A Press Prize Goodbye – Thomas van Neerbos

Published on September, 27 2023

After being in charge for over a decade, Thomas van Neerbos resigned as Director of the European Press Prize.

Here is his message for his colleagues, community members, stakeholders, friends and all the people who, with their daily work, contribute to making the European Press Prize the organisation it is today.

When you are about to stop doing something you have done for over a decade, you cannot stop yourself from looking back. Back to those unforgettable moments on stage with winners, back to those lively debates on quality journalism, back to awesome successes and failures. Back, in short, to the big things.

But after the big memories come the smaller ones.

Suddenly I remember quite distinctly a debate we had in the early days of the Press Prize: when awarding projects, should we focus our attention on the organization behind it or the people writing it? Should we focus our attention on the newspaper or the journalist?

The first had the obvious advantage of having an organization share a nomination or win, with marketing and PR power and a recognizable name to catch the eye. Plus, media organisations would be more stable than people, who change location, interests and jobs.

I am so glad that despite all this, we choose to focus on the people. 

We choose to award journalists, not journalism. Put the name of the journalists first, and the media second. Put them on a stage, not their editors or CEO’s.

That at the time seemingly trivial decision had, looking back now, tremendous effects:

By focussing on journalists, we steered clear of getting stuck into those big definitions of journalism. The pillar of an open society, the foundation of healthy democracies, is the one thing separating us from barbarism and brutality. 

Talking of journalism, that vital part of informed communities, it sometimes seems easier to talk the big words than the actual people doing the thing.

“Our Laureates are the true wealth of the Press Prize”

Journalism is all of the above, but by focusing our attention on people we could care for them individually, applaud their individual bravery or sacrifice, their struggles and the results of that struggle: the beautiful work they produced. At pillars you can stare, with people you can dance, drink and disagree – not necessarily in that order.

Because of that decision, we now have hundreds of laureates. Laureates working in Europe or other continents, laureates who are now editors, or teachers, or writers, or stay-at-home parents, or entrepreneurs. Laureates who are people. 

Together with that treasure chest of winning articles throughout the years (still hope the best will someday be a book) our Laureates are the true wealth of the Press Prize. A group of people once involved in a project considered the best out of hundreds of entries. Quality journalists, that can help each other with new projects, insights and topics, help each other become better journalists.

That ‘trivial’ decision had an even more profound effect in my book: it made everything we did ‘human-sized’. It made what we did an actual interaction. A series of conversations beyond borders. A group of people recommending each other news, opinions, books, movies: an ever-growing book club of brilliant people not just reading the books but writing them; not just debating society but actively changing it. 

I am so happy it turned out that way. The people we awarded are now our members, judges, ambassadors and friends. It made my job different each year, it made us at the bureau see and learn so many different things. 

It has made me a better person meeting all these human beings; reading their work, listening to their stories.

Out of all the big names I could mention, the incredible journey it was, my personal involvement and the things I did I am quite proud of, I choose this: the ‘human-size’ of our organisation, built on people who made something beautiful and important, and got together to celebrate their effort, and those of others. 

We need more celebration in journalism. 

Journalism should not just be about crises and wars, it should be a fun place to be as well.

That is why it is fitting to say goodbye to the Prize and its people in Athens in a couple of days. Athens has become home to our Community Event. And while the word Athens itself might put those big words, those pillars and democracies into our minds, our Community Event – getting our ‘clan’ together – should be a cosy celebration.

So, the pinnacle of a decade’s journey towards the heart of journalism is collaboration, community and celebration – in that order. 

Thank all of you involved for making the journey with me.

Hope to see you in Athens!