The NYU professor explains why he’s working with De Correspondent on its U.S. launch — and why figuring out a trusted membership model is key to journalism’s future.
At the kind of journalism conferences that I attend, Aron Pihofer, who had key roless in the digital operations of the New York Times and the Guardian in recent years, has been asking a very good question. What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Not for speed, traffic, profits, headlines or prizes… but for trust. What would that even look like?
My answer: it would look a lot like De Correspondent.
Launched in 2013 in The Netherlands, De Correspondent is funded solely by its members: 56,000 of them, who pay about $63 a year because they believe in the kind of journalism that is done by its 21 full-time correspondents and 75 freelancers. The leaders of the site announced today that they will soon expand to the U.S. and set-up shop in New York. (See Ken Doctor’s post on Nieman Lab for the details on that.)
It was also announced today that I am going to help them. Yes. With $515,000 from the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund, I am launching at NYU a research project that is designed to benefit American news organizations that have a membership strategy while improving the odds that The Correspondent will succeed in its move across The Atlantic. (Press release here.) I have further agreed to become The Correspondent’s first “ambassador” in the U.S. market. That means I will help introduce its model to others who might be able to assist — including possible funders. (Are you one?)
As you might have sensed, I believe in what these young Dutch journalists are doing. I think they have a strong sense of how to build a sustainable newsroom. But what really impressed me is what I said before: the way they optimize for trust. In this post I will:
- unfold what I mean by “optimized for trust”
- describe the research plan for the new Membership Puzzle Project, funded by Knight and Democracy Fund
- explain why I am supporting The Correspondent’s move to the U.S. and lending my name to their efforts.
Part One: Optimizing for trust. Why do I say that a news organization optimized for trust would look a lot like The Correspondent? There are four main reasons.
Reason 1. No ads. No targeting. Have you ever heard this maxim? “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Its lessons can be overdrawn, and some think it silly, but this phrase captures something about commercial media properties. You cannot trust them to be wholly on the side of their publics because they have another class of customers to worry about: the advertisers. Even if they are run with integrity and would never cave to an advertiser’s demands, a range of subtler distortions can creep in. Obvious example: click bait. Less obvious: pools of available ad money (food, real estate, cars) tend to spring up as editorial products (Grub Street, Curbed, Jalopnik.)
There is nothing inherently corrupt about this. It’s a system that can subsidize a lot of good work. And every subsidy system has drawbacks, including membership. But if you’re doing public service journalism and trying to optimize for trust, it helps immensely to be free from the business of buying and selling people’s attention. The Correspondent got that right away. That is why it is ad free and has no commercial sponsors.
- We only collect data required by law or necessary for the proper functioning of our platform.
- We do not sell this information to third parties.
- The purpose of any data collection must be clearly explained to our members.
- Members should, where possible, have control over their data.
Of course, terms like “where possible” leave a lot of room for interpretation. Because it still relies on third party services like YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, and Adobe Typekit, The Correspondent cannot say to its members: “You will never be tracked.” But it can say: These are the services we use and why. This is what we are doing to minimize the problem. It can level with people, as it does here and here. (Google translations to English here and here.)
Reason 2. Freedom from the 24 hour news cycle. The Correspondent calls itself an “antidote to the daily news grind.” When you’re not straining to find a unique angle into a story that the entire press pack is chewing on, it’s easier to avoid clickbait headlines, which undo trust. Not chasing today’s splashy story can hurt your traffic, but when you’re not selling traffic (because you don’t have advertisers) the pain is minimized.
The other risk is to relevance: if you’re not covering the stories that everyone is hearing about ad nauseam, will you begin to sound inessential and out-of-touch? The Correspondent has an answer to that: “not the weather but the climate.” It’s a phrase the editors use to keep themselves on track. It means: ignore the daily blips, focus on the underlying patterns. “Not the weather but the climate” is just a slogan. You have to execute on it, and that is always hard. But it is the right slogan when you’re trying to optimize for trust. And if you can execute on it, you won’t seem out of touch at all. You will feel more essential. (To get a feel for The Correspondent’s brand of journalism, go here and here.)
Reason 3. Writers at the center with room to run. In the era of print journalism, the term in use was “writer’s paper.” (The Village Voice in its golden age of the 1960s and 70s was called a writer’s paper.) That means a newsroom where the editorial initiative — the ideas for what to cover — come from the people whose names are on the articles. They are given lots of room to run.
The implied contrast is with an “editor’s paper” (Time magazine during its classic period) where the writers have less room to run. It has no print product, but The Correspondent is a writer’s paper. Its 21 full-time correspondents are encouraged to define their own beats and pick subjects they are passionate about, driven to understand. (Here’s a list of what their writers cover.) The approach is similar to the “obsessions” model developed by Quartz. At The Correspondent, there is no requirement that journalists take the view from nowhere, but they are also not on anyone’s team.
No party line. No forced objectivity. The writers can come to conclusions and show conviction, but they have to be evidence-based in the extreme. If the evidence obliges them to, they will alter their convictions and share that new perspective with readers. Correspondents never do he said/she said journalism; rather they do “I said then, I say now” journalism.
In my view, this is the right way to optimize for trust in the writers.
Reason 4: Journalist as discussion leader. In exchange for the freedom they are allowed in defining their beats and reporting on their passions, correspondents are required to invest in rich interactions with readers. They do not have a choice. It is part of the job. This step is crucial to The Correspondent’s trust model— and its economy. The editors call it “journalist as conversation leader.” It starts with a feature of the site. You can follow individual writers: the ones whose projects you care most about.
Expectations are that writers will continuously share what they are working on with the people who follow them and read their stuff. They will pose questions and post call outs as they launch new projects: what they want to find out, the expertise they are going to need to do this right, any sort of help they want from readers. Sometimes readers arethe project. Writers also manage the discussion threads — which are not called comments but contributions — in order to highlight the best additions and pull useful material into the next iteration of an ongoing story. All of the correspondents have weekly email newsletters that update their followers on what the writers are working on. (Here’s an example from clean tech and mobility correspondent Thalia Verkade.)
These requirements resemble the approach taken by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold during the 2016 campaign. As I wrote in December:
Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. (And to mistrust Trump’s attacks on it… See how that works?) He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe. He is not “solving,” but he’s certainly helping with the trust problem.
Fahrenhold came to this style on his own, and was widely praised for it. Journalists at The Correspondent are required to operate this way. And it pays off. Here’s a call out to readers (and people the readers might know.) “Dear Shell employees: Let’s talk.” And here’s what resulted from it: ‘Shell knew’: oil giant’s 1991 film warned of climate change danger. Impressive. And here, readers explain in their own words why they contribute knowledge to The Correspondent.
In 1999, my friend Dan Gillmor, then working as Silicon Valley columnist for the San Jose Mercury news but early to blogging, came to an important realization: “my readers know more than I do.” It took fifteen years, but a news company finally baked into its business model Gillmor’s profound insight into what journalism could be in the internet age. This is from an excellent article in The Drum about The Correspondent’s rise, which quotes co-founder and current publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth:
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.”
Right! And that is how you maximize trust — and produce quality journalism — through genuine reader engagement.
Notice how all the pieces fit together: When you don’t have advertisers, there’s nothing you have to cover because it brings traffic or offers the right environment for ads. Release from the 24 hour news cycle — coupled with dropping the advertisers — lets you grant to your writers more creative freedom. This in turns helps attract talent. Requiring the talent to interact with the readers and draw knowledge from them not only improves the journalism by broadening its base, it also binds the readers to the writers and gives them a stake in the final product because they joined in its formation. They are thus more likely to share it with others— and more likely to renew their membership.
Here I have to explain something about how The Correspondent’s “pay” model works. If you go to the home page and try to access its contents, you will be asked to join and pay the membership fee. But that is the one and only incarnation of any pay “wall.” On the web or via email, any link you come across to an article in The Correspondent is always free to access. Members can share links with their networks without limit, and those links will always work. No one ever gets a notice like: You have accessed 9 of the 10 free articles you are entitled to this month… Members don’t pay to be members because they’re getting exclusive access to something the rest of the public is denied. That’s not how it works. That’s how Politico Pro works. That’s how The Information works. The Correspondent wants its work to spread freely. It also wants you to become a member. It refuses to grant any contradiction between the two.
Again, I think this is the right way to maximize trust in a “readers pay the freight” model.
Part Two: The Membership Puzzle Project. As I have tried to make clear, I think The Correspondent has a good model. But so far it has only proven itself in the Dutch market (17 million people.) The American market (325 million) is different: far bigger and vastly more competitive. It would be foolish to assume that The Correspondent could simply transplant itself and thrive in the United States. Member-funded journalism has a long history here, most obviously in public radio but not only there. And there are membership organizations in fields other than journalism that might have good insights.
At the same time, The Correspondent knows things that local, non-profit and specialized news sites in the U.S. can benefit from as they turn to readers to support them. Knowledge ought to flow in both directions. From American sites to The Correspondent, and from The Correspondent to American journalism as the Dutch site brings its model to the U.S. This is where the Membership Puzzle Project begins work. It is designed to answer three questions:
- What can American journalism learn from The Correspondent’s success in developing a membership model for the support of public service journalism?
- As it expands to New York and the American market, what does The Correspondent need to know about how membership has worked — and not worked — in the U.S.?
- If readers are going to support public service journalism by giving money directly to it, what does the social contract between them and the journalists have to look like? What are best practices for keeping that relationship strong and alive?
Here’s how the project will try to answer these questions
- Find out how membership has worked — and where it has failed — for news organizations in the U.S that have tried it, which means traveling to key sites, interviewing knowledgeable participants, compiling documents and statistical measures of success, and piecing together a portrait of best practice that focuses on lessons learned.
- Using similar methods, research The Correspondent’s experience with membership since 2013 and distill the lessons of it for American journalism.
- Organize in-person events among those with knowledge and experience to lend so they can pool what they know and learn from each other.
- Share the results of this work in a series of published reports and articles that make the findings available to the journalism community and other researchers, focusing especially on the social contract that has to exist between journalists and readers if readers are going to the work directly.
Part Three: Why I’m supporting The Correspondent. Because I think they know what they’re doing. Because they have the right priorities. Because American journalism needs to open itself to influence from abroad. Because the production of public interest news cannot be successful without the reproduction of trust in the people who are authoring that news. Because Aron Pilhofer asked a really smart question: What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Because Trump is manufacturing mistrust at a faster rate than journalists can adapt their methods for inspiring public confidence in what they do. Because we don’t have a lot of time, people. Because readers, viewers, listeners, waking up to the urgency of the moment, are ready to support real journalism with real money, but only if the social contract changes. Because what good is an academic reputation if you aren’t prepared to spend it on something you really believe in?
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