A group of Dutch media innovators – inevitably, young, as noted here last week – has created an actual, working prototype of what we expect to be a popular style of organisation for publishing in the near future. It has no advertising. It is financed by reasonably-priced subscriptions. Most important of all, it puts commenters on articles – the people it prefers to refer to as ‘contributors’ – at the centre of its enterprise, treating them as honoured extensions of its founding family. Wondermooi. That is exactly what we recommended in 2010 when, in keeping with the fuzzier usage of the time we referred to this same constituency as ‘bloggers’ — or ‘blogger-commenters,’ after a critic rightly demanded a clarification.
We did not foresee a big, ambitious media venture being able to do without advertising so soon. Nor did we anticipate that one would launch itself with crowdfunding, which Kickstarter was just beginning to turn into a household word four years ago. De Correspondent raised a breathtaking $1.7 million between March and September last year. In a post in April on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Loes Witschge reported a remarkable feat in a country with a population of just 16 million:
On March 18, [Rob] Wijnberg, former editor-in-chief of the young-adult-targeted newspaper nrc.next, proposed his idea for a new online journalism platform on Dutch national television. Within 24 hours, his team had raised half its goal, and after eight days, Wijnberg got an earlier than expected go-ahead: 15,000 had subscribed, and many had added donations on top of their subscription fee. In just over a week, in a small country, the Dutch crowdfunding project De Correspondent had raised over €1 million (about $1.3 million).
By this spring, the group had 24,000 subscribers – the proportional equivalent of 450,000 in the US, Wijnberg says — each paying roughly $80 (€60) for the privilege.
Now this, you might agree, is seriously important news. Print media are desperate for a viable new economic model. So, has The New York Times written about De Correspondent? Er, … no, unless we’ve been using the wrong search terms, hunting for evidence. The Guardian, another of the most-visited sites on the net? The Telegraph? The Independent? The Economist? Apparently not – and anyone who has proof to the contrary must please leave a comment with appropriate links beneath this post. … Oh, and there is no point in trying to look up its history on the Wikipedia for anyone irritated by having to make do with a machine translation from Dutch.
We only learnt of De Correspondent’s existence in checking that search engines were keeping up with our last entry on post-Gutenberg, using, for search tags, ‘new media’ and ‘business model’. Its own site is naturally the best guide to its modus operandi, but the applause it richly deserves is to be found exclusively on new media sites of the likes of Journalism.co.uk, Gigaom and MediaGazer. On the Medium blogging platform, Ernst-Jan Pfauth , another founder, explains under the headline ‘Why we see journalists as conversation leaders and readers as expert contributors’:
Every reader is an expert at something
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about news sites shutting down their comments sections, since readers’ contributions are often too obtrusive (read Mathew Ingrams excellent post about this).
Here in Amsterdam, we sincerely regret these developments, since we believe that modern journalists shouldn’t see their readers as a passive group of annoying followers. Instead, they should regard readers as a potential gold mine of expert information. That’s why, at De Correspondent, we encourage our journalists to function as conversation leaders and our members as expert contributors.
At De Correspondent, we owe our very existence to our members, since we launched our Dutch ad-free journalism platform after raising a total of 1.7 million dollars with a world record breaking crowd-funding campaign. We encourage our correspondents — who all have their own niche — to tell the stories that they feel are important, instead of just following the hype cycle of the news.
He also said:
We end every article with a question to our members
In our custom-built editor Respondens, we have a special field called ‘Oproep’ (which translates to ‘Call-up’). Correspondents can use that field to make explicit what they would like to know from their readers. The call shows up underneath the article and steers the contributions in the direction the correspondent finds journalistically most relevant.
We invite members to write guest articles
We continuously invite our members to write guest posts. […]
There is no mention of turning those subscribers into shareholders and running De Correspondent as a cooperative – yet. That might be an idea for another group to try, one we hope will give us the sort of laugh these Dutchmen did in setting out their names — well-established in Netherlands media before they banded together — as follows: Rob Wijnberg (1982), Harald Dunnink (1981), Sebastian Kersten (1976), and Ernst-Jan Pfauth (1986).
Advertising their birth years, you might suppose, amounts to a sign reading, Oldies Keep Out. But, not quite. The first part of ‘the keiretsu-cooperative’ in the paper that started this blog in 2010 referred to the Japanese name for a network of firms collaborating as trading partners, in a proposal for a news site (long-established or new) sharing the initial expense of starting and running a subscriber-owned cooperative with a partner in, say, book publishing. De Correspondent says it is working with:
De Groene Amsterdammer (founded in 1877) … a weekly magazine of ideas and opinion; it is perhaps best comparable to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books[…] De Groene Amsterdammer will share some of its content as well as its editorial and investigative resources with De Correspondent.
… and …
Momkai (founded in 2002) … an independent, digital creative agency in the Netherlands that is renowned for its ability to combine conceptual thinking, design and technology in the creation of online formats and campaigns. Momkai is founding partner and responsible for the brand, the website, the identity and the campaigns. Momkai also created a new publishing framework and editor for De Correspondent called Respondens.
… Well, well, well – we thought, spotting Monday’s column in The New York Times by its media correspondent, David Carr: this De Correspondent has not been born a moment too soon. Snippets that stood out in the column, a review of a new book — a roman à clef about New York newshounds by Michael Hastings, a journalist killed tragically young in the 2003 Iraq war:
… [P]oliticians and journalists are now neck and neck in a race to the bottom of public trust. According to a poll released by Gallup last week, fewer than a quarter of news consumers trust what they read, watch or click on, a historic low.
… Much has changed since the period Mr. Hastings chronicles, most notably that the audience has fled established print outlets …
… The public is less prone to the allure of Great Men pontificating from inside a magazine, the television or behind a lectern at a news conference. The jig is up.
The public is ready to share the stage, onto which De Correspondent has invited it to step up and join fully in the action. Bravo for the courage to try out a new idea — never mind if the degree to which it has succeeded so far is hard to judge for those of us who cannot read in Dutch. And a hat tip to David Carr for facing the facts, refusing to bury his head in the sand, and telling us what he sees — truthfully.