Having convinced readers to pay for news in the Netherlands, digital publisher The Correspondent is now gearing up to bring its “radically different kind of news organization” to the US and beyond. It plans to open an English-language newsroom next spring – but only if it can raise $2.5m in a do-or-die crowdfunding campaign first.
The ambitious 30-day fundraising drive begins today (14 November) with the backing of around 80 high-profile ambassadors, including Nate Silver, Judd Apatow and Rosanne Cash. They will urge their audiences to support The Correspondent’s distinctive brand of journalism – which involves collaborating with readers on stories and forgoing breaking news and advertising – by paying whatever they can afford to become its founding members.
If The Correspondent hits its target by 14 December, it will use the funds to build a team of journalists and all backers will be rewarded with year-long access to the subscription site, no matter how much they pledged. If it doesn’t, their cash will be refunded and the launch aborted.
It’s a high stakes game, but one The Correspondent has played before. Its original Dutch incarnation launched in 2013 after crowdfunding $1.7m – a world record for journalism. Since then, De Correspondent has grown from 19,000 members at launch to 60,000 today and become a poster child for new membership models in journalism.
What is The Correspondent?
The Correspondent styles itself as the “antidote to breaking news”. Whereas the 24-hour news cycle dwells too much on the sensational, according to founder and editor Rob Wijnberg, The Correspondent concentrates on the bigger picture, “focusing on the climate, rather than the weather; failing infrastructure rather than just horrific traffic accidents”.
"The basic promise of news is that it tells you what's happening," he says. "But it does it so focused on the exceptional and the unusual and the negative it tells you the opposite. It tells you what's not happening on a daily basis. The effect of this is that it makes people pretty cynical about the world. It makes us more divided than we actually are."
As well as redefining what newsworthy means, Wijnberg also wants The Correspondent to change how news is made. “For 150 years or so, news has basically been sending information to a recipient. The internet has brought the ability to bring in the consumer to contribute expertise that our journalists don't have. Seeing journalism as a collaborative endeavor, instead of 'we tell you what's going on and you consume it', is a big part of what we hope to change in the English-speaking journalism landscape.”
Collaboration begins with a correspondent telling members what they want to investigate, laying out their assumptions and asking them to share their personal knowledge and experience. Rather than publish one finished article, the journalist will then share the “learning curve” of what they’ve uncovered across a series of website posts and newsletter updates. A notable 2017 investigation into Shell’s impact on climate change, for instance, saw De Correspondent publish transcripts of its interviews with the oil company’s staff in a collection called the ‘Shell Dialogues’.
“By following that process, as a member you get a more in-depth idea about the topic at hand,” Wijnberg says. “But also, you get a better understanding of the correspondent who's researching this for you.”
It is not lost on Wijnberg, who was fired from his previous role as editor-in-chief of Dutch title NRC.next because superiors didn’t appreciate his “atypical” approach to news, that The Correspondent is launching as “distrust of the media is growing”. Rather than let that deter him, he believes the more “personal and transparent” kind of journalism his organization is trying to forge can help solve the problem.
“Everybody who says there's a [media] agenda is right. There is an agenda, because you can't do journalism without an agenda.
“You have to have an idea of what is important and what is not, what is just and what is unjust, what is good and what is bad. You cover elections because you think elections matter and you think elections matter because you believe in democracy. So all these assumptions are already in all news already. The difference is by posing as neutral or objective, you're denying that you have these moral stances as a journalist.”
What happens next?
The Correspondent is not only committed to editorial transparency, but financial transparency too, giving its members in the Netherlands an annual report on how their money has been spent. Wijnberg intends to be similarly open about the international iteration and is already being candid as to where the crowdfunded cash will go.
“$2.5m is what we need for the minimum viable newsroom,” he says. With that investment, he plans to set up an office and hire a team of 11. They will include five full-time correspondents along with support staff such as an editorial designer, a financial administrator and a “conversation editor” to marshal the interactions between journalists and members. That modern newsroom essential, the coffee machine, will also be procured, Wijnberg jokes.
He hasn’t yet decided where in the US its office will be based or what its first journalists will cover; in the spirit of the endeavor, members’ opinions will be sought. “What we hope to build is a transnational network of correspondents that report from places that make sense according to their beats. They could be anywhere.”
The choose-what-you-want-to-pay model means The Correspondent can’t project how many members it will attract at present. This egalitarian approach to pricing might sound like a commercial headache, but Wijnberg feels it is one worth enduring to make sure journalism doesn’t become “a luxury good affordable to one and not affordable to another”.
As in the Netherlands, the ambition is to make The Correspondent completely member-funded and give those members a service that is clickbait-free and privacy friendly in return. “Because we have no ads, we don't need to chase clicks and we don't need to collect data on our demographics, because we don't have any advertisers that want that data.”
Some $1.8m in outside “runway funding”, secured from Omidyar Network, the Democracy and Media Foundation and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, is being used to fund the launch campaign. It covers operational costs for staffing and setting up a campaign HQ, producing campaign materials including a video and a touring Unbreaking News Van and the cost of consultancy services from Blue State Digital – the agency famed for mobilizing supporters behind Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
By tapping into Blue State’s vast expertise in social media drives, The Correspondent hopes to generate its own “grassroots” momentum behind its fundraising effort in the next 30 days. The 80 or so prominent public figures recruited to spread the world will also play an essential role in helping the campaign gain traction.
Wijnberg says these well-known figures from the worlds of media, tech, entertainment, academia and activism are not being paid for their advocacy. “They support it because they think it's important. There's a sense among all the ambassadors we have that this time requires this kind of journalism more than ever.”
In the next 30 days, we’ll find out whether a public that has grown increasingly wary of the media can be similarly convinced.