RUG students win journalism competition

Journalism start up De Beelddenker (The Visual Thinker) won The Challenge, a press innovation competition, on Wednesday. With 20,000 euros, the RUG master’s students want to further develop a news app for low literacy people.

‘I can’t actually believe it’, Milou Brand stammers. A mere half hour ago, her name, together with Daan Hofstee, Floor Meijs and Benjamin de Bruijn, was called. The quartet won a check for a 20,000 euro subsidy, a business coach and access to office space for one year, made available by the Stimulus Fund for Journalism (Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek (SvdJ)). De Beelddenker was also automatically nominated for the Tegel Future Prize (Tegel Toekomst Prijs).

De Bruin summarises De Beelddenker’s goal this way: ‘The idea is an app that provides for the news needs of low literacy people. People click on photos to make their way through a story. That news story is told through a series of images accompanied by a voice over. Below the photos, there’s a read along option with words that light up as they are spoken. We hope that will make them easier for low literacy people to read.’

1.3 million

During the entrepreneurial journalism course which tasks students with developing a new journalism concept in a matter of weeks, the foundations for the idea were laid. ‘We continued to work on it and we signed up for The Challenge in November, and we went on to the finale along with five other candidates’, De Bruijn says.

‘We learned that there are 1.3 million low literacy people in the Netherlands. That’s more than 10 per cent of the entire population! Jeroen Smit, a former journalism professor, was enthusiastic about the idea, and he posited that everyone is naturally curious. Milou is in the final phase of her research into the interest in news among low literacy people. What is remarkable is that regional and local news are the most appealing. The world of a low literacy person is usually smaller.’

Support from NOS

During their presentation on the evening of the finale, the quartet seemed to conjure their victory out of thin air. NOS editor-in-chief Marcel Gelauff indicated that he was a fan of the idea. ‘They want to brainstorm with us. Providing better news coverage for all Dutch people is part of their public service mission. We’re hoping to develop some kind of collaboration, which needs money, a lot of initiative and expertise.’

The 20,000 euros is really only the beginning, then. ‘You can’t fully develop an app with that. In addition to collaboration, we’re also hoping to obtain more subsidies. And once the app exists, it will also have to be maintained. A revenue model will come later. We see ourselves as social entrepreneurs: it’s possible that providers will pay in order to use the app, but it’s also possible that we will do targeted advertising.’

A new beginning

‘We’re going to work on finishing our theses for now, but after that, we’ll start thinking about an office. Some of us are already living in Amsterdam or will be moving soon, and chances are good that I’ll be heading that way, too’, De Bruijn says. ‘Starting in September, we want to get together a few days each week.’

‘It’s a new beginning, yet again’, Brand says, laughing. ‘I’m so happy, we came here to win The Challenge. This really emboldens us and proves that we’re on the right track. We are really determined to follow through on it. But if you’ll excuse me, I need to go celebrate first!’