How Dutch Journalism has changed, an interview with Leon Willems

By Leroy Leijtens

Leon Willems started working as a journalist in 1989. In 1995 he became Editor in Chief at a public broadcaster where he quickly worked himself up. After leaving in 2004 he started working at the UN and from 2008 he has been working in media production. His main focus has always been on making television. Now Leon also is the director of Free Press Unlimited. A global organisation that focuses on the press freedom and safety of journalists.

You started working as a journalist a long time ago, what has changed the most?

I think that within public broadcasting there is a big scarcity of good journalistic items. In 2005, for example, there were still hundreds of regional and local broadcasters. Their disappearance has had an enormous effect on the information perception of citizens in the Netherlands. There is little journalistic research and too little “real people” in the news. There is very little emotional translation of what impacts people. I think that because of this many Dutch people no longer recognise themselves in the news.

How big is the role of the fast-paced and globalised world we live in today? And what does this do with the workload?

A lot more content needs to be published by far fewer people in much shorter timespan. In the past, ten colleagues were involved in a broadcast. Now, there are just three or four people. This is due to the development of the financial situation. The media has to deal enormously with the decline in advertising revenues due to the rise of social media platforms. It’s estimated that 60- 70% of advertising revenue has disappeared. This has translated into the outflow of labour and a flexibility of journalists with a lot of freelance journalists as a result.  It used to be impossible that within an item about Russia, a journalist from the editorial team is questioned by a colleague about what is going on in Russia. In the past, an expert would be asked for this. There are still correspondents, but you can see that they are often fed with what the editors want to hear. Fifteen years ago, as a television reporter, you got a week to make 20 minutes. I could visit experts, organisations etc, I could look at other countries. Over the years we have started working with smaller cameras to save costs. But also filming without sound guys so the reporters had to do this themselves. The number of recording days was cut back. This of course is visible in the items that are shown. Now, there is someone in an editorial office all day, keeping an eye on what’s trending on Twitter. But I often wonder what the journalistic relevance is of what is said on Twitter?

When we talk about all these issues, social media, financial pressure, but also polarisation and fake news, etc. What is your view on the future of journalism?

I think the acceleration and format regulations will not disappear. However, there is a shift. More mistakes are made, things are less well researched, items are less appealing to certain groups. And I think this can only be reversed if the information market drastically changes. This can only be done by organising the market better. For example, by making the major media platforms pay taxes. Now there is a journalistic and well-researched story on Facebook, next to a totally untrue and false story. Only the people who can afford to pay for news will be well informed. You see that social/economic inequality translates into information inequality. We need a system where the
money is simply transported back into independent journalism.