De Correspondent: Rethinking the philosophy of news to create a paid-for digital success story

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The worlds of the news media and philosophy may collide rarely. But at Netherlands-based De Correspondent a team has taken a more philosophical approach to developing the online journalism platform, which has seen the number of paying subscribers grow steadily in the past two years.

Launched in 2013 following a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign that raised $1.7m, De Correspondent now has upwards of 42,000 members paying €6 monthly or €60 annually.

Eighteen correspondents work from its Amsterdam offices, there are 25 freelances, and a translation team working to make more content available for English-speaking audiences. An engagement editor is also being recruited and there are future plans to have an English language platform.

Offering an ostensibly familiar mix of analysis and investigative reporting, De Correspondent’s distinctiveness lies in its team’s willingness to challenge common assumptions of the news industry, including its reliance on advertising revenue.

Co-founder and editor-in-chief Rob Wijnberg was studying philosophy at the University of Amsterdam when he began working in journalism. He believes the Netherlands news media has failed to adapt to the internet, which represents a “whole new printing press”.

Questioning the concept of "daily" news he says: "There wasn’t a day, for instance, when it could have been reported ‘today bankers started taking more risks’, which is why [the 2008 financial crash] seemed to come out of nowhere.

“I’m always annoyed when they say on the radio ‘and now the news’, it’s not the news it’s a news. You chose it and you have 60,000 different kinds of news that you could have told us. We try to present it more like this is our news, if you’re interested good, if you’re not then don’t feel obligated. We’re very personal, that attracts.”

It was while working as editor-in-chief of nrc.next, a daily newspaper aimed at younger readers, that Wijnberg got to test his hunch that readers were interested in reading long-form pieces that tackled complex issues. Subscriptions grew from 7,000 to 83,000, but Wijnberg left in 2012 after he was told to revert to include more ‘news’ to attract the “right” readers.

“What does it matter to a journalist if his audience is 35 or under? Nothing. It matters to companies who want to sell their products to 25-year-olds, but news organisations also think about their audiences is in this way, they have completely internalised this marketing view of audiences,” says Wijnberg, who clearly relishes working on a title that doesn’t need to appeal to advertisers as well as readers.  “If you compare it to what I was used to, then we are liberated from head to toe.”

The focus is on journalists working in a particular area or “garden”, reflecting the work of one backer of the site, Joris Luyendijk, who began his Guardian banking blog in 2011 with little knowledge of the financial world, documenting what he learnt along the way to becoming expert in the field.

The expectation is that readers will follow a particular correspondent who collaborate with the communities around them. To this end, journalists are required to spend half their working day on social media. They also inform readers about the stories they are working on in advance, and invite them to contribute. A database showing the interests or expertise of readers is also available.

While traditional subjects are covered, such as health and education, others such as internet security are included in the mix. The work of the conflict and development correspondent exemplifies De Correspondent’s commitment to providing information that readers couldn’t get anywhere else that adds to their understanding on a subject.

After carrying out an extensive investigation into developing countries’ preparations for disasters two years ago she concluded that Nepal would be extremely vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. When the devastating earthquake struck in May this year, De Correspondent had a cache of articles that it could flag up.

“Most people would have said ‘that’s not very newsworthy’, but the way most news organisations work is to respond to something that is in the news now, and they have to figure it out from the beginning – that doesn’t work,” says Wijnberg. “So the art is to focus on important issues and then eventually the news will catch up to you instead of the other way around.”

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