A short word of introduction, because duty calls.” Those were the first lines of Belgian newspaper De Standaard in its very first edition on December 4, 1918.

“Duty calls.” For those who are familiar with the Flemish, you might recognise the sober and hardworking ethos of the Flemish people. Well, this diligence has been quite fruitful, as De Standaard recently celebrated its 100th anniversary — 100 years of high-standard journalism, thorough reporting and investigation, and fighting for firm beliefs. Looking at the position De Standaard has achieved in current Flemish society, I think our founders couldn’t have hoped for anything better.

The De Standaard pulled favourites from the archives (like an April Fool’s Day cover) for its 100th anniversary.
The De Standaard pulled favourites from the archives (like an April Fool’s Day cover) for its 100th anniversary.

Despite this promising momentum, thinking of a suitable celebration for a centennial anniversary wasn’t a walk in the park. The management team spent long hours and had multiple discussions on the approach: It’s another anniversary — where’s the news value? Why bother the newsroom with this?

De Standaard of the olden days and the actual news brand have more differences than similarities. And aren’t we a bit self-centered by celebrating ourselves? Our marketing should be customer-focused, and the editorial policy is open to the world. Let’s tell other people’s stories rather than our own. We’ve been talking about this anniversary for — excuse me — centuries. When you’ve got such a big one coming up, the risk of endless procrastination is real. There’s always a bigger project to attend to, a government that fails, and new business to develop.

Fortunately, our peers at financial news brand De Tijd also have a big birthday. In September, the brand celebrated its 50th anniversary, leading us on the path of a consistent and remarkable celebration, without overachievement.

First, the De Tijd editorial team took the opportunity to demonstrate the innovative publishing the news brand is capable of doing. On September 6, the brand enriched the newspaper with Augmented Reality, adding content to the articles by using the Tijd news app. Journalists were also asked to crawl the most remarkable front pages over the past decades, resulting in some interesting features for those interested in recent Flemish history. One highlight was the green front page on April Fool’s Day. The editor-in-chief at the time almost had a heart attack when he saw a newspaper in green ink and with “Tijdt” (sic) in the masthead.

De Tijd also organised an exhibition about its history in the newspaper building. And, finally, De Tijd threw a nice party and invited the leading CEO of the Belgian stock market index. Of course, he runs a beer company.

The celebration was the moment when the duty call came to perform the same tricks for our newspaper. In the two months prior to the anniversary, De Standaard started publishing the book The World History of Flanders.

If you consider this title, it reads as a joke. What world history? Flanders is not even a tiny country; it’s just half of a tiny country.

Well, this book covers exactly how our history and our identity were formed by influences from outside. And, surprisingly, it also shares some rather unknown historical achievements of the Flemish that impacted the world.

Did you know Nand Peeters, a gynecologist from Antwerp, is responsible for modern-day contraception? Or that “The Internationale,” the socialist anthem, is a Flemish work (of course, in all his humility, the artist forgot to claim his royalties)? But also that hops, the most important ingredient for a beer’s flavour, was imported by the Dutch? So, the Flemish cannot entirely claim the ownership for our rich beer culture.

The anniversary examined Flemish culture and pertinent moments in its history.
The anniversary examined Flemish culture and pertinent moments in its history.

That was a prologue for a new De Standaard branding campaign. With the anniversary, we wanted to look back on what it is that defines us as a medium. If you have two words to define a 100-year-old newspaper, what would they be? We came up with “voortschrijvend inzicht.” “Voortschrijden” means “to progress.” But we wrote it with a “v,” and “voortschrijven” means “continue writing.” While continuing to write, we produce new insights. Publishing newspapers is a never-ending business. Insights are never definitive; they change over time.

As an example, we dove into our centennial archive and came up with some surprising points of view, which have been adjusted over time — while writing. In 2004, De Standaard insisted diesel was a sustainable choice for fuel. In 1989, at the launch of the Flemish commercial TV station, our skepticism was so strong we declared it dead before its first day of broadcasting. Thirty years later, commercial television seems to be omnipresent. On “The Sorrow of Belgium,” the magnum opus of the most famous Flemish writer of the last century, we wrote that “by and large you have about 100 readable pages in this book.”

And then there was the example from 1962. The front page opens with “Negro studies at white university.”

The word now reads as a slap in the face. Nobody would tolerate reading this anymore. Since then, we’ve all started to consider our words’ impact. Racism starts with language. Eliminate the language, and you change the course of history. That’s also what we call “voortschrijvend inzicht.”

Don’t waste a good anniversary. It’s an excellent opportunity to look back on past achievements and the landmarks of a brand. Based on reactions in our editor’s mailbox, De Standaard’s readers were most enthusiastic when we shared this dive into our own history.