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March 28, 2017, 8:59 a.m.

“Slower structural developments that shape society”: A Q&A with De Correspondent editor Rob Wijnberg

“What we try to do is to chart out what’s in between those extremes, because most of the world is not ruled by the extremes; the everyday reality is what the world is actually about.”

Donald Trump’s election may have shocked half of the United States, but the rise of xenophobic nationalism is nothing new in Europe, where, since the Great Recession, nationalists have gained support across the continent. In the Netherlands, far-right politician Geert Wilders fell short of expectations in the election two weeks ago, but he still finished as leader of the second largest party the Dutch Parliament.

I asked De Correspondent editor-in-chief Rob Wijnberg about Wilders in the age of Brexit and Trump, and how the politics of our times drives — or doesn’t — De Correspondent’s unique take on journalism. This brief Q&A, lightly edited, sums up much of how De Correspondent applies its theories into daily practice.

Ken Doctor: 2014, when you launched De Correspondent, and 2017 are very different moments in world history, with first Brexit and then the unbelievable arrival of Donald Trump. You’ve laid out this international vision of journalism. At the same time, in some ways, it’s the antithesis of the way much of the world seems to be moving. So how do you place those thoughts in this historical moment?

Rob Wijnberg: Well, it’s interesting, because superficially this is the right moment because of Brexit and because of Trump and all these developments. There is much more public support for in-depth journalism and paying for journalism. You see this movement, especially in the U.S., where people massively subscribe to all these different news outlets just because they said, “Okay, we want to secure some quality journalism instead of just having all this free and fake news that’s all around us.”

So that’s superficially. More importantly, all those things you mention like Brexit and Trump and Wilders as well are phenomena that prompted a response that was very familiar to me in the past 10 years I’ve been working in journalism. That response was, “Oh, we didn’t see this coming. How couldn’t we see this coming?” So Brexit was one — the polls were wrong, we didn’t see this coming. Trump was the same thing — all the media had the whole discussion: “What was wrong with our reporting that we didn’t see? We mocked him six months ago, and now he is the president.”

And that blind spot really is the kind of blind spot we try to fix with our news stories. So our basic news philosophy is — because news is always about exceptions, sensational exceptions to the rule, you never get to see the bigger, slower development that is behind the rule. So our idea from the start, four years ago, was: Can we make newsworthy stories out of those slower structural developments that shape society? And things like Brexit or Trump or Wilders or all these things are, of course, like the most sensational outcomes of these slower developments that lie beneath them. Because of these examples we have, now it’s much easier for me when I go around and talk about The Correspondent all over the world, to explain to people what we try to do. It’s much easier now for me to explain it to them, because I have these great examples of slow structural developments that you see everywhere in Western countries with these spectacular outcomes everybody knows.

I explain to them: If you want to really understand how these changes come about, you have to change your definition of newsworthiness into something that focuses more these deep structural levels.

Doctor: So for instance, with Wilders and feelings about immigration in the Netherlands, how have you treated that differently than most of the rest of the press has treated it?

Wijnberg: So I’m generalizing here, because there’s always some great newspaper that is the exception to the rule. But the general rule is: Our immigration discussion in the Netherlands has been the same for the past 15 years. You have polarization. There’s the camp who says multiculturalism has failed and we need to close the borders and this whole myth about multiculturalism. Then there’s the other side who says it’s the exact opposite — human rights, et cetera, et cetera.

What we try to do is to chart out what’s in between those extremes, because most of the world is not ruled by the extremes; the everyday reality is what the world is actually about. But media focus so much on people like Wilders or the voices on extremes that you forget this whole middle ground.

Doctor: So how did you work that middle ground, for instance, in the run up to the election, and do you see any impact in that vote?

Wijnberg: One thing we did was organize a national discussion by cooperating with three different media outlets that are very different from us and they reach a completely different audience than we do. Like the Dutch USA Today and the Dutch Fox News.

We said: Let’s sit at the table and think about how can we organize a fruitful, constructive discussion between people that only know each other from the stereotypes they get from their own media. So if, let’s say, the Dutch USA Today — if you ask those readers, “What kind of people read The Correspondent?,” they have this stereotype of left-wing, liberal, blah blah blah blah blah. And the other way around, if you ask our readers, “What kind of people read the Dutch USA Today?” Then you’ll probably get this “nutty right wing,” et cetera. So we said: Let’s have an online conversation with a set of rules, where there’s only one question. And the question was: What experiences have made you think about politics that way you do? And we had a conversation. The idea was sharing these experiences to further the understanding of each other. So that was one kind of project we did.

Doctor: That was an online conversation? Was it shared with the partners?

Wijnberg: The conversation was on our platform, because we were the online partner of the whole conversation. And then parts of that conversation were republished in a newspaper, and people who were in the conversation were invited on the radio talk show that we work with, to talk about what they were writing on our platform as well. So we had this three-media cooperation, and the results were published on all the different platforms.

So that’s one. Another one was about the refugee crisis. So traditional media focuses on refugee crisis up to the point where the refugees end up in our country and then have to build a life here. So when they’re coming, they’re interesting, because they have to take on this dangerous trip with boats, and they come to our borders. Then, it’s all in the news all the time.

The moment the camera stops rolling is the moment where they get here, get a permit and have to start building a life here. And we said we have to chart out, to map what happens then, because that’s the blind spot we have. We know the bad apples and we know when they have to go back, but we don’t know the normal people who eventually end up living here and be our neighbors.

So what we did was we organized a group interview. We asked our members to find a refugee in your neighborhood. We had questionnaires and said: For the coming six months, fill in these questionnaires for us with this refugee you have as your neighbor. So eventually a little over 300 members participated, and this resulted in the largest group interview of refugees ever done in the media. We would never have had it if we’d just followed the traditional script of, “Okay, find a journalist, he finds two or three refugees to interview.”

Photo of Geert Wilders by used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 28, 2017, 8:59 a.m.
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