“Journalism covers the EU well – for the elite,” said a 2014 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report, Reporting the EU, co-written by Cristina Marconi, an Italian journalist and former habituée of the Berlaymont salle de presse. The rest of us, it added, are badly served.
I put this to Bruno Waterfield, EU correspondent for The Times (of London) and someone who has reported on and from the corridors of Brussels for 15 years. He gave me a withering look and said, more politely than is his wont: “Rubbish. Our readers and Brits as a whole are better informed about the EU than ever before. Brexit is a national obsession.”
His colleagues on the panel I chaired – Jan Strupczewski, deputy bureau chief at Reuters, Rebecca Christie, a freelance once with Bloomberg and the WSJ, Jean-Sébastien Lefebvre, chef de bureau at digital mag contexte.com, and the doyen, Michael Stabenow, ex-chair of the Foreign Press Association and EU political correspondent for the venerable German conservative daily, the FAZ – nodded in agreement.
It was not the only myth or half-truth – either way, fake news – the Famous Five undermined at a lively seminar recently organised by us (Acumen Public Affairs) for the European Centre on Public Affairs at the Press Club. For one thing, they all (apart from poor Rebecca who got stuck on the Ring) turned up early. And they were sober and reflective.
The Brussels press corps isn’t smaller than pre-crisis – one persistent myth ignoring the growth of freelances – but mainstream media bureaux are (Reuters is down at least a half). Journalists work longer hours than before, often for lower pay. They have to react much faster in the digital age: as Jan said, officials like Donald Tusk, European Council President, now put out the news by tweet and old-style press conferences with free flow of critical Qs & As are out. Jan’s on his TweetDeck all day. The evidence (from research bodies such as Pew) is that readers/ viewers increasingly/ overwhelmingly get their news from social media.
Yet, as Michael added, desk editors back at HQ still demand Brussels staff fill two or three pages so there’s a daily scramble to meet their demands for news, features, commentary/ analysis. In the golden era, he said wistfully, Brussels staff could fix their own working day and stories – not any more. One tweet, even if fake news, prompts a command out of Frankfurt for instant follow-up. Bruno is dismissive again: “Twitter is dead!”
So: where do the journalists get their news? Not from the rendez-vous de midi with the ever-expanding posse of spokespersons trained in the Selmayr school of news management: aka stone-walling. The salle de presse it seems is a venue for displays of mutual loathing. “The commission often presents continuation as change and change as continuation,” says Michael, pointing out that many of their stories are recycled over the years (as his cuttings prove).
Exclusives are the order of the day. For some, like Jean-Sébastien, that means getting ahead of the pack and putting out news tailored to their specialist audience (in energy/ transport/ digital). Contrarian Bruno thinks a “scoop” is providing the reader with fresh understanding of what’s at stake: “the job of a journalist is to give meaning and context, not opinion.” And that involves taking the old-fashioned route of talking to contacts face-to-face over coffee/ lunch and asking: But what does this really mean?
Indeed, he argues that today’s reader is reverting to the idea of dipping into a real (physical) newspaper/ magazine rather than relying on just a few stories on the digital home page. “The idea of the book is back,” he asserts, pointing to the way editors place stories “at the front, middle and/ or back of the book” or the running order of pages. His view, which flies in the face of other evidence that the printed newspaper “book” is almost extinct, is that the reader gains all-essential context that way.
For a freelancer such as Rebecca, what matters is finding stories – and outlets – that pay. In her case, she says, “techy” tales such as the EU’s taxation policy or the “big story of 2018”, the explosive tensions and discrepancies on the sovereign bond market, are tough to cover but pay well. On-the-ground stories about migrants (that she likes) don’t. Unsurprisingly, for Michael and Jean-Sébastien, the big story of 2018 is: the Franco-German rapprochement under “Mercron” and Eurozone reform; Bruno has Brexit.
So, one audience member asks, how does a PA consultancy handle these busy hacks? Well, opines Rebecca, there are three golden rules when dealing with journos (all ignored by EU officials, one might add): 1. Always call back if they ring/ you say you will; 2. Never lie; 3. Admit you’re selling a story/ feeding a line. In a nutshell, be honest!
“Ah, but how can I get these over-worked, stressed-out journos interested in the impact of digitalisation on the construction industry and on its jobs?”, asks another audience member. “Well”, says Michael, “journalists like going out and about, reporting on the ground and August is a dead month for news…”. “That’s your annual holiday gone, then,” I conclude the meeting.