We make free presses one at a time. Those we have spring from the protections of law in a given country, and from the history and culture of the people who live there. When you look at the world map, there are not a lot of them. Many fewer than we need! The free presses we do have face common problems:
- a broken business model, as the advertising business is transformed by the internet;
- the slow motion collapse of the local newspaper, which is where a relationship with trusted news providers begins;
- attacks on the news media by authoritarian leaders and the movements they head, along with a rising mistrust of governing elites and the institutions they direct;
- a cultural condition and media climate involving bad actors and false claims that is so confusing and seemingly hopeless that terms like “death of truth” and “post-fact” are routinely used by educated people as they try to name and frame what to them stands out about it;
- in countries with a long tradition of public broadcasting, the beginnings of a revolt against the financing system, typically led by right wing populists;
- deficits in agility, urgency, and diversity in newsrooms that aren’t changing as fast as their predicament shifts;
- and everywhere the capture of the relationship with users by the big tech platforms.
Instead of seeking universal answers (“write once, run anywhere,” as they say in the software business) we should commit to global collaboration, and to learning from the journalism of other countries: one free press to another.
This is the choice I made in trying to recover my bearings after the shocking results of the 2016 election in the United States — shocking for journalism, I mean. I decided to work with a small Dutch site, De Correspondent.
This essay explains why.
November 9, 2016, the day after: The press-hating candidate had just won the big prize. Journalists obsessed with the horse race — who’s going to win? — had not made clear the possibility that Donald Trump could be the next president. This was a massive intelligence failure, a trust-crushing debacle. His demagogic attacks on journalists not only didn’t hurt him; they fit smoothly into a political style that capitalized on mistrust of the system and the people who ran it.
American journalism wasn’t ready for what was coming after the election, I felt. The roots of 2016’s collapse ran deep, but there was no tradition of deep reflection following equally massive failures, like the phony case for war in Iraq in 2003, which the political press failed to detect, or the financial crisis of 2008, against which the business press was no protection.
There was no equivalent in journalism of the 9/11 commission to ask: how could this happen? After the election I wrote a two-part post called “Winter is Coming” that summarized a bleak situation this way:
Low trust all around, an emboldened and nationalist right wing that treats the press as a natural enemy, the bill coming due for decades of coasting on a model in political reporting that worked well for “junkies” but failed to engage the rest of us, the strange and disorientating fact that reality itself seems to have become a weaker force in politics, the appeal of the “strong man” and his propaganda within an atmosphere of radical doubt, the difficulty of applying standard methods of journalism to a figure in power who is not trying to represent reality but to substitute himself for it as a show of strength, the unsuitability of prior routine as professionals in journalism try to confront these confusing conditions, a damaged economic base, a weak institutional structure and newsroom mono-culture that hinders any creative response, and a dawning recognition that freedom of the press is a fragile state, not a constitutional certainty.
That’s what I saw on the day after. I did not know how to solve any of these problems, but I knew from experience that the American press — after a short period of self-flagellation for getting the winner wrong — would simply move onto the next story: Trump as president, which was going to be a wild, wild ride.
To just follow along and criticize the coverage I could not do. I had to find a project more constructive. In the weeks after Trump’s improbable victory, I had felt despair creeping up on me. For the first time in my life, I was measuring the years until my possible retirement. (Five at least, ten at most.) I wanted to let others figure a way out of this mess, even though I knew it was equally my gig. Here I detected a new emotion: intellectual shame.
We make free presses one at a time. We have to fix them that way too. My personal breakthrough came at the Newsgeist conference in Phoenix, a month after the election. That was when I first heard Aron Pilhofer, formerly of the New York Times and the Guardian, a self-taught digital journalist and change-maker, say: What if news organizations optimized every part of their operation for trust? Not for speed, traffic, profits, scoops, headlines, prizes, or time-on-site… but for trust. What would that even look like?
I had an idea of what it might look like because I had been talking to the founders of a Dutch news start-up, De Correspondent. Optimized for trust was a plausible description of the model they were developing as the world’s most successful member-funded news site, launched in 2013. Now they were looking to expand to the U.S. and to English language publishing. The more I learned about them, the more distance I gained from my egocentric despair.
Events in the election of 2016 had exposed weaknesses in American journalism that went far deeper, and started much earlier than the post-mortems and press reviews would ever reach. I wanted to work on something that treated the problem at the level where I thought it resided. The entire relationship between journalists and their publics needed to be reconfigured.
Now let me explain what I mean by that.
Five years before Trump’s victory I had given a lecture in Melbourne, Australia entitled, “Why Political Coverage is Broken.” It was mostly a critique of the “savvy” style in the mainstream press, where the object is to get inside the game and show how the winners play it.
Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate — this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s how I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be… Savviness as a political style [tries] to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.
Out of alignment. This was the key point. In 2011 I knew how to describe that condition, but I did not know what to do about it. Five years later I felt I did know: Join forces with De Correspondent, and its Dutch co-founders, who were half my age. They were busy reconfiguring how a public stands toward its journalists. Their scheme seemed to be working in the Netherlands. Making it work in the U.S. would be much harder, but worth a try.
I am a fan of tinkering. But I knew that tinkering would not be enough. Somehow we had to rebuild the contraption of journalism by realigning its parts. The business model; the distribution system; the style of reportage put before the public; the implied contract between makers and users, writers and readers; the feedback loops; the incentives that drive newsroom behavior. The use of talent. The role of editors. The bid for customer loyalty. It’s not that each and every one of these had to be re-invented. Rather, we had to take them apart and fit them together in a different way. That required an organizing principle potent enough to inspire creative effort at every level of a news company. Optimizing for trust could, I thought, be that principle.
So to describe how the membership model pioneered by De Correspondent works:
1. No ads. This is the most critical decision the founders made. Because there are no ads there are no daily traffic quotas, and no need to chase the controversy of the day. The site is not in the business of measuring, packaging, and selling your attention to someone else. And there’s no third party in between journalists and members. As my colleague Clay Shirky puts it, Best Buy and Wal-mart “never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway”.
2. Member-funded. In the Netherlands, 6,000 members pay 70 Euros a year to be members. Member fees and reader donations cover 84 percent of the costs (the rest comes from book sales, speaker fees, and syndication.) As Shirky said, advertisers don’t advertise because they want to support kick-ass journalism. But members become members because they do. That’s part of what I mean by a better alignment.
3. No meter. With revenue from digital advertising difficult to capture, many news sites have turned to subscriptions to survive. Typically they use a “metered” system, in which readers get a certain number of free articles per month, after which their access is blocked — unless they subscribe. De Correspondent doesn’t do that because its model is not subscription. Subscribing is a product relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership is different: you join the cause because you believe in the work.
If you believe in the work, then you want it to spread — including to non-members. Thus any link to De Correspondent’s journalism that Dutch readers come across they can access for free: no limit, no meter. To put it another way, the members are an active subset of the readers, and they willingly subsidize the journalism that often spreads beyond the community of supporters to a larger public. This is how De Correspondent gets around the frustrations of a paywall.
4. Escape from the 24-hour news cycle. In the Netherlands, De Correspondent doesn’t try to have something on every news story that the media system is buzzing about. It describes itself as an “antidote to the daily news grind”, then tries to live up to that description. Like other digital publications it sends members a daily email highlighting recently published work, but its goal is to have a different mix of stories, originating not in an editor’s exquisite taste, but in explicitly different principles about what is newsworthy.
- “The problem isn’t liberal bias, it’s recency bias.”
- “Instead of looking only at what happened today, at De Correspondent we look at what happens every day. When you do that consistently, it makes for a different view of the world.”
- “We try to tell precisely those stories that aren’t news, but news-worthy nevertheless. Or, as we often say, that reveal not the weather but the climate.”
- “We encourage [our writers] to seek inspiration for article ideas outside of the day’s newspapers, talk shows, and tweets — by going out into the streets, by reading books, and, above all, by asking our readers the question, ‘What do you encounter every day at work or in your life that rarely makes the front page, but really should?’”
5. A revised contract between editors and reporters. As these principles imply, the editors of De Correspondent have different expectations. “Don’t tell me what happened today. Reveal in a new way what happens every day.” But this is just one of their revisions. Another is that correspondents are permitted to define their own beats and pick their own reporting projects. The idea is to better align commitment with assignment — and to attract the best talent.
In exchange for this extraordinary freedom, writers agree to devote 30 to 40 percent of their time to interactions with members, with a special emphasis on tapping the knowledge and life experience that members bring to the table. The contract with editors thus says something like this: “Writers, we are confident that what excites you as a journalist will also work for our members, but you have to bring them into it. When they know things that you need to know, you must make that exchange happen — or you failed at our style of journalism.”
6. Writers inform readers, readers inform writers. Correspondents are required to send a weekly email to members who follow them at the site, explaining what they are working on and outlining any information needs they have that members might assist with. Members are encouraged to form attachments with the individual writers whose beats interest them most. Comment threads have been reframed as reader “contributions”. Only readers who are paying members can comment, which more or less eliminates trolling.
De Correspondent tries to teach its members that opinion is less valuable than what they know about the topic at hand, or a perspective they can supply that is missing from a published report. Doctors and nurses and patients know more about the healthcare system than even the most well-connected medical correspondent. That’s the idea. More recently, the site has begun verifying what its members are expert in, creating an online database that allows editors to be proactive in asking for help. With all these moves, the goal is to realign the reader-writer relationship around knowledge exchange, in the belief that this will lead to better journalism, greater accuracy, deeper loyalty, and a richer experience for members, who will then be more likely to renew.
7. No View from Nowhere. De Correspondent tries to specialize in slow journalism, in-depth investigations that shift the focus “from the sensational to the foundational”, as Wijnberg puts it. Writers are encouraged to become experts in their subjects and to share conclusions when they have them. They are permitted to say what they think, as long as it is evidence-based. They do not have to obey any party line. Nor do they have to babysit readers, or give them what they’re clamoring for. But they are supposed to practice constructive journalism, which means no description of a problem is complete unless it includes informed discussion of what can be done about it.
These moves are a kind of ideological realignment, not on some left/right axis but toward view-from-somewhere reporting, a transparency that discloses rather than concealing the individual journalist’s point of view. In a suspicious age, the practice of disclosure, coupled with high standards of verification, is more optimal for the production of trust than the Voice of God, the View from Nowhere, or what journalism professors call “neutral professionalism”.
By kicking the advertisers out of bed, by pushing the distinction between subscription and membership to the key point of sustainability, by exiting from the hamster wheel of clickbait and 24-hour news, by putting high concepts like “not the weather but the climate” into practice with its 21 full-time correspondents, by redrawing in a creative way the contracts between writers and readers, editors and reporters, news site and supporters, by encouraging a view-from-somewhere approach and making “constructive journalism” the house style — and by surfacing demand for these things — De Correspondent went beyond tinkering with a broken business model. It reconfigured how a public stands toward the makers of journalism. This was inspiring.
We make free presses one at a time. We ruin them that way too. Incredibly, this is what the President of the United States is trying to do, at least for his core supporters: ruin their trust in professional journalism. No one knows how to stop him from doing that. No one knows how much damage to the press will ultimately result.
But we do know that it didn’t start with Trump, that the problems in journalism are far bigger than one man’s campaign to elude accountability, that the people who care about creating an informed public will have to work together and learn from each other, and that despair is always waiting to substitute itself for honest effort on a distant goal.
By distant I mean we are a long way from knowing what to do to “fix” journalism. But I know what I’ll be doing in the months ahead: everything I can to build a base of support for The Correspondent, the English-language version that will launch its membership campaign in the coming year. I am meeting with the founders weekly as we plan that campaign. I also direct a research project that is studying membership models around the world. Aron Pilhofer is on board. Like me, he’s an “ambassador” for The Correspondent in its drive to expand to the U.S. So is comedian and author Baratunde Thurston, the singer Rosanne Cash, the artist and writer Molly Crabapple.
You can sign up for updates here. And soon you will be able to do much more than that. I hope when your chance comes you will join me, and become a member of The Correspondent. For I’m not ready to retire.