“In the nineties, there was not enough pressure”

By Pia Miller-Aichholz

With the commercialization of the internet in the early 1990s, the pace of communication quickened, deeply affecting journalism. Fokke Obbema, journalist at de Volkskrant, experienced it firsthand.



Fokke Obbema had wanted to become a journalist since he was a child. He studied law in Amsterdam and Paris and then did a master degree in International Journalism at the City University in London. Back in Amsterdam, he started doing freelance work for NRC Handelsblad and later worked for the monthly business magazine Quote. In 1991, he started working as a business reporter for de Volkskrant. From 2002 until 2007, Fokke Obbema went to Paris as foreign correspondent. When he returned to Amsterdam, he became head of the business section and as such, experienced the financial crisis. After that, he became the paper’s China specialist and got to know the country very well through his journeys there. In the course of a sabbatical year he wrote his book China en Europa, which was published in Dutch in 2013 and in English in 2015.



Mr. Obbema, you do lots of investigative reporting, which involves going into the field. Is there still time for that in daily news?

Yes. Working for a daily means working quickly, but there is no rush in investigative reporting – otherwise you won’t get the best results. I take my time to gather information – weeks, even months. What is different nowadays, is that we have to work both for the newspaper and the website. When I came back from Paris, I was head of the business section and I had to make sure we produced at least three online stories daily.

Has the pressure on journalists increased?
Absolutely, but I think it’s a positive change. In the nineties, there was not enough pressure. We had lots of readers and we were complacent. We produce better newspapers now, than in those days.

Which other issues have come up with the internet?
Clickability became a major consideration. When there is a sex-story and the word sex is in the headline, everyone starts clicking, right? If I produce a more thorough piece, say on China as a knowledge economy, the click-rate will be much lower. At the Volkskrant, we don’t give our readers a constant feed of news, we offer added value. We have less clicks, but the readers’ attention span is longer. There is also a business consideration behind it. People know what to expect from us.

Is it still possible to live off journalism?
Absolutely. The Volkskrant has more competitors nowadays. We lost about one third of our readers from 1998 to 2008. Today we can say the bleeding has stopped. We even saw a rise in readership in 2015. For the next twenty years, we expect making a newspaper to be a profitable business.

You were foreign correspondent. With the internet making it easy to get information from all around the world, how has foreign correspondence changed?
Overall, the numbers of foreign correspondents has decreased. But we still have 16 foreign correspondents, although only few of them are staff. Most are freelancers, who are dedicated to our newspaper. Our editor-in-chief has been correspondent himself in Germany, Moscow and Washington, so he knows the importance of it. The business section of the company looks at the amount of money we spend, but so far we’ve been able to convince them, that having eyes and ears in all those countries is essential for the quality of our newspaper. What we also do is fly somewhere for a week or two and come back with lots of stories.

The Volkskrant pays for the journey?
They do.

What would you tell aspiring journalists nowadays?
Start with believing you can make it. Just go for it.