Nieuws - 29 mei 2008

Editorial comment: Form over content

Resource, the Wageningen UR weekly newspaper, will probably no longer be produced by the current editorial team after the summer, but by a new team appointed by a new publisher, Hemels Publishers. The current Resource editorial team is very shaken by the decision. We present our view and interpretation of the affair below.

Why did Cereales lose the tender? There are rumours emanating from the head office that we didn’t even bother to make an effort to win, because we thought we were the only serious contenders. This is not the case. Cereales is a small publishing company, and the publications that were up for tender make up two-thirds of our turnover. The survival of our company and our jobs were on the line, and we were very aware of this. We know that our expertise is as journalists and not in the field of open tender procedures. For this reason we sought advice from others with more experience, and as far as we are concerned we presented a good proposal for improvements that could be made to Resource and Wageningen Update.

Vision on design style
When the final score had been counted up, Cereales emerged with fewer points on the section ‘vision on design and content of the publication’. We do not know what was in Hemels’ presentation. We understand from a request for clarification that the committee was very charmed by a number of suggestions concerning design changes for the publications, and that Hemels had inventive ideas for improving the interaction between the Resource newspaper and website.

We do know what our story was. Cereales argued to the committee that on the basis of the recent readers’ surveys held for Resource and Wageningen Update, we saw no reason to change the design. The design aspects of both publications scored very well in the surveys. We did make suggestions for content improvements, however. We explained our wish to increase the depth of our science reporting, to include more debate in the publications and made proposals for increasing the readership among the students and teachers at Van Hall Larenstein. Our proposal scored a six, Hemels got a nine.

Rumours from other Wageningen UR buildings suggest that the Executive Board and the communication department used the procedure to get rid of a group of journalists they regarded as a nuisance. Hemels makes magazines for car manufacturers and their website boasts that the client can look over the graphic designer’s shoulder as the layout is done, and that nothing goes to press without the client's permission. A picture of dedicated journalists determined to get to the bottom of an issue and contributing to critical discussion on how science or policy is conducted at Wageningen UR is not what comes to mind. Hemels doesn’t even have any suitable in-house journalists yet, although it has said it has contacts with good science journalists who are interested in working for them.

In the past there have been discussions between the current editors and the department of communication about editorial freedom. Matters reached a head two years ago, over a difference of opinion concerning the amount of control the Executive Board should exercise over the news reporting in the newspaper. We are of the opinion that a research and higher-education institution benefits from a newspaper produced by journalists who have the editorial freedom to determine the news content.

We put the question of whether our ideas on editorial freedom played a role in the outcome of procurement procedure to Viola Peulen (Head of Communication) and Aalt Dijkhuizen. They say that this is not the case, and that they have no intention of interfering with the editorial freedom of the editorial team. The list of criteria would appear to give the Executive Board more opportunities to prevent articles from being published in Resource, but according to Peulen it was not the Executive Board’s intention to thwart criticism. Even under the new publisher, Resource should be a newspaper that offers a platform for criticism and opinion.

At the end of the day the editorial team is left with an enormous feeling of dissatisfaction. If we had lost our bid to another publisher of high-quality science newspapers, such as Bionieuws, Agrarisch Dagblad or the life-sciences fortnightly C2W, we would have had less difficulty accepting the outcome. But the fact that the committee has chosen a bureau that has never produced a weekly newspaper and has almost no experience in the field of education and research is galling. Apparently the committee regards form as more important than content. It’s not what we expected of a scientific institution.