Philippe Remarque, editor-in-chief of newspaper de Volkskrant. Photo: An-Sofie Kesteleyn

The Creative Press Challenge invites young creative talent to design a newspaper ad that goes back to the core of advertising, which should prove the strength of print. Last month we wrote a small piece about the wonderful commercial kicking of the event and conveying the key insight: “bad ideas can’t hide in print.” As a media-partner of the Challenge, we received the opportunity to interview editor-in-chief of de Volkskrant Philippe Remarque. Naturally, we grabbed it with both hands. Remarque who is chief since 2010 presides the newspaper in exciting times; regardless the importance of the paper edition, still making most of the newspaper’s money, he is to pilot one of Holland’s leading newspapers into the digital age.

Do you really care about the kind of ads shown in your newspaper?
Yes, I do. More sophisticated ads obviously fit better in a qualitative newspaper. So we do try to attract luxurious brands. But the market is tough, so we can’t always choose. The total newspaper print run is still shrinking, with about 6%. The good news is: after years of decline, de Volkskrant has reached a stable line again, we’re even growing on paper. What we also notice is that popular newspapers are having a harder time. One of the reasons for that is that they have to compete harder with the free online news.

How important is advertising in your newspaper?
Very important. In 1998 advertising made half of our income, subscriptions the other half. Advertising was such a cash cow that sometimes we even had to make up newspaper sections to be able to satisfy the advertisers’ needs. Convenient, yes, but I am not sure whether it improved the quality. Today the balance is 80% subscriptions, versus 20% ads.

Is there still rivalry between your editorial department and the commercial department?
No, not really, we all know how important advertising is for our newspaper. And advertising even adds to the experience of reading a newspaper. Ads can give you a feel of topicality and relevance. Newspaper readers are not just readers, they are also consumers.

Newspaper readers are not just readers, they are also consumers

But there must be some friction?
Well, of course, there is always a bit of competition between our departments. And sometimes our designers aren’t happy when they have to work around an ad. But this friction also adds flavor to our job.

Really?
Well, let me put it this way; when you’re ambitious you embrace the challenges in life. [Remarque laughs out loud – AAB] But seriously; sometimes I am asked; wouldn’t it be great if there were no NRC Handelsblad? [Volkskrant’s biggest rival – AAB] No, I answer, it would be too easy. It’s fun when competitors keep you sharp.

As a brand builder I am always surprised how much difference there is between your online and offline title; both in the dominance of ads as well as the quality of the content. How do you look at this division between off and online?
The problem is; it is still a different ball game. Online there’s an awful lot of competition that brings the same news. We have to be very quick; otherwise it’s not ‘news’ anymore. This means the online news sometimes loses some nuance and depth, which is the hallmark of our paper newspaper.

The good news though is that we are finally going to integrate our offline and online newspapers. The website will get the same header as the paper newspaper, which means “Volkskrant.nl” will disappear, and the web editors will be integrated in our department.

That’s good news indeed. Will your online newspaper be cheaper?
Yes, a bit, but quality journalism has its price

Won’t that be a problem? After all, online ads make less money than paper ads.
No, we’ll continue selling paper subscriptions at a high rate.  With the new website we are aiming for new customers, through a better online distribution of our quality content. Thanks to brands like Spotify people are starting to learn to pay for digital, qualitative content. Even young people, who grew up with illegal downloads, now pay €60 or even €120 per year for a Spotify subscription. The key is to make things accessible and the experience better. When there’s Netflix, downloading a movie illegally will simply be too much work.

Another reason why a cheaper online subscription won’t hurt is that the paper newspaper still has more mileage than everyone thinks. In the 90s they even said that the paper newspaper would only last for another 5 years… Well, it’s still going strong.

Even young people, who grew up with illegal downloads, now pay €60 or even €120 per year for a Spotify subscription

If you compare your newspaper to Netflix, I am inclined to ask; can I also subscribe to parts of your newspaper – let’s say certain topics?
Yes, you will. You will be able to compose a personalized newspaper. This might take a while still, but in the future, the answer is ‘yes’.

What will be the most important change for your online newspaper?
First of all, all the ‘paper news’, our best content, will be available online. Not in a PDF, but dynamically, and shareable. Not all for free, but partly paid . The quick news and part of the background will still be free – as is now the case.

A more important change is that we will add more related side products to our content. For example, when you read an article about the new James Bond movie, you’ll be able to read the review, what other international newspapers and websites say about it, interesting related topics, and in the future you can even buy a ticket for the movie.

Cross-selling?
Yes. We’ll also introduce a special Volkskrant ‘culture app’ through which you can plan for any cultural event and eventually buy a ticket too. Basically our goal is to connect all the digital functionalities of the internet to the unique power of de Volkskrant: having taste and knowledge.

Our goal is to connect all the digital functionalities of the internet to the unique power of de Volkskrant: having taste and knowledge

When will the times return that you can sit back and relax. In other words; have a stable income as a newspaper.
That won’t happen anytime soon. We’ve definitely lost the monopoly on written content. And the internet revolution will continue. In 5 years time everything will be different again, and in 10 years time again. Two things will be continuous though, and this to our advantage: 1. People always have a need for news, understanding and entertainment. 2. Written text will always be an extremely effective, time-saving and pleasant way of communicating information.

Is that true, that written text is such an effective way of communicating?
Yes. We can write down a 1-minute NOS [the Dutch BBC – AAB] item in about 3 paragraphs, which takes you about 15 seconds to read. That’s much quicker.

In advertising though, we notice that film is only getting more popular, because it’s cheaper to broadcast nowadays and so much richer than text.
True. But our specialty will always be words and photos. Other parties are better at creating moving content. But, you are right, we will integrate more film in our news site. Only though when it adds to our typical newspaper-content. And we still have to learn a lot.

Our specialty will always be words and photos

Speaking of experimenting. Do you follow a newspaper such as The Guardian that has been experimenting already for a while?
The Guardian is a bit further, yes. They have a web-first policy, which means they compose the paper newspaper from online news.

For free?
Yes. But an important difference with us is that they are a foundation, not a business.

The Washington Post has been sold to Jeff Bezos for $250 million, as you know. Then, last Friday, news broke that 21st Century Fox is investing $ 70 million in online magazine Vice, in exchange for a 5% stake in the company. This means the magazine is worth 1.4 billion – almost six times The Post. What does this tell you about ‘qualitative journalism’ versus ‘popular journalism’?
The investment in Vice has to do with reach. That’s why they are worth so much. But there undeniably is a decline in qualitative journalism. In the Netherlands you see this especially on a local level. But I’m not really worried. Nation-wide there will always be qualitative journalism.

Speaking of quality, what do you think of the initiative by ex chief editor of NRC Next, Rob Wijnberg, introducing De Correspondent? [A title that will only be available online, only through a subscriptions, and only focusing on qualitative journalism, written by qualitative journalists]
His ratio is 100/0. Any otherwise it would have been very difficult for him to make this fly. But I fully support it. What I especially like about it is that it educates a new generation in the fact that qualitative online-journalism costs money. That’s exactly what we are going to sell.

So, a final question; with a richer website in the future, will you also introduce a ‘Creative Digital Challenge’?
We just might. We want to become more sophisticated in our online advertising. Website take-overs are not much appreciated by the average reader. What’s more, compared to print ads they don’t do too much for the advertiser. It’s easy to measure how many eyeballs you get online, but you can’t measure the quality of the eyeballs. In that respect, I still believe that print ads are superior; they are consumed much more attentively than most online ads, because when you read your newspaper you are in a completely different mood than when browsing through free news. As we are going to make the newspaper of the future online, we have to develop a similar pleasant experience in online advertising.