This is what a news organization looks like when it is built on reader trust

Why I'm teaming up with the Dutch site, De Correspondent, on its U.S. launch. Because a membership model grounded in trust is one plausible way out of this mess.

28 Mar 2017 7:53 pm 33 Comments

On March 28 the news was announced: De Correspondent will expand to the U.S. I will be their first ambassador to the American market. The Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media will give $515,000 to NYU to create the Membership Puzzle Project, which will collect knowledge about how membership models can support quality journalism. I will be the director of that project. Here is the post I wrote that explains all this. Originally published at Nieman Lab.

At the kind of journalism conferences I attend, Aron Pilhofer, who had key roles in the digital operations of the New York Times and the Guardian in recent years, has been asking a very good question. What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Not for speed, traffic, profits, headlines or prizes… but for trust. What would that even look like?

My answer: it would look a lot like De Correspondent.

Launched in 2013 in The Netherlands, De Correspondent is funded solely by its members: 56,000 of them, who pay about $63 a year because they believe in the kind of journalism that is done by its 21 full-time correspondents and 75 freelancers. The leaders of the site announced today that they will soon expand to the U.S. and set-up shop in New York. (See Ken Doctor’s post on Nieman Lab for the details on that.)

It was also announced today that I am going to help them. With $515,000 from the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund and First Look Media, I am launching at NYU a research project that is designed to benefit American news organizations that have a membership strategy while improving the odds that The Correspondent will succeed in its move across The Atlantic. (Press release here.) I have further agreed to become The Correspondent’s first “ambassador” in the U.S. market. That means I will help introduce its model to others who might be able to assist — including possible funders. (Are you one?)

As you might have sensed, I believe in what these young Dutch journalists are doing. I think they have a strong sense of how to build a sustainable newsroom. But what really impressed me is what I said before: the way they optimize for trust. In this post I will:

* unfold what I mean by “optimized for trust”
* describe the research plan for the new Membership Puzzle Project, funded by Knight, Democracy Fund and First Look.
* explain why I am supporting The Correspondent’s move to the U.S. and lending my name to their efforts.

Part One: Optimizing for trust

Why do I say that a news organization optimized for trust would look a lot like The Correspondent? There are four main reasons.

Reason 1. No ads. No targeting. Have you ever heard this maxim? “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Its lessons can be overdrawn, and some think it silly, but this phrase captures something about commercial media properties. You cannot trust them to be wholly on the side of their publics because they have another class of customers to worry about: the advertisers. Even if they are run with integrity and would never cave to an advertiser’s demands, a range of subtler distortions can creep in. Obvious example: click bait. Less obvious: pools of available ad money (food, real estate, cars) tend to spring up as editorial products (Grub Street, Curbed, Jalopnik.)

There is nothing inherently corrupt about this. It’s a system that can subsidize a lot of good work. And every subsidy system has drawbacks, including membership. But if you’re doing public service journalism and trying to optimize for trust, it helps immensely to be free from the business of buying and selling people’s attention. The Correspondent got that right away. That is why it is ad free and has no commercial sponsors.

“The Correspondent does not have to think about target groups or tailor its content to please, for instance, well-heeled readers between the ages of 25 and 40,” the founders told me. “The site sees its readers as curiosity-driven individuals who cannot be reduced to demographics. This principle is also the basis for our data minimization privacy policy.” Its key tenets:

* We only collect data required by law or necessary for the proper functioning of our platform.
* We do not sell this information to third parties.
* The purpose of any data collection must be clearly explained to our members.
* Members should, where possible, have control over their data.

Of course, terms like “where possible” leave a lot of room for interpretation. Because it still relies on third party services like YouTube, Vimeo, and SoundCloud, The Correspondent cannot say to its members: “You will never be tracked.” But it can say: These are the services we use and why. This is what we are doing to minimize the problem. It can level with people, as it does here and here. (Google translations to English here and here.)

Reason 2. Freedom from the 24 hour news cycle. The Correspondent calls itself an “antidote to the daily news grind.” When you’re not straining to find a unique angle into a story that the entire press pack is chewing on, it’s easier to avoid clickbait headlines, which undo trust. Not chasing today’s splashy story can hurt your traffic, but when you’re not selling traffic (because you don’t have advertisers) the pain is minimized.

The other risk is to relevance: if you’re not covering the stories that everyone is hearing about ad nauseam, will you begin to sound inessential and out-of-touch? The Correspondent has an answer to that: “not the weather but the climate.” It’s a phrase the editors use to keep themselves on track. It means: ignore the daily blips, focus on the underlying patterns. “Not the weather but the climate” is just a slogan. You have to execute on it, and that is always hard. But it is the right slogan when you’re trying to optimize for trust. And if you can execute on it, you won’t seem out of touch at all. You will feel more essential. (To get a feel for The Correspondent’s brand of journalism, go here and here.)

Reason 3. Writers at the center with room to run. In the era of print journalism, the term in use was “writer’s paper.” (The Village Voice in its golden age of the 1960s and 70s was called a writer’s paper.) That means a newsroom where the editorial initiative — the ideas for what to cover — come from the people whose names are on the articles. They are given lots of room to run. The implied contrast is with an “editor’s paper” (Time magazine during its classic period) where the writers have less room to run.

It has no print product, but The Correspondent is a writer’s paper. Its 21 full-time correspondents are encouraged to define their own beats and pick subjects they are passionate about, driven to understand. (Here’s a list of what their writers cover.) The approach is similar to the “obsessions” model developed by Quartz. At The Correspondent, there is no requirement that journalists take the view from nowhere, but they are also not on anyone’s team.

No party line. No forced objectivity. The writers can come to conclusions and show conviction, but they have to be evidence-based in the extreme. If the evidence obliges them to, they will alter their convictions and share that new perspective with readers. Correspondents never do he said/she said journalism; rather they do “I said then, I say now” journalism.

In my view, this is the right way to optimize for trust in the writers.

Reason 4: Journalist as discussion leader. In exchange for the freedom they are allowed in defining their beats and reporting on their passions, correspondents are required to invest in rich interactions with readers. They do not have a choice. It is part of the job. This step is crucial to The Correspondent’s trust model— and its economy. The editors call it “journalist as conversation leader.” It starts with a feature of the site. You can follow individual writers: the ones whose projects you care most about.

Expectations are that writers will continuously share what they are working on with the people who follow them and read their stuff. They will pose questions and post call outs as they launch new projects: what they want to find out, the expertise they are going to need to do this right, any sort of help they want from readers. Sometimes readers are the soul of project. Writers also manage the discussion threads — which are not called comments but contributions — in order to highlight the best additions and pull useful material into the next iteration of an ongoing story. All of the correspondents have weekly email newsletters that update their followers on what the writers are working on. (Here’s an example from clean tech and mobility correspondent Thalia Verkade.)

These methods resemble the approach taken by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold during the 2016 campaign. As I wrote in December:

Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. (And to mistrust Trump’s attacks on it… See how that works?) He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe. He is not “solving,” but he’s certainly helping with the trust problem.

Fahrenhold came to this style on his own, and was widely praised for it. Journalists at The Correspondent are required to operate this way. And it pays off. Here’s a call out to readers (and people the readers might know.) “Dear Shell employees: Let’s talk.” And here’s what resulted from it: ‘Shell knew’: oil giant’s 1991 film warned of climate change danger. Impressive. And here, readers explain in their own words why they contribute knowledge to The Correspondent.

In 1999, my friend Dan Gillmor, then working as Silicon Valley columnist for the San Jose Mercury news but early to blogging, came to an important realization: “my readers know more than I do.” It took fifteen years, but a news company finally baked into its business model Gillmor’s profound insight into what journalism could be in the internet age. This is from an excellent article in The Drum about The Correspondent’s rise, which quotes co-founder and current publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth:

De Correspondent’s philosophy is that 100 physician readers know more than one healthcare reporter. So when that healthcare reporter is prepping a story, they announce to readers what they’re planning to write and ask those with first-hand knowledge of the issues – from doctors to patients – to volunteer their experiences. “By doing this we get better informed stories because we have more sources from a wider range of people,” Pfauth tells The Drum. “It’s not just opinion makers or spokespersons, we get people from the floor. And, of course, there are business advantages because we turn those readers into more loyal readers. When they participate that leads to a stronger bond between the journalist and the reader.”

Right! And that is how you maximize trust — and produce quality journalism — through genuine reader engagement.

Notice how all the pieces fit together: When you don’t have advertisers, there’s nothing you have to cover because it brings traffic or offers the right environment for ads. Release from the 24 hour news cycle — coupled with dropping the advertisers — lets you grant to your writers more creative freedom. This in turns helps attract talent. Requiring the talent to interact with the readers and draw knowledge from them not only improves the journalism by broadening its base, it also binds the readers to the writers and gives them a stake in the final product because they joined in its formation. They are thus more likely to share it with others— and more likely to renew their membership.

Here I have to explain something about how The Correspondent’s “pay” model works. If you go to the home page and try to access its contents, you will be asked to join and pay the membership fee. But that is the one and only incarnation of any pay “wall.” On the web or via email, any link you come across to an article in The Correspondent is always free to access. Members can share links with their networks without limit, and those links will always work. No one ever gets a notice like: You have accessed 9 of the 10 free articles you are entitled to this month… Members don’t pay to be members because they’re getting exclusive access to something the rest of the public is denied. That’s not how it works. That’s how Politico Pro works. That’s how The Information works. The Correspondent wants its work to spread freely. It also wants you to become a member. It refuses to grant any contradiction between the two.

Again, I think this is the right way to maximize trust in a “readers pay the freight” model.

Part Two: The Membership Puzzle Project.

As I have tried to make clear, I think The Correspondent has a good model. But so far it has only proven itself in the Dutch market (17 million people.) The American market (325 million) is different: far bigger and vastly more competitive. It would be foolish to assume that The Correspondent could simply transplant itself and thrive in the United States. Member-funded journalism has a long history here, most obviously in public radio but not only there. And there are membership organizations in fields other than journalism that might have good insights.

At the same time, The Correspondent knows things that local, non-profit and specialized news sites in the U.S. can benefit from as they turn to readers to support them. Knowledge ought to flow in both directions. From American sites to The Correspondent, and from The Correspondent to American journalism as the Dutch site brings its model to the U.S. This is where the Membership Puzzle Project begins work. It is designed to answer three questions:

1. What can American journalism learn from The Correspondent’s success in developing a membership model for the support of public service journalism?

2. As it expands to New York and the American market, what does The Correspondent need to know about how membership has worked — and not worked — in the U.S.?

3. If readers are going to support public service journalism by giving money directly to it, what does the social contract between them and the journalists have to look like? What are best practices for keeping that relationship strong and alive?

Here’s how the project will try to answer these questions

* Find out how membership has worked — and where it has failed — for news organizations in the U.S that have tried it, which means traveling to key sites, interviewing knowledgeable participants, compiling documents and statistical measures of success, and piecing together a portrait of best practice that focuses on lessons learned.

* Using similar methods, research The Correspondent’s experience with membership since 2013 and distill the lessons of it for American journalism.

* Organize in-person events among those with knowledge and experience to lend so they can pool what they know and learn from each other.

* Share the results of this work in a series of published reports and articles that make the findings available to the journalism community and other researchers, focusing especially on the social contract that has to exist between journalists and readers if readers are going to the work directly.

Part Three: Why I’m supporting The Correspondent.

Because I think they know what they’re doing. Because they have the right priorities. Because American journalism needs to open itself to influence from abroad. Because the production of public interest news cannot be successful without the reproduction of trust in the people who are authoring that news. Because Aron Pilhofer asked a really smart question: What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Because Trump is manufacturing mistrust at a faster rate than journalists can adapt their methods for inspiring public confidence in what they do. Because we don’t have a lot of time, people. Because readers, viewers, listeners, waking up to the urgency of the moment, are ready to support real journalism with real money, but only if the social contract changes. Because what good is an academic reputation if you aren’t prepared to spend it on something you really believe in?


Howard Muhlberg says:

Seems to me that Josh Marshall has done a lot of this kind of journalism at TPM, and it’s conspicuous that he was not mentioned or given credit. His Prime membership limits his advertising dependency and he’s been crowdsourcing stories involving readers as contributions for quite some time.

All that said, The Correspondent sounds exciting and I will definitely consider being paying a membership based on your critique.

Marshall and his TPM are advocates more than journalists.. It isn’t even a ‘news’ entity so the analogy does not apply.

I am a big fan of what Josh has built. And I am quite aware of TPM’s crowdsourcing, which I have written about. (See this for example.)

As the Membership Puzzle Project gets going, we will definitely want to collect knowledge on how TPM Prime has worked.

Not sure what you mean that he should be “given credit.” He didn’t create The Correspondent’s business model. He has been a leader in drawing on the knowledge of users to deepen the reporting, but lots of sites have contributed to that practice. It would not make sense to associate it with one.

Or, much more simply:
1. An ethic of “serving truth” is a dangerous license unlimited by empirical restraint.
2. Far better (and far more coherent in case of for-profit corporations): serve readers, ethically.

Maybe if I start in Europe…

This model still fundamentally assumes good faith, from readers and others aware of the organization. You need to give some thought to how you can handle its opposite.

People who donate in bad faith? I’m not sure what you mean. What is the danger you are pointing to here?

Not what I meant. And I’m likely being too cynical. But it might be worth running the plan past some journalists who’ve run up against power, for feedback on what to keep alert for.

Sorry, I still don’t get it.

Andrew Connor says:

I think what ‘reader’ means here is, what is the mechanism is any to cope with deliberate sabotage (intellectually speaking), trolling I guess, by motivated and financially supported philosophical opponents.

To what extent is membership controlled and under what circumstances can it and indeed should it, be withdran.

I suppose it’s possible that bad actors could pay $$ to become members, and then troll and try to sabotage the site they have become members of. I have not heard of that happening anywhere, but that doesn’t mean it could not happen. It could. The way De Correspondent has operated in The Netherlands, writers have responsibility of editing and “weeding” all threads under their articles. Here’s the way they put it:

Many traditionally educated journalists think of interacting with their readers as “a lot of extra work”. The first instruction we give them when they start working for De Correspondent is simple: ‘This is your work.’ We tell them that, on average, around 50% of their working time should be spent on these interactions.

So in the scenario you sketched, any trollish or sabotage comments would be immediately killed by the writer. I don’t know if De Correspondent has ever had with withdraw membership, but I will ask.

UPDATE: I got a reply.

Q. A PressThink reader is asking about trolling by members. Have you ever had to suspend a member’s commenting privileges or take membership away from a user?

A. It happened around 15 times in 3.5 years. Always after several warnings. And sometimes we email members who comment too much to keep the volume down.

Paul Lukasiak says:

Jay —

what distinguishes this project from Pro Publica, which is also pursuing a “membership” model (albeit with foundation start-up funds)

Also, I’m a strong believer that “facts have a liberal bias”. But that does create problems. So, how will this project prevent its “fact based journalism” from resulting in a culture whose “liberal” bias goes beyond “the facts?”

De Correspondent is solely funded by its members. That’s what’s different.

Q. What will ensure the intellectual honesty of its editors and writers?
A. The intellectual honesty of its editors and writers.

I don’t think there is a better answer than that.

T1gerlilly says:

Simply pose yourself the question- what would you do go discredit or destroy a site that inconvenienced you politically if you were a narcissistic despot with a large national budget? I can think of any number of ways to influence a for-profit corporation using unvetted, crowdsourced sources. Especially if community is an essential part of reader engagement. Just think of the ways that bots could spam and troll those forums.
It is almost inevitable, given Russia’s new active measures in their subterranean cyber war, that any news sites that cannot be corrupted will eventually come under attack. Both the site and it’s most vulnerable, badly paid employees. Just look at all the personal hacking of Democratic National Committee employees.
Journalists have always been targets, but they are coming up to their own Great War, with weapons no one has ever seen before. Reader is right to worry. Journalists will have to learn to think defensively.

T1gerlilly says:

(Oh dear. This was actually intended for the thread above. Oops.)

In De Correspondent’s “contributions” (comment) sections, only paid members can post. Only bots with working credit cards would be able to spam and troll.

I wonder about deep pocket groups targeting sort of an interference light. Signing up members to be kind of annoying, not outright trolls as that would be too obvious, but certainly part of a dedicated campaign to undermine De Correspondent.

T1gerlilly says:

Given the funding that has been put into creating conservative media (which was not profitable in either radio or TV for years when it first started), it truly doesn’t seem like it’d take much of an investment.

Especially when you consider the trove of stolen credit card data that is surely available to state-sponsored hackers. Use our money to destabilize our democracy. It’s almost too easy. De C should have something in their user agreement that allows them to terminate (without refund) users that appear to be bots – and get a contract with one of the firms that can determine that kind of thing. They do exist.

Stephen Tierney says:

What is your assessment of De Correspondent’s ability to secure access to the power to which it must speak truth? Is it as easy for them to talk to government ministers, for example, as it is for, say, journalists working for De Telegraaf?

I ask because it occurs to me that an important difference between this interesting model and blogging will be that ministers will still take the journalists’ calls and answer their questions, whereas they can (and do) simply ignore bloggers. Also, if this works in the Netherlands, what are the prospects for its working as well in a much bigger country? Thanks.

Paul Lukasiak says:

IMHO, access to people in power is nearly irrelevant — its the definition of “access journalism” which, in general, is a deeply flawed model.

What is necessary is access to the information that can be gleaned from government ministries, corporations, etc. Its far more important to know who to ask for that information — who are the bureaucrats who can actually answer questions knowledgeably?

Stephen Tierney says:

I agree with you about “access journalism” when the access is a privilege granted to the chosen few. My question is about accountability, really. Ministers, to continue with that example, make decisions, allocate budget and need to be held accountable more frequently than every few years when there is an election.

Will anyone answer our phone calls? is always a question for a new publication with no brand recognition.

Access to power isn’t required to do good journalism. But having an effect is required to do accountability journalism.

For me what is very special about the DeCorrespondent model as you have explained (and after taking a good look around – thanks for the links!) is how well aligned the business model is – a stream of loyal member donations – with the execution strategy.

Staff correspondents with dedicated niches, newsletters, the crowd-sourced approach to journalism, the no ads/not tracking readers (ethics) & the not chasing cars/clickbait.

These are all things that engender trust. And in the end it is Trust that DeCorrespondent is selling. Which is what newspapers used to try to sell in the good old days, and is what news branding gurus still try to sell to readers (albeit when the product these days is often considered by the news corporations themselves to be the eyeballs of their readers rather than the news).

For DeCorrespondent the product is trust which is a much more sustainable news model.

You nailed it. This is exactly what I was trying to point out in my post. The pieces fit together like very good carpentry.

When will The Correspondent be available and how do those interested in becoming a subscriber sign up?

The one problem with announcing the Membership Puzzle Project and the expansion to the US is that there is no way to become a member yet. When there is you will hear about it, I promise… but since The Correspondent believes it will have only one chance for its big founding member push — and I agree — it’s going to take its time, study the differences between the markets, and prepare itself for the long game. Thus, it’s going to be a while. (For one thing they don’t want to launch the campaign without hiring a US editor and that person is going to be crucial, in a ‘face of the brand’ way.)

Andre Aubin says:

I would willingly join something like this but I can’t resolve a fear I have. I fear what happens with anything new that becomes popular and develops a following. It’s brand becomes a commodity of real monetary value. What are the career goals of those at De Correspondent? Who owns the corporate entity? What will they do if Google wants to buy it for 100 million dollars? Isn’t this what happens in our neoliberal world with anything popular? To me, the trust you hope to build has to come from sacrifice of personal gain. Is that possible?

Excellent question. I can tell you for certain that no one could ever buy The Correspondent for $100 million. There will be no shareholders getting rich from it. There will be no venture capitalist expecting a huge return. There will be no one extracting profits from it. The way the company is constituted and organized will prevent it.

The exact form of the legal entity that owns and publishes The Correspondent US is still being determined, but it will most likely be a public benefit corporation of one kind or another, or a non-profit under US tax law. The fear you raise is completely on the minds of the founders, and I am highly confident that their answer to it will satisfy you.

This was one of the first questions I asked, by the way.

Andre Aubin says:

Thank you for your reply. It occurs to me this is what NPR and PBS should be. But, government and corporate funding have eroded the trust you seek here. It occurs to me there is almost a religious nature to this, a thought that may worry the secular-minded. A monastery of truth monks? In the 80’s, I thought of the Christian Science Monitor as a source which reported the news even if it lead to places that harmed it’s sponsor. The charter calls for readers to be active participants. I worry that can turn into vain grab for popularity. Members trying to get their comments called out or liked. I want my journalists to teach me something important I don’t know already. As I read your thread daily I am sure to see when this becomes something real. Hopefully, the world won’t end before we get a chance.

Hi Andre, further to Jay’s remarks here’s another reason why selling out is highly unlikely in this case. In August last year VC funding for news media startups (which was briefly a hot area ) pretty much disappeared. The reports of the decline coincided with the destruction of Gawker but I think the trend pre-dated that.

This article contains an helpful graph showing just how big the impact was.

This is another reason why The Correspondent’s new approach is so important. Philanthropic funding for journalism has had a bit of a spin and has worked to some extent – as has billionaire funding [Buffett, Bezos (Washpost )and Omidyar (The Intercept – First Look Media) – but these are not easy to replicate. There are only so many foundations and so many billionaires with news habits.

What DeCorrespondent has been doing may in fact be replicable – by groups of journalists working with the communities that they serve.

Andre Aubin says:

There’s history of wealthy benefactors funding institutions to serve a public good. There are countless libraries, colleges, hospitals, and parks that were created in the golden age that you can argue contributed greatly to human progress. I don’t think the problem with that is availability of wealthy people willing to help. There is little trust in earnest attempts to do the public good by too many. Erosion of institutional trust is the very reason we need a populist news producer optimized for trust. Any organization operating in the public sphere stating a mission to serve the common good and reaching some arbitrary level of success will be attacked eventually. I suspect Prof. Rosen knows what creates trust already. He’s spent his career thinking and writing about it. Which leads me to another question I have about De Correspondent and an American version of it. How is success measured? What metric would I use to prove trust has been optimized? Number of members? Membership renewal rates? Pulitzer prizes? What row they occupy in the WH briefing room? A well-run organization has to be able to measure success. In business (news has always been and remains a business) it’s always very easy to measure success. I suppose a true faithful journalism monk does not worry too much about metrics. In their head and heart they should know what they are doing is right. As always, it comes down to finding the right people. Nothing new about that.

My only area of disagreement is with metrics. News has always had a business component, but a big for profit model such as Fox News is a much more recent commodification based solely on profit.
Maybe if it attracts enough support to expand, perhaps become a regardable source, other softer metrics ?

Maybe a two tiered membership. A “Reader” pays enough to break even, with mild price fluctuations (e.g. add servers and reporters, 12 cent increase; more members and efficiency, drop a few cents). An “Investor” pays extra to build new features in the future.

A bit exciting Jay. I know it’s not a good comparison, but sort of reminds me of Brill’s Content at least in that it felt like something different.
Will look forward to it.