"I am convinced journalism will improve when image becomes more part of it"

In conversation with Sterre Sprengers about her experiences at De Correspondent

After years of faithful service at NRC Next, Sterre Sprengers has been working as Chief Image Editor for De Correspondent for three and a half years already. De Correspondent is a Dutch platform for independent daily news. At De Correspondent together with like-minded designers, journalists and developers Sprengers strives to the development of contemporary and international journalism. She has been involved since day one. Our meeting takes place in VolksHotel, the former head office of De Volkskrant in Amsterdam. While crowded, we have a many-sided conversation about De Correspondent's position and relevantie en possibilities of image within journalism.

NvE:
How are you dealing with imagery and design at De Correspondent? What is the exact role of Momkai in relation to De Correspondent?

SS:
Momkai is co-owner of De Correspondent. The idea is that for quality online journalism, design and development is as important as the content itself. Initially, the image editing desk consisted of just me, but by now we are with four of us. Since the beginning of the platform I’ve always requested much freedom and space in my work. What I found frustrating as image editor at NRC is that you often publish images that you actually do not like, just to fill the page.

NvE:
A kind of daily assembly work?

SS:
Indeed. Daily NRC Next consisted of about 40 images. 5 of those were really good, but the rest was actually quite shit. Also we had a mini budget, simply because 80 percent had already been spent to standard imagery (column photos, cartoons) and there was no money left for good visual materials. So at De Correspondent I reversed that whole situation. My goal is not to spend money on bad images. I asked Momkai to develop a template that looks good, with and without imagery.

NvE:
So your focus is mainly on finding a qualitative image.

SS:
Yes. Meanwhile, readers start to recognize De Correspondent through its rich visual choices. So it seems that this approach works well. Constantly I am looking for new image makers, there is so much onbekend talent. While at NRC we always worked with the same group of photographers and illustrators.

NvE:
Is not it strange that newspapers are constantly working with the same group of illustrators and photographers? They are not really open to new approaches on imagery. Would they find that risky?

SS:
Yes it seems they don’t want to. The idea is that image makers define the ‘face’ of the newspaper and they want to protect that by consistently working with the same image makers.

NvE:
While actually the choice of typeface or a strong header can already create a certain recognisability.

SS:
Indeed. Personally, I really appreciate that we have already worked with De Correspondent with more than 200 different image makers over the years.

NvE:
Although, it sounds like a labor-intensive process, because finding good imagery or scouting good people requires a lot of time and attention. Are you able to organize this?

SS:
Yes, perhaps because we give creatives a lot of freedom and trust. Our correspondents also often work on series, so multiple pieces on the same subject. If we have found a fitting image maker, this person works on the same theme for a longer period.

NvE:
It seems interesting to me to create a situation in which designers are less labeled by their practical expertise, but more by a shared intrinsic interest with an editor. Don’t you think?

SS:
In general, we have the situation that an illustrator only provides practical imagery. But it also happens that an image maker involves the process much earlier. For example, in the research phase already. Or that both travel together for a series of articles. And that has already led to good results, where correspondents get input from image makers and vice versa.

NvE:
This is exactly what we believe in at ACED. Which future plans and challenges do you want to address to De Correspondent?

SS:
In general I would like to get more variation in the publications. So the appearance of articles and productions. In addition, I would like to have more development on animation, motion graphics and interactive infographics, but the development on this takes a lot of time and attention. What I would also like is that image makers get a better visible profile on the website. Especially when there has been such an intense collaboration, it is important that they, like our journalists, are visible with their own profile and page.

NvE:
Within many media organizations, things are well organized and streamlined. While I have the impression that journalism, design and technology can benefit from spontaneous cross over collaborations of different expertises. How do you approach that at De Correspondent?

SS:
Most journalists at De Correspondent originally came from NRC, De Volkskrant, Vrij Nederland and De Groene Amsterdammer. In general, journalists have to get used to spending more time on collaborations here. Though, I do have the impression that they quickly understand that they can also benefit from this approach.

NvE:
In de end it is about gaining trust in each other's expertise. So that if disciplines work together, they are able to achieve better results.

SS:
All in all, I am convinced that journalism will improve, when imagery will become more part of it.

NvE:
I always wonder why designers at newsrooms are often only used for functional tasks, instead of involving them in terms of content. They usually only provide technical support.

SS:
Yes. Journalists often know what they want, because they have seen ‘it’ before. Designers actually only facilitate. Following there is less room for experiment and that is actually quite a shame.

NvE:
ACED can appreciate subjectivity in journalism. How do you deal with this at De Correspondent?

SS:
That objective truth simply does not exist at all. The illusion that a newspaper is objective and that this also applies to imagery is simply nonsense. It would be really good if news organizations ignore the aim for objectivity. For De Correspondent I once made a series about Obama with photos of his own photographer in the White House. I tried to communicate with this production that everything you see is a choice. A construction. And that is what is constantly happening in journalism.

NvE:
With infographics it is actually the same story. The colors, the selection of data and the chosen frame are choices made by the designer or journalist. It is impossible to create an objective representation.

SS:
Indeed. We really need to drop the pursuit of objectivity. It will make journalism much more interesting. The point is to educate the audience that there isn’t one single truth. The problem of todays news is that people do not recognise it anymore. They don’t know where it’s coming from, and always think that what they read is the truth.

NvE:
At De Correspondent, all articles were explicitly written from the name of the editor. Like everywhere, but on your platform it has been made more visible.

SS:
We do that with all articles, indeed. The reader is then more aware that it comes from a specific author. And that that is also part of the tone of voice or character of an article.

NvE:
But still, in times of fake news and clickbait, is not it valuable that there are organizations that bring 'real' news?

SS:
I think it is good that the individual reader learns to take a critical attitude. So that they are able to separate from nonsense.

NvE:
What I personally regret is that many interesting artistic projects always end up on culture pages and never as part of the direct news. While powerful art initiatives often illuminate, question and expose political and social themes, like news articles actually also do.

SS:
Yes, that is really a shame. I once wrote a plea about the fact that art should be on the front pages of the newspapers. Especially because on those culture pages only the representation of the work and the background of the maker is discussed.

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