Published on April 24, 2012
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After five years and a few months, the last issue of the Dutch free daily De Pers was distributed on 30 March. Despite a strong belief in its exceptional editorial formula, De Pers was not able to survive in the Dutch free newspaper market.
The early days of De Pers were characterised by high aspirations, great enthusiasm and journalistic idealism. In 2007, the founder of De Pers, the publisher Cornelis van den Berg (Mountain Media) convinced one of The Netherlands’ richest men Marcel Boekhoorn to invest in a newspaper that – he hoped - would become the biggest in the country.
“Daily searching for new owner/publisher”
Boekhoorn invested as much as EUR 60 million in the newspaper whose circulation however, after little less than a year, fell from 500.000 to 200.000 copies. With the lack of advertising revenue, the paper proved to be very difficult to sell to another publisher.
Neither PCM nor Metro nor De Telegraaf showed interest in taking over the daily. In 2009, Mecom’s daughter Wegener eventually signed an agreement with Mountain Media. It did not, however, manage to save the paper and pulled the plug in mid-March this year.
A journalistic loss
Notwithstanding its shaky business model, the newspaper was - amongst its readers and Dutch media experts - widely praised for its outstanding journalistic quality.
Van den Berg en Boekhoorn had hoped that De Pers’ catchy, original reporting and bold features would be the recipe to defeat its “empty” competitors in the Dutch free newspaper market, Metro and Spits, which highly rely on wire copy.
Journalist Remco Tomesen worked at De Pers for three years. “Compared to other journalists in many other newspapers, we were much freer to do as we liked,” he said. “We were encouraged to actively look for scoops, and not to necessarily strictly observe the rule of the five W’s in our reporting. Obviously, fact checking remained very important, but particularly in the last years I felt that the content was more provocative, with opinionated articles and eye-catching covers.”
In his book Gratis maar niet goedkoop (Free but not cheap), author and journalist Govert Schilling’s described the first years of De Pers as a dream for journalists - work-wise. “De Pers started in an office without central heating and sufficient electricity supply, but with loads of passionate journalists,” he wrote.
“Editorial meetings took place in the editors’ homes, and were followed by inspiring late night brainstorming sessions.”
During the first two summers of De Pers, a team of reporters was sent around the world for a series of articles.
“There was much room to experiment,” said Tomesen. “After all, we did not have any old guard of subscribers who complained whenever something would change. For many newspapers, innovation processes take much longer as readers quickly grumble about changes.”
“Looking back, we were the first to write about the problems related to the flow of Eastern European immigrants coming to work in the gardening market in the Netherlands. At the start of this year, the situation escalated in the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders opening the highly criticised anti-Polish website.”
”And, while most of the press only watched the art project Nude women on bikes by photographer Spencer Tunick in Amsterdam, one of our reporters took part, naked, in the installation and wrote a piece from a participatory perspective.
Many of my colleagues felt De Pers was the only medium left in the Netherlands where experiments and ideas like that were encouraged.”
Journalist Remco Tomesen: “There was much room to experiment at De Pers.”
Almost instantly after the news of its closure, three loyal readers started an online rescue operation called Save De Pers. In about a week, around 12,000 readers indicated they would be willing to pay a small fee to read De Pers online.
Meanwhile, De Pers has been collecting ideas for alternative ways of starting up again. It recently launched an app called De Nieuwe Pers, providing Twitter messages from its former editors, columns, an archive with articles published in the newspaper over the last five years and news about a possible start up again.
Jan Jaap Heij, the former editor-in-chief of De Pers, commented on Twitter that he ‘little by little’ is gaining trust in a good ending to the story. However, a new start up with a printed paper, is out of the question.
What is the secret of a successful free daily?
Why, in spite of this enthusiasm and songs of praise from its readers and the media profession, did De Pers not make it?
For some, it was because “it’s not a free newspaper after all, it is a newspaper that has one subscriber, a super rich one named Marcel Boekhoorn who financed De Pers year after year”, as quoted by Schilling in his book ‘Gratis maar niet goedkoop’ .
According to Piet Bakker, author of the blog on free newspapers Newspaper Innovation, a free newspaper needs to be able to rely on two things: advertising and a good distribution model. De Pers seems to have had neither.
Schilling explained that De Pers’ sales department started off with serious debts. Whatever they did to try to catch up – from experiments with a financial paper to the launch of a Saturday edition – advertisements simply did not come in.
Furthermore, the distribution model was ill-considered, argued the editor-in-chief of Metro The Netherlands, Robert Van Brandwijk: “De Pers never seemed to know exactly how many newspapers actually were picked out of the big blue newspaper boxes at the train stations and often, newspapers were delivered too late in the mornings,” he said.
“At Metro”, he continued, “we know exactly where and how much we distribute, we consider the visibility of the boxes and make sure hardly any are left in the boxes at the stations.
One unread newspaper counts for two or more as more people use the same newspaper on the train. These numbers are extremely important when you’re dependent on advertising.”
Ironically, De Pers fans said they usually took the paer back home instead of leaving it for other commuters to read. That meant less readers and less interest from advertisers.
However, according to Piet Bakker, the reason for failure is actually much simpler than that. “What a free newspaper needs is money and a healthy advertisement market. The Netherlands is simply too small a country for three free newspapers. De Pers was the last to come, and consequently, the first to leave.”
For the two free newspapers left, Metro and Spits, times are hard too. “We can criticise De Pers for not being able to make money, but Metro and Spits are not storing big profits either,” Bakker commented.
Metro’s Van Brandwijk agreed: “Spits [which was acquired by the Telegraaf group in November 2011] and Metro are dependent on the same advertising market and Spits is trying hard to make our life a misery.”
“Luckily,” continued Van Brandwijk, “we can take advantage of Metro’s huge international network – Metro publishes 800 newspapers worldwide – and as a loner in the Dutch media landscape, I think that this helps us a lot.”
“Furthermore, I believe that the recipe for growth is innovation and being informed about what the reader wants. Our fashion special, for example, was a risky undertaking, but it has worked out very well. And obviously, because we are international, Karl Lagerfield and Lady Gaga could be our guest editors – and that scored,” he explained.
“Last year, we distributed Metro Netherlands in Lloret de Mar in the summer and in Austria during the winter sport season. It is not that we made big money out of it; actually it was the contrary, but we made our name; we put ourselves back in the picture – especially for advertisers.”
“You know what it is,” Van Brandwijk said, “You can argue that a free newspaper is by definition a paper with little substance. But we do not pretend to be a paper with ‘meaning’. I am more concerned with what the general commuting public wants, and not a small group of devotees.”
Some former journalists of De Pers have a gloomy view on the future of journalism now that the only free ‘quality paper’ has closed down.
In a interview last month with Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland, the former De Pers reporter Mark Koster said that “old school journalists are being caught up by young ‘brainless’ multimedia reporters.”
Tomesen is less pessimistic. He said he is using his new free time to find inspiration for new projects, new stories, maybe even for De Nieuwe Pers.
Tags: business model, cornelis van den berg, de pers, failure, free newspaper, govert schilling, jan jaap heij, marcel broekhoorn, metro, netherlands, newspaper innovation, piet bakker, quality paper, remco tomesen, robert van brandwijk, spits, wegener,
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