by Sharon Verhoeks
Paul Geerts, beloved lecturer at Fontys Academy for Creative Industries and freelance
journalist, has a long history in journalism. His career took off in 1984, a year before he
graduated from Fontys Academy of Journalism. We can find his name in the archives of
many Dutch news media; OOR, HP/De Tijd, NPO 3FM and Brabants Dagblad to name a
few. Geert is a firm believer of the idea that everyone, known or unknown, has a story to tell. In this interview, we’re discussing why the veteran started working in journalism, how he thinks the industry has changed and what the future of journalism will look like.
Verhoeks: What was your main motivation to study journalism?
Geerts: My interest in other people’s stories, call it curiosity, and my social awareness made me decide to study journalism in 1982. I still don’t regret it, the competences I learned there proved to be fruitful in other places.
Verhoeks: How did you experience the workload in the beginning?
Geerts: Deadlines and journalism go together like peanut butter and jelly. In that sense, one could state that there’s always some kind of work pressure. Especially if you are a freelancer and need to switch between different clients. In order to thrive as a freelance journalist, it is important to learn the art of saying no, even though that can be hard sometimes.
Verhoeks: Would you say the industry has changed over the years?
Geerts: Definitely. When I started in the 80s, there was no such thing as the internet. Social media didn’t exist, either. Both have really changed the job. Mainly because the consumer perceives news as a free product, many media outlets don’t have any money to pay for freelancers. Journalism turned to a glorified hobby in most cases.
Besides that, journalism is under attack by populism these days. Many people are living in their own bubble and only try to consume news that fits in said bubble. Freedom of speech is at stake because people forget the importance of pluralism. They tend to forget that mainstream media, as they are being called nowadays, are essential in a democracy; everyone is being heard. If we decide to turn our backs on pluralism, we are heading to a dictatorship. Examples of this can be found in fake news, which has similarities to propaganda.
Verhoeks: Would you say the job of journalist became harder because of this?
Geerts: It is not per se harder, I’d say it’s different. Journalists these days lack originality
because they need to score. It’s all about clicks. Clickbait and algorithms are hurting
journalism. Several media abreact this on their journalists, which really hollowed out the practice. The competitive spirit to perform, or the need to be clicked on, is stressful.
Verhoeks: How do you experience the workload nowadays?
Geerts: I chose to partly turn my back on journalism. This was a conscious decision. I don’t like the way journalism evolved into what it is today. I’d rather choose the moments I want to be a journalist. At those moments, I love to spend my time on it so this relieves the stress experienced by most. My vision hasn’t changed though. I am still curious and I am still convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell.
Verhoeks: What do you think the future of journalism looks like?
Geerts: It’s important to exterminate fake news in the future. It’s the worst thing that
happened to journalism. Besides that, it’s depending on the journalism academies and
journalists. The importance of pluralism needs to be highlighted. Journalism can’t be fully objective but should always be independent. Influencers, for example, are not journalists. They are billboards. The future will show an even more versatile industry. Old media like newspapers, TV, radio and magazines won’t disappear, but the influence of podcasts, vlogs, internet, social media and research initiatives, like Follow the Money or Belingcat, will increase. Lastly, I’d say it’s extremely important that the main characteristic of journalism, regardless of medium, should be based on facts. If this fails, to hear and rebuttal are indispensable.