On that day and in the weeks after, Belgian newsrooms were red hot with activity. In addition to the main and breaking news stream, we also saw a number of remarkable initiatives being mounted. Editorial, digital, and marketing departments from different news brands were all thinking about how their communities could express sympathy and grief.
There are great resemblances with the way French news brands treated the Paris attacks and Charlie Hebdo just a couple of months prior to Brussels.
A breath-taking piece of editorial work in the aftermath of both the French and Belgian attacks is the “in memoriam” concept — a biography of all the 130 French and 32 Belgian victims. Families, friends, and colleagues of the victims were interviewed and photos were collected.
It was a huge effort in only a brief period of time. They were serialised in the newspaper Le Monde, De Standaard, and Le Soir and displayed in a digital gallery.
It’s a serene way of using journalism for commemoration, and a lot of readers appreciated these efforts.
A digital way of picturing the mourning was a contribution from The New York Times, only two days after the Paris attacks. NYT went to Place de la Republique to film the crowds in Virtual Reality and provided its readers on the other side of the ocean with a close look of the gathering of so many people. During the film, passers-by testified why they came to express their grief.
In these times, news media companies also communicated the resilience of their readers. After Charlie Hebdo, a number of French newspapers actively supported “Les marches républicaines.” With four-million people, it was the biggest gathering in the history of the country.
This support was crucial to give voice to a number of local initiatives trying to reach their audience. The audience responded massively. This is a clear case of the messaging power of classic media.
And, finally, news media companies offer a great opportunity for re-invigorating the affected cities.
Two examples after the Belgian attacks come specifically from the media.
One is “dining for Brussels.” This was a call for support by the Brussels catering industry. Business newspaper De Tijd & L’Echo pleaded to its communities to keep having lunches in the restaurants of the capital, requesting diners take pictures of their plates with their cutlery placed in the form of a peace sign. Dining for Brussels activated the business community and gave the city’s gastronomic industry a boost it desperately needed.
Another even more fragile industry is the cultural scene. Bataclan was closed for a year, putting dozens of people out of a job. In the first weeks after the attacks, rock venues and theatres in Brussels reported a no-show rate of 25% or more by people who had already bought their tickets.
De Standaard countered this with a simple re-activation campaign called “Bruxelles Ma Belle.” Only 10 days after 22 March, the readers of De Standaard found a voucher in their newspapers offering them a free ticket for a rock concert, dance performance, or play.
The response was great. More than 5,000 people found their way back to the city, and the city’s main cultural institutions regained their self-confidence.
While writing this, I couldn’t stop thinking about a song by Ramses Shaffy called “Zing, vecht, huil, bid, lach, werk en bewonder.” “Sing, fight, cry, pray, laugh, work, and admire” is the translation. This is what news brands were doing in these terrifying hours after the attacks. They were mourning the deceased and at the same time celebrating life.