When Journalists Depart, Who Tells the Story? Press Releases and Broadcast-Ready Video Substitute for European Union Coverage, as News Organizations Cut Back on Staff Reporters in Brussels
Jordan, Michael J., Nieman Reports
At the age of 28, Irina Novakova holds a lofty perch in Bulgarian ournalism, covering Brussels as European Union (EU) correspondent for both the most serious newspaper and weekly magazine in Bulgaria. She is prominent among the pack of correspondents from ex-Communist Eastern Europe who try to explain the often bewildering EU to its newly democratic members. Nevertheless, she's anxious. The economic crisis is roiling the region's media. Finances are so bad for her paper in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, that management hit the staff with pay cuts.
In Brussels, meanwhile, recent EU member Lithuania is already down to zero correspondents. The last Latvian fends for survival, and a Hungarian correspondent tells Novakova how his country's sagging interest in EU affairs may force him to freelance, moonlighting in public relations. A veteran Serbian correspondent whose postwar nation aspires to join the EU laments he might need to leave because no client in Belgrade can afford to pay him to report from there. Novakova has attended several farewell parties where the correspondent departs without being replaced.
This trend, though, is not limited to Eastern Europe. The EU press corps itself is dwindling: According to the International Press Association (IPA) in Brussels, the number of accredited reporters has shrunk from some 1,300 in 2005 to 964 in 2009.
What's happening in Brussels is part of the same storm system battering the journalism industry globally. The pressure is not only financial. EU agencies are embracing multimedia and using the Internet to deliver messages directly to constituents in what we might consider political spin-doctoring in real time. Back home, some editors think that European affairs, like so many other stories today, can be covered cheaply and easily from the newsroom via the Internet and telephone. Why keep a correspondent in pricey Brussels?
Novakova describes the "sense of gloom" that permeates the press corps. "I wouldn't call it a crisis or panic but when you talk to colleagues over a beer, they say, 'What can you do, these are the times we live in?'" she says. "There's a lot of dark humor. It's a sense of powerlessness that it's out of your control. Also, that you're not unique: What has hit the car-making industry or the banking industry in London is hitting us. It's in journalism. It's everywhere."
For denizens of its 27 member countries, what the EU does matters, as does the ability of voters back home to know how and why their representatives make their decisions. With fewer correspondents roaming the halls in Brussels, 500 million or so EU citizens are less informed about the policy decisions that affect their country and about the complex relations their country has with myriad European institutions.
Yet the vast EU public relations machinery--with its Webcast press conferences and well-written press releases along with its slick broadcast-ready video--has devalued, unintentionally, the work these foreign correspondents do in the eyes of consumers and editors alike, says Lorenzo Consoli, IPA president. When Consoli attends a Brussels press conference and asks a probing question, reporters back home who watch and listen on a computer, with press release in hand, can incorporate the answer (and the question, if they choose to) into their stories. Those stories can be published online before Consoli even returns to his office.
Follow this to its obvious conclusion, however, and we have to wonder who will be left to even ask questions? What happens when those who actually do reporting are no longer there?
Especially at times of crisis, such as when European nations this year grappled with Greece's financial situation, which sent the euro tumbling and EU members scrambling to find a viable solution. At that point, institutional knowledge and connection to reliable sources is vital. Reporters who've been covering the story for years are well positioned to dig deep and tell the story with confidence in the validity of information they have gathered. …