Yep. The Correspondent screwed up in its communications with members. Here’s how.

A decision not to have its headquarters in New York or the US, and to base the English-language site in Amsterdam, has drawn criticism from supporters.

28 Mar 2019 2:20 pm 26 Comments

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.


Willem Zuidema says:

How about a members referendum? Work out two scenarios, explain why you support the Amsterdam option, but let the members of The Correspondent decide by majority.

Kudos on this frank, clear, humble explanation. It makes sense and is a welcome example of how to reinforce — or rebuild — trust, transparency and audienceplatform respect that flows both ways.

As one of the nine to 14 people on Twitter who were confused, I’m heartened and partially relieved. I hope the founders learn from your example of how to communicate more effectively and responsively. Well-done, professor

I will pass that suggestion along, Willem Zuidema.

Ellen Miller says:

Let those in charge decide how best to proceed. As long as the goal remains doing ‘good journalism’ who cares where the offices or reporters are? Let it rip.

Thanks, Ellen.

1) There is an old joke about allegedly stolen spoons: the spoons have been found, but the feeling has remained.
2) 40% of donors – is it enough to neglect?
3) The issue needs be addressed relates not to a detailed retrospective of mind changing, but rather to media fundraising, membership model in general and even the possibility of fundraising fraud (there are even such views of what happened – The trust in non-profit funding for the media is undermined. This is bigger than De Correspondent’s face saving.
4) Everyone in the media knows, Jay, what a truly devoted ambassador for the membership model you are; so it is you and your ideas got harmed, not De Correspondent. If to speak about whom to defense now…

This brou-ha-ha is a classic example of what I describe as “implicit expectations” – the tendency for one or more parties in an evolving relationship to form expectations about the behavior of the other parties that are never explicitly discussed or agreed among all of the parties.
So, when The Correspondent began its membership drive, a lot of donors (including me, I have to confess) thought that the base would be the USA.
Having read Jay’s explanation, and thought a bit more about the dynamics of news-gathering, I don’t think that where a news organization is “based” matters as much as how it gathers news and information, which has to be, at least part of the time, via boots on the ground. I don’t see that The Correspondent can succeed unless they have folks in the USA writing about issues from local knowledge. I am assuming (aha! an implicit expectation) that The Correspondent will have boots on the ground in the USA.

This all makes sense. I do think there’s a difference between public message discipline, and conversations with those who have already joined or pledged as members.

We don’t need to tell you of all people how about transparency and trust are ongoing commitments not single sells, and if The Correspondent is truly aiming to be a different kind of newsroom, it needs to move away from opaque decisions followed by big splashy announcements. I hope the team can make the changes it needs to live up that promise.

Frits Toben says:

Thank you Jay.
As one of the 40% dutch founders of the “English” version of “De Correspondent” I’m glad that Rob W. c.s. doesn’t shut off the Amsterdam office, being a transnational newspaper now. The TheC experiment is much more interesting now : is it possible to have an (end)redactional office outside the country where the news ‘happens’. Not being focused on Daily News, but on ‘structural’ news tendencies, I think it is possible, but indeed unique. Not as a unique selling point, but philosophically speaking.
However, within a view years the post-Trump Big Apple as such will become more delicious than the fresh fruits of a small town in Holland. And then the dutch readers will have to answer the same question : Dutch news from the New York desk ? Is it possible ?
Le Monde Diplo gives the better part of the answer….?

Ole Petter Pedersen says:

I would think only Americans would object. They are, after all, the only country in the world where a league is called “World Series”. The axis EU-China can be just as interesting, if not more so.

“…It needs to move away from opaque decisions followed by big splashy announcements.” Thank you, Andew.

Amy Sauertieg says:

This is the transparency that was needed, Jay. Message discipline sounds great in theory, but it’s not helpful if it actually becomes a handicap.

Geoffrey Sametz says:

I was under the impression that the “Founding Member Wall” that our names would go up on was a location in NYC. This wasn’t a selling point for me, but I’m curious: does this wall exist, but in Amsterdam? Or is it in NYC, but getting painted over by a new tenant?

KVanSwearingen says:

I contributed in the first days of the campaign and distinctly remember this pledge to memorialize us as well. The fact that it’s not addressed in the “message correcting” seems telling.

Thanks for the insights, Jay. I’d say the moment your team agreed on the importance of “message discipline” re: the headquarter’s location might also have been the moment to share with donors why such careful language mattered.

George Colvin says:

I’m sure it makes a difference to you, as someone deeply involved in the venture, whether there’s a newsroom in the United States or not. For myself, as an American member, I joined The Correspondent because I find the basic model innovative and appealing, and because I want to read the product of this model. Where that product is produced doesn’t make much difference. I understand the confusions you explained about how things worked out in the way they did, and I’d certainly prefer the resources of The Correspondent to be used in the way best calculated to improve the result. The Correspondent ought to be evaluated on its writing, not its organizational structure.

Jay – That’s awfully long-winded explanation. It seems clear that New York turned out to be more expensive, the US funding thinner and the non-profit reporting field more crowded than you’d initially thought. So announce the pivot and own it. In two sentences.

Now move on and produce great journalism.

I doubt you have ever had to write something like this, Peter. If you had, you would not be recommending that it be done in two sentences.

The crux of the problem lies in making the newsroom itself the bone of contention. Rosen’s apology implicitly compounds this problem by agreeing to focus his response on a lack of clarity in the discussion about the location of that all-important newsroom.

It would have been more in keeping with De Correspondent’s project to announce that one of the virtues of the United States expansion (or, to use the latest formulation, the Anglophone expansion) would dispense with the concept of the centrality of the newsroom.

After all, it had already been promised that two of the major newsroom functions — the assignment of stories and the fact-checking of reporting — would be at least in part outsourced to the membership. So why not announce that the north American system would dispense with a newsroom altogether and rely on a distributed model?

Each reporter — operating remotely and from no fixed location — would function as a one-person bureau, receiving input from both hub and spokes, from the newsroom and from the membership.

Thus no New York City newsroom…but no central role for any newsroom. The bureaus instead would be the focus of newsgathering activity and they would be located all over the English-speaking world.

Mark J. McPherson says:

FWIW, I was never particulalry hung up on the physical locations of the headquarters or newsroom(s) or satellites and my assumption all the long was that whatever the configuration, the effective operational HQ would be in Amsterdam, at least in the early going. I remain curious as to how The Correspondent will bridge the gulf when reporting on US issues and events.

I read The Guardian, which does have a physical presence in the US, but my general association is that it carries a UK perspective which often is a net positive and a means of differentiating their coverage. The Guardian is generally well informed and discerning about the US, more so than many of our home side.

First Look Media’s “The Intercept” relishes its status as an offshore outsider alternative to traditional US-centric news but it’s distance makes it easier to ignore or dismiss (and it’s coverage has a different kind of “view from nowhere” aspect to it). So I am curious to see how well this experiment goes and whether things happening or interesting to those in Utrecht may not translate or seem relevant to readers in the US, no matter how well reported.

But it would hardly be novel for a “new form of journalism” to set up a pressroom in NYC and start shouting “Get me re-write!” into their rotary landlines. I don’t see proximity as critical, provided there is a means and an effort to be fully connected and committed. We hardly need to wind in still another tail into the tangle of the old New York Press Rat King.

As I also replied to Wijnberg, this decision exposes them to a common weakness of international journalism, which is viewing the world from the location and culture where you’re personally based and disregarding or playing down other viewpoints. The Dutch, including Dutch editors, generally have a biased and uninformed view of overall American society, just like Americans, including American editors, have their uninformed biases about Europe. I can say that because I’m a Dutchman who has lived for many years in the US and who in the 1990s was the US correspondent for several Dutch and Belgian publications. And I’ve also been a Europe-based correspondent for a US news organization. I hope The Correspondent manages to avoid this trap.

A newsroom is not an expensive “office”. It is a collective synchronous brain, a physical place where you can meet your members/readers and discuss new ideas in person with your colleagues. Chatting on a laptop over different time zones is business as usual, Dutch editors and US based reporters. Every news organization in the world covers the US.

I greatly appreciate that The Correspondent chose to have its head quarters in Amsterdam – for a simple reason: Capitol TV is boring. Let the tributes in The Hunger Games, too, write unbreaking news. Especially those from the poor districts.

I’m a social worker and find almost nothing of the realities I encounter in the news. This is not a matter of individual failure but of a lack of perspective. I’m sure most journalists mean well – but, more often than not, they suffer from lack of real life experience. They appear to be mostly Oxbridge or Ivy League-graduates located in The Media Capitol (New York, D.C., London, or, occasionally, Paris or Berlin). More often than not, their life experience is limited to high schools, universities, journalism schools, think tanks, and/or news rooms. The occasional low income fig leaf doesn’t change the big picture. The journalists I know never lived in the poor districts. They’ve never been homeless; they’ve never been on food stamps; they’ve never been bullied by a job center. They can afford to obsess over pronouns. They are oblivious to the view from below.

And it shows. On the right, people from the poor districts are mostly portrayed as welfare scroungers. On the left, well-meant but so insulting, as helpless victims of “the system”*. The working poor I know are defiant, capable people who’ve been dealt a tough hand in life. They are unique human beings, and often, real survivors. But I don’t find them in the media. This is confusing. Sometimes, I wonder if the people I know are real. Barbara Ehrenreich has written a useful article about this problem: “In America, only the rich can afford to write about poverty.

Required reading for The Correspondent-journalists, Part One:

In fact, in America, only the rich (or well-to do) can afford to write about almost everything. And what I mean is to really WRITE – to have the means to investigate, to think, to revise, to tackle the hard questions, to explore transmedia writing, and to enjoy the protection of a well-equipped media organization with excellent editors and lawyers.

It’s quite similar in the UK, where almost every Guardian or BBC journalist appears to be an Oxbridge graduate (and to live in London), or in Germany, where you need to be accepted by three top journalism schools, preferably at age 19, (and to live in Berlin) to make it in the media. And what London, New York, and Berlin have in common is that that they’re increasingly unaffordable for normal people. The result is Capitol TV, produced by well-to do, woke Ivy Bridge-folks living in The Media Capitol*. And Capitol TV is not only biased but a snore.

This is dangerous. We see the results in the US/the UK, where journalists neither saw Trump nor Brexit coming. We see it in Germany, where “the lying press” is viewed with disgust by large numbers of people. We see it on the streets of France where the Gilets Jaunes openly display their distaste for the liberal media: “After her producer cut the live footage, one of the men said, “Journalists do not tell the truth. They only spread misinformation. We will create our own alternative media. We do not need you.”

Required reading for The Correspondent-journalists, Part Two:

By choosing an affordable place as headquarters, The Correspondent opens the door for new ways of looking at things**. Now I hope they really do it, and include writers from all walks of life. Particularly people with real life experience, people of all ages* – and people that can’t afford to live in the fancy part of New York, Berlin or London. People who’ve been on food stamps. People who’ve survived homelessness. People who know what it means to be bullied by a job center. Real people. The people The Woke Left can’t deal with.

Because, Capitol TV is boring.

The boring, ageist stereotype that young equals “open minded” and/or “visionary” adds to the ignorance. A “young” team of journalists, however, doesn’t equal fresh perspectives. (Given that, according to PEW, 40% of Millenials oppose free speech, it could mean quite the opposite.) Having a “young” team of journalists simply means that a team of journalists shares a distinct set of life experiences, and thereby, limited worldview. To be more concise, a team prone to certain logical fallacies. For example, to the fallacy that “@AOC is a Green New Deal-visionary because she’s young”. Another, mostly overlooked, possibility is that @AOC is a Green New Deal-visionary because @AOC knows poverty, and poverty forces people to grow up, and “Growing up, like enlightenment, is as much a matter of courage as of knowledge.”

Required reading for The Correspondent-journalists, Part Three:

Of course, all of this applies to a team merely composed of “old” or “middle-aged” journalists, whatever that means.

I applaud your decision to accept all sorts of contributions, and like to add that offering more payment methods might enhance your membership. 29% of Americans and 67% of Millenials don’t own a credit card, and the other payment methods are mostly limited to folks from Belgium and the Netherlands. Please consider that quarterly or monthly payments are easier to afford for low income folks. Amanda Palmer’s Patreon account is an excellent crowdfunding role model.

Required viewing for The Correspondent journalists/strategists, and everyone else, part Four: “The Art of Asking”, by Amanda Palmer

Required reading for The Correspondent-strategists, Part Five:

Thank you for your consideration.

Caroline Miller says:

I donated, and then doubled down on it, because I think this a great idea. I, too, had the impression it would be based in the US, because of this kind of statement from your pitch: “Now they were looking to expand to the U.S. and to English language publishing.” But, as you say, it’s all in the results. If the US correspondents do compelling work, and interact with members as promised, who cares whether there’s an office on U.S. soil? Excited to see what they come up with. We are desperately looking for ways to fix what’s wrong with American journalism.

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