Hear from Sarah Anne Aarup, the recipient of our seventh fellowship

My last post | August 18, 2020

Now that my time as the seventh Lénaïc Fund for Quality Journalism fellow at MLex has come to a close, I’m so grateful that on January 2, 2020, I chanced upon the Lénaïc Fund for Quality Journalism.

Over the past five months, it’s been a joy to take my first steps in the world of reporting. The path was steep — I’d never received any formal journalism training before, nor did I know much beyond the basics about EU trade and Brexit. Just 13 days after the start of the fellowship, the Belgian government recommended remote work because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But I never felt alone thanks to the unwavering support from MLex colleagues, Lénaïc fellows and Lénaïc’s parents, Aulde and Charles.

It’s virtually impossible not to mention Covid-19, which has been a part of everyday life and work across the globe this year. Coronavirus has been a real wildcard, revealing the vulnerability of individuals, societies, customs and cultures. Belgium started to lift restrictions in June, but an uptick in cases in July prompted a new tightening of rules, meaning that part of my last month of the fellowship was spent in home office.

Journalism will probably have to adapt to new means and methods. For instance, a major challenge and opportunity lies in source-building: news require sources, and the better the sources, the stronger the story. Whereas pre-Covid, reporters in Brussels would meet sources at conferences and over coffee, now “virtual coffees” seem to be a new norm. But as one person told me, for there to be sufficient trust between the source and the reporter, you need to be able to look each other in the eye. A Zoom videocall probably doesn’t cut it, especially if it’s a first meeting, meaning that young reporters are at more of a disadvantage when it comes to virtual source-building. But new opportunities also lie in our stronger reliance on tech. Now that geography is even less of a barrier, this may encourage reporters to widen and diversify their source network.

The pandemic and ensuing economic crisis has dealt a blow to the media sector, as individuals and companies seek to cut costs. Under the current market conditions, finding employment as a reporter has become even more challenging, especially for young people.

Aspiring women journalists need the Lénaïc Fund more than ever to kickstart their career in Brussels. This is why it’s so painful to see that the Fund has had to suspend its fellowship program because of missed fundraising opportunities due to Covid-19.

As the motto goes, “once a Lénaïc fellow, always a Lénaïc fellow.” I’ll strive to report with rigor and integrity, and sincerely hope that the fund will once again be able to support aspiring journalists to launch their career in Brussels.

If you know of any possible sponsors for the Lénaïc Fund, please get in touch with the Fund at info@lenaic.eu. And if you would like to make a donation, you can do so here. Your help is much appreciated! Thank you!

Mid-point on my fellowship | June 30, 2020

Since my last post, there now seems to be light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. As of this month, the Belgian government has been allowing people to return to their workplace, although the official recommendation remains to stay at home as much as possible. Brussels is emerging from its state of lockdown hibernation, with cafes, bars and the European quarter returning to life.

After having spent nearly three months working from home, I chose to return to the MLex office a few times a week. And I know that this has been said a million times over, but being with colleagues in person just isn’t the same as remote work. This is particularly the case for someone new to the reporting trade, where being around other journalists is the best way to soak up know-how. So I’m especially excited for what the month ahead will bring in terms of experience.

And there may even be a glimmer of hope for a Brexit deal, with accelerated in-person talks throughout the month of July. From the start of my fellowship in March until just about now, the Brexit negotiations have shown little progress, and both sides are starting to sound like broken records, with level playing field demands from Brussels hitting up against London’s key issues of sovereignty and fisheries. I’m looking forward to a potentially more constructive tone and maybe even a bit of movement on the Brexit front by the end of my fellowship in July.

On the trade beat, global flows have rarely been slower, with an 18.5% drop in the second quarter of 2020 compared to last year. As the EU tries to promote its new concept of “open strategic autonomy” and is reviewing its entire trade policy, it’s been fascinating to follow how opposition to China has been crystallizing across the bloc.

Since my previous blog entry, I feel like I’ve made strides in my reporting skills. I’ve conducted an interview with a key MEP on the Brexit resolution, spoken to representatives of influence groups, obtained early information on one of the Commission’s white papers, and even asked a somewhat daring question to a Secretary of State in a phone press conference.

Many people I’ve spoken to have told me that the timing of my Lénaïc fellowship, from March to July, was pure and simple bad luck. Some even asked me if I’d considered postponing it altogether. But after reflecting on the situation, I’m even more grateful than ever before that I’ve been given this opportunity. I feel ready to embrace the challenge of launching my path into journalism during the Covid-19 crisis because it’s times like these that build up grit.

Right around 2009, when I was fourteen or so, my school organized a career day. At the time I was interested in journalism. But after listening to a reporter whose takeaway message was never to go into the field because the chances of finding a job were close to zilch, I put the idea on a back-burner. But the yearning never disappeared; a decade later, when the Lénaïc Fund for Quality Journalism gave me the chance to try my hand at reporting, I was over the moon.

This is why I’m particularly sad that due to the current crisis, the Lénaïc Fund for Quality Journalism has had to postpone future fellowships due to the lack of funding. The Fund’s support has played a decisive role in launching the careers of many young women reporters, and I know for a fact that without it, I may never have dared (re)kindle my desire to pursue journalism.

This beautiful initiative in loving memory of Lénaïc deserves to outlive Covid-19. To help the fund survive, please take two minutes to make a donation.

My first post | May 13, 2020

Craning backwards to early March feels like a time warp to a rosy past. This was shortly before Europe grasped that Covid-19 would become a global pandemic — not to mention an economic crisis — in a matter of weeks. 

At the start of March, I was on a cloud, giddy and humbled to become the seventh fellow supported by the Lénaïc Fund for Quality Journalism.  I was ready to embark upon the fellowship at MLex, a leading newswire focused on regulatory risk — to learn the craft of journalism in Brussels. 

From my very first day I loved the newsroom buzz, with journalists on the phone chatting to sources, concentrating on hearings, finishing a story or heading off to an event. This was the new and exciting environment where as a journalist, I would be challenged to constantly learn, analyze information and, most importantly, write compelling stories as fast as possible. 

I’ll be honest: it was a little intimidating at first. As you may have already guessed, I’m green to journalism, beyond having occasionally written for student publications. As I was assigned to the trade and Brexit “beats” — as per journalism lingo —, I quickly had to pick up specific knowledge, ranging from future customs procedures in Northern Ireland after the UK’s transition period to the politics behind the EU’s concept of Geographical Indications for food, like champagne and feta cheese. 

On March 5, I attended my first press conference at the European Commission. It happened to be the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaking right after the first round of the EU-UK negotiations. It was surreal to badge into the building, walk through the press room and plonk down on cushy conference chairs. An MLex colleague gave me the low-down on which journalists usually sit where, how to ask questions and swiftly catch quotes. When Michel Barnier appeared, standing a few meters away on the podium, someone whom I’d previously only seen in newspapers suddenly came to life.

Covid-19 plot twist: On Monday, March 16, we all started to work from home, and the following day Belgium entered lockdown. The switch from office to home was strange and destabilizing in the first few weeks of confinement. As the EU institutions and other organizations were adjusting to virtual workspaces, plans froze, events were cancelled and current affairs ground to a halt.

As a journalist with two weeks of experience under my belt, the situation felt particularly daunting. Not knowing where news was happening nor how to access it was a challenge, as I had not yet developed personal sources and general media sources like press conferences had yet to move online. 

Now that the world has switched from in-person to video-link meetings, I feel in sync with the lockdown lifestyle and new ways of work remotely. And I can’t help but wonder whether the pandemic will permanently change the way journalists go about their work—will this period have proven that physical, in-person reporting is overrated? Or, on the contrary, have remote working conditions hindered the overall quality of reporting? It’s probably still too early to fully understand how Covid-19 has affected the field of journalism. But I’m looking forward to returning to in-person work in the near future to forge my own opinion.

Although jumping into journalism during Covid-19 hasn’t been the easiest ride, it’s provided me much food for thought and an intense training ground of sorts. I want to sincerely thank my colleagues at MLex who have been supportive, reaching out and taking me under their wing remotely. I also would like to extend my gratitude to the Lénaïc Fund for Quality Journalism— Lénaïc’s parents, Aulde and Charles, have shown great care and kindness throughout the pandemic. A huge thanks goes out to the Lénaïc fellows who’ve welcomed me into the community and shown genuine support and compassion. Finally, it is a true honor to have been given the mission to uphold Lénaïc’s core values of quality, integrity and professionalism in journalism.