Summer reporter 2011: Introduction (Part I)


A journalistic dream came true for Dutch journalist Gemma van der Kamp when she was given the opportunity this summer to embark on an investigative trip to report on the theme “Journalism without Journalists” in eight European countries.

As I was reading my daily round of websites on journalism last May, I stumbled upon a job vacancy for a summer reporter on the Dutch journalism blog De Nieuwe Reporter (DNR).

For the fourth time this year, the independent group weblog for journalists was giving a young journalist a chance to showcase his or her journalistic drive and skills in a series of stories about the practice of journalism in Europe.

Summer Reporter kit

Past summer reporters have reported on the Future of Newspapers and Creative Journalism. This year, the theme to be covered was Journalism without Journalists.

There have been heated discussions on DNR this year about whether organisations and individuals who engage in journalistic work by publishing articles and producing video reportages are a threat to the profession.

The summer reporter’s task would be to investigate on the topic in a European context. 

My application

I decided to send in my application because I am hugely interested in the international news cycle and have always dreamed of travelling and telling the stories of the people who would cross my path.

The theme required me to plunge into the European media landscape and look beyond the mainstream media.

To make a good impression, I did not write an ordinary application letter, but chose instead to make a video film in which I explained my plans.

Application video

The editors of De Nieuwe Reporter said that my enthusiasm, vision and ability to interpret the theme broadly clearly stood out among the other applications and gave me the go-ahead.

De Nieuwe Reporter decided to crowd-fund the money for my trip through the platform Nieuwspost, an initiative founded by the Dutch communication strategist Bob van t Klooster.

The DNR team promoted the project on Nieuwspost and simultaneously approached various organisations for additional funding. 

Disappointingly, money flowed in slowly and I set off in July with only 70 percent of the requisite budget of EUR 2,500. Halfway through the trip however, the Dutch national broadcaster RTL Nederland decided to make up for the rest of the amount. In exchange, I would give a talk about my travels to a group of citizen journalists working for the citizen journalism website

My task was to produce eight stories from eight European countries in a period of eight weeks. Since De Nieuwe Reporter promotes itself as a group weblog showcasing journalistic research without any strict editiorial guideline, I was completely free with regards to the content and length of my articles, as long as I would submit one story per week. The stories would be edited on major grammatical errors and published on the weblog.

Summer Reporter at work

A big jar of countries

Journalism without journalists in Europe: that was all I had to start off with.

Europe suddenly became like one big jar of candies. Where would I go and what would I write about?

As a student in International Journalism, I had the advantage of being surrounded by journalists from 40 different countries.  I asked my fellow students for examples of initiatives in their countries of origin which, in their opinion, would illustrate the theme Journalism without Journalists.

All the examples, however, revolved around the too obvious concept of citizen journalism.

I felt that there had to be more out there. What about NGOs which are using their experience and means of access to particular areas to create journalistic products, such a video reportages or periodical newspapers? Or companies which are maintaining their own news channels? What does Journalism without Journalists mean in countries enjoying less press freedom than the UK and the Netherlands?

My preliminary research made me realise that the theme was subject to many interpretations. It also raised many questions. If professional journalists in some countries are highly censored, how should we call bloggers who abide by ethical standards when exposing the wrongs in their societies?

I therefore decided to slightly broaden the theme to Journalism without Traditional Journalists.

Travelling across Europe

The theme was challenging enough, but the trip proved to be even more so. In two months time I rushed across Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain by foot, train, plane, bus and boat. I spent many a night in shabby hostels holding my backpack in my arms like a cuddly toy, to minimise the risk of theft.

Travelling across Europe

I wrote my articles at airports, in dark corners of noisy cafés where the Wi-Fi worked best, and in shaky trains in the midst of curious locals who wondered what I was doing. I often had to recharge my laptop battery at night while I was asleep. The life of a foreign correspondent in the heydays of traditional foreign correspondence residing in a four-star hotel was not granted to me.

But I did not care. I highly enjoyed listening to the testimonials of eight exceptional journalist-like news producers.

With a smile on my face I walked side by side with an ambitious Danish citizen journalist who had earned himself the nickname of Mr. News. The Ukrainian plumber who worked as an investigative journalist at night dazzled me with his stories, knowledge and energy. I was inspired by the ambitious university professors in Madrid who produced their own television show on the impact of the economic crisis in Spain. 

Lessons learned

Looking back on the trip, I feel that journalism is the most effective means to inform a broad audience about what is happening in their (direct) environment and how it affects them. I believe that every human being deserves the right to be informed. I have met news producers who accepted to risk their lives in order to expose abuses in society. I felt that I could also contribute to their mission by being a vehicle for their stories.

I was inspired by the Bulgarian photojournalist Mimi Chakarova who gave a guest lecture at my university last year. Chakarova described the four key values she felt a good journalist should have: honesty, curiosity, kindness and modesty. During the trip these four values became like a journalistic mantra for me.

schedules and tables drawn by interviewees

One main difficulty I came to face was the language barrier. Although most of my interviewees managed some level of English, many resorted to drawing sketches, tables, small graphics (see picture) to help me understand their explanations.

Finding my way in all those countries turned out to be much easier than expected. I was warmly welcomed as the young, foreign journalist who, glued to her small backpack filled her bare essentials, had travelled for hours in trains in the hope to secure one or two interviews. I was offered dinners and introduced to other potentially interesting journalists and news writers. At one point, my interviewee even travelled half an hour to pick me up after I had completely lost my way to the agreed meeting place.

Winter reporter

When applying for this project I had overlooked the fact that the summer reporting assignment would be restricted to European countries. In my enthusiasm I had focused on a trip through Africa (see my video application).

If I had the necessary funds, I would immediately set off for a winter reporting trip through African countries. I would be interested in researching how increased internet access in the coastal regions are affecting media development and whether a public news service such as an ‘Al Jazeera Africa’ could be created and what medium would work best to reach as many people as possible. I believe that a lot of innovative ideas in the media are to be found on the African continent.

This is the first in a series of three articles dedicated to Gemma van der Kamp’s Summer Reporter project.

De Nieuwe Reporter is an independent web log for journalists showcasing journalistic research and developments in new media and technology. DNR was founded in 2005 by Theo van Stegeren, programme manager Media studies at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) who felt there was a need for a platform to air journalistic research studies which often end up in filing cabinets. DNR’s editorial team is made up of journalists, former journalists and journalism teachers. 

Related article:

Summer Reporter 2011: Discovering new niches in the news market (Part II)
Summer Reporter 2011: Underground professional journalism (Part III)