Recharging our journalistic batteries

Norwegian journalists in New York City remind us that our history is still being written: an interview with Ole Jakob Skåtun

Ole Jakob Skåtun, an advocate for Norwegian journalists

Photo: Ole Jakob Skåtun / Twitter
Ole Jakob Skåtun.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Each year, Norwegian journalists descend upon New York, honing their writing and storytelling skills. It is a good gig. I know that in the past foreign journalists from certain countries were entitled to a two-year visa and a temporary tax reprieve. Times have changed as security issues have arisen, but the job still allows writers an opportunity to get up close and personal, to absorb a new culture, and in many places—such as NYC—to absorb a variety of new cultures, which hopefully leads to fresh insights.

Inevitably, they wind up in Brooklyn. For it is here that they search for Norwegian connections. I have had the pleasure of meeting many Norwegian journalists, most recently Ole Jakob Skåtun, from the “rainy and windy northwest coast” town of Ålesund. He was checking out Nordic Delicacies when I walked in. He asked about the neighborhood and I told him I was meeting a woman visiting from Oregon tomorrow. She was tracing the footsteps of her Norwegian family who had settled in Brooklyn. He joined us the next day and is considering writing a series about her journey to reclaim her missing family history.

I thought it would be interesting to interview Ole Jakob about what it’s like being a Norwegian journalist in New York.

Victoria Hofmo: About how many Norwegian journalists are in the U.S. annually?

Ole Jakob Skåtun: To my knowledge there are four Norwegian media outlets with correspondents stationed in the U.S. In addition to that there’s a number of freelancers, but exactly how many I wouldn’t venture to guess.

VH: Why did you become a journalist?

OJS: I’ve had a lot of different ideas about what exactly I wanted to do in life—anything from being a professional musician to a lawyer. A couple years after I started university, in Bergen, I joined the student newspaper there, not because I had a dream of becoming a journalist, but more out of plain curiosity. But it didn’t take me long to realize that it probably was the best way to channel my energy and pursue my interests. You get to work on things you’re passionate about (most of the time), and depending on how you go about things, you get to play your own small part in setting some sort of agenda, bringing public attention to issues you find worthy of it.

VH: What training have you had?

OJS: As an undergrad I double-majored in Economics and Russian, and then I went abroad, to Russia and Korea. I did a couple of internships, but spent most of my time working freelance as a journalist. As far as journalistic training goes, the student newspaper in Bergen was a good “school.” They brought in experienced reporters to hold talks and seminars; we had workshops and a lot of focus on feedback and evaluation. Beyond that, it’s been learning the practical way, from doing things on my own and together with others.

VH: Why did you come to N.Y.?

OJS: I came to New York last fall because after a few years of working, I decided I wanted to get a master’s degree before I got too old. I’m currently doing a program in international history at Columbia.

VH: For whom do you write?

OJS: It’s been a decent amount of publications—it depends on where the story fits, I guess… I’ve done work for Aftenposten, Dagsavisen, Bergens Tidende, Sunnmørs­posten, Dag og Tid, For Him Magazine, and a few others. I’ve also written a lot for a North Korea-focused outlet, during my time in Korea, called NK News.

VH: What do you consider to be the role of a journalist?

OJS: The most important role of journalism, in my view, is about checking the power and holding to accountability the institutions and actors that the public vests its interests in. There’s also an element of empowering people in it: you provide information so that people and institutions make informed decisions, and hold informed opinions. I’d also say there’s a less “serious” kind of journalism, which is also important, and is more about inspiring interest and fascination for things—the stuff that makes people laugh, cry, or just reflect on things. Everyone likes a good story.

VH: What types of stories most interest you?

OJS: The journalism I most appreciate reading or watching—or producing myself—is the stuff that’s more documentary in nature. The stuff that zooms out and places events in a broader context and gives insight into important aspects of our communities and the world we live in.

VH: Which N.Y. story are you most proud of?

OJS: Since I started at Columbia, studies have kept me fairly busy, so I’ve honestly not had too much time on my hands to do as much journalistic work as I would like. But I recently got a story published on the Norwegian-American community in Bay Ridge, which I think readers found interesting.

VH: What has surprised you most about living in New York?

OJS: I’ve had this stereotypical image of New Yorkers as cold and arrogant. Even Americans say this a lot. But I’ve got to say, my own impressions of New Yorkers have been almost exclusively good ones—people are generally super nice and really helpful. But maybe it’s got something to do with people in other parts of America being even nicer? I don’t know. Oh, and also, the fact that internet connections in this city are really lousy.

Journalists like Skåtun are doing more than providing news to a Norwegian public, they are serving as a type of Norwegian ambassador. They are our new Norwegian immigrants, albeit for a limited time, and their role is essential, as the Brooklyn Norwegian heyday becomes further removed from the present. Their interest in Brooklyn Norway today reminds us that our history, our culture, and the contributions of those who came before us and those who maintain this legacy truly matter. If this also recharges our batteries and our resolve to preserve our legacy, so be it.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.