Peter Vandermeersch, Publisher at INM, recalls how in the space of a year he gone from contemplating writing in Paris to overseeing a major overhaul of the group’s operations, including a new digital strategy which has seen it clock up 22,000 new subscribers to its digital platform, many of which signed up during lockdown.
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 an executive editor and director of NRC Handelsblad, to move to Paris. I have been managing newspapers in Belgium and the Netherlands for almost 25 years and I decided to do finally what I’m good at: writing. In the most beautiful city in the world.
May 2019: A call from the CEO and president of Mediahuis. In the weeks before the Belgian-Dutch company acquired Independent News and Media in Ireland. Could I be convinced to forget Paris and become publisher of INM in Dublin? And since I have an Irish spouse, I know the country and its people a bit, don’t I? And no, it’s not the most beautiful city in the world, but it is almost….
August 2019: Together with CEO Marc Vangeel I arrive in Talbot Street. It’s not the Champs Elysées. But we quickly fall in love with the brands. The Irish Independent may not have a digital strategy 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 be a bit old fashioned when you look at it with Dutch eyes, but maybe there is no paper in the world which combines high and low news and culture in such a distinct way. The Herald maybe small but it is Dublin on every page. The Sunday World may not be very subtle, but it is bold and brash and strong. And then there is The Belfast Telegraph, our regionals from Kerry to Sligo..
Christmas 2019: I look back on four hectic months. INM is changing. We designed a digital strategy (incredibly, there was none). Cormac Bourke will edit the Irish Independent and Independent.ie. (He’s the best editor of the group). Alan English is hired from outside as editor of the Sunday Independent (Yes, an outsider bringing fresh air). Eoin Brannigan is hired for the Belfast Telegraph (Coming from the Daily Star, going to the north). We reorganize the newsroom and the way we work, we hire new people, the word is spreading that the ‘Indo’ again is the most interesting place to work in Irish journalism: more people knock on my door than I can hire.
February 2020: The new independent.ie is been launched. INM announced it years ago but never did what we are doing now: a paid for website. Why should we give journalism away for free on our digital platforms? There is huge enthusiasm in the building. At the end of the month we have more subscribers than we hoped to have at the end of the year (8,500). We prove to ourselves and to the world that real stories are worth paying for. Our colleagues in Amsterdam and Antwerp admire the success. I see people in the newsroom walking with their heads high and straightened backs.
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 and MSTeams my favorite program. With a CEO in Antwerp, a COO in Belfast, a Chief Customer Officer in the French Alps, a digital director in Cambridge (UK) and hundreds of people all in their houses, we produce three dailies, three Sundays and eleven regional papers.
April 2020: The numbers go through the roof. We celebrate 22,000 subscriptions to Independent.ie. And yes, advertising revenue is under pressure. We have to take difficult measures. Some colleagues are being furloughed. The higher management takes a pay cut. Our dailies are struggling. Our weekend papers are doing better than budgeted. There is a huge appetite for serious news. As I write in a mail to my colleagues: it takes a crisis to really see how strong and resilient an organization is. I’m proud and emotional. I admire all these people who give the best of their energy in these crazy times. We send a big chocolate Easter egg to all the colleagues all over the country.
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 papers. 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 this all is obvious. There is a tremendous energy in the organisation. Covid-19 did to us what it has been doing to Ireland and the world: we had to look at the essential things in what we do and strengthen that. For INM it’s obvious: produce the best possible and trustworthy journalism for our readers and advertisers.