By request, here’s my post explaining how I view The Correspondent’s decision not to have its headquarters in New York or the US, and to base the English-language operation in Amsterdam. (I am an advisor, and the Membership Puzzle Project, which I lead, is partners with The Correspondent.) You can find the background to this controversy in Mathew Ingram’s report for CJR.
First, it’s entirely understandable why people thought The Correspondent would be based in New York. At one time, that was the plan. The plan made its way into communications in a broad variety of ways. As I told Nieman Lab, “That’s not anyone’s fault but The Correspondent’s.”
Here’s how Founding Editor Rob Wijnberg put it in a letter to members that was sent today. (Bold lettering in the original.)
Members who read about this decision elsewhere have shared with me that they feel misled because they had a reasonable expectation from our crowdfunding campaign that we would open an office in the US. I am truly sorry for this. As an organization built on a commitment to transparency and trust, we recognize how serious this is. We should have communicated with you as our thinking evolved and you should have heard this from us first, rather than on Twitter or via other news outlets. We will learn from this, and do better in the future.
Now to the question of how it happened. I have some knowledge of this — and of the mistakes we made that led to today’s apology — because I was part of the campaign.
Through 2017 and much of 2018 we shared a default assumption that The Correspondent would be based in New York. I call it a ‘default’ because we never sat down to decide it, and there was no real cost study or strategic analysis behind it. Rather, we had opened a campaign office in New York (with borrowed office space) and it seemed like that would evolve into The Correspondent’s newsroom. At some point in 2018 we mentally shifted from “New York, probably” to “location: undecided” but (and in retrospect this was an error…) we didn’t think to announce this to the world because in our minds we had not announced “newsroom in New York” to the world. But we were mistaken.
Instead of announcing “we have changed our default location from New York to Undecided, so please be aware…” we tried to practice message discipline during the campaign itself, which ran from Nov. 14 to Dec. 14, 2018. We spoke about expansion to the English speaking world. In our minds, shifting the way we talked about the expansion during the campaign so that we referenced the globe and the English language, rather than New York and the US, brought our campaign communications in line with “location: undecided.”
But we know now that this was a failure of imagination, especially for a site that talked about “optimizing for trust” and working collaboratively with members.
To illustrate what I mean by “we tried to practice message discipline during the campaign itself” see this paragraph from the Guardian’s story, which ran the day the campaign started:
Wijnberg, a former newspaper editor in the Netherlands, and his co-founder, Ernst Pfauth, have been based in New York City for a year planning the launch, working with media experts and researchers at New York University. If the Correspondent reaches its fundraising goal, it will hire five to six full-time correspondents focussing on specific beats, Wijnberg said. Instead of a traditional office, the Correspondent’s journalists could be based around the globe – wherever their focus may be.
But for every careful reference like that, there seem to be three more — in news reports, prior messaging, or from the team itself — supporting the impression that The Correspondent would have a newsroom in the US and become part of the American press.
Some other things that were going on might make this a little more explicable. It’s in the nature of a crowdfunding campaign with a do-or-die target and a 30-day run that all sorts of questions are put off while you are working on the campaign, because only if the campaign succeeds will there be any cause to examine those questions. That’s not an excuse for what happened, but it is part of the context.
Similarly, you can try to estimate from Amsterdam what the true costs of running a newsroom in New York are, but for the founders of The Correspondent it was the experience of moving their own lives to the US, establishing a campaign office in the city, hiring people to staff it, paying for their health insurance, getting visas to work in America and a hundred other, smaller real-world discoveries that slowly, and bit-by-bit weakened the case for a New York newsroom.
It made sense then to consider other American cities (Detroit? Pittsburgh?) but did it make sense to try to decide on newsroom location before you even knew if there would be a newsroom to locate, or what the budget would be? The feeling was that it did not make sense to decide that now. Instead we would practice message discipline during the campaign itself, so that no one felt misled about an HQ decision that was very much up-in-the-air. (Not saying it happened that way. I am saying this was our thought.)
Another factor was uncertainty around who the members would turn out to be. There is no way to know that until you run the campaign. The US has the most native English speakers, so one would expect most of the members to be Americans. But we did not know how well The Correspondent’s origin story and principles would resonate around the world, or how a Dutch-born site would be received. When the campaign concluded and the numbers were analyzed they showed about 40 percent of The Correspondent’s founding members are from the US, 40 percent are Dutch, and 20 percent are from the rest of the world.
What location does that argue for? To me it makes for a tough call.
An additional factor, of course, is costs. My sense was that a member-funded newsroom needed to put as much as possible into the journalism, especially at the beginning. This was doubly true for The Correspondent, which ran a campaign based entirely on its founding principles and its success (60,000 paying members) in Dutch. As Emily Bell wrote Dec. 16, “Particularly admirable about the Correspondent’s campaign was that it raised membership without publishing a word. It asked people to buy into the idea of journalism created in a transparent, non-hierarchical way.”
Having bought into the idea, members, I felt, are going to want to see the journalistic goods as soon as possible, not the bill for rent and health insurance. So as the prospect of a New York City office gradually shifted to “location: undecided,” I began to feel good that we would have more money to spend on the journalism, even though I had no idea where The Correspondent would eventually be based. I didn’t think we were misleading members; I thought we were respecting their hard earned cash. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.
On top of that there was another decision to make. Should there even be a central newsroom, or did a distributed model make more sense? Why not base the correspondents where it made sense for them to live and work? Why not widen the talent pool by allowing for remote work? This was particularly important because the kind of correspondents we would be looking are journalists excited about the challenge of treating members as a knowledge community and routinely integrating them into the reporting in crowdsourced (or David Fahrenthold) fashion. They aren’t that easy to find. This too argued for a distributed model.
When in January 2019 the founders of De Correspondent told me that a one newsroom strategy was the leading option, with headquarters in Amsterdam and the new correspondents working remotely, I was initially taken back. I would not have come up with that idea. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made, especially when it came to the talent search, and to the aspiration to one day be a global brand. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how many of our supporters had assumed there would be a US newsroom, probably in New York. Now I am.