opening address, 2015 NewsXchange, Berlin

Slow is the new fast.

A very warm welcome to all of you at this, the 15th edition of News Xchange.

The first time I attended this fantastic gathering of news people from across the globe, was two years ago in Marrakech. News has always interested me. I am a heavy consumer and hence not only news stories but also the world of news fascinates me. Three years ago I was Director of TV at VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster in Belgium. Today I am Director Media at the European Broadcasting Union.

Allow me to be the outsider at this event and watch at it as some sort of junior journalist on assignment to an event where the bosses are present. This rookie can see the challenges – the complexity of story-telling, the creative demand to tell the tale, the need to respect the victims and the individual.

So let me start with a simple question: Why News?

WHY NEWS ?

The why, the how, the what, the when and the who … you are all very familiar with these questions, because it is your job. Every child, without exception, is repeating these questions time after time in an attempt to understand their world. You too, in your business, you ask these questions to others on your mission to discover the truth and to provide a context to the world.

But do you ever ask yourselves these questions ? Do you know why you landed a job in this business ? And do you ever ask why you stay in this field, despite all claims that news is dead, that Twitter is king, and that young people have no interest in the world anyway ? What is the passion that makes you chose the world of news ?

The why, the what, the how, the who and the when:

WHY Why news ?
WHAT What is news ?
HOW How to cover news ?
WHO Why me in news ?
WHEN How different is news today from what it was in the (recent) past?

I am not sure if you have clear-cut answers to these questions. I guess that is why we are all gathered here. To reflect on what really is our job, what really is our business and how it is of relevance to a democratic society today.

SLOW IS THE NEW FAST

I have been in media for more than 25 years. Roughly half of it I have been making programmes in all genres, roughly the other half of it managing programmes and channels. Currently, in my new role, I do that in an international perspective.

I perfectly remember where I was and what I was doing on a Tuesday afternoon, September 11, 2001. It was 3PM local time in Belgium. I was working in my office on some paper work, and watching television at the same time. It was a big fat screen and CNN was on. CNN, with a concept that was kind of unproven at the time, the idea of 24-hour live rolling news. Well it got tested that day, for sure.

On the screen: images from the World Trade Centres, one of them partly on fire and I remember the news reporter saying something about “a sports plane that might have crashed into one of the towers”. At the same time, from the left another plane entered the image and impacted the other World Trade Centre tower.

At first, I was puzzled when I saw this. Was this a repeat ? Yes … but No. One of the towers was burning already when in that same image the other plane came in. Then, I realized that I had been watching a plane crashing into what was one of New York’s major landmarks –  live. Where I was used to sitting in front of television at 8 PM to watch the news bulletin that would give me a summary of what happened that day, on this “nine eleven” I was watching live one of the biggest events of the century. In real time. Live on television.

Although NATO headquarters were just around the corner from my office and I should have moved on because NATO was apparently also targeted, I stayed glued to the screen for the rest of day. It took a few hours for the news coverage to shift from live coverage – the twin towers hit by two planes, many hundreds of lives lost – to who might have done this and what did this really means not only for Manhattan, but for the entire world.

Since then, we’ve got used to live coverage around the clock at almost any event.  Whatever happens in the world, planned or unplanned, within 15 minutes as an audience we sit in front of our screens – wherever they are –  and, more critically, wherever we are – and we watch the news evolve. The attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year and the manhunt that followed were shown in detail by your teams. Cameras were everywhere and every angle was covered in the neighbourhood of the kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes where the Kouachi brothers were holding hostages on January 8th, the day after the attack. The siege lasted for eight to nine hours, and at around 4:30 p.m. there were at least three explosions near the building. At around 5:00 pm, a police team landed on the roof of the building and a helicopter landed nearby. Before police could reach them, the pair ran out of the building and opened fire on police. Both brothers were killed on the spot.

This was not an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that I was looking at. I was watching news. It was fast, it was furious. But it was real.

Fast is the new normal. You are so good at what you do, that you are omnipresent when “it” – planned or unplanned – happens. Big stories, big business.

Years after nine eleven I bought myself the book “Purple Hearts” with pictures by Nina Berman, who had been following some US veterans who had served in Iraq and came back damaged. Physically and mentally damaged.

weddingjpgI was flabbergasted when I saw this marriage picture of Sergeant Tyler Ziegler and his newlywed. Sergeant Ziegler served in Iraq. In 2004 while he was on a mission in Al Qaim, a town up near the Syrian border, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near his truck.

Remember your wedding picture. You smile, don’t you ? This guy can’t show any expression because that attack wiped all emotion from his face. Whether happy or unhappy that day, he can’t show it. But look at HER … SHE can smile but her face is without expression.

“Words unspoken are rendered on people’s faces”, concluded Nina Berman.

Words unspoken are rendered on people’s faces.

But is that still true in a world that flies by us at such incredible speed?
Is fast the new normal ? Or should slow be the new fast ?

IN A WORLD THAT IS ALL ABOUT FAST ?

The world today is fast and therefore needs an answer that is slow.

Fast food, where children no longer know where milk comes from,  lead to slow food where you sit down, take time to prepare a meal and spend even more time savouring it. To really understand food you need to go back to the ingredients.

Today, not only food is fast. Everything is fast. Fast food, fast reading, fast moving, fast living, fast travelling…. fast news.

Live news is fast news. Charlie Hebdo…very fast news. And again as a news junkie, you serve me well. But I am hungry for slow news that is putting things into perspective. More than ever I need to sit back and understand what today’s world really is about. How does it function ? Who rules it ? What drives it ? Which place do I take in this world ?

And let’s remember those challenges. As life is fast, so news is fast. But it is also complex, it needs to be told with respect, and it demands a masterful creativity to be effective.
Nine eleven was an attack on one of America’s icons. The war that followed was a war on terrorism. The picture of Sergeant Ziegler at his marriage made me understand what this so called war on terrorism really means. And isn’t the key point here that that kind of depth of understanding comes only when there is time to assimilate and cogitate, to piece things together? And the diversity of media we use to come to this understanding – video, the printed word, the spoken voice, the still photograph – gives the story its emotional depth. And connects us to it.

Over the last few months I have seen almost daily, often ’live’, thousands of Syrians trying to cross the border. Heart-breaking stories.
I urge you to take a step back from your daily business – the fast – and provide me and your audience with much more perspective, with much more context of what is happening. Give me more slow and help me understand this world !

IN A GLOBAL, OPEN SOURCE WORLD WHERE THERE IS A LOT OF NOISE ?
When I was at this same conference in Marrakech two years ago Ulrik Haagerup, head of news at DR in Denmark was one of the speakers. He spoke about constructive news. About the importance of showing news events in a more holistic view. To take a step back and to look at news from EVERY angle. Ulrik, in his words is also pleading for more slowness. For putting things in perspective.
One sentence in Ulrik Haagerup’s book “Constructive news” sums up very well why I am on this mission : journalism is a feedback mechanism to help society self-correct.

In the past you journalists you were the experts. The audience was dumb and luckily there was you. You appeared on radio and television, you wrote in newspapers and you explained the world to them. Today we live in a networked society. Through the internet we are connected to people across the world. We have access to an amount of information that was unimaginable to me as a student 30 years ago, where I rejoiced on getting two newspapers on Saturday to spend the weekend with.

A student today doesn’t need the experts; the world is full of experts. Everyone is an expert. But it needs you, the press, to guide them in reading, watching and listening to information that will help them form their proper truth. Each one is entitled to his or her truth, because that is real democracy. Your role has shifted from explaining the facts to providing the context in which to read the world.

WHEN THE ALGORITHM PRETENDS TO BE YOU BEST FRIEND ?

Today there are many gatekeepers in between the audience and the truth. You (and the framework you provide) are just one of them. And I trust you. But I don’t trust the algorithm that pretends to be my best friend. Big data have become very big. Perhaps too big, I might say.

I love jazz music. Female jazz in particular. Shirley Horn, Nina Simone and Helen Merill to mention just a few. At home I have a collection of roughly 500 CDs. I have carefully organized them next to my books and I can sing along with most of the 500 multiplied by 9 (4,500) songs.

When Spotify came in the picture I stopped buying CDs. For a mere 9 euro, much less than the price of a CD I had access to “all the music of the world”. So I discovered Esther Philips, Jacky Terrasson, Melanie De Biasio … and many more. And I got stressed. I used to manage 500 CDs and sing along. Now the algorithm is feeding me with five thousand, even 50 thousand CDs. And I am stressed. I ran away from Spotify and Apple Music – I couldn’t resist this offer either – and turned back to my 500 CDs.

These 500 CDs and George at the music shop at the Place du Sablon in Brussels give me rest. “Think you will like this”, he says and I trust him. At home, after finishing the paper work, I put in the CD, pour myself a single malt (another passion of mine) and discover the music.

There is a word for that: serendipity.

I love jazz. I love single malt. And I love news.

I need you to be my serendipity in news.

Be slow and take me along roads that are unexpected.

WHY ARE YOU HERE ?

To conclude: why are you here ?

Is media power or is media impact ?

Media IS power. You – WE – have a lot of power because we put the world in a framework. And the framework we choose defines how everyone in front of that picture – including me – is looking at the world.

I am looking forward to spending the next two days with you. This is not a 48-hour conference in beautiful Berlin. This is about us, sitting in a power seat, and having a responsibility to our children and the society we all live in.

Perhaps we can have a cup of coffee together. And that brings me back to Amy who wrote to me when I was preparing this speech and gave me this metaphor: “Instant coffee is coffee (kind of). But it’s only enough when there is no other coffee available. And it doesn’t come close to the experience of grinding the beans, brewing fresh coffee, and savouring the flavour”.

I hope they don’t serve fast coffee here, because slow coffee is what we need.

Thank you !