De Correspondent: member-based journalism
In 2017, the Dutch online newspaper “De Correspondent” reached a new milestone: 50,000 paying members1. Even though only 4 years old, the new venture is already rivaling the biggest newspapers in digital users5. Their secret? Building and sustaining an active, constructive and curious member base.
Newspapers are struggling to adapt to a digital world. Nothing new about that: print memberships are falling across the board, and digital has yet to fulfil its promise for traditional newspapers.
Yet, there is an underlying sentiment that is often overlooked; namely, that the only solution to going digital is turning your paper into click-bait type journalism. Quick, easy-to-read articles with snappy titles and a focus on images and video over text.
De Correspondent aims to break the notion that digital breeds attention-seeking journalism. It does this by publishing daily articles written by their own Correspondents*, and focused on more in-depth reports that go beyond the “daily grind” news cycle4. But the real heart of the revolution is a member-based model; a model that places members firmly at the center, from three different angles.
First, Correspondents see and use the members as (knowledge) partners2. This means involving members in the writing process (e.g. by explaining what research question you are working on), actively engaging with members in the comments section, and proactively finding readers that are interested in your point of view. During the Syrian crisis, the online newspaper asked its members to meet with refugees that recently migrated and conduct an in-person questionnaire. The result? Hundreds of interviews, and more than 20 interesting articles6.
Second, the organization itself acts as if owned by its members. Hence, it is fully transparent on financials and strategic direction (to the extent that is legally and strategically permittable), including privacy considerations (showing which data it does and does not store from members’ behaviour). Moreover, it also clearly sets out its mission to the reader (“your antidote to the daily grind”) – and does not pretend to be objective4. As such, the company also asks its journalists to set an individual goal. For instance, the mission of Jelmer Mommers, the Climate Correspondent, is “showing the impact of climate change and what members can do to speed up change”3. As a member, I therefore know that if I pay for my membership and constructively engage in discussions, I help make that mission possible.
Third and last, members are asked to be open about their identity and background. Next to a contribution to be part of the community (roughly 80 dollars), De Correspondent also actively promotes registering with your real name, background details and a short description. In fact, the online newspaper is currently testing with verified expertise options; a one-liner next to someone’s name indicating one’s expertise.
The impact of this member-based revolution?
Comment sections are rich and insightful. Whilst other newspapers are closing their comments sections below articles7, De Correspondent’s members are thriving. They provide new research data, challenge specific points, debate each other, and build a long-term relationship with specific Correspondents.
Other initiatives take hold much easier. A community with a clear goal also creates a fresh breeding ground for new initiatives. One Correspondent for instance used a combination of his articles, along with additional research, to write a book. As a bonus, he instantly had a group of followers (his readers) that are likely interested in buying the book. This synergy is similarly present in their speakers bureau (where you can book a Correspondent to perform at an event), and podcast and newsletter series (where you can read and hear the latest developments on a particular topic, carefully selected by a Correspondent).
Mission-driven membership growth. Perhaps most importantly: at a time when newspapers find it difficult to bind people to their content, mission and member-driven models can be a solution. Members know that when they subscribe they support a specific mission, fund Correspondents with specific missions, and get the chance to join a rich discussion.
Four years into its existence, De Correspondent is turning many of the critical assumptions of digital journalism on its head. Traditional media should take note: the Dutch organization might just have found a way out of the digital trap, without compromising – or even improving – the quality of its content.
Notes & sources
* De Correspondent calls its journalists “Correspondents”
Student comments on De Correspondent: member-based journalism
Interesting. I’m actually still not quite convinced that it’s the crowdsourcing. It is the age of the citizen journalism as everyone can be a journalist. Seems it is the Dutch version of the Huffington Post, where almost everyone can publish articles. I’m wondering how the website capture value. How much is the membership fee? Or do they have to rely on ads as the traditional newspapers do?
UGC – user generated content – a way of crowdsourcing. It appeared in early 2000 with emergence of internet. The essence is that the crowd generates the content for you. It was supposed to be disruptive, but appeared to be not. The proportion of UGC in media is less than 20% combined. The most famous example – BuzzFeed. I think UGC mostly didn’t work out because media have not figured out the feasible business model to operate.