Sonderland was a journalism production house that produced pieces for other media outlets, focusing on one theme for an entire year. In 2019, the theme was “shelter” as a basic need.
The Flemish Journalism Fund (FJF) was the innovation incubator of Journalismfund.eu, supported by the government of Flanders (the northern, Dutch speaking part of Belgium). Throughout 2019 and 2020 the FJF supported 11 projects that innovated and diversified journalism in Flanders. This is one of them.
Sonderland is a collective of young creators who experiment with journalism. With the support of the Flemish Journalism Fund, Sonderland was able to start a journalism production company in 2019 that produces pieces for other media outlets. Sonderland focuses on one theme for an entire year. In 2019, the theme was “shelter” as a basic need.
One of Sonderland’s main goals is to take time for thorough research and experiments in form. Thus, instead of following current events, they aim for depth and quality. The editorial team is constantly striving to find the right form for the right story, be it text, illustration, audio, video or a combination thereof.
In addition to producing journalistic articles, illustrations, videos and podcasts for established media (e.g. De Standaard, Knack, Radio 1, MO*, Apache, Bruzz, sociale.net and the Krant van West-Vlaanderen), Sonderland worked on a documentary series about single young people, and, in collaboration with Dienst Outreachend Werken (DOW) from the City of Ghent, it launched Straatwijs, a street newspaper for and by homeless people in Ghent.
Sonderland also organised two “open editorial meetings”, where the editors presented article ideas to sympathizers and asked them for feedback and tips. The whole activity was an experiment in participatory journalism.
In addition to these live meetings, Sonderland was able to regularly connect with people online via the closed group, “Friends of Sonderland”, which consisted of about 80 (emerging) journalists, students, experts from the housing sector, etc.
Gradually, however, Sonderland discovered that the planned project period was not enough time to bring their plans to fruition and generate sufficient income.
Sonderland’s potential media clients showed less interest in their multimedia productions than expected. Moreover, clients mainly wanted shorter pieces of immediate relevance as opposed to in-depth background reports.
Also, the duration of the production process for larger projects was not in line with the project period. For example, the podcast series Financially Dependent Mothers was pitched to the public broadcaster VRT at the beginning of the project period, but it only came out at the very end, in March 2020. The income prognoses were largely dependent on these larger projects, but it always took longer than expected to find out whether or not they would be sold.
In the end, Sonderland decided that its income was too insecure to keep people employed for the final phase of the planned project period. What’s more, the FJF project grant required a substantial contribution of the company’s own financial resources.
Despite these difficulties, Sonderland can still be proud of the publications and projects it completed. This project has provided significant insights that can certainly bear fruit in the future—not just for Sonderland, but for others as well.
Sonderland found that its in-depth approach made it easier to come into contact with groups that are rarely mentioned in the media, such as (ex-)prisoners, homeless people, social housing tenants, undocumented migrants and young people from youth care facilities.
The interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange on the Sonderland team proved very valuable, but there is currently too little oxygen in the Flemish media landscape to allow production models like Sonderland’s to take root.
With its desire to focus on collaboration, multimedia journalism, and thorough research into structural themes, Sonderland set the bar incredibly high. In practice, however, it found that classic forms and short current news reports are still the primary forms of journalism in Flanders. In addition, Sonderland experienced first-hand just how low the rates for freelancers are, especially for beginners, and how the number of potential buyers is very limited due to the media concentration in Flanders.
In short, Sonderland still sees a need for a future model that allows freelancers to unite, collaborations to be stimulated, and vulnerable target groups in the media landscape to be given a voice.
In their own words
Sonderland explains the project in its own words:
What exactly did the project involve?
Sonderland is a journalistic production company. In 2019, we investigated the basic need for shelter as our main theme and produced articles, podcasts, videos, etc. for established media outlets. As a journalistic production company, we don’t just work on commission, we go after the stories we find important. We spend an entire year sinking our teeth into a social theme that gets very little coverage because it is rarely considered “news”. In 2019, we went out in search of voices that receive little attention in the media, such as (ex-) prisoners, homeless people, social housing tenants, undocumented migrants and young people from youth care facilities.
Sonderland is completely non-profit, because we believe that journalism is too important to our democracy to be used for financial gain. We began as a loose collective of committed young people who craved innovation in our media landscape, and in 2019, we had a permanent multimedia editorial team. We also supported small-scale projects that fit in with our philosophy, such as Straatwijs, a street newspaper for and by homeless people in Ghent.
What about the project are you the most satisfied with?
We are proud of our publications with De Standaard, Knack, Radio 1, Mo*, Apache, Bruzz, sociale.net and the Krant van West-Vlaanderen. In just seven months, our small team has grown into a reliable partner that can deliver topical news, investigative journalism, video reports and narrative podcasts.
What went less smoothly than expected or what would you have done differently?
Interest in multimedia journalism is limited in Flanders, and the rates are very low. This made it difficult to generate sufficient income, so the space for (form) experimentation and our own editorial style was sometimes limited.
What is the impact of this project now that the subsidy period has ended? Will it continue to exist, or has it contributed or changed anything in your company or organization?
Sonderland lives on, but our operation is currently on hold. Still, this project grant provided us with many insights that we can certainly take with us into the future. The collaboration and exchange between disciplines on our team was certainly valuable, but we believe that there is currently too little oxygen in the Flemish media landscape for projects such as Sonderland to take root. In that sense, we still see a less intensive collaboration among freelancers within a looser collective as extremely valuable.
What do you think is the most important thing we can learn from this project for journalism in Flanders?
The low rates for freelance journalists suck a lot of energy out of the journalistic sector. Bottom-up innovation is nipped in the bud because most freelance journalists are busy trying to make ends meet. It seems important to us that freelancers unite and collectively make their voices heard—not only out of self-interest, but also to ensure that we can continue to experiment with journalism in Flanders.