By Peter Vandermeersch
April 2019. Paris! Fresh croissants! Les Champs Elysées! Le Musée d’Orsay…. I am preparing to leave Amsterdam, where I have been working for nine years as the editor-in-chief and a director of NRC Handelsblad, to move to the city of lights. I have been editing and managing newspapers in Belgium and The Netherlands for almost 25 years and finally decided to go back to what I’m good at: writing. A foreign correspondent in the most beautiful city in the world.
May 2019. A call from the CEO and the President of Mediahuis. This takes place in the weeks just before the Belgian-Dutch company acquired Independent News and Media (INM) in Ireland. They want to know if I could be convinced to ‘forget’ Paris and instead become publisher of INM in Dublin? And since I have an Irish wife, I already know the country and its people a little bit, don’t I? And no, it’s not the most beautiful city of the world, but close….
August 2019. Together with CEO Marc Vangeel, I arrive in Talbot Street. Well, it’s not the Champs Elysées. But we quickly fall in love with the brands. The Irish Independent has not made its mark on digital platforms, but it’s the newspaper you have to read when you really want to know what’s happening in this country. The Sunday Independent may look a bit old-fashioned to Dutch eyes, but maybe there is no other paper in the world that combines high and low news and culture in such a distinct way. The Herald maybe small, but it’s pure Dublin on every page. The Sunday World is not exactly subtle, but it is bold, brash and strong. And then there is the Northern voice of The Belfast Telegraph, not to mention our regionals from Kerry to Sligo that are so much part of the local fabric…
Christmas 2019. I look back on four hectic months. INM is changing. We have designed a digital strategy (incredibly there was so to speak none). Cormac Bourke will now edit the Irish Independent and independent.ie (he is one of the most experienced editors in the group). Alan English has been hired into the group as the new editor of the Sunday Independent (yes, an outsider bringing fresh air). Eoin Brannigan has been appointed as editor of the Belfast Telegraph (coming from the Daily Star, now heading North). We are re-organising the newsroom and the way that we work, we are hiring new people and the word is spreading that the ‘Indo’ is once again the most interesting place to work in Irish journalism: more people knock on my door than I can possibly hire.
February 2020. The new independent.ie platform has been launched. INM announced the site years ago, but never set up what we now have: a paid-for website. Why should we give journalism away for free on our digital platforms? There is huge enthusiasm for the project in the building. By the end of the month we have more subscribers than we had hoped to achieve by the end of the year (8,500). We have proved to ourselves and to the world that real stories are worth paying for. Also in Ireland. Also at INM. Our colleagues in Amsterdam and Antwerp admire our success. I see people in the newsroom walking with their heads high and backs straight.
March 2020. Covid-19. We do what we never thought would be necessary, or even possible. We close Talbot Street and our offices all over the island. My house in Rathgar becomes my office, Microsoft Teams my favourite programme. With a CEO in Antwerp, a COO in Belfast, a Chief Customer Officer in the French Alps, a digital director in Cambridge and hundreds of people all working from their own homes, we produce three dailies, three Sundays and 11 regional papers. And they’re good!
April 2020. The numbers go through the roof. We celebrate 20,000 subscriptions on independent.ie. And yes, advertising revenue is under pressure. We have to take difficult measures. Some colleagues are put on furlough. Senior management takes a pay cut. Our dailies are struggling. But our weekend papers are doing better than budgeted. There is a huge appetite for serious news. As I write in an email to my colleagues: it takes a crisis to really see how strong and resilient an organisation is. I am proud and emotional. I admire all these people who made such an effort to get the job done in these crazy times. As a small thank-you, we send a big chocolate Easter egg to each and every colleague all over the country. (Belgians and their chocolate…)
May 2020. We launch, in the middle of the Covid-crisis a digital subscription to The Belfast Telegraph and an e-paper for 11 regional titles. We have the first meetings for the launch of a new site and app for the Sunday World. We prepare a new home delivery system… and we act as if all of this is normal. There is a tremendous energy in the organisation. Covid-19 did to us what it has been doing to Ireland and the world: we were obliged to look at what is essential in what we do and strengthen our core. For INM it is obvious: produce the most insightful and trustworthy journalism possible for our readers and value for our advertisors.
And no, I do not want to go back to Paris. I love Dublin and the Irish.
A version of this article was published earlier (22 May 2020) on adworld.ie