De Correspondent launched as a digital-only news site in the Netherlands in 2013, following a crowdfunding campaign that raised $1.7 million from 20,000 backers. It currently has 56,000 annual subscribers, paying around $63 a year, which makes it the largest Dutch subscription news site.
De Correspondent is currently expanding to the U.S., and in collaboration with Jay Rosen’s Studio20 is launching the Membership Puzzle project to find a sustainable path for public service journalism.
It has a uniquely collaborative approach to its journalism, treating its audience as potential sources, contributors, and collaborators in its mission. We asked co-founder Ernst-Jan Pfauth to share the secrets behind its remarkable community strategy.
What is De Correspondent’s journalistic mission, and what is the role of your readers in that?
De Correspondent is an ad-free, member-funded journalism platform where journalists and readers meet. Together, we cover stories that serve as an antidote to the daily news grind. We strive to create lasting work that goes beyond today’s news cycle – stories that get at the underlying structures that shape our world.
To expose those structures, we rely on the experience and expertise of our readers, because 56,000 members will invariably know more than our 21 correspondents. Their knowledge – of society, their work, their studies, their life experiences – helps us uncover problems before they surface as major news stories. And together, we can find possible solutions.
For instance, if we had been operating in 2006, we would expect to have picked up signals from our readers in the financial world that there was something fishy going on with mortgages.
From the beginning, you’ve treated comments a little differently. Can you describe the choices you made, and why you made them?
We don’t call them comments, but contributions, and that pretty much captures the difference. We see the contributions section as a way to draw out the vast expertise of our readers.
That’s why we tell our journalists: It’s fine if you spend half your time on interaction with readers. Readers are your most valuable resource. It makes sense for journalists to take the time to build up and maintain their network of readers/sources. If a journalist interviewing with us says that talking with readers sounds like a lot of “extra work,” that’s a red flag for us. It’s not extra work; it is your work.
Only paying members may make contributions. And they must contribute using their real names, just as our journalists publish under their own names. If they want, members can include a job title or degree in their information. We verify these titles where possible, so if a member says she’s a rocket scientist, others can see whether the newsroom has confirmed that fact with a special tick icon. We also highlight contributions that stand out to us as being particularly valuable for our journalism. Those contributions are then highlighted within the context of the discussion and displayed at the top of the contributions section. We also thank the reader by email (from the personal email address of the correspondent who highlighted the contribution), which often leads to further contact and valuable information.
All these choices are intended to show readers: We take you and what you know seriously, and we appreciate your help.
You’ve talked about your goal being “to have The World’s Largest Rolodex.” How does that work?
In the past, you’d keep your contacts list on a paper Rolodex. No journalist went without one. When working a new story, you’d consult your contacts, and then perhaps speak with spokespeople, lobbyists, or other sources that crossed your path.
Now, journalists can ask tens of thousands of readers what they know, which allows them to reach many more potential sources. And they’re not only reaching out to official spokespeople and those who shape public opinion, but real people in the real world.
Our healthcare correspondent, for instance, worked with hundreds of family doctors to investigate the effects of bureaucracy in healthcare. Our climate correspondent spoke confidentially with Shell employees about the future of the company. Physicists and battery manufacturers generously provided their thoughts after reading work in progress from our mobility correspondent.
We would like to get a clear picture of which reader knows what, so we can reach out effectively when we can use their help with our investigations. We view the CMS we’ve built not so much as a Content Management System, but as a Community Management System. Using this, the world’s greatest Rolodex, we can then let our readers know about upcoming projects that might fit with their knowledge and expertise.
I think just about everyone has an intrinsic motivation to help tackle the big issues and challenges that affect them and their lives.
How and why do you encourage journalists to publish before they have completed their reporting on a story?
For two reasons: first of all, you show readers that you’re interested in carrying out open-ended research, and that you welcome their contributions. Second, you give readers the opportunity to contribute from the get go, so that they can truly influence the direction your work might take.
Compare this approach with the conventional one of only publishing the final results of your work. In that case, there’s a risk you’ll reduce reader input to a mere afterthought. The work is already done, and the journalist might listen to your response briefly, if at all, but no matter how interesting or important your contribution, they have already mentally moved on to their next story.
Can you talk about the New to Netherlands project that you created in collaboration with a refugee non-profit? How did it work and what did you learn?
During the six month duration of our New to the Netherlands project, 279 members of De Correspondent each chose to meet with a newly-arrived refugee, once a month for five months. Each time they met, the member-refugee pair would be given a list of questions to answer together. These member interviews then formed the basis of new stories on our site about what happens to refugees once they’ve been granted a residence permit in this country – an experience largely ignored by the mainstream media. This unique form of group journalism shed some light on the little-known world of newcomers, while fostering social cohesion in our society through newfound connections.
Personal contact between longtime residents and newcomers is the best antidote to prejudice and distrust. It helps us see one another as individuals, and lays the groundwork for understanding where the other is coming from. Through the articles that emerged, this effect of the series spread to our 56,000 members.
What we hadn’t anticipated was that more than 60% of the pairs would meet more often than the required monthly meeting. Many De Correspondent members helped their partners find their way in their new country: some helped find out how much it would cost to get a moped driver’s license or to take piano lessons. They assisted with filling out forms in Dutch. And some participants reported that they became friends.
That wasn’t the case in every instance. Half of the initial list of participants stopped participating at some point during the course of the six-month project; the final questionnaire was completed by 128 pairs. There were various reasons for this. Quite a few participants reported being too busy to meet; sometimes, De Correspondent members went away on vacation or refugees were too preoccupied with finding a way to get their family to join them in the Netherlands. And some refugees were faced with worries about the escalating situation in Syria, and couldn’t deal with our questionnaires on top of everything else.
The New to the Netherlands initiative has now come to a close. What started as a journalism project grew – thanks to hundreds of committed participants – into a societal venture. New to the Netherlands illustrates that understanding one another starts simply with meeting and listening to one another. These encounters can often prove both illuminating and enjoyable.
How would you like to involve readers more in your journalism in the future?
As it stands, readers can only respond to investigative projects we initiate. We’re not yet open to suggestions from readers for entirely new lines of investigation. We want to enable readers to tip us off to the most important developments in their field or field of interest – that’s an incidental occurrence at the moment; it doesn’t happen on a structural basis.
We need to develop (or purchase) smart software to make this type of reader input an integral part of how we work, because we want to be able to handle the large amounts of information coming in, to ensure that tips from readers are truly being seen, and that readers know they’re being taken seriously.
We also want to give readers the chance to build their reputation on the platform and to follow not only journalists, but one another. At the moment, if you make five wonderful contributions, other readers have no way of knowing (unless they faithfully read all the comments, and who has time for that?) That’s how we can develop into a social network for sharing knowledge.
Whose work in the space of reader engagement inspires you?
Do you mean, aside from David Fahrenthold and his Pulitzer Prize-winning public investigation into Trump’s philanthropy (or lack thereof)?
I think that The Information does a good job of giving commenters a podium:
Readers have to apply to make comments, and The Information then regularly highlights the best comments and refers to them in newsletters and articles. That in turn shows all readers: we at The Information really appreciate your knowledge and expertise. As a reader, you understand what’s expected of you, and you can make a real contribution to their investigations.
We could also learn a lot, I think, from companies like Quora and Stack Overflow, who help their users build a reputation on the networks for having solid expertise.
Do you follow what we do at The Coral Project? Has it helped your work at all? How can we help you more with what we do?
In addition to your software, of course, I think The Coral Project’s greatest achievement is your emphasis on just how important reader knowledge can be.
We’re incredibly interested in hearing more about how you can encourage regular readers who never contribute to take part in the discussion – despite the often negative images of comments on news sites – using changes in technology and design. Also how you can help committed contributors to build a reputation on your site – perhaps in a similar way developers accumulate points, and are given a score on Stack Overflow.
Do you think American audiences will respond differently from Dutch ones to The Correspondent’s offering?
I think Americans have an equal (or even greater) need for an antidote to the daily news grind. The question is: How can we reach U.S. readers? In the Netherlands, we already had a considerable media presence, and we knew that by appearing in a single television talk show, and then unleashing a social media campaign, we could reach half the country. That’s nearly impossible in the U.S.. That’s why I think we will grow in a more decentralized way here: knowledge community by knowledge community. Reader interaction remains key.
Why do you think others haven’t created a news organization in the US like this before?
Most likely, no one’s stepped up because we’re all still trying to shake our advertising habit, and the blind pursuit of page views inherent to that business model. But as reader payments become a more important source of income for the American press, we can focus more on serving the interests of our readers: informing the public as best we can, for instance, instead of simply grabbing their attention, only to convert it into advertising dollars. I have every reason to believe that we’re going to see more interactive journalism ventures. The public are depending on us to get this right.