Thursday, 3 February 2011

Brussels gets a press club

Are press clubs - those storied oak-paneled dens where an elite cadre of journalists meet to smoke cigars and swap gossip - a relic of the past? I found myself wondering this last night at the launch party for the new 'Brussels Press Club' here in the EU Quarter.

For years, long-time Brussels journalists have bemoaned the fact that Brussels has no press club for the many international journalists based here. Though other world capitals like Washington, London or Paris have famous press clubs that have been around for over 100 years, Brussels had nothing. But now the International Press Association (API) has been able to get the backing of the Brussels regional government to establish a club, located just next to the European Council and European Commission headquarters.

The main purpose of the club is to provide Brussels journalists with a place to meet, do interviews, discuss ideas and hold events in a place that is not within one of the EU institutions. Journalists are already provided plenty of places to work here – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council each have large press centers within them. But all of these are provided by the EU itself, which can lead to a sometimes uncomfortable feeling of closeness between Brussels journalists and the institutions they cover.

Speaking at the launch last night, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso alluded to this point, saying that non-institutional forums like the new press club are essential for developing a "European public space" where ideas can be debated. But I couldn't help but smirk when he referred to the space as a "cosy corner". Looking around, it was certainly anything but. Having been rented from empty space that was surely previously taken up by a European institution, the space had a very institutional feel. From the hyper-white walls to the "institution blue" carpets, we could have been in any form-processing back office of the commission. To be fair they had just opened the space, and they may be planning to make it a bit more cosy, to use Barroso's phrase. But from my understanding they're not planning to have any restaurant or bar in the club. And I was left wondering, what exactly would I do if I came here?

Perhaps it isn't fair, but the direct comparison I was drawing was to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. That is, after all, the only press club I've ever been a member of. Back when I was covering the US congress me and my colleagues used to go there for all kinds of things – free taco night at the bar, a nice breakfast meeting in the restaurant, or any number of press conferences and events that the club would hold. More than anything else, these days the Washington press club has become a place to have press conferences.

The contrast to the space I saw last night couldn't be more stark. The NPC in Washington has oak-paneled walls, a beautiful bar with comfy couches, and even a gym. The club has been in existence since 1908, and its reputation means it is a hot spot for journalists and non-journalists alike to hang out. Of course, you need a journalist friend to bring you in – an invite lobbyists are constantly trying to score.

Other capital cities have similar organisations. I went for a drink once at the London Press Club, a "gentlemen's club" (in the posh sense, not a strip club) on the Strand. That club is 130 years old, and the inside is exactly what you would picture – posh and elite. I've heard the same can be said for the press clubs in Paris, Rome, etc.

So given that these other world capitals have press clubs, I can see why it may have seemed 'not right' that Brussels didn't have one. And yet since arriving in Brussels as a journalist one year ago I have not once ever thought, "Gee, you know what this city needs? A press club." It's honestly never occurred to me as something to miss. I've never once thought about it.

Even when I was in Washington the press club seemed more like some kind of old-timey relic than a modern, relevant place. The press conferences and events held there were often newsworthy, but the club itself? I'm not so sure. Most of the journalists who would hang out at the club were much older. The only time younger journalists would go, in my experience, was for the free taco night. And I remember hearing that the age demographic of the club's membership was so skewed toward people above the age of 50 that they were worried the club would face a member shortage in 20 years if they didn't recruit some younger people.

But do young journalists want to go to a press club? In this age of Twitter and Facebook, is it even necessary to have these brick-and-mortar places for people to exchange ideas any more? And considering the membership dues of these places, isn't this idea that journalists can form an elite, expensive club where they can sit around talking about how important they are a little dated? Gone are the days where an elite cabal of journos could sit around smoking cigars and decide what the news agenda is going to be. A lot of those conversations would take place at these elite press clubs. So if that era is gone, does that mean the idea of the press club should go with it?

I'm not sure I have the answer to that question. Perhaps the Press Club Brussels Europe needs to be a new, different kind of press club. Perhaps it doesn't need to focus on having oak-panelled walls and a bar with free tacos, but rather a comprehensive and engaging internet presence. It will be interesting to see how the space develops. Like the EU itself, the Brussels Press Club may be creating a new type of organisation as it goes along. At a time when the number of journalists in Brussels is rapidly decreasing, it remains to be seen how a press club will fit into the EU media landscape.


Chris said...

I don't know what to say. The press need a bar in which to find their info? Maybe yes or maybe no. Why not at the places everyone else is at. If no, a place where they can talk to politicians privately? In this case, are they no worse than "evil lobbyists"? Honestly...I don't get it.

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