NRCQ: One Dutch publisher’s Quartz-inspired effort to go digital

Legacy publishers know that they need to rearrange both their businesses models and editorial cultures for the Web. The challenge is actually pulling it off.

For Dutch newspaper company NRC Media, which runs the  NRC Handelsblad and nrc.next newspapers, the solution came last year in the form of NRCQ, a mobile-first business and technology news site that takes a page from the likes of Quartz and Business Insider. The site, run by a team of 10, is both informal and bloggy, and aimed primarily at people who don’t read NRC Media’s newspapers in print.

“This is a place to figure out stuff, find a new rhythm and create a new newsroom with more digital thinking. We’re here to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” said NRCQ  co-founder and editor-in-chief Freek Staps.

Core to NRCQ’s editorial strategy is telling readers what they need to know for the day ahead, not reporting about things that have already happened — a significant inversion of the classic newspaper model. This daily briefing strategy is reflected in its publishing metabolism. While most sites online publish throughout the day as news hits, NRCQ publishes the bulk of the its 10-15 daily stories at once in the early morning. Many of those stories have been repackaged versions of those that previously appeared in print.

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It has also tweaked the formula on the advertising side. Besides running non-standard large format ads, NRCQ has also run native ads from companies such as Delta Lloyd and Deloitte, which are written by a separate team of creators.

Ten months in, the numbers are promising. NRCQ, which Staps concedes is a niche site, attracts 300,000 unique visitors a week, a quarter of which come via social, and has a morning-newsletter-subscriber base in the “tens of thousands”.

There are clear limits to how far NRCQ can climb. While the site publishes syndicated posts from English-speaking news sites such as Business Insider and Bloomberg, its own output is primarily in Dutch, which makes it difficult to reach readers outside the Netherlands. The site, however, isn’t playing for scale. Internally, NRCQ is a petri dish for the rest of NRC Media, which is trying to figure out which parts of the site’s formula can be applied to its other properties. In particular, it’s monitoring the performance of NRCQ’s paywall in an effort to see whether something similar can be implemented for its other properties.

But creating a nimble digital startup within a larger, slower media organization isn’t always an easy task, as NRCQ found out. While the site’s efforts promise to offer NRC Media some guidance on how to navigate the digital figure, it’s still faced some headwinds from other parts of the organization. Its informal tone was one point of contention among other staffers, who wondered whether NRCQ’s playfulness would damage NRC Media’s overall brand.

“We’re pressuring the newsroom to change a bit, and they’re pressuring us back,” Staps said. “These aren’t easy conversations to have, but I’m glad we have them.We’re all better for it.”

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