Sterre Sprengers during a lecture on image directing at BredaPhoto [ photo by Ron Magielse | BredaPhoto ]
Sterre Sprengers during a lecture on image directing at BredaPhoto [ photo by Ron Magielse | BredaPhoto ]

'Since the beginning of the platform I’ve always requested much freedom and space in my work'

In conversation with Sterre Sprengers (De Correspondent) PART 1

After years of faithful service at NRC Next1, Sterre Sprengers has been working as Chief Image Editor for De Correspondent2 for three and a half years already. De Correspondent is a Dutch member-funded journalism platform for independent voices and present themselves as the antidote to the daily news grind. At De Correspondent together with a bevy of designers, journalists and developers Sprengers strives to realise contemporary and international journalism. She has been involved since day one. The online platform has an extensive readership and is appreciated for its experimental imagery and carefulness regarding research and opinion.

Our meeting takes place in VolksHotel, the former headquarters of De Volkskrant3 in Amsterdam. While crowded, we claim a table and have a many-sided conversation regarding imagery and De Correspondent’s approach, journalism and the importance of imagery, and the possibilities of imagery and opinion.

TCA:
How are you dealing with imagery and design at De Correspondent? What is the exact role of the design agency Momkai4, within the whole of De Correspondent? And in what way do you have a different approach than other news organisations?

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.5 The philosophy of Momkai is that they ‘prepare form’, meaning they will create a structure in which both correspondents and the image editing desk has the freedom to do whatever they want. Currently, the platform is still basic, but increasingly, thanks to the growth of subscribers, more variation emerges in the appearance of the articles.

Initially, the image editing desk consisted of just me, but by now we are with four of us. We mostly focus on the daily visual appearance of all articles and productions, and other activities like our book publications and events.

Since the beginning of the platform I’ve always requested much freedom and space in my work. Which is actually a ‘legacy’ from my period at NRC. What I found frustrating as an image editor at NRC is that you often have to publish imagery that you feel isn’t good at all, but simply because every page needs imagery.

TCA:
A kind of assembly line approach?

SS:
Indeed. NRC Next featured about forty images daily. Five of those were really good. Ten were okay. But the rest were actually quite shit. So, you just have to deal with that. Also we had a mini budget. Simply because 80% was already spent on standard imagery (column photos, cartoons), leaving no money for other good pictures.

So, at De Correspondent I’ve reversed that entire situation. I only wanted to publish good imagery. I’ve asked Momkai to develop a template that looks good even without any images. So that we have the possibility of publishing articles without imagery. My aim is to not to spend any money on bad imagery.

TCA:
So in the end the focus is mostly on qualitative imagery.

De Correspondent | photo by Janus van den Eijnden

SS:
Yes. Initially we were still figuring out what we were doing, but by now you recognise De Correspondent by its different choice of imagery. So it seems this approach is working out very well, because readers appreciate it.

At NRC we always worked with the same group of photographers and illustrators. At De Correspondent I am continually scouting for new image makers because there is such an amount of great talent present in the field.

‘Personally, I think it’s quite nice that we’ve already worked with over 200 different image makers throughout the years at De Correspondent’

TCA:
Isn’t it odd that newspapers continually keep working with the same group of illustrators and photographers? In such a situation they’re not really open to new approaches, do you think 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.

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

SS:
Indeed. Personally, I think it’s quite nice that we’ve already worked with over 200 different image makers throughout the years at De Correspondent.

TCA:
Although, it sounds like a labor-intensive process. Because quality requires time and attention. Are you able to organise this?

SS:
Yes, perhaps because we give creatives a lot of freedom. Our correspondents often work on a series, so multiple pieces about the same subject. We initially look for a good match, so an image maker that is already working on the same theme in their own work.

TCA:
That is exactly what we aim to encourage with TCA too. A situation in which designers are less labeled by their practical expertise, but more called upon because they fit from a thematic perspective.

SS:
Obviously, sometimes we still have the situation that an illustrator just provides an image. But it also happens that an image maker is involved much earlier in the process. For example in the research phase. Or that both will travel together for a whole series of articles. And that has already led to good results, in which correspondents get input from image makers and vice versa. And I think that’s also what you want to achieve with TCA.

TCA:
Definitely. So now I’m curious about your development. What challenges and improvements do you see at De Correspondent?

SS:
Overall, I would like to get more variation into the publications. So the appearance of articles and productions. Besides that I already would have liked to have done more with animation, motion graphics and interactive infographics, but the development of those really requires a lot of time and attention.

Also, what I would like, is that image makers get a more visible profile. Especially when there has been such an intense collaboration it is important, that just like De Correspondents, they’re visible on the website with their own profile and page. After all, image makers are such an important part of journalism too.

Also read PART 2 and PART 3 of our interview with Sterre Sprengers.