An interview with René van Zanten, director of the Netherlands Journalism Fund
By Jennifer Moreau
What can newspapers do to survive in the Internet era? How can journalism be more innovative? What compels younger folks to spend money on news?
These are just some of the questions René van Zanten contemplates as director of the Netherlands Journalism Fund, an initiative started to help newspapers adjust to the digital age. Van Zanten is a newspaper industry veteran who has worked as a journalist, editor and publisher. As the fund’s director, van Zanten knows what works and what doesn’t, and he has advice for Canadians interested in fostering innovation.
JM: What are the most successful forms of innovation the fund has been supporting?
RV: We have a lot of projects that we have funded. Some of them are still running. We are involved in Blendle for instance, and The Correspondent, with a lot of money. We have dozens of them by now. Of course, some of them don’t make it, but some of them do, and some of them are very successful, I’m glad to say.
Which are the most successful?
Blendle and The Correspondent are the most impressive examples, because I know everybody is talking about them, wherever I am.
The Correspondent is the first news platform based on crowd funding. They found 60,000 people to pay 60 euros a year for their platform. They made more than a million euros. It was unprecedented then.
Is there anything the fund has done, in particular, to help newspapers?
We were founded as a fund that was particularly for newspapers, but we changed because we think it makes more sense to subsidize journalism instead of newspapers. We subsidize and help newspapers, too, but not to survive – to be innovative. That’s what we do.
What’s the best way for newspapers to be innovative?
Go online as quickly as you can and be smart. We don’t have a magic key to tell people what to do, but we do know what you shouldn’t do. We have a very nice study we published last year, the Scenario Study. We urge people to look at the scenarios and rethink their own future and get them to be part of the strategy and deal with the fact people will no longer read paper in 10 years time, or print, or much less anyhow. Same goes for broadcasters; linear broadcasting is out. So that’s all in those scenarios. We try to help journalism, and thereby also newspapers, to find new ways to reinvent themselves.
When newspapers go from print to online platforms, they tend to bring in a lot less money, and that’s a huge problem. How do you help a newspaper survive when you’re trading dollars for dimes?
Of course, that’s the biggest issue. People don’t read less; they are still interested in journalism. They don’t want to pay for it anymore. That’s of course an almost worldwide problem, at least in the Western world. I really don’t have the answer to that other than that we talk a lot about the way that journalism has to change, and journalism has to change in the sense that it should to be somewhat more constructive maybe. But at least it should be much more relevant than it is or used to be. We think that if journalism will get relevant again, then advertisers will come, and they will be willing to pay money for advertising on your site or your app or whatever.
The problems are the same, but the solutions are not. We live in an area where 17 million people speak our language, and that’s it. You have hundreds of millions of people who speak your language, so you have much more possibility to survive being a Canadian newspaper, whether it’s French or English. You have much more (of a) chance to survive than newspapers in the Netherlands do. We sold our last national newspaper today, so. (laughs)
All our national newspapers have been sold. We had one left, and it was sold today.
Who bought it?
The Belgians did. They bought all of our newspapers.
Why are they buying your newspapers?
Because they do know how to make money with them.
They do? Interesting. I should call Belgium.
They have a very, very simple trick. They buy more and more and more newspapers. They have a lot of … how do you call it …
Economy of scale?
Yes, that’s what I was looking for. They survive, and they survive, and they just wait until something falls out of heaven. But they are buying time with economy of scale.
That’s what the company that we’re dealing with, Postmedia, is doing as well: buying more and more print products, but they are also more and more in debt. And any money the newspapers make, they take to pay off that debt but the debt keeps getting deeper and deeper as they borrow more money to pay off the debt.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster.
What advice would you have for people like us that are trying to help the people working at those newspapers?
Well, I think the problem you gave, that you outlined, is the problem. Most print newspapers still make some money with print. They invest in digital ventures and they don’t make money – they lose money on digital. That has to do with the fact that they don’t know how to – sometimes they ask their news desks to make a digital paper as well, and we think it makes more sense to found a new company and make it digital. It has nothing to do with the other company except for the fact that they can use the news. That gives you at least some perspective of what you’re doing and how it’s all mixed. The only thing you know for sure is that in the end you lose money. It’s a very difficult problem, and we hear a lot from publishers in Canada and the United States. They have alternative ways of making money by organizing congresses, publishing books, things like that – things we can not do because we are too small for that.
If the government of Canada were interested in starting a new innovation fund here, what advice would you give them? What should they do, and what should they not do?
It took us about five years now to find out what works and what doesn’t. We have very intensive programs with pressure cookers and things like that. I think if the Canadian government would do something like that, they should ask people like us, but like foundations and others, how to do that, because in the beginning, you make a lot of mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes. We gave money to projects that died within a year. Now we know a little bit better how to deal with innovation. It’s a real problem. Another big problem is you have to think the way that the newspapers you represent are going to use startups. That’s the big question we have here – big discussion. Most big printing publishers, they say we’re going to innovate from within the company. That hardly ever works, because there’s no culture there that allows you to really make big steps.
If you have a startup that’s very promising and you integrate it into your newsroom, then it will probably die.
Those are the two key things: how to deal with startups, with new plans, how to flourish them, how to use them, how to benefit from them, and the other one is how to help young people with ideas to (start a) project, to make sure it’s something that’s sustainable. That’s the real problem. But there’s a lot of experience in that field. Here in the Netherlands, it works very well. We (talk) a lot about the programs we do in other countries. In Belgium, they are going to do this as well. They are going to have a fund (that’s) going to stimulate innovation in media. I think it’s a real good model. One of the things we do now – it’s called The Challenge – one of our innovation programs, it’s for young people, for students. That’s something we stole from the Knight Foundation.
One of the things I wanted to ask about, with Blendle in particular, some in the journalism community have commented, saying, yes, it’s a successful model, but it works for the Netherlands, where they have a closed linguistic ecosystem. Everyone in the Netherlands speaks the same language, and they are surrounded by other countries with different languages, whereas in Canada, we all speak English, and we’re next to the U.S. We would be competing with free news in English from the U.S. Do you think something like Blendle would work in Canada?
I think it can, yes. In the Netherlands, they were very skeptical as well when they began. Everybody said it’s going to cannibalize our newspapers. But it didn’t. It just attracted more people to read – especially young people. We were very charmed by the idea that young people were given an opportunity to read again, and pay 20 cents or whatever, and read the article they were interested in, instead of buying a whole newspaper, which they would never do anyway.
So we were skeptical at first, but we thought let’s give them a chance. And it works very well. I think it works in Germany now. I see no reason whatsoever why it shouldn’t work in Canada. We’ve been in Canada a few times, and I think the way people read newspapers and read news is very much like the way we do that, so there are no big differences there, I think. But it took them a few years here as well to be successful, but now they are – and not only here.
Is there anything else we should know in terms of what works and what doesn’t?
I could talk about this for a whole day; it’s my job. (laughs)
We had a lot of discussions at congress last week about how traditional news organizations refuse to use user-generated content. We had a big discussion about that, because they publish a story and people react on the website, and they do nothing with that. So that’s something that’s really a discussion now – and in radio and television now. So we try to do things like that. We do a lot of research and try to give everybody pointers – maybe this helps, maybe try this.
This is one of the things: listen to your audience. They can really help you in developing your story. Don’t be arrogant.
That’s the story in the Netherlands, I doubt that’s the same in Canada, but that’s something we’re doing here now. In general, but you know that of course, it’s about being relevant to journalistic ends. That makes all the difference.