Registrations of Brussels-based journalists has been shrinking dramatically due to the economic crisis, a lack of public interest in EU affairs and the development of the Internet. From 1300 accredited journalists back in 2005, the number of journalists accredited to the EU is now less than 600 .With the continued economic crisis and the endless collapse of traditional media, this headcount reduction is likely to continue.

What does it mean, concretely, for EU public policy advocates ? The times when journalists were running for exclusive stories are long gone. Smart selection of incoming topics and requests flowing from relevant stakeholders is the rallying cry. Rules have changed. But who gets the priority? The obvious choice, for EU-accredited journalists, are the news coming straight from EU institutions themselves. This is especially true for national media, whose journalists specialised in EU affairs are not granted much space in newspapers compared to their peers working on national affairs. In these organisations, the economic crisis often gets the biggest share of the pie for obvious reasons, and other stories do not get picked up unless they can be source of controversy.

For EU advocacy groups wanting to have a say in the EU political debate through press relations, the core Brussels press corps are something of a last bastion, with members that can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Suffering from the same budget and staff cuts as their national counterparts, these outlets exclusively rely on EU-related stories but are equally overwhelmed with stories, press releases and invitations to conferences or meetings.

Standing in the middle of crowded arena with communication people begging for the attention of a handful of journalists, you don’t stand a chance if you don’t speak louder than others. Concretely, you need a well-written story, with an original angle or exclusive information on a topic that can be considered as media-friendly and, last but not least, a press strategy based on trust-building and frequent contact, be it visual or over the phone. Bear in mind that some releases are planned well in advance and that, even if valuable, the information you share needs to fit with what’s going on in the outside world. Timely response is also a necessity, with journalists being likely to ask a question and expect an answer within the next hour. The moral is, being seen by the media is still possible, but it takes harder work than ever.

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 Brussels?

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.

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.

While traditional journalists are leaving, the amount of information produced by European institutions like Europe by Satellite and WebTV from the European Parliament is growing. The availability of such material online has led some news organizations to conclude that they can rely on such sources and news agencies for their E.U. coverage.  Although the communication flow from the EU institutions is increasing, the material made available to journalists is generally “uncontroversial propaganda" and as such is uninteresting. The EU institutions are confusing transparency with a flood of communications that tries to bypass independent, critical journalists and speak directly to the public. The European institutions produce a huge amount of readily-available video and audio content and provide journalists with photos and press releases from most Brussels events. But this doesn't reveal what the problems are and tells you nothing about process or decision-making. We need to know the controversies between different member states, or between member states and the EU institutions. Citizens cannot understand these increasingly technical EU communications.

This flow of institutional information is mistakenly considered in member states as a cheap alternative to independent information from Brussels-based journalists. The reality is that as a result, there is less informed reporting about policies, decision-making and the background to decisions. The EU is a complex and often technical subject that needs professional reporting from Brussels-based correspondents, who are more familiar with both the detail and the wider picture, and the increasing lack of genuine information hampers the work of Brussels journalists and is ultimately an obstacle to transparency and understanding the EU.



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