Press, 31mag meets Vrij Nederland for its 75th anniversary [ENG]

by Massimiliano Sfregola and Paolo Rosi
Translation from Italian by Giulia Tiriticco

vn 6Reporters Without Borders places The Netherlands among the top ten countries with regard to the freedom of the press. However, a recent study by the European Journalism Center states that the Dutch media are rather close to power; it also argues that a proximity persists between power and journalism, unlike what happens, for example, in the United Kingdom.

So you’re saying that the media are entangled with the power? Or too close?” Close, which doesn’t necessary mean influenced. But sometimes there might be too much friendship between the two. What do you think about it?

In The Netherlands things are different than in the UK, where media and politics are more polarised and there are significant economic interests. First of all, in The Netherlands people would rather subscribe to a newspaper rather than buy it on the street. In the UK, and maybe also in Italy, in order to sell your newspapers on the streets you have to shout and to be more outspoken: I think of the tabloid press, born precisely in the UK, with its headlines about sex, scandals etc. This is what you find over there, because they think it sells more. The Netherlands has also a different political tradition. It is more a consensus country, where the divisions among the main parties are never huge and where coalition governments, coalition politics and compromises are the norm. Right after the Second World War, society was divided in pillars, and each pillar had its own newspaper. There were the communist newspaper, the social-democratic, the catholic, the protestant etc. So, until not too long ago, in the ’50s and ’60s, each newspaper had its own pillar.

This is maybe the reason why you never had newspapers founded by political parties, as in the South of Europe.

Exactly. Since the ’60s, the press has no longer inclination towards political parties. At the same time though, due to the consensus democracy, you have to get close to different parties in order to obtain the news for political reporting. You don’t have an enemy or a friend; you have to do your business as a journalist, one day as a liberal and the other as a social democratic. You don’t have a group or a club you belong to. The journalists who cover politics are trying to stay close to their sources in this sense, because they are dependent on the information that comes from them. I am not sure though if it is correct to say that this makes these journalists less [critical]. But it is true, we didn’t have very big scandals exposed here as in other countries in Europe over the past years. But this may be because we don’t have scandals of that scale.

Vrij Nederland is considered as a highly critical newspaper that has made upset several politicians in different occasions. Would you start a campaign as it has happened in other countries?

No. The only newspaper in The Netherlands that does campaigns is the Telegraaf, and exclusively on popular issues. Sometimes they are successful, sometimes not. But mainstream and weekly newspapers don’t do it.

vn 5Let’s talk about sensitive issues of public interest, such as the one of the police violence, which recently caused very emotional social response. Articles about it have been published but, in our opinion, what was missing was a detailed analysis. Do you think this is a result of the tradition of consensus, as explained before, or of pure editorial choices?

I cannot speak for other editors. We have covered the riots of The Hague, and the editorial line of our articles has acknowledged the police brutality against ethnic minorities. But I think that the general hesitation came from what was happening at the same time in the US. In The Netherlands we are not used to add fuel to the fire. I don’t know if this is lack of courage or wisdom, but there is a certain reluctance to make accidents like these look bigger than they are. However, I have no indications that this topic was covered less that it should have been.

So, a general reluctance persists. Normally editors think twice before sharing certain information.

It is always good to think twice. But, as I said, only if somebody shows me with facts that we have reported less that we should have, ignoring a real pattern of abuse, discrimination and police brutality… in this case I would say that we had done a very bad job. But it is not: the question was: “Is there anything rotten in the police of The Hague?” and we have made a front page story out of it.

vn 4If I am not mistaken, you were editor in chief at Trouw when the scandal broke of the devising articles about the mini caliphate in The Hague.

No, luckily not, but I know the reporter involved. When he arrived, I was just leaving. It is a very sad case, because Trouw is one of the most reluctant newspaper to add fuel to the fire, but in this case they did.

This episode had a worldwide impact and casted the Dutch press in a bad light. It was a great blow. The number of people who trust the Internet more than the press is increasing; at the same time this scandal proves that even a professional newspaper, which employs tens of freelancers, can commit the same mistakes that online activists do. How a media such as Vrij Nederland, with its reputation, can fit within this situation?

In a sense, history teaches that you never control enough your sources, and that you should be prepared in case someone wants to question your article. In general, one of the main problems we are facing is that we report a society and yet we are not part of a big part of this society. Take as an example the Muslim community in The Netherlands. The editorial staff of a newspaper is mainly composed by natives and by few lonely reporters who try, not without difficulties, to get into some communities. And they do it, anyway, surrounded by colleagues who are not aware of what happens within certain groups. The distance is often way too big, although there are exceptions.

So, you believe that there is a sort of distance.

Well, the engagement of people from different cultures when writing about a society, is a challenge that we have not yet been able to grasp. Not as we should have, at least. And the results are visible in cases like the one you have mentioned. The same happens when you cover topics such as the jihad: you can never get the whole picture. For instance: we were able to get our hands on the juridical documents of the process that involves more than 20 suspected jihadists, which will start in The Hague after the summer. The reading is fascinating, but it is hard to form your own opinion when one is not part of the Muslim community.

A Dutch colleague said the same talking about the Maroccan mafia and the war that the last years has been conducted against it. He complained that, as a journalist, he found himself writing about a crime when everything around it had already happened.

Gradually we see more [Muslim] people entering the field of journalism. The problem is that people with a higher education feel the pressure to choose for a more lucrative career.

So you think that the Dutch journalism cannot keep up with the huge social change that is taking place over the past years?

The risk is that we are becoming alienated from the poor part of society. In The Netherlands there is a growing division between people who have more and those who have less. We should be able to count on journalists who are really out there, who are willing to invest their time and to find interesting sources; at the same time we have to produce more and more and to be online all the time, and clearly this is easier to be done from a desk. Some newspapers can do it, others not.

Here we get to another important point: the funds to the newspapers. In this new era, in which money do not longer come linearly from advertising and subscriptions, how do you imagine the future of journalism?

I suppose that many tasks, nowadays performed by journalists, will become obsolete due to technology. At this point everyone has the tools to do journalism and the limitations of the old days are gone. At the same time, we witness a flood of information and we need someone able to play the role of the intermediary between this flood and the public. We will still need professionals of the communication, able to work independently and to base their opinions on knowledge. For sure the economic model remains a big question mark. Sales and subscriptions are decreasing also in The Netherlands, although less than in other countries thanks to the subscribers’ strong attachment to the newspapers. Yet, they are diminishing. Through the sales we only break even with the budget, which is a problem if we want to invest in alternative models. We realise that newspapers are gradually becoming in-depth magazines. Our newspaper is already one of those; but to our readers, who are often subscribed to several newspapers and get informed as well by the television, we need to offer an added value, something that keeps on convincing them to renew their subscription to our newspaper. So for instance we are trying Blendle, a digital “kiosk” for journalism through which you can access our individual items by paying very little. Up to now the results have been encouraging; this won’t be “the” model but at least one of the models. It shows, in fact, that people are willing to pay for quality journalism online.

But don’t you think that this also means “jeopardising” the work of the journalists, by opening and chopping Vrij Nederland, selling a product which is the result of the work of a journalist and, in doing so, overshadowing the magazine itself?

We will see, in the future it could happen. It will be interesting to see whether journalism will become a “solo” job, or whether the brand of a newspaper will keep on playing a decisive role. In The Netherlands, I think, there are very few journalists who could live as a “one-man band”. Look at the US, where the really successful bloggers are very few, with the exception of those who write about fashion and food. Of course, it can happen that columnists and journalists, seeing that their pieces are sold more than those of others, ask for a salary increase or decide to set up their own business. Here in The Netherlands there is the example of a website that aggregates individual signatures, the Post Online. This one like others, are all interesting developments. In the past we were very generous in sharing long reports, but now we realise that they represent an added value for which it is fair to pay. At the same time we want to maintain and to expand our online friends, especially among the new generations. The newspaper will increasingly focus on long formats, while as a brand we want to keep on being part of the daily news flow. We decided to change our strategy, although in this case “strategy” is a big word, and we have launched a new website with daily comments and free articles. In this way we hope to enlarge our online community and, eventually, to make a source of income out of it.

So the 75 year “old gentleman” will become more spurious, will speak other journalistic languages and will feel more comfortable in the world of the social media?

vn 2Yes, but we are not on the frontline. We are not the great innovators, but we look at the successes and mistakes of others. Because we have a lot to lose and a few money to invest. We are not De Correspondent, you know?

We were just to talk about it, because this newspaper represents a real case for those working in the sector. On the one hand we have De Correspondent, an excellent example of quality journalism entirely online; on the other hand we have PowNed, low quality digital journalism that attracts a great amount of people. These could be two examples of what the future will look like: a populist, sensationalist and poor quality non-journalism on one side, and De Correpondent on the other.

What is interesting of De Correspondent, is its model: a group of people who decide to do quality journalism online without advertising, relying entirely on subscriptions. Clearly the fact that they were all considerably known in The Netherlands has helped a lot. And I must say that they have also been lucky, because in The Netherlands it is much easier to receive money if you are a start up, rather than a newspaper like ours. Anyway, I like their model, which is not so different than ours. But they belong to another generation, completely online.

Another question. Today a big problem consists in protecting the market news. Since the main responsible is the major newspapers, what to do?

This is a tough one. On the one hand, the pressure to cross the border between publishing and advertising is high. According to the experts, in the future it will be increasingly so. In our website there is a section which is vaguely called “partner blog”, in which some companies can tell their stories to get visibility, in exchange for money. But in order to protect the news you need structural funds, private but without commercial purposes. It is a bit like it happens in the US, where the philanthropic infrastructure is much more widespread.

Maybe everyone should do as the Guardian, which has diversified its structure.

Yes, it is also true. However, in The Netherlands we have almost lost the newspapers because of the system of trust. I worked for the group that published Trouw, Het Parool and Volkskrant. When the leaders began to panic about the fate of journalism, they sought private investors and sold themselves to the hedge founds. A move that nearly killed the company.

Do you believe that public funding, although rather old-school, might work? As in Scandinavia, for example, where the press is doing fine thanks to state subsidies.

I am not envious of that model. I think of the national television, which is subsidised by the taxes of the citizens: if you want to do serious investigative journalism is a real headache to work on public television. The government could give us a little help, but newspapers should find anyway their own model to remain independent. In this respect, money from private foundations could help, but it should not be the main source of income. I believe that people should continue to pay in order to access the content.

A halfway between Vice and De Correspondent?

Yes. Personally though, I would rather be on the side of the latter. I come from an older generation, and I wouldn’t like to look at a website and not to be able to understand which news are serious, which are sponsored and which are mockeries.

For sure it would be strange, even for a twenty year old, to see side by side a story on a brand of trousers and an exclusive report on the Caliphate.

Yes. But in fact it happens already in the newspapers.

A question specifically about Vrij Nederland. As a magazine, we find interesting that your first pages are dedicated to individual characters. In Southern Europe this is almost unknown as a practice. In fact, you like portraits.

It’s a choice. We like to write long stories, and these need a lot of space. But in order to keep the reader’s attention, the profiles seem an excellent solution. Besides, the life of a character represents an opportunity to give a perspective on a given topic. Instead of telling about the relations between Italy and EU or Germany and EU, we prefer to write about the characters. A few editions ago we had Renzi, for example.

This reminds us the Time, rather than other magazines.

Yes, it can be. We want to make room for people with good ideas. That’s why we also talk about almost-unknown nerds in the field of applied science, art and culture, who do very interesting things maintaining low profiles. For example, every year we look for “radical renewers”, people that try to change society with small social and ecological projects. By doing so, we integrate traditional journalism with stories that are focused on innovative projects. And this is a challenge, because the distance between a story written in a journalistic style and marketing is short. But I think it’s worth it: it is a way to bring innovative ideas to the readers, instead of constantly repeating how rotten things are. And we know that they are rotten, but.. in a sense, we had to reinvent our mission. And a way to do it, is to create a network of readers that choose us.

It is though interesting to see that, except perhaps an attempt by NRC, no one points to the new Amsterdammers, who are not Dutch.

Many of us have thought about it, the Telegraaf for sure. They had also thought of something for the Turkish community, but they had then concluded that it would have not been marketable. There are too many divisions within the minority itself: traditionalists, liberals, Muslims, atheists, Kurds, Turks in rural areas, Turks in big cities, hipsters and so on.

Last question, about the front page of a few weeks ago, dedicated to Matteo Renzi.

renzi vnThe Renzi-cover?

Yes. Why to devote an entire front page to Matteo Renzi at the worst moment of his political career?

We were not aware that it was the worst moment of his political career.

Well, surveys show…

Actually, it was a matter of pragmatism. A freelancer had offered the story and we thought that, due to the situation in Europe, it was the right time to publish it. I confess that we were not fully prepared on the Italian question. Perhaps the freelancer should have warned us, but what to do? To throw the story? To change it? The New York Times had just published a similar piece. Probably somewhere outside Italy it was decided that this was the Renzi-moment even if you, in Italy, thought otherwise. We’ll see.


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intestato al direttore Massimiliano Sfregola
(causale: recharge 31mag)

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