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Youth key to transforming newsroom culture: Belgium's Didier Hamann

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Youth key to transforming newsroom culture: Belgium's Didier Hamann

The initiative - dubbed #25 – represents a multifaceted change in organisational and editorial approaches at the paper. The project, which aims to better connect with people under the age of 25, recently received international recognition as the recipient of a WAN-IFRA World Young Reader Prize.

Hamann will be speaking about the #25 initiative, his experiences with youth engagement and how to prevent newsroom cultures from blocking these kind of changes at the 13th International Newsroom Summit this month ion Amsterdam.

The challenge: fighting a decline in newspapers

He said the challenge of rejuvenating the readership of the 126-year-old paper and its ageing newsroom, amid declining circulation figures, was significant. And it prompted creative thinking about engaging with a growing younger demographic of new readers that could potentially revive the paper’s success.

“Our readers were just getting older and older. Each year, we are losing one in five or six persons in our readership. And all the journalists are getting older and older because we didn’t engage young people for a long period. So it was an [inverted] age pyramid we had. The average age in our newsroom was 47.5 years,” Hamann said.

“The problem is, usually, editors believe anybody can write articles about anything. It’s not true. The older generation try to know topics and understand young people but they can’t as well … It’s stupid to think that a journalist will write well on this topic that they are not used to. We just have different mindsets. So bringing young people into the newsroom was a priority we had to deal with if we wanted to [attract new] readers and survive.”

The solution: engage young people inside and outside the newsroom

The organisation began enacting their strategy in December last year, with the creation of a dedicated blog space on their website for people under 25, and written by people under 25.

“To understand what topics are interesting for the youth and write [in a manner that appeals to] the youth, it was important to involve them in the other side, our side, so they can speak to the other young people better,” Hamann said.

Le Soir has since hired a dozen young journalists – each covering a different round in the newsroom and with the latitude to cover any story within their round – and made the editorial decision to put a regular spotlight on their work within the paper. A special reporting team has also been created, which concentrates on producing content of interest to young readers, including a current series about Belgians under age 25.

The organisation’s strategy has focused on recruiting journalists straight out of university: “When you are starting your career, the first 2 or 3 years are very important. It’s the moment you get all the good or the bad habits. We wanted journalists who had a ‘fresh brain’, so to speak, with no full knowledge of a newsroom. We are a quality newspaper so we have standards and we wanted to show them immediately what we think the best practices are … so there was no bad habits from the start.” 

Though with a bold move like this, Hamann says the young journalists targeted had to be those who could bring new strengths to the organisation, such as digital skills, a capacity to work across several platforms to produce news, as well as a demonstrated interest in issues such as politics and economics that “can be sometimes difficult to find in young people”.

Photo: Le SoirPhoto: Le Soir

The results: a revitalised staff, revitalised content

Hamann said the move has been “a breath of fresh air” that has transformed the working culture of the newsroom – a transformation which has been similarly reflected in the paper’s “fresher content” and new readers.

“The main difference is the new topics, the new ways of creating the news and the new ways of thinking about the process and treating the news. The new younger journalists bring new things to the newsroom and the older journalists are now open to [these] things too.”

“At the beginning it was a shock in the newsroom, because all of a sudden it was one tenth of our newsroom who were very young now. But generally, the older journalists were enthusiastic… they would also pass on information about their knowledge to help those new journalists perfect their skills. After a while, it was encouraging for all the journalists.”

Hamann said he is “very proud” of the results so far, with initial feedback reportedly very positive and online engagement notably increasing. Though it’s the less quantifiable or tangible results of a changing newsroom, that Le Soir’s chief speaks of with the most pride.

The revival of youthful energy and enthusiasm has seen a surge in previously unfamiliar HR initiatives and group activities amongst the journalists, including social events such as drinks nights, and community-based projects such as maintaining bee-hives on the roof.

“[Our office] is next to a fantastic park in Belgium and one day, the youth decided to organise a picnic in the centre of this spot for everyone,” Hamann recalls. “It was quite unusual to see all the staff of Le Soir - which is a quality newspaper and we’re not really clowns - but to see all the newsroom in the middle of this park, eating their sandwiches, sharing their food. It was absolutely fantastic.

“The new journalists and the older ones all enjoyed it very much. This is what I mean, we needed something fresh - fresh air in the newsroom. Of course, the main target of #25 is to bring a new mindset to the news. But then we also have something like this, which changes our whole way of thinking … it is wonderful for the newsroom.”

Hamann's advice for other newspapers facing the same challenge

“The most important thing is [to] completely change in the life of the newsroom and the way of thinking ... so for editors, if you do it, do it in one time so it’s like a shock tsunami. Because if you do it one by one, you won’t change the culture of a newsroom - you have to do it suddenly,” Hamann said.

“It's essential to give a new breath to the newspaper and, consequently, the journalistic treatment of news… but then what is very important also, is that we show our readers we are hiring younger journalists. It’s very important to tell a story about it.”

“It’s also important to find the right topics that people are active and interested in, so you can attract new readers,” Hamann said, citing the #25 initiative but also other mini-projects the organisation has worked on to build on their youth engagement in even more targeted, niche ways: technology-focused sites such as Geeko and Belgium-iPhone, and environment and sustainability site, Demain, La Terre.

“And it’s probably just the beginning,” Hamann said, “I'm convinced that this project can inspire other newspapers facing the same problem of ageing newsroom.”

PHOTO: Twitter

Didier Hamann will be on stage during the session How to prevent your newsroom culture blocking change at the 13th International Newsroom Summit during World Publishing Expo on 13 and 14 October 2014, in Amsterdam.


Jessica Sparks


2014-10-06 17:17

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