news early and signing a confidentiality agreement.

However this seemed an odd remedy to me. Obviously a journalist based in Brussels is going to be able to cover an issue better than a reporter just coping a press release in a national capital. A story by the Brussels reporter is also going to be more interesting to read. Surely news editors and their bosses get this. Having a correspondent in Brussels should be beneficial enough in and of itself, they shouldn't need to add an artificial head start for themselves. I wasn't the only one in the room who was a bit perplexed. But notably, the journalists who objected were almost all fellow Anglo-Saxons. Lorenzo noted after the meeting that perceptions of this request have been marked by an Anglo-Saxon vs. continental divide. Yet despite the Anglophone reservations, the resolution received unanimous support.

The real problem

It seems to me that the issue of news organisations deciding to ditch their Brussels correspondents and just run rehashed press releases in order to save money is surely due to other factors than the increase of information coming from the EU. For one thing, there's the obvious economic crisis and the troubles experienced by traditional media in the digital age that have caused newsrooms to cut back. But that's common the world over. And Washington, for instance, hasn't seen any substantial decline in DC correspondents over the past few years that I know of (though I'd be curious to verify this).

Really I think the decline is due to two factors. The first has been directly affecting the building I work in, the International Press Centre. In the weeks before I arrived, people from the Belgian social security department apparently stormed the building and were barging into people's offices demanding to see their work papers. Now of course many of the people in that building are Brussels correspondents for foreign publications and are therefor not local Belgian employees. So this created a massive headache for everyone involved, most of whom hadn't done anything wrong, yet were still made to come with the authorities for three hour nasty interviews by the authorities. My company had also had a visit from these men. We were at the meeting today to review the second item, a letter from API to the commission asking for accredited journalists to have the same non-resident status in Belgium that members of the European Parliament and their staff have.

And it's that second document, which didn't get much attention at the meeting, which I think would go a good ways further in solving the problem than the first one. For a country hosting international institutions, Belgium does make it extraordinarily difficult to live and work here. It's no wonder that many people would prefer to find some way to cover these institutions from their home country than actually being here. After all, that's what I tried to do over the past year. The city already doesn't have such a great reputation to begin with (a reputation which I think is somewhat undeserved), and with Belgian authorities making it such a beaurocratic nightmare to settle here, it's easy to see how it would all put journalists off. That being said, I actually haven't encountered any major difficulties so far, but I've only been here two weeks. Knock on wood...

The second cause of the problem, I think, is the steadily decreasing public interest in the EU. This disinterest is of course most pronounced in the UK, but it exists to an various extents across the continent as well. If news organisations are falling on hard times, it's no big mystery why they would start making cuts to the areas that attract the least public interest. This is probably part of the reason the economic crisis and increased live video from Washington hasn't significantly diminished the number of DC correspondents in the US:
  • It's not difficult and there is little paperwork involved for a local newspaper to send a reporter to live and work in Washington.
  • People across the US are very interested in what's going on in Washington, and this interest is always much higher than their interest in their state government.
Now of course this is comparing apples and oranges a bit, but if the goal is to have a Brussels press corps that rivals Washington's, perhaps it makes sense to make Brussels resemble Washington a bit more. Belgium needs to make it easier for foreign media outlets to set up shop here, and the EU needs to let journalists in to the backstage in a genuine way (not through an avalanche of meaningless press releases) so that reporters can write stories that increase the public's interest.

In the mean time, it's fun to be part of a dying breed. I feel like the last of the Mohicans.


Julien Frisch said...

First: The decline in correspondents doesn't seem to be as bad we can read in this EUobserver article today.

Second: The debates in euroblogs and on Twitter has also identified more important reasons than the decline in interest in EU matters - the general decline in the number of professional journalists as well as the possibility to get raw material via the net. In addition, the 2004 enlargement has brought many journos to the city but the boom has ended after five years.

Third: I find the demands by the API journalists insane, as I have written here.

Torsten said...

I would also be curious to find out if the numbers in Washington are also declining, or if this pattern is happening also in other national capitals with local papers pulling back their national politics correspondents. The crisis + dying print media = less coverage and less journalists

Erika said...

Wouldn't this proposed rule shut out bloggers from the process? That doesn't seem fair.

Grahnlaw said...

Just a minor point for API (and the powers that be) to remember: Information is meant for the public, on equal terms. (Professional journalists and media can contribute to the process if they are able to add value.)

Rikke said...

Agree that API's proposal goes against the basic of journalism - how can we advance freedom of expression around the world when we at the same time demand the Commission to embargo its press releases? As Brussels journalist, we have more competition today. This should force us to develop our journalism instead of complaining. If we dont, we will be the proof that there is no added value by being in Brux. We have to figure out how to show editors that there is.