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De Standaard, Het Nieuwsblad grow digital subscriptions faster than expected

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States


Griet Ducatteeuw, publisher at De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad, in Antwerp, Belgium, gets “into the skin of our consumer” as she plans audience strategies that will continue to grow the news brands in the tradition of their parent company, Mediahuis.

Mediahuis owns these and multiple other news brands, television, radio, classifieds and e-commerce, free sheets, and online verticals. The company traces its lineage to Tongeren, in the Belgian province of Limburg, where Nicolaas Theelen (a civil servant whose political beliefs put him at odds with the majority) left to become a journalist and printer. Just weeks before Christmas of 1879, he published the first issue of the local weekly newspaper, Het Algemeen Belang der Provincie Limburg Theelen.

It was the start of a multi-national media powerhouse.

Fast forward to 2019 to the most recent corporate acquisition, when the company expanded its geographic footprint to Ireland and Irish media group Independent News and Media came under the corporate umbrella it now shares with such familiar names as Belgium’s De Standaard and De Telegraaf in The Netherlands.

It is only the most recent large-scale change the company has seen. Mediahuis has a history of successful expansion that has been peopled with thinkers who had both principles and ideas to share and, by little coincidence, access to commercial printing facilities. That particular combination of journalism and social engagement with commercial success in a constantly recombining mix of cultures is reflected in the corporate values — innovation, customer service, cooperation, flexibility, and effectiveness — that drive Mediahuis Belgium’s day-to-day operations.

Those values are in turn reflected in the clarity Ducatteeuw, a new member of the INMA Board of Directors, has about the connections between culture and communication on the one hand, and corporate service and success in moving from print to digital on the other. In particular, she is proud of the successful organisational change taking place that she describes as nothing less than “immense,” “challenging,” and “exciting.”

What started as a local weekly newspaper in 1879 has become a Belgian media powerhouse.
What started as a local weekly newspaper in 1879 has become a Belgian media powerhouse.

INMA: What did you learn in 2018 that is guiding your leadership in 2019?

Ducatteeuw: In these very troubling and, at the same time, most exciting times ever, I have learned two important things:

  • If we have to make hard decisions, get into the skin of our consumer. Will he/she notice, feel, appreciate, or hate what we do? It helps enormously to stop or change or start certain activities just by looking at them through the eyes of our customers.
  • We cannot communicate enough. For a century, we have been heading in the same direction as a management team. We understood each other without finishing the sentence. Today we need to explore our own thoughts and those of our colleagues — thoughts on personalisation, podcasts, newsletters.

We have to take more time to talk, discuss, and align. This helps us to set clear goals for the organisation. If we want to go fast, we have to first invest in getting [those within] the organisation [thinking and moving] in the same direction.

INMA: What success within your company are you most proud of at this moment?

Ducatteeuw: I am proud to see that the culture is changing — that people understand and see that change is a necessity, even if it leads to difficult and sometimes heartbreaking decisions. It is encouraging that we see that the reward follows. We managed to control print subscriptions decline and managed to accelerate digital growth. This leads to stable and growing subscriptions, faster than we hoped. It is still fragile, but this result is reassuring.

INMA: What do you see as the big opportunities in 2019 and how are you taking advantage of them?

Ducatteeuw: In the storm of declining ad sales, free news, new disruptive players, we see more clearly than ever that we are returning to the core of our existence: journalism, quality, unique stories, service. We see this as a constant factor ... people are willing to pay for.

There is a great opportunity in focusing on what makes the difference for our consumer, and it implies that we need to focus more on understanding what touches the hearts and minds of our readers.

Cleverly working with data will help us enormously in reaching this goal. It helps us to define engaged and less- or not-engaged readers and set up special programs to “activate” them — programmes that pay off! Data also help us get a better view on this “willingness to pay.” It helps us to act more analytically about pricing instead of being led by our intuition.

Mediahuis added Independent News and Media to its media assets this year.
Mediahuis added Independent News and Media to its media assets this year.

INMA: What is De Standaard's biggest idea/initiative for 2019?

Ducatteeuw: In Mediahuis Belgium, the focus is clear: We need to grow rapidly and sustainably in the field of digital subscriptions whilst print sales are declining in a controlled manner.

With our quality newspaper De Standaard, we already have 30% of our sales in digital subscriptions. For the popular newspapers Het Nieuwsblad and Gazet Van Antwerpen en Het Belang van Limburg, 10% of consumer sales is digital.

So the biggest initiative for the coming years is to transform the company from a print-oriented company experimenting with digital sales to a digital-thinking and digital-acting company. We are changing workflows, setting new goals, defining new roles, and new forms of collaborations within the company are emerging. The cultural change is immense, very challenging, and absolutely exciting.

INMA: What keeps you up at night?

Ducatteeuw: The numbers keep us up at night. Increasing costs, especially from our most important asset: personnel.  Combined with the decline (or at its best the stabilisation) of our revenues, it is very worrying. Advertising sales is still a very complicated situation. It’s harder to create a clear strategy on advertising than on consumer markets. We realise that we have to create growth on the top line and find new ways to improve the financial result of the company. Our current line extensions strategy is successful (e-commerce), but it is clear we need to explore new paths.

About Dawn McMullan

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