After visiting the Native-American National Pipestone Monument in Tracy, Minnesota, I was given an “Indian” nickname by my colleagues: Sleepy Giant. The ‘sleepy’ aspect comes from being somewhat exhausted at certain times, and not afraid to say so. The giant part is nothing new: I’m 6,5 and quite massive. When I’m confronted with others telling me I’m gigantic, I usually try to turn that into an opportunity to share a fun fact: in my home country, the Netherlands, the tallest people in the world roam the grounds. It’s a nice typically Dutch thing, like windmills, cheese, clogs and tulips.
Being tall has its perks: you get to breathe when visiting a concert (and you have a greater chance to actually see the band who’s performing instead of being stuck behind someone like me), you get to be pissed off at people who are short and still occupy the emergency exit seats in airplanes, and you get to grab stuff from cupboards for others who haven’t been blessed with an equally large bone structure.
This week I was confronted with the other end of the spectrum: what it means to be small. The Netherlands has the tallest people in the world, but they inhabit just a tiny piece of land, almost twice the size of the State of New Jersey.
Journalism in the Netherlands is facing a hard time, like in other parts of the world readership is declining. In my seven year career in journalism I’ve been a witness to newspapers and magazines sizing down and laying off staff. I’ve attended many speeches at annual media receptions on how hard it is to stay on top of the game and how they’re going to cut the budget to be able to sustain themselves.They’re all looking for a business model and a way to get people to pay for quality news stories online instead of assuming it’s there for free.
This is why it was hard to feel part of something so small this week: While in Washington D.C. we had the pleasure of visiting The Atlantic Magazine, The Washington Post and Policito. The latter is a news outlet that started only seven years ago, and grew from 30 staff to 300 now. They offer a free publication, four times a week and a website with a focus on political news. To make money, they organize events and have a pay wall for niche topics like health care, education and defense, offering all the news, professionals in these areas need to have. It helps that they tend to a high end and wealthy audience to get companies interested in paying for advertisements. In the short amount of time they’ve been around, they’ve become a huge competitor for the Washington Post. Politico’s message seems to be: instead of offering the same news topics as the others, search for a niche topic like politics and be really good at it.
Speaking of the Post. They’re trying to do the opposite by appealing to an international audience. Amongst other plans, they’re trying out new ways of telling a story. When there is a story on drones for example, why not apply a videogame structure to it instead of the usual form of just text with a picture? And their results are positive: millions of page views.
Both big and small American media outlets have an obvious advantage of working in a country with more than 316 million inhabitants, all of whom speak English. On top of that they are able to attract a worldwide audience because English is the third most widely spoken language in the world after Chinese and Spanish. When you find a niche, even a tiny one, the potential audience could still be humongous.
That’s not exactly the case in the Netherlands. We have 17 million inhabitants. There are others who speak Dutch too, totalling to 27 million people around the world. That is a fairly large audience, but if Dutch editors were to experiment with a new model of finding a specific niche, chances are they will lose their investment, and won’t have enough to try again.
I can imagine the ecstatic faces of editors in chief in the Netherlands if they were to somehow find a huge audience to experiment on: millions of Dutch sleepy giants walking the earth waiting for someone to tend to their niche needs, say ‘news on large mattress makers’. Needless to say, that would bring in advertisers and then more money to start experimenting with videogame formats in storytelling: see how many times you can jump on the mattress and earn points while learning about the makers revenues. But obviously that’s not the reality they operate in.
Does this mean that hearing all these American success stories won’t help small countries like the Netherlands? Not at all. Because by watching carefully, we can see and learn what works and what doesn’t. When there is a business model that sticks and becomes a huge success, I would hope that the Dutch media aren’t asleep from pure exhaustion, waiting for the holy grail to be found, but ready to run with it and provide their audience with the news they want to pay for. Or just convert their stories to English and tap into a whole new market.