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Claude Karger hands over Lëtzebuerger Journal’s editorship to Melody Hansen. An exchange of experience.
Claude Karger was 33 years young when he became editor-in-chief of the Lëtzebuerger Journal. After 25 years in the job, 15 of them in the aforementioned position, he is embarking on new paths. At 28, Melody Hansen becomes the first woman to take over as editor-in-chief of the established medium. A conversation between two generations, between print and online – but above all, between two people who sincerely care about quality journalism.
Melody Hansen: We both attended the language section in high school. So we share the affinity for languages. Was that one of the reasons why you became interested in journalism?
Claude Karger: It actually started there. I attended the Luxembourg Athenaeum and got involved in a project for a school newspaper. I was very enthusiastic about that. I helped creating it for years, collected cartoons and took photos, which was still very manual at the time. Everything had to be photocopied and the photos had to be developed. It was a great experience and at the same time the key moment that made me think about maybe doing it professionally one day. To get closer to the profession, I did my first internships in the local editorial department of the Tageblatt, where I discovered my love for writing and language, for expressing myself, communicating and summarising things.
Melody: Another thing that connects us. I did my first internship at the Tageblatt in 2012 – when I was 19.
Claude: Many people started there. What was that like for you?
Melody: Writing has always accompanied me. I became interested in languages and stories very early on. I like to read a lot because I enjoy getting to know as many points of view as possible. Reading opens up so many worlds. I liked the internship so much at the time that I continued working as a correspondent. After graduating from high school, I asked myself – as probably everyone does – the big question: “What do I do now?”. Since I wanted to gain experience, I decided to work as a correspondent for the Tageblatt for a year. I was in the editorial office again and again for a longer period of time and worked there. This time showed me how much I would like to take up the job. That's why I decided to study online journalism in Berlin.
Claude: That's the generation between us. When I started as a journalist, there were still modems with 9.6kb/s transmission speed.
Melody: I can actually remember the time when making a phone call and surfing the Internet were not possible at the same time.
Claude: Today, this is common practice. The internet has become the main channel for transmitting information.
Melody: In your early days, research work must have looked very different. Journalists couldn't just type something into a search engine.
"I was actively involved in the first IT changes that were made between 1996 and 2000."
Claude Karger - Editor-in-Chief of the Lëtzebuerger Journal 2005-2020
Claude: We worked with the good old telephone book, our own network and the editorial department’s network. A lot of the research work was run via phone calls and in field research of course. I remember piles of press releases on the Imprimerie Centrale’s desks, where the editorial office of the Lëtzebuerger Journal was still located at that time. The texts needed proofreading and here again galley proofs, preliminary versions of publications meant for review, were piling up. The texts were sent to the corresponding service via pipe mail, where they were put into the correct typeface. Then they were glued by hand onto page templates, which were then photographed for the printing process. There were many adventurous situations. It has been a long time, but then again it hasn't been that long. We are talking about 30 years in which the media world has changed so much. I was actively involved in the first IT changes that took place between 1996 and 2000. I was there when digitisation processes began.
Melody: Do you remember a striking experience in your career as a journalist?
Claude: There are many striking experiences and it is difficult to highlight one. I remember tough times when the Wolter-Roemen affair started, a litigation between the then editor-in-chief of the Lëtzebuerger Journal and the CSV minister Michel Wolter. There were searches in the editorial office. That was an extreme experience.
Melody: What was it like back then? Were you sitting at your desks when the police searched the newsroom?
Claude: Something like that. The police officers were at the door holding a search warrant. They searched everything and took folders. That was the beginning of an affair that made journalism history because, above all, it strengthened the protection of sources. Rob Roemen unfortunately died tragically in 2012. However, parts of the case are still pending at the European Court of Human Rights.
Melody: Is there another historical event that has particularly marked you in your career?
Claude: I did a lot of research on the Bommeleeër file. Already during the attacks, the Lëtzebuerger Journal tried to find the possible connections between them. The situation was extremely tense at the time and there were even bomb threats against the Journal's printing house. By the way, the Lëtzebuerger Journal was also the first newspaper to write about that the investigation had been concluded and needless to say we followed the process in detail. Our court chronicler at the time, Pierre Welter, Laurent Graaff from the magazine Revue and I, published a book in 2014 in which we record the course of the trial, which was aborted in July 2013. It also reviews the entire history of the Bommeleeër affair. The research work was exciting, we had to comb through many documents and archives and cooperated with colleagues from Italy, Belgium and Switzerland.
Can you think of a story that you put a lot of research into?
Melody: One interview I enjoyed a lot and for which I had prepared intensively was the one with Fausti Cima. As a child, I loved the audio plays by Jang Linster. Speaking to the voice of those stories was great. Fausti kept starting to sing during the conversation and we laughed a lot. There is another rather sad piece of research that I particularly remember. I spoke to relatives whose loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes had to die alone during the pandemic because no one was allowed to visit. Those were very emotional interviews, after which I had to cry a time or two.
Claude: One story I will remember for the rest of my life was an interview with an autistic person. It was a challenge not only to get through to her, but also to follow the conversation. We were talking in six different languages.
Melody: And you understood all six of them?
Claude: All of them actually, except for Latin. I could follow her in Italian, French, German, English and Spanish.
Melody: That reminds me of my feature on the "Gebärdensprachen Kafé" at the Escher Kafé. That was very challenging because I couldn't record or take notes during the interview. After all, I had to look at the person while they spoke to me in sign language and moved their lips accordingly.
Claude: It shows you what challenges the person sitting in front of you has to face in daily life.
Melody: Absolutely. It was particularly interesting because it was an inverted world. The people there in the café only spoke to each other in signs and I didn't understand anything. Usually they are the ones who feel excluded in such a situation. This made it easier for me to put myself in their shoes.
Claude: Is there a journalistic format that you prefer?
Melody: I like writing portraits about interesting people and introducing them in more detail. Describing in those features, what happens, how people behave, asking them how they feel in relation to different circumstances – that's important to me. If you take enough time for preliminary research, you can also write great interviews. I wouldn't like to commit to a format – every story has its format that best suits the conditions, and then the article falls into place.
Is there a fictional person you would like to have interviewed?
Claude: I would have liked to interview Professor John Keating from Dead Poets Society. In Peter Weir's film from 1989, he is a professor at a conservative boarding school in Vermont. He tries to teach literature in an unconventional way. I would have liked to ask him how it came about that he wanted to teach literature differently. The film inspired me a lot to deal with literature when I was a student. I would also have liked to interview the actor who portrayed him – Robin Williams. He had a whole range of facets and I would have loved to talk to him about life. Williams was an entertainer, but at the same time a very fragile person who had to overcome himself to come across as easy-going. Sadly, he committed suicide in 2014.
Who would you like to interview one day?
Melody: I can't really think of anyone offhand. I wonder whether it is because I'm not really that interested in interviewing big personalities. I'm much more interested in talking to all kinds of people who may not necessarily be well-known but have something important to say.
Claude: Why did you actually decide on the Journal project?
Melody: Because the Journal dares. It dares to do something new and innovative and to free itself from the thought of a traditional media – with full commitment and all its heart. This is a challenge that all media have to face. In my opinion, it’s the only option left – for the worldwide press. I don't think that print will disappear completely, there are newspapers that will last. Online is the future. It's a unique opportunity to help build something from scratch and I have the chance to be part of it.
"There are not enough women in the luxembourgish media world. I wish that more young female journalists would dare to take – and be trusted with – leadership positions."
Melody Hansen - Editor-in-Chief Lëtzebuerger Journal
Claude: What was your reaction when you were offered the position as editor-in-chief?
Melody: I am a person who likes to take on challenges – and I don't like to let opportunities pass me by. I know that if I accept the challenge, I will grow beyond myself and learn something new. And that’s exactly what I want. For this reason, I am always open to constructive criticism. Only those who reflect on themselves can make progress. The first position I took with this in mind was as secretary of the ALJP (Association luxembourgeoise des journalistes professionnels). Followed by the vice-presidency at the Press Council. When I was asked if I wanted to take over the editorship of the Lëtzebuerger Journal, there was actually no doubt that I wanted to do it.
The second point is that I have simply noticed that there are very few women both in the ALJP and in the Press Council, in the Luxembourg press in general. Even fewer of them in leadership positions. However, I think it is very important that women have a say in what is talked about in our society. Simply because other issues come up. In the last few years I have written about many topics that I had never heard of before – because they are hardly ever discussed. Violence in obstetrics or endometriosis are two examples. I have been upset often enough about the fact that there are not enough women in Luxembourg’s media world. So if I get the chance to contribute to changing that, I certainly won't say no. I wish more young female journalists would dare to do it – and be trusted to do so.
Claude: The new editorial team has a very equal gender balance. That has been the case at the Lëtzebuerger Journal for a long time. We have always been at a 50/50 balance between women and men in different positions of responsibility. I have always held on to that and it is good to pay attention to that. The Journal has nothing to hide in that respect.
Melody: Do you remember what it was like for you when you became editor-in-chief back then?
Claude: That was at a time when Rob Roemen took his well-earned retirement after more than 30 years at the Lëtzebuerger Journal. The footsteps I was to follow were deep. Rob Roemen taught me a lot. And he always said, "You have to take this on". So he was already preparing me for that. In 2005, I was entrusted with the position.
Melody: Do you remember what your first day as editor-in-chief was like?
Claude: It had been announced for some time that I was to take over the position. I always kept in close contact with the newspaper – even when I was not employed – and wrote for it. Thus, contacts with the team never broke off, which increased the acceptance among my colleagues. After that, of course, I had to familiarise myself with the files. In addition, we were in the middle of changing the editorial system when I took over the position. In editorial offices it's generally like that, as soon as changes come along, there's a lot of excitement. After two or three days, everyone calms down again.
Melody: Is there anything you would pass on to your 33-year-old self?
Claude: I would tell him that he has to listen more attentively to everything that is happening around him. That he should deploy his antennas as much as possible. Both in regards to his colleagues at work and with his partners, and of course with the readership. It used to be a bit more difficult to keep in touch with the readership. There were phone calls, but today people have less inhibitions about writing an email.
Melody: Or commenting on social media.
Claude: With social media, the need to communicate has become stronger. The feedback that used to come with a little delay and probably a little more filtered, is now immediate.
Melody: And what would you pass on to me, as a young editor-in-chief?
Claude: The same thing I would have said to myself: extend the antennas and always keep your ears wide open. Especially, of course, to those who read the content of the Lëtzebuerger Journal. The readers' input is important, but so is the colleagues'. And it helps to read a lot, to dive into files – then many topics open up.
What would you like to emphasise on in the future?
Melody: Inclusion and humanity are very important to me. That everyone can find themselves in the content of the Lëtzebuerger Journal and that as many realities of life as possible are reflected. The readers should get to know topics from several perspectives – also to be able to be more understanding of the people and the world around them. Complex contexts should be broken down with regards to the individual more often. How does a high-level decision affect the individual? What does it mean for its everyday life? These are things that are close to my heart.
Melody Hansen looks at her mobile phone, Claude Karger at his notes on paper