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Entrepreneurial journo fest!

Marlies Bloemen; Image: Matt Salusbury

Marlies Bloemen leads journalists in a singalong

FESTIVAL OF the Entrepreneurial Journalist - that's an approximate translation of the Festival De Ondernemende Journalist, the annual gathering for freelances put on by the NVJ, the Dutch sister union of the NUJ. I went along to this year's event in Utrecht to practice my Dutch, with a view to doing some work for Dutch-language media outlets. I found out that a pitch in Dutch is a voorstel (literally a suggestion) or even een pitch.

Networking was a big part of thefestival - its programme had a space in which "ETEN, NETWERKEN" ("Eat, network") was written in big letters.

The festival was in the grand surroundings of the Royal Mint building in Utrecht, which suddenly became available for functions after the Dutch guilder coinage was superseded by the euro. I was pleasantly surprised that the festival began with a singalong. Singer songwriter Marlies Bloemen at the piano led us in the following stirring rendition: "I am a proud journalist/I will stay that way 'till I'm in my coffin..." (Yes, it rhymes in Dutch.) She sang of how "I don't have enough money/I sleep in a box outside the Persgroep offices" (a reference to the monopolistic local news group whose fees structure came up in court recently.)

Haddasah de Boer, who presented many of the festival's sessions, talked about "the tension between journalism and entrepreneurship", a theme which several speakers returned to. Sheila Sitalsing gave a talk at the festival featuring "seven ways to lose your journalistic integrity". One of the freelance panelists - Frederike Geerdink, who spent a year with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) in North Syria after being kicked out of Turkey - now has what she described as a "who paid me" section on her website in response to shrill accusations from the Turkish government.

Just as I was getting used to full immersion in Dutch, we were suddenly back in English, with 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning freelance journalist Jake Halpern, all the way from the US. Naturally, the Dutch journalists effortlessly put questions to him in English.

Jake Halpern; Image: Matt Salusbury

Jake Halpern (right) speaks, presenter Haddasah de Boer (left) looks on

"It's easy to fall in love with the new forms of tech... what makes it work or not work is the story itself... the sense of electricity when you hear the story," said Jake: "If the story is good, then it "will flourish in any form". In his case it was a comic about a family of Syrian refugees who arrived in the US the day Trump was elected. Foot-dragging by others to whom he'd first pitched it meant it finally appeared in the New York Times the day Trump's travel ban was implemented.

"Some stories I do, I know I'm not going to be paid hardly anything for." He got $600 per comic for the New Yorker for his Pulitzer-winning work. "Two thirds of stories don't work," some "fall apart after six or seven months... all part of the process... The rejection is hard, the pay is low." According to Jake, "The beauty of it is the hustle." He wouldn't have pitched the prize-winning story had the "hunger and the hustle" not compelled him to.

Double work and funding

It was standing room only for the session on Onderhandelen - negotiating, causing presenter Geesje van Haren to joke, "Clearly there's a lot of need for it". She elicited a list of things we wanted to negotiate on, - "Tarieven" (rates), legal liability and "power relationships".

At the beginning of your career, said Geesje, you work for less but get your clients to "put their marketing to work" for you. As part of the negotiation, make sure your article gets into the newspapers' email newsletters. If you're a student journalist never tell them your story is "part of a course": they'll use it as an excuse not to pay you.

One veteran journalist present complained that "I have a name now, but the rates stay the same.. they don't go up." Around 75 euro cents a word was regarded as a decent rate, but some are getting as little as 13 euro cents a word.

One suggested remedy for low rates would be unfamiliar to journalists here in the UK - get the core research for your article paid for "out of a fund. " There are numerous non-profit foundations to support journalism (nationally and internationally) that Dutch journalists can go to, while Geesje observed, "there's a lot of money invested" in journalism at the moment "by the Government, which is good". This includes the SVDJ, the Stimulation Fund for Journalism, funded by the Ministry of Culture. One of the sessions at the festival was on "applying for funding".

Another aspect of negotiations you don't hear about so much in the UK is "dubbelwerk" (double work). This is basically about what language your article will first appeaar in and whether it will be translated into other languages. Many Dutch journos are quite capable of producing articles in English or German, languages with a much bigger readership. One American journalist present who's settled in the Netherlands and speaks fluent Dutch complained that when she pitches articles it's assumed she's going to write it in English, for a lower rate as the newspaper's in-house translation team will have to turn it into Dutch. No, she has to tell them, my article will be in Dutch, at the full rate, please.

With only around 21 million Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and another five million in Belgium, there aren't that many Dutch-language news outlets anyway, so going into other languages comes up sooner or later. Any half-decent investigative journalism that starts in the Netherlands will very soon go "cross-border", with the need to find partners abroad. The Netherlands' most famous investigative journalism operation is called Follow The Money (in English). "Resell it to the Guardian... to the Italian press" were among the suggestions from the audience.

The average age of punters at the Festival de Ondernemende Journalist seemed a little lower than at equivalent NUJ events, although it may just be that older Dutch journalists are in better health and look younger because most of them cycle to work and because they haven't had the best part of a decade of austerity, unlike us. Photojournalists under 30 are reportedly rare.

The NVJ does have an active section for young and entry-level journalists, Vers in de Pers (Fresh in the Press), while the NVJ Academy, its training arm, was offering ten free places on its courses for "new photographers". One of the speakers, Wouter van Dijke, is already working as a data journalist for the website of broadcaster RTL at the age of 24.

Data stories you can do tomorrow

Wouter's talk was on "data stories you could do tomorrow" (or maybe next Monday). He got into data while taking his biology degree; by his own admission he only got six out of ten for science at school. His data stories don't even use Excel spreadsheets: he says you can do them all just using Google Sheets and other free tools such as datamapper.de. "The journalistic story remains the most important element" of data journalism, he reminded us.

Prominent data journalism stories by Wouter include "140 injuries nationally in firework incidents in the run up to New Year's Eve". (Letting off bangers around New Year's is a thing in the Netherlands.) The data for this came from Google Alerts that brought up local newspaper reports, or from the Twitter accounts of local police forces. Another data story was "A food delivery rider is hospitalised on the job every week", which came from "smart searches" on Tweetdeck specifying verified users and "at least one like& quot;for each Tweet.

Then there's "How much does a theme park cost for two adults and two children?" (There are all sorts of packages that make the answer a complicated one, but it's gone up significantly in the last two years.) There's also "Fewer women councillors on county councils than before - how did it happen?" and "50 local authorities have banned balloon releases." Data journalism, says Wouter, needn't be complicated. It's "really just keeping a list and counting."