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Summary:

One of the most spectacularly successful crowdfunded journalism startups is a website based in Holland called De Correspondent, which has raised more than $1.7M and has almost 25,000 subscribers

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We’ve been writing a lot lately about online journalism startups like Matter — which was acquired by Medium and just dropped its paywall — and NSFW Corp., the Vegas-based venture that just merged with Pando Daily. Both have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and gotten a fair amount of attention, even though they have both failed to remain independent.

But there is an online media startup that is substantially larger than Matter and NSFW put together, both in terms of funding raised and in number of subscribers — and yet it gets surprisingly little attention. That’s because this particular crowdfunding success story is based in Holland. Known as De Correspondent, it launched in September, having raised a relatively massive $1.7 million in donations from almost 19,000 people.

In a post on Medium, the publisher of De Correspondent described the campaign, and what the venture has done since its official launch. According to Ernst-Jan Pfauth, the money raised allowed the company to hire a design firm (which became a partner in the venture) and to develop its own content-management system from scratch — a system called Respondens — which is designed to allow writers and editors to post multiple kinds of content, and also to create their own online community to engage with readers.

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De Correspondent comes with a pedigree

So how did a brand-new online journalism project manage to raise such a staggering amount of money with virtually nothing but an idea — not even a website, let alone an actual product? It’s worth noting that raising $1.7 million and signing up close to 24,000 subscribers in the Netherlands is pretty significant, considering the country only has about 16 million people.

One thing working in De Correspondent’s favor is that it isn’t just a hare-brained scheme dreamed up by an anonymous blogger. Two of the founders have a long pedigree in traditional journalism in Holland: One, Rob Wijnberg, is the former editor-in-chief of the morning edition of NRC Handelsblad — an offshoot of one of the country’s leading national daily newspapers — and Pfauth was the former editor in charge of Handelsblad’s website.

Not only that, but the campaign for De Correspondent was launched on national television, on Holland’s most popular daytime talk show, and included the former leader of the country’s Green Party as well as a prominent documentary journalist. During the show, more than 5,000 people donated $80 or more, and in just over a week the project had hit its crowdfunding goal.

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The site wants to do more than just news

Obviously, not every online journalism startup is going to have that kind of firepower behind it. From the sounds of it, De Correspondent is a little like the homepage editor and the managing editor of the New York Times starting their own online magazine — and launching the crowdfunding project on Oprah, with Glenn Greenwald sitting by their side. That’s going to give anyone a head start.

What remains to be seen is whether the Dutch venture can live up to its ambitious goals, one of which is to do journalism in a much broader way than just telling people “the news,” according to Pfauth and Wijnberg. In a manifesto he wrote before launching the project, Wijnberg said that De Correspondent would:

“Uncover, explain and highlight deep-lying structures and long-term developments that powerfully shape our world, rather than reporting on the latest hype, scare, or breaking news story.”

According to Pfauth, his partner was let go from his job at Handelsblad because he “wanted to steer the newspaper away from current events, since they already get wide coverage from free and ubiquitous media outlets,” and felt that the newspaper should focus more on “developments that are less spectacular than most news events.” So while most papers focused on government budget documents, Wijnberg published a package on international refugees.

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For me, one of the most interesting things about De Correspondent — apart from the huge sum of money they raised and the talent they have acquired — is how they want the site and the mobile app to make it easy for their journalists (the project has 7 full-time and 19 freelancers signed up) to connect with readers and form a community, and for “readers to become participants” as Pfauth describes it:

“We also wanted to build a publication on which readers can contribute their expert knowledge and experience. Let’s assume that a hundred medical doctors are reading De Correspondent. Together they know much more than one medical journalist. Our site needed to be focused on enabling them to share their knowledge with our authors.”

Writers tend their own readership “gardens”

Each writer, who focuses on a specific area of coverage or theme rather than a “beat,” will have what De Correspondent calls their own “garden” or area where they can interact with readers. The goal of this, Pfauth says, is to “establish a lasting and meaningful relationship with our readers” and make use of their expertise as much as possible when reporting stories.

The other interesting thing about De Correspondent’s model is that it is completely advertising free (at least for now). According to the publisher, “apart from promoting some of our articles in Facebook posts, we don’t advertise. We think our readers are our best ambassadors; therefore they can share as many of our articles as they want.” This sounds similar to the “subscriber paywall unlock codes” that both Matter and NSFW Corp. offered — but didn’t see much uptake from.

It will be fascinating to watch De Correspondent, and see whether it can follow through on the incredible promise demonstrated by raising $1.7 million and signing up 24,000 paying subscribers without even having a working website. If you know anyone in Holland who is a subscriber or is familiar with the project, I would love to hear from them at mathew@gigaom.com.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christopher.Michel as well as Shutterstock / Sergey Moronov

  1. “apart from promoting some of our articles in Facebook posts, we don’t advertise.”

    Sounds very utopian, but I assume their reporters do need to eat. How do the plan to make money?

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    1. The revenue for de correspondent comes from subscription fees. Every subscriber pays a yearly fee of 60 euro (81,5 dollar). With 24.000 subscribers (and counting), it suddenly doesn’t sound so utopian anymore. There apparently is a need for independent, ad-free, quality journalism that provides us with genuine information and extended perspectives.

      I think the power of de correspondent is not only the fact that they have backing by some dutch public discourse heavyweights, but also that they employ a clear message with rock solid principles. For example, they work on a basis of trust with regard to their correspondents (the people who have to provide the information and perspectives). They invest trust in their own and rely on the subscriber to do the same, thereby providing the journalist with freedom and autonomy.

      This brings to light a whole new form of journalism which doesn’t depend on the amount of clicks for selling ads, but on the extent to which correspondents manage to deliver new insights and perspectives, spark debate on important subjects and even become opinion leaders themselves.

      As a subscriber, I feel they are very much succeeding in this venture. I am most excited about the fragility of the medium, which is reflected in the observation that they are not trying to become absolute authorities. On the contrary, they are constantly keeping interaction open with the readers. They do so by organizing meetups and responding publicly to their reader’s comments, sometimes even adding documents explaining their arguments and methodologies, or correcting mistakes that were pointed out by readers. Let’s hope this is a precedent for future journalism. At least de correspondent is already proving that there is nothing utopian about it. :-)

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    2. Albert Arendsen Saturday, November 30, 2013

      They make money from the paid subscriptions. De Correspondent is entirely paid for by the readers.

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  2. Very interestiing story,

    there is a similar case in Spain http://www.eldiario.es

    it is sustained by a group of paying subscribers “socios” (5000), but its open for readership to anyone. More than 50% of it’s first year bugdet 500k came from them.

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  3. @Frank: as pointed out by some of our readers already, we are indeed sustained by subscriptions. From my experience at large news organizations I can tell you that de importance of advertising in journalism is blatantly overrated: you can have a solid business case without ads; the only reason why we are lead to believe that journalisms cannnot do without is because without ads its much harder to maximize profits for share holders. Which, in my view, should not be the primary goal of a journalistic enterprise (which is not the same you cannot make a profit at all).

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  4. I give this venture 8 months. Seen this movie before.

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    1. There is always a first for anything. As a subscriber I am very happy with De Correspondent. They truly deliver the news behind the news.
      Too bad for such negativity, you surely know that nothing will ever change if you don’t take a chance and wager.

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  5. I do not want this program and am very upset that the pop up comes up and STAYS and I can not take it off the screen! I have to shut down to make it go away. you can tell this really makes me happy!!!! Tell me how to end it. I promise I am not going to purchase the upgrade. Not going to happen.

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