For two years, Rob Wijnberg was the editor of NRC Next, a Dutch daily newspaper. After he was fired, he decided he would start over by launching his own publication—and using an entirely new business model.
"There are a lot of problems with news, the biggest one being that it's always about exceptions, never about rules," says Wijnberg. "Your world view becomes pretty skewed if you just watch the news and never get any context along with it. After two years the chief editor said we have to move in the opposite direction—more news, what is happening today."
So Wijnberg set out to create a news organ that truly served readers—not advertisers—with real reportage and context around stories.
His idea became De Correspondent, an independent, ad-free, Dutch-language publication and platform whose only investors are its subscribers and the founders themselves. The correspondents of the title cover niches from surveillance and satire to child care and "forgotten wars."
Launched four months ago after a crowdfunding campaign which raised $1.7 million, De Correspondent now has over 28,000 subscribers who pay five euros ($6.84) a month. If the Netherlands had the same population as the U.S., that would be equivalent to over 500,000 subscribers.
De Correspondent has a 5% profit cap, ensuring that the rest of its earning are re-invested directly in its journalism. The publication is already in the black. "If 40% of our members don't renew in September, we will still survive," says publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth.
As the editor of NRC.nl, NRC Media’s website, Pfauth was one of the first people who Wijnberg tried to recruit.
"It was a disaster, " Pfauth says of the NRC online presence. "The site was basically a copy-paste from a newspaper. The [web] writers were all just waiting until they were invited [to write] for the actual paper newspaper."
Pfauth grew traffic by a factor of three. His strategy: hire a group of young journalists and have them interview the newpspaper's correspondents, in order to write up news analyses before the actual stories went to print the next day. "All the newspapers just wrote what the wires wrote," he says. "We had actual correspondents. The analysis of the correspondents had to wait for another day for the newspaper. We would interview them as if they were working for a different medium."
But when Pfauth tried to innovate in other ways, he was stifled. He started a project to harness the expertise of NRC’s readers, many of whom their subscriber data told them were highly educated. "NRC has a thousand doctors who are subscribers, "he says. "They know more than any one medical editor." When the private equity firm that owns a majority stake in NRC Media killed the project, Pfauth left.
Pfauth’s focus on expert analysis converged with Wijnberg’s redefinition of news to form the original journalistic agenda for De Correspondent. Now all they needed was a platform.
The new journalism team went to visit digital creative agency Momkai. Momkai creates marketing campaigns for brands like Nike and Red Bull, building custom software as well as creating concepts and branding. "We right away noticed that if you want to do this well, you really need to partner up and see it as one company," says Momkai’s creative director, Harald Dunnink. "With journalists and designers and developers working together from the get-go." So Dunnink and Momkai’s CTO, Sebastian Kersten, joined Pfauth and Wijnberg as cofounders of De Correspondent.
First the team created the De Correspondent’s spectacularly successful crowdfunding campaign, eschewing existing crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo to create their own site. "From a creative direction point of view, I really wanted to have control over the whole story," says Dunnink. "There's no Kickstarter telling me how I should present something."
The campaign was featured on the Netherland’s top talk show and quickly set crowdfunding records for a journalism project. A total of $1.3 (1 million euros) was raised within eight days. By the end of the 30-day campaign,18,933 Dutch people had contributed a total of $1.7 million.
Once the money was in the bank and the first correspondents were on board, Momkai set about building a custom content management system for the journalists, which it calls Respondens, as well as the site which subscribers would see. "Our journalism is not to get your attention. It's to go in-depth," says Wijnberg. "The design had to correspond with that mission."
Having already dispensed with ads, the designers began with a clean slate. Between them, the founders came up with several new features to increase reader focus by eliminating distractions. The first was banning links.
"I always hated that you have links in a story and it totally distracts you," says Dunnink. "I always hated it that you don't have a context for the link. We don’t link." Instead of using links within the text of an article, there are side notes which add necessary background or context. If there are a few primary links, they are added at the end of the article like references in an academic paper.
Another feature fills in any information gaps a reader may have. "If you know that information already you skip over it," says Kersten. "It keeps the whole article clean and the writers don't have to assume a level of knowledge. You don't have to write too much information for those who already have a high level of knowledge about it and not enough for people who simply don't know, so they stop reading."
Images are optional. The first article that De Correspondent’s image editor, Sterre Sprengers, wrote for the new publication was about how she planned to use less rather than more imagery in De Correspondent. "We put a lot of effort into the photography and illustrations," says Wijnberg. "Most of them we make them ourselves. But it's not just an image with the story. If there's no image that really adds to it, we just don't do an image."
While encouraging focus was important in the design, the interaction with subscribers was crucial. "The whole platform, we are building that around the dialog rather than the monologue that it is usually," says Kersten. "You as the journalist are the conversation leader."
Subscribers can follow particular correspondents who share the build up to their stories, including their research and thinking as it develops, with them. Only subscribers can comment on stories, although they can also share the content with others. "After launch, we saw people commenting even more than we hoped for," says Dunnink. "A crazy amount. And they write a lot. What we noticed is that people feel liberated in a way because they know it's really a club. You have to pay to get on there. You have to use your real name. We don't talk about commenting. We call it contribute, to add value to the discussion. It's much more an intellectual debate."
Every month one correspondent hosts an evening for subscribers. This week conflict correspondent Maite Vermeulen hosted a "War for Dummies" evening where refugees from conflicts like that in Syria answered questions. Surveillance correspondent Maurits Martijn organized a crypto party where subscribers could secure their laptops. Correspondent evenings consistently sell out so the publication is currently looking for a larger venue to host them.
Subscribers can share articles with friends, and this is De Correspondent’s main method of acquiring new members. "We can get a few hundred new members just due to one article, " says Dunnink. "It's our only marketing tool. The marketing is only the stories. We showed it to the New York Times. They said 'Oh we are going to steal this' (the sharing model). We walked out of there and said to Rob ‘This is the first time we have been at an editor's office.’ We had never been to any newspaper whatsoever."
I sat in on De Correspondent’s weekly editorial meeting, held in the cafe of Amsterdam’s cinema museum The Eye. It’s a five-minute walk from De Correspondent’s office in Shell’s former R&D lab A Lab. The majority of correspondents are in their 20s, with a few older veterans rounding out the team. Stories in the works ranged from a piece about homosexuals in Uganda to surveillance at Sochi and sexual hooligans (teenagers harassing elderly women) in the Netherlands.
"At a newspaper what generally happens is the the editor-in-chief says ‘We have this news. What are we going to do about it?’" says Wijnberg. "There's no real personal attachment to all these subjects and why they are important. Here it's exactly the opposite. [The correspondents] tell me what are they going to write about and why they think it's important. It could be something in the news. That's fine, but if it's not, that's fine also. At a newspaper we would say, ‘Why now?’ The answer here is ‘Because it's important.’"
Wijnberg is clearly proud of his team. "It all started with nothing," he says. "There was no platform, there was no example, there was no money. A lot of these people had very good jobs at established media. That all these people said ‘okay, we were going to try and do this’ and that it actually worked and that we are sitting here, is in some sense a miracle."
[Image: Flickr user Mustafa Khayat]