“We haven’t really got any young readers.” The publisher of the weekly and free local newspaper in my home town in The Netherlands seemed rather surprised that I’d asked him in the first place. “Well, that’s because there’s nothing in your paper that interests them”, I said, rather bluntly. I guess I felt like I had nothing to lose: I was 17, had just graduated from high school and knew nothing about journalists other than the fact that I wanted to be one.
Thankfully, the publisher liked a challenge as much as a calculated risk and he offered me a deal: “You go out and find stories that youth want to read. I will get the local mobile phone shop, skateboard shop and pub to place an ad. If they ring me the next week to say they’ve done more business, you can stay on. Because that means you got me a new readership.”
Off I went, on my bicycle, notebook and newly bought digital camera in the rucksack. Within a month, I had three series up and running. The first was ‘Super Gran’, where kids could nominate a grandparent to be hero of the week.
Then there was ‘Cool Cook’, where I wrote children’s recipes with simple instructions (the paper’s apprentice designer, who was my age, somehow got me to agree on getting photographed with a face full of flour and a spatula in my mouth. I will post a picture here to prove that the world of freelance journalism isn’t all glamorous bylines).
And finally, I launched a series that soon got the whole town talking: the ‘Hok of the Year’ Competition.
The Westland area where I grew up is famous for its greenhouses. Almost everyone is directly or indirectly involved in the horticulture trade and, despite the light pollution, Westlanders will proudly tell you that their little region is the easiest thing to spot from space.
On the ground, meanwhile, underage youngsters were building hangout places: you could call them drinking dens, though they are as much about socialising and building a group identity. They called such a place a ‘hok’ and each group of friends has their own, usually in the greenhouse warehouse of one of the group’s families.
Most media in the area had been ignoring the rapidly growing ‘hok’ phenomenon, or covered it in a negative light. Pub owners had started a campaign against them because they were missing business, and some politicians argued that the hok culture encouraged underage drinking, even though in those days (in fact, until this year) the legal drinking age for beer and wine was 16 in Holland.
I had been a member of a ‘hok’ myself and saw the other side: that it provided a safe space for youth to hang out, with a parent nearby to keep an eye, and where hugely valuable friendships and social skills were developed. A lot of ‘hok’ groups helped out the greenhouse owner in busy times, and organised family days for parents to meet their friends. I decided to write about it from the perspective of those most interested in the coverage: the youngsters themselves.
Before long the ‘Hok of the Year’ competition was launched. I spent an evening in a different hok each month and rated them according to fixed criteria, including beer temperature (Heineken prescribes 4-7 degrees Celsius so I put a thermometer in the fridge), originality of the space (anything from sea containers to caravans and industrial water silos had been converted into hok spaces) and creativity of the merchandise (many hok members had created names and logos, which they printed on hoodies, hats, beermats, stickers and even boxer shorts).
Soon after the first instalment appeared, the inbox was overloaded with youngsters writing in to nominate their hok, and when the distributor called to say that 15-year-olds were now ringing to complain that the paper had not been delivered, the publisher knew that we were on to something.
Within half a year, we’d expanded the series into a full monthly youth page, and at the end of the year we announced the winner at a big celebration event in the local nightclub. The publisher got more ads and more readers, and I got more work.
I had learnt my first valuable lesson in journalism: find out who your audience is, and give them what they want.