De Correspondent is not like other online publishers. It doesn’t carry advertising, it doesn’t cover breaking news and it doesn’t see its readers as page views.
Instead, it involves those readers deeply in the process of creating each of its meticulously researched and substantial stories. And they are responding in kind by paying for its journalism in increasing numbers – a rare thing indeed in a web publishing world dominated by free fare.
The Dutch-language site is the brainchild of journalists Rob Wijnberg and Ernst-Jan Pfauth, and Harald Dunnink and Sebastian Kersten of the Amsterdam digital creative agency Momkai. In the early part of this decade, Wijnberg and Pfauth were both high fliers at the prominent Netherlands newspaper NRC Handlesblad. Their story goes that Wijnberg was fired as editor-in-chief of its morning title, nrc.next, after trying to “steer the newspaper away from current events, since they already get wide coverage from free and ubiquitous media outlets”. Pfauth, editor-in-chief of Handelsblad’s website, followed him out of the door and they set about turning their principles of “news not new” into their own venture.
De Correspondent launched in September 2013 on the back of a $1.7m crowdfunding campaign – a record for journalism. From a starting point of 20,000 paying members, it has grown by around 10,000 a year and last week Pfauth, its publisher, announced it had reached the 50,000 milestone. (If that number sounds modest, keep in mind there are only 16.8 million people in the Netherlands.) Some 78% of members pay €60 a year, the remainder €6 a month and De Correspondent publishes a graphic each September telling them how it spent their money in the previous calendar year.
That it has found popularity by shunning populist news seems counterintuitive, and the site’s success can’t simply be explained by its Netflix-style approach to charging for content either given that many other publishers use a similar model. No – the reason readers keep paying is because De Correspondent makes them feel invested in its output, which is the cornerstone, according to Pfauth, of what separates it from the legacy media he now feels “liberated” from.
Journalists working with readers
De Correspondent’s philosophy is that 100 physician readers know more than one healthcare reporter. So when that healthcare reporter is prepping a story, they announce to readers what they’re planning to write and ask those with first-hand knowledge of the issues – from doctors to patients – to volunteer their experiences. “By doing this we get better informed stories because we have more sources from a wider range of people,” Pfauth tells The Drum. “It’s not just opinion makers or spokespersons, we get people from the floor. And, of course, there are business advantages because we turn those readers into more loyal readers. When they participate that leads to a stronger bond between the journalist and the reader.”
Alongside personalised newsletters from journalists, much of this interaction takes place within a custom platform, Respondens, which doubles as a CMS and a social network. From the research stage to publication and beyond, journalists are expected to keep readers informed on how a story is progressing. “If they tell us that sounds like a lot of extra work, it’s a red flag basically,” says Pfauth.
Journalism like this, involving weeks of preparation, takes considerably longer to produce than the hours – if that – which would be afforded in many modern newsrooms. “It goes from writing a story to sharing your learning curve. We don’t believe in a standalone story. It could mean you spend weeks updating your followers on what you’re doing and then coming with a big story. It takes longer but you’re visible on the platform while you’re writing.”
Readers are not only viewed as an extension of De Correspondent’s 30-strong editorial team, but its marketing function too – for while you have to be a member to read all of De Correspondent’s content, members can share articles with their friends freely and unconditionally. “If people are impressed by something, or they think it’s important, they want to share it – period. We figured we’re not going to fight that urge; we’re going to figure out how to make it work for us.”
The elegant solution is a virtual equivalent of a newspaper clipping, which allows the recipient to see the article and a banner explaining that someone paid for this content and gifted it to them. They’re also granted access to one, and only one, more page – the subscriptions page. “In our first year we had a marketing budget of €300, and all of our growth came through members sharing our articles. It’s the same for journalists – when you write a story you want as many as possible to read it. Journalists hate paywalls. You’re in this industry because you want to have an impact, to share what you’ve learned.”
Today, Facebook advertising is De Correspondent’s primary marketing tool. While some publishers have had an uneasy relationship with the social network, Pfauth says it has been “a great help” in distributing content. “We focus on Facebook advertising mostly because it helps our journalists and our balance sheet, basically. If we have a story about police officers, and we want police offers to join in, we can target all the police officers in the Netherlands. It helps us spread the world and it also helps us get new subscribers, so it’s the most effective way of advertising for us.”
De Correspondent has also used Facebook to stop itself from preaching to the converted. When the site published an open letter aimed at people who vote for the far-right Freedom Party, it used Facebook advertising to target it at users who like the party’s page. “By using the tools that created the filter bubble in the first place, we try to break out of the filter bubble.”
Having a diverse readership is vital for De Correspondent to succeed in its goal of producing well-informed stories encompassing a wide range of sources. But because its founders have made a conscious choice not to accept any advertising, it doesn’t have to worry about demographics in the same manner other publishers do. “It’s easy for me to say stop advertising and focus on subscriptions, but if you still make millions with advertising and it concerns a lot of jobs it’s really hard to make that decision.
“But I do think we have to go towards that subscription model because it just makes more sense. It’s the right incentive for a journalist: you want to inform people in the best possible way, you don’t want to attract attention for attention’s sake and the one thing you absolutely don’t want is to fool them into reading an article that’s actually sponsored content.” Why so? “Because it just erodes trust and makes your paper or magazine less relevant because you can easily buy space there if you want to get your message across as a brand – you don’t have to talk to a critical journalist anymore.”
Rebuilding trust in journalism
While Pfauth's strident views on branded content might not be welcomed by the publishers and marketers among The Drum’s readership, it’s harder to contest his broader point that cheap clickbait tricks, intended to attract drive-by traffic and in turn the attention of advertisers, have not helped journalism’s cause as it fights to maintain its own reputation. In September 2016, a Gallup poll revealed that two thirds of Americans do not trust the media. “I’m not surprised that we’ve lost [trust] because if you look at all the clickbait out there, all the superficial reporting that’s only there to get your attention so a publisher can monetise that with advertising, it makes sense why people don’t trust journalists anymore.”
Pfauth devoutly believes that forging more meaningful relationships with readers is the way to rebuild that trust, and there are signs the wider media world is coming round to his way of thinking. The New York Times’ recently published 2020 report, detailing its road map for the years ahead, emphasised its determination to prioritise subscriptions over scale. “We are, in the simplest terms, a subscription-first business,” the report read. “Our focus on subscribers sets us apart in crucial ways from many other media organisations. We are not trying to maximise clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them. We are not trying to win a page views arms race. We believe that the more sound business strategy for the Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it.”
For De Correspondent, which is already translating one article a week into English, the coming years will involve an English-language version of the site if Pfauth gets his wish: “We think we could really add something.” It has also found a lucrative sideline in publishing books by its correspondents: “We make a lot of money with them but also in every book there’s a bookmark that says this book originates from De Correspondent, if you want to give it a try here’s a code for one month trial subscription. We reach a whole new audience with these books.”
But in all De Correspondent does, Pfauth will not falter from his belief that journalism "should be a service" to its readers. “As the journalism professor Jay Rosen from NYU says, without participation there is no journalism. I truly believe that.”