Three things traditional media could learn from a crowdfunded Dutch news site

Just over a year ago, a Dutch news site called De Correspondent made a fairly spectacular debut — raising more than $1.7 million from about 20,000 people, in what is still one of the world’s most successful journalistic crowdfunding efforts. And how is the site doing now? As it turns out, it is not only doing well financially but along the way it has learned a number of important lessons that other media outlets, both traditional and digital, could stand to learn from.

De Correspondent co-founder Ernst-Jan Pfauth — a former digital journalist with Dutch media entity NRC — recently published an update on Medium about the site’s progress, and said it has been able to convert over half of its initial supporters into regular subscribers. That means it now has almost 30,000 paying customers who contribute $76 a year, or about $2 million.

That’s a fairly amazing amount, considering De Correspondent is a brand new entity — and it’s even more incredible when you consider that the Netherlands only has a population of about 17 million, meaning De Correspondent has attracted a relatively large proportion of the potential audience for digital news in that country.

De Correspondent

As I noted when I first wrote about it, the site had a head start in the sense that Pfauth and his co-founder Rob Wijnberg were both widely-known journalists for a popular media outlet, and they also got a lot of TV coverage when they made their crowdfunding appeal. But still, raising $2 million is a notable achievement.

But more than just raising money, De Correspondent has also tried hard to rethink how the news and journalism business works, and how the relationship of a media entity with its readers needs to change, and that’s a big part of what makes it different, as Pfauth describes in his Medium post. Among the key differences are:

Telling readers where the money goes: This is something that succcessful crowdfunding projects often do, but it’s rare for media companies — De Correspondent didn’t just say thank you for the money they raised, they wrote detailed reports for their readers on where the funding was being used and why. It’s a smart way of helping to build trust with your audience, which in turn makes them feel better about contributing.

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Talking about your mistakes: The site has freely discussed what it is not doing well, and how it needs to improve — for example, Pfauth has written about how even though the news outlet is digital only and is trying to break the newspaper mold, it still falls into the habit of publishing stories on a predictable schedule instead of figuring out what readers need and giving it to them at a time and in a way that makes sense for them, not for the site or its traditional publishing schedule.

Pfauth and some of the site’s editors and writers also pledged to become more diverse in the types of stories they cover, and more diverse in terms of the people they get to cover those stories — and to broaden the methods they use for storytelling, instead of lapsing back into the tried-and-true newspaper model.

This kind of soul-searching is not common in traditional media, needless to say. It certainly didn’t emerge from the New York Times when that paper announced it was shutting down its NYT Opinion app and laying off 100 editorial staff, nor did any of that play a role in the paper’s internal innovation report.

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Treating your readers like partners: Apart from its openness about finances, or its willingness to admit its mistakes, one of the most compelling things that De Correspondent has done — and in fact the reason why it is committed to those other two things — is to connect readers directly to the writers who work for the site, in as many ways as possible. This is exactly the kind of thing I tried to describe in a post about the NYT’s mobile woes. As Pfauth puts it:

At De Correspondent, we believe that journalists should work together with readers, since every reader is an expert at something. And 3,000 teachers know more than just one education correspondent. That’s why we see our journalists as conversation leaders and our members as contributing experts.

Notice the language: De Correspondent doesn’t have readers or users, it has members. And it doesn’t have comments, it has conversations — ones its journalists are expected to take part in and lead — and it doesn’t have commenters, it has contributing experts. All of those things make a powerful statement about how De Correspondent sees the relationship between its journalism and the people it serves, namely the people formerly known as the audience. Words to live by.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr / Christian Scholz