Correspondent’s business model one to watch

Much has been written about the success of The Correspondent’s recent US$ 2.5 million campaign to launch an English-language “unbreaking news” platform this summer, but the site’s unique business model warrants more attention.

by Brian Veseling | January 23, 2019

In all, some 45,888 “founding members” from more than 130 countries contributed US$ 2,627,070 to help fund The Correspondent. And people are still signing up. At the time of writing, the number of members was at 47,357.

As with their original Dutch site, The Correspondent will be entirely member-funded and, in the words of one of its US-project advisors, media critic Jay Rosen (following advice from Aron Pilhofer), “optimised for trust.” No advertising. No sponsorships of any kind. No tracking. No selling your data or their traffic. Truly putting members in the cockpit of its editorial strategy.

Furthermore, they have a mandate that at least 95 percent of any profits are put back into their journalism which, as Founding Editor Rob Wijnberg told us during a recent interview, also helps to keep the venture capitalists away.

While the English-language version is being created, it’s worth looking at how the founders first venture, De Correspondent, has grown during the past five years.

After a similar crowd-funding campaign, De Correspondent launched in September 2013 with 20,000 members. That figure has since more than tripled to approximately 61,000 today, and each member pays a flat rate of 70 euros a year, or 7 euros a month (initially it was 60 euros a year, or 6 euros a month).

During the recent campaign for the English-language platform, people could become a member for a year by pledging any amount they felt they could afford. We asked Wijnberg if he foresaw the English-language members eventually paying a fixed price as well.

“No, the other way around,” he said. “The thing we want to figure out is that if this choose-what-you-pay model works – by ‘works’ we mean ‘What was the average amount that people pledged: not only in the crowd-funding but also in the coming year?’ And ‘Does it help our growth, or slow our growth?’ So we want to figure out how this model works, and if we think it’s a successful model, then we would like to transfer the Dutch version to that model as well and get rid of the fixed price.”

Buying into the cause

Interestingly, The Correspondent’s campaign didn’t offer any samples of the content they have created in the Netherlands (even though they have regularly had at least some of the content from their Dutch site translated into English).

Instead, potential members were essentially buying into The Correspondent’s cause, or mission, which is itself very different from traditional journalism in that they don’t cover breaking news events, but rather aim to help explain important structural developments within society through articles that will help readers better understand how the world really works, Wijnberg said.

“We try to tell precisely those stories that aren’t news, but news-worthy nevertheless,” he wrote in a series of articles about the principles of The Correspondent. “Or, as we often say, that reveal not the weather but the climate.”

To do this, correspondents are required to spend up to 40 percent of their time interacting with members and readers, which Wijnberg has written, “largely takes place in the comment section (which we call the contribution section), where correspondents ask focused questions to members with specific expertise and answer questions from curious lay readers. This ongoing conversation is the raw material that feeds every correspondent’s work.”

And their work isn’t finished with the publication of an article, but instead often continues as members and other readers provide feedback, which the correspondent then uses to go further with their reporting.

Gearing up for the summer launch

Wijnberg said he and his team are currently strategising for the new platform, examining all sorts of issues including how it will work, how many staff they will need to start with and where exactly they will build the new newsroom.

Although he and CEO Ernst Pfauth spent a year in New York developing and launching the campaign, that doesn’t necessarily mean The Correspondent will be based there.

“That’s one of the big questions we are figuring out right now – and there are many reasons not to be in New York,” Wijnberg said.

One thing that is fairly certain is that the English-language platform is likely to start with a small team.

“We know the amount we raised, 2.6 million, so there’s a limit to the amount we can hire, and we’re going to do it conservatively. That’s what we did five years ago in the Netherlands as well because you don’t know if everyone is going to renew, or what the growth rate is going to be,” –Rob Wijnberg, The Correspondent

“Probably about 12 to 15 people is what we expect,” he added. “Of those people, five or six are going to be full-time correspondents, and we’re going to have some freelancers, and some translators who are going to translate some of the more international journalism that we already do here in the Netherlands.”

By comparison, the Dutch operation today employs just over 50 people, around 20 of whom are correspondents.

“We also work with freelancers, and I’m not including them in the number of correspondents, just our full time editors,” Wijnberg said.

He added that they will soon start a regular newsletter for the new members to keep them informed on their developments. The Dutch version also has both a daily newsletter about their latest stories, and most correspondents have their own newsletters as well, Wijnberg said.

For a while, De Correspondent also published an English-language newsletter that pointed to their content that they had translated, but Wijnberg said they intentionally stopped publishing this newsletter when they began formulating their new campaign because they didn’t want people to get any preconceived ideas about The Correspondent and let it take shape independently.

We’re eager to see how it develops, and we’ll keep you posted as it does.

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