This online journalism startup raised $1.7M in crowdfunding and you’ve never heard of it

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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

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