The Brussels Press Corps is sick. Its current incarnation is slowly withering away, to be replaced eventually by a different kind of press corps; one fed by wirecopy and press releases – shallower and less critical of the institutions (or so sayeth the doom-mongers). The number of accredited journalists covering EU affairs in Brussels has shrunk – and there doesn’t seem to be much anybody can do about it. Numbers may recently be recovering – but this hides an increasing number of “commuting journalists” working only occasionally in Brussels. Media organisations across Europe were already suffering from declining advertising revenues when – in 2007 and 2008 – the financial crisis struck, compounding matters further. In an age when information travels from one side of the planet to the other in the blink of an iPhone, there are less obvious advantages to having “boots on the ground” when a story breaks.
Foreign news (as EU reporting is usually considered) is especially vulnerable. As The Economist‘s Brussels correspondent put it last year, the “severing of the link between advertising and news had a… uniquely grim effect on foreign news” because foreign correspondents are increasingly being seen as optional “prestige” positions. When times get tough in the news room, foreign news can seem like an attractive place to start cutting. Reader surveys suggest that people want more sports news, cartoons, crosswords and TV listings – not the latest gossip from Berlaymont.
What went wrong? The internet was supposed to liberate journalists by making their research easier and putting them directly in touch with readers. In fact, it has proven to be something of a double-edged sword – putting greater pressure on deadlines (you have to release immediately if you want to stay ahead of the pack) and increasing the amount of content correspondents are expected to produce (many journalists are now pressured to keep blogs and twitter accounts in addition to writing articles).
All is not lost, however. There is much that can be done to entice journalists back to Brussels – assuming the EU is willing to approach the problem with an open mind. Steps are being taken. In January, the first European Press Club was opened in Brussels – an attempt to encourage journalists of different nationalities to meet together, share stories, gossip and cooperate. This month, a “pilot project” was launched by the Hungarian Presidency’s press team, offering press accreditation to bloggers at Council events. Two bloggers (Ronny Patz and Europasionaria), liveblogged over the two days they were given access (you can read day one and two online). Mathew Lowry has put up a blogtour of the reactions, and suggests that, in future, accredited bloggers in Brussels could have an impact by reporting back information and opinions to their national blogospheres.
Bolder steps regarding traditional journalism have been talked about, such as subsidising training, travel, education – perhaps even accommodation. This raises issues of independence and of competition / attribution criteria. New problems may open as the crisis continues. However, such measures might be cost-effective compared to the millions spent on advertising, event organisation and, still, printing tons of glossy brochures.
Is this the future? Will “citizen journalists” soon help replace real journalists? Myriam Karama argues that – as the Brussels press corps is shrinking – covering EU affairs should be seen as a “civic duty.” Could it soon literally become the duty of citizens to report what our eurocrats are getting up to? This is a dangerous idea. As both Ronny and Mathew argue, bloggers do not have the time to dedicate to properly reporting events as they happen. Analysis and opinion, yes. Reporting… less so. Most bloggers write as a hobby, and find time to blog after work, during lunch or at the weekend. Professional journalists (mostly) have the resources and time needed to properly cover this sort of event.
Moreover, while the Brussels press corps is essential, it should not be the bottleneck in terms of access to EU affairs. Several years ago, Fondation EurActiv PoliTech issued a “Yellow Paper” titled “Decentralise Radically: Empower the Multipliers!” It argued for a more decentralised approach to EU coverage. So, could one engage the journalists interested in EU policies based outside Brussels?
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Is the shrinking Brussels press corps and the steady rise of so-called “churnalism” a problem for Europe? Or are there solutions? Could citizen journalists step into the void? Are there ways of supporting costs without influencing coverage? Let us know your thoughts.