Dick Wittenberg (1953) is a Dutch journalist and writer. His ambition to write started when he was about seven years old and the urge never stopped. Three years ago, after working for 30 years as a journalist for several newspapers, he decided to focus more on writing non-fiction books. This resulted in three books: Prikkeldraad (Barbed wire) 2015, Het gezicht van armoede (The face of poverty) 2015, and Binnen is het donker, buiten is het licht (Inside it’s dark, outside it’s clear) 2013. The last book was crowned with the Bob den Uyl prize and the Dirk Scherpenzeel prize. He now works as correspondent ‘worldsavers’ at the online journalism platform 'The Correspondent'.
In his early life Wittenberg knew he wanted to become a writer. Although his dad passed away when he was still young, Wittenberg remembers sitting beside him in the living room and watching him write. From that moment on, he wanted to become a writer too. His dad was an accountant so it seems more likely that he was noting numbers instead of writing stories but these domestic scenes resulted in Wittenberg's desire to become a writer. Assuming that writers and journalists were doing almost the same job, he left for Utrecht to study journalism.
The educational innovations of the seventies that implied democratization of education did not work well for Wittenberg. For a young man that wanted to do well, the project-based subjects and excessive freedom did not give the decent foundation he would have liked. What did help him to improve his writing skills was his range of correspondence friends that made him write six to seven letters a day.
‘Writing, even when you only write small letters, is always useful.’
Still, even though his study didn’t provide him a good set of skills, he never worried about getting a job. He just wanted to get started and learn the profession by experience. Wittenberg returned to Eindhoven and applied for the first job he could find. From there on, he applied for other jobs. Eventually, he ended up at the Institute of Social Research for Surinamese. Maybe this is where his affection for minorities has started but due to an incident with a corrupt management, this job ended.
A while after the resignation, he started working at NRC Handelsblad as a correspondent from Eindhoven, reporting the news of Philips and PSV. It seems characteristic for the unruly attitude of Wittenberg that he moved to the sports department when he wanted something else. At the time, the department was highly unpopular and conservative. Since he wasn’t only interested in reporting games, he shed a new light on the department by publishing background stories of sportsmen and analyzing sports behaviour, instead of just reporting a match.
Due to the NRC Handelsblad, he also ended up as a reporter in London. On the contrary to his preference of being in the shadow, he was now staged directly in the spotlights. This pressure weighed heavy on him; besides long working hours and a baby at home, he felt the responsibility for his paper because of the enormous financial outlay for his correspondence. With unstable politics and the death of princess Dianna, it were tempestuous times for England and consequently for Wittenberg as well. Publishing every day worked addictive and ego-flattering but eventually also caused a burnout.
‘Publishing every day worked addictive and ego flattering but eventually also caused a burnout.’
When he returned to the Netherlands, he could start as an editor in the foreign department focusing mainly on Africa. Although he never thought of it himself, it appeared to be the spot on. In this position, he could fly to Africa four times a year and write background stories while not being obliged to bring the daily news. Naturally, he mainly visited countries nobody was originally interested in and reported stories that would not be told otherwise.
Still, the times when newspapers had the financial resources to fly reporters all over the world several times a year are over. As we start to talk about contemporary journalism and how digitalization influenced it, Wittenberg does make clear that he doesn’t see a substantial difference between pressed or digital journalism. But he observes an increasing level of snack-content in articles. I'm not sure whether he is joking when he refers to some contemporary journalists as ‘modern vampires’. By this term, he means journalists who are reporting gossip and celebrity news instead of covering the role of a trustable guide, as he likes to see the true journalist.
The ideas for his books were born during his last years of employment at the NRC. Due to the shrinking budget, there was no money available for thorough research and long background stories. Yet, Wittenberg was persistent with his ideas and decided to quit his job and become a freelancer. With some rough ideas for his books, he found a publisher and raised the necessary funds. In this way, he created a particular certainty and enabled himself to become a book writer after all. Simultaneously, Rob Wijnberg started the online platform 'The Correspondent' and Wittenberg decided to join on a freelance basis.
The research for his books turned out to be a fantastic experience for him. On the contrary to writing for a newspaper, he now experienced the freedom to follow side-tracks and didn’t feel the pressure of tight deadlines. For his book Prikkeldraad, he visited the place in America where barbed wire was invented and ended up in an elderly home that was funded by money made in the barbed wire industry. This home fascinated him so much that he stayed there for almost his whole stay in the U.S.A. His eyes twinkle when we talk about his ‘barbed wire journey’.
Wittenberg wants to create decent and enjoyable pieces of writing and by doing so, he wants to contribute to society.
Later, it becomes clear that twinkling eyes are the highest profit you can get from publishing non-fictional books about subjects most people walk past. His previous books were about the Malawian village Dickisoni that Wittenberg followed for over 10 years. The daily poverty that is normal to half of the world’s population. The connection between this village and Wittenberg is strong and he tries to return every year. He says that it keeps him grounded and reminds him of all that is good in life. It’s one of the greatest privileges of his career that he was able to travel so much and was accepted in a culture that is so different from our own.
When I ask about the origin of his engagement to minority groups, Wittenberg refers to his youth. He grew up in de Bennekel, a deprived urban area in Eindhoven. Thanks to the choices and support of his mom, he was able to escape this milieu but never forgot where he grew up. He always stayed connected to minorities in the shadow of society. But this is not the goal of his writership. Wittenberg wants to create decent and enjoyable pieces of writing and by doing so, he wants to contribute to society. Additionally, he emphasizes that he doesn’t want to write about celebrities and superficial media events. He prefers to write background stories that the reader cannot read every day and therefore enlighten people and events that are usually left aside.
In his writing, Wittenberg doesn’t necessarily look out for stories; he comes across subjects that interest him and keeps an archive (A small part of this archive is displayed in the title photo.). He later states that he doesn’t see himself as a journalist but more as an archivist, a storyteller and collector. While getting older, he also likes to share his knowledge with young journalists and mentor writers with ambition. After his books, he decided to put his writing on the back-burner but if it was up to him, he would keep writing and collecting stories till the end.