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.
This is for everyone who follows me on social media, or who has read my press criticism. All my former students. Fans of this blog, PressThink. Anyone who owns my book. Anyone who’s heard me speak. It is a personal statement, from me to them.
UPDATE, Jan. 1 2019: The campaign succeeded! Some 45,000 founding members from 130+ countries gave $2.6 million to launch The Correspondent. (You can still join.) And I appeared on the Daily Show Dec. 6 to make my pitch. ORIGINAL LETTER, Nov. 14: I have never asked you for anything. Except maybe to read this, or share that. I don’t push products, or join campaigns. But now, after 32 years as an observer and critic of the press, I am breaking with that policy. Breaking it in half.
I am asking you to do what I have done: join The Correspondent. If you have ever wondered what I would recommend to public-spirited people who want a better press, this is it. Go here, read about the site’s founding principles, and if they move you become a member.
I won’t make a dime if you do. I am not getting paid to tell you this. I have no stake in the company. I am not an officer or an employee. I just believe in what they are doing, and I have tried to advise them on how to do it better.
After the shock of the 2016 election, I felt I had to find something more useful to do than criticize the performance of the news media. (I do that, as well.) So I decided to work with The Correspondent on its membership campaign, which launched on November 14. Now I am asking you to participate, for reasons I will explain.
Journalism is in a jam. I don’t think better practices are enough. Better principles are needed too. The principles I would add are visible in the design of The Correspondent, and in its membership campaign. So I’m saying something stronger than, “I endorse this.” I’m saying: This is what I would do…
The Correspondent is the extension into English-language publishing of decorrespondent.nl, the world’s most successful member-funded, ad-free news site. It launched with a crowdfunding campaign in the Netherlands in 2013. Publishing daily in Dutch, they now have 61,000 members supporting 21 full-time correspondents on a broad range of beats. (List of Dutch beats here. It tells you the kind of journalism they do.)
Their model is working in the Netherlands, but that’s not the exciting part. The exciting part is the principles that make it go. These are different from any news site you can name.
Start with no ads, the key move the Dutch founders made. Downstream from that original “no” are others, equally welcome. No click-baity headlines. No auto-play videos. No ugly promos sliding into view as you try to read the article. No “sponsored content.” (No sponsors at all.) No third party — the advertiser — in between you and the people trying to inform you. No need to track you around the internet, or collect data on your browsing habits. No selling of your attention to others.
Also: no controversy-of-the-day coverage, which happens when editors from different newsrooms react to the same data showing clicks and taps going to a few “hot” stories. These are typically the stories that trigger outrage in the most people. The people at The Correspondent have a phrase for it. “Your antidote to the daily news grind.” If that’s an idea you can get behind, then get behind The Correspondent. Join our club.
Now for the next principle, equally basic. This is not an exclusive club. It’s extremely inclusive. Two reasons I can say that. Yes, you have to pay to be a member. But you pay what you feel you can afford. The Correspondent believes you are smart enough to figure this economy out. A paying membership is the other side of the coin that reads: no ads. And no ads, as we have seen, has all those welcome effects downstream.
The other reason I can say “extremely inclusive” is that The Correspondent is not selling digital subscriptions, as the Washington Post, the London Times, and most local newspapers nowadays do. Paid subscription is a product-consumer 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 importance of the work. If you believe in the work, you want it to spread, including to non-members.
If The Correspondent’s membership campaign reaches its goal of raising $2.5 million by December 14, it will hire a staff and start publishing, in English, in 2019. When that happens, there will be no “meter” measuring how many articles you have read this month. No one will ever get that notice, “you have used four of your five free clicks.” Any link that comes to people in their social feeds will be clickable and shareable, without limit. In this way it is more like public radio in the U.S. Members who believe in the public radio mission support their NPR station, but everyone can listen.
The differences compared to the NPR system are important too: The Correspondent will have no corporate sponsors. No government funding. And thus no fear of that money getting cut off. Which in turns means no tendency toward false equivalence, no incentive system for “he said, she said” journalism. These are deeply-woven patterns for which I have often criticized NPR.
Built into The Correspondent are other ideas I have tried to speak up for in my work as a critic. For example: In 2003 (here) and in 2010 (here) and at other points in my writing, I have attempted to point out that the “view from nowhere” is getting harder and harder to trust.
But journalists who can say “here’s where I’m coming from,” and then combine that act of transparency with high standards of verification (reporting, digging, presenting the data…) stand an increasingly better chance of gaining trust. This philosophy is coded into The Correspondent. Number six on their list of ten founding principles says, “We don’t take the view from nowhere. We tell you where we’re coming from.”
In 2006, I wrote The People Formerly Known as the Audience, probably my most well-known post. Seven years later, the founders of De Correspondent (who had read that post) asked the people formerly known as the Dutch audience to support a new kind of journalism platform: member-funded, ad-free… and participatory. Which is another key principle. They required the writers they had hired to treat the former audience as a knowledge community, people who ought to be listened to because they know things that can make the journalism better.
I had been pushing that principle for years. They wove it into their operating style. Reporters treat members as sources of knowledge and feedback. They share what they’re working on, and ask for help.
From the moment it “jumped” to the internet, journalism has been trying to figure out how to become more two-way. The Correspondent has the best answer I have seen. Its writers are given freedom to define their own beats, and pick their own reporting projects. But in exchange for that extraordinary latitude they are expected to spend 30 to 40 percent of their time interacting with members and drawing knowledge from them.
No one else in journalism does it this way. If they did, I would know about it.
For you as a member it means this: You are not just expected to give money. You are also expected to testify when you know something the writers should know. If you have expertise, you may be called upon to share it. Members follow writers at the site, not just topics or sections. The writers are required to send their followers a weekly email updating them on their reporting projects. It’s a more intimate relationship with journalists, the opposite of yelling at them on Twitter and hoping to be heard.
One more principle. The Correspondent practices “constructive journalism.” That means no treatment of a problem is complete unless it includes what can be done about it. What we as individuals can do (like reducing your carbon footprint) and what we as a society can do (like requiring more energy-efficient products.)
Are you starting to get the idea? Hope so. There’s a lot more to why I support this project. You can read my fuller explanation here: What The Correspondent will add to the American press. (“It reconfigures how a live public stands toward the makers of journalism.”) Or check out the analysis in Nieman Lab by news industry expert Ken Doctor. It explains how The Correspondent is trying something no one else is trying. (“There is no news company I know of that builds its business — and its journalism — so completely around the reader.”)
What I want you to know is that I not only endorse what they are doing. It is what I would do if I started my own site.
There was a path the American press could have walked, but did not. This alternative way was illuminated as far back as 1992. Our political journalists declined it. And here we are. This post is that story.
One of the problems with election coverage as it stands is that no one has any idea what it means to succeed at it. Predicting the winner? Is that success? Even if journalists could do that (and they can’t) it would not be much of a public service, would it?
In 1992, the The Observer in Charlotte, NC teamed up with the Poynter Institute to pioneer a different way to cover elections. The idea was simple: campaign coverage should be grounded in what voters want the candidates to talk about. Which voters? The ones you are trying to inform.
This came to be called the “citizens agenda” approach to campaign coverage. It revolves around the power of a single question: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” From good answers to that everything else in the model flows.
A few things about that question, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” Notice what it is not. It is not “who’s going to win?” It’s not “who are you going to vote for?” And it’s not “which party would do a better job at addressing…” For the whole purpose of the citizens agenda approach is to find an alternative to the horse race style in campaign coverage, which starts with “who’s gonna win?” What are the keys to winning? How close is the race? Which tactics seem to be working? What do the latest polls say?
The horse race style is the default pattern. It’s easy to criticize, and I have done that a lot. But the default has some impressive strengths. It’s repeatable in every election, everywhere. It creates suspense and thus interest. It tells you where to put your resources (on the closest races and the candidates getting traction.)
Here’s how the alternative style — the citizens agenda in election coverage— works. First you need to know who your community is. If informing the public is the mission statement of every good journalist, then identifying the public you’re trying to inform is basic to the job. If you can identify the particular public you’re trying to inform — and you know how to reach those people — then you can ask them the question at the core of the citizens agenda approach. “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”
The key is to pose this question in every possible form and forum. Interviews with reporters. Focus groups with researchers. Call and leave us a message. Email us. Tweet us. Text us. Fill out this form. Speak up at our event. Comment on our Facebook page. Talk to us!
In addition to those inputs, the polling budget has to be redirected. Away from the horse race, toward the organizing principle in our revised approach, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” You can poll for that. It’s not normal, but it is possible. Especially with online polling beginning to come into its own.
Put it all together, and the journalists covering the campaign have what they need to name, frame and synthesize the citizens agenda. The product is a ranked list, a priority sketch. The top 8-10 issues or problems that voters most want the candidates to be talking about. The citizens agenda, an exercise in high quality public listening, is both a published product (tested, designed, packaged properly for multiple platforms) and a template for covering the rest of the campaign. It tells you how to “win” at campaign coverage. Or stop losing.
But you have to get the list right. If you can spread out and properly canvas the community, ask good questions, listen well to the answers, transcend your limited starting points (your bias) and piece together an accurate and nuanced understanding, then you have something truly valuable.
The template has multiple purposes. It helps focus your “issue” coverage and voters guide. It informs your explainers. And it keeps you on track. Instead of just reacting to events (or his tweets…) you have instructions for how to stay centered around voters’ concerns. When a candidate comes to town and gives a speech, you map what is said against the citizens agenda. When your reporters interview the candidate, questions are drawn from the citizens agenda. If the candidate speaks to your editorial board, you know what to do.
But it goes beyond that. Synthesizing a citizens agenda at the beginning creates a mission statement for your campaign coverage later on. Now you know what you’re supposed to accomplish. Press the candidates to talk about what your readers and listeners want most to hear about.
The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage (sorry for the dorky name) tells reporters, editors and producers how they’re doing. Here’s how. If you’ve done the work and your list is accurate, the candidates will have to start talking about the items on that agenda. That’s how you know it’s working. That’s how you know you’re winning. Now you can press them for better answers, and dig deep on things you know people care about. Public service!
This I can tell you. If reporters ask the people they’re trying to inform, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” no one is going to answer with, “You’re down five points in the latest polls. Realistically, can you recover?”
The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage was first tried at the Charlotte Observer in 1992. I wrote about that adventure in my book, What Are Journalists For? in 1999. I explained it again in 2010 at my blog. So it’s been out there. My own read is that it never took off because this is not what political reporters want to do. They want to hang with the pros. They want to pick apart the strategy. The best ones (and there are some very good ones) want to explain what the candidates are appealing to. In us.
Yesterday, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post gave a grade of C-minus to the campaign press. “Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose,” she said. “With the president as their de facto assignment editor.” And I agree with that. But here’s the kicker: You can’t keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from you, as a campaign journalist. Who cares what you think? It has to come from the voters you are trying to inform.
A demonstrable public service, the citizens agenda approach puts the campaign press on the side of the voters and their right to have their major concerns addressed by the people bidding for power. That is the road not taken. Now I have to add that good reporters on the campaign trail spend a lot of time listening to voters. This happens. They ask about the issues on voters minds. But it’s pitched to who’s ahead and why. To which appeals are resonating.
For the sophisticated professionals who cover elections, the “citizens agenda in campaign coverage” sounds — let’s be honest — a little too earnest, a bit minor league. Civics class, as against drinks with the county chairman at the Des Moines Marriott. I know this. I get it.
But the only way up from the hole they’re in is to pitch their journalism at an electorate that they understand better than the politicians who are leading it off a cliff. You don’t get there with a savvy analysis of who’s ahead. Somehow, you have to represent.
The readers of the New York Times have more power now. They have more power because they have more choices. And because the internet, where most of the reading happens, is inherently two-way. Also because Times journalists are now exposed to opinion and reaction on social media. And especially because readers are paying more of the costs. Their direct payments are keeping the Times afloat. This will be increasingly so in the future, as the advertising business gets absorbed by the tech industry. The Times depends on its readers’ support more than it ever has.
When I say the readers have more power I mean the core readership, the loyalists, the people for whom the Times is not just an information source, but a necessary part of life. The subscribers. That’s about 4 million people out of a monthly readership of more than 130 million. More than 60 percent of total revenue comes from them.
One of the joys of having a subscription to the Times is threatening to cancel it. Which is simply to say that a Times loyalist is also a critic. It has always been that way — the Times gets a lot of criticism — but now the situation is growing more tense and anxious.
Recently the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, said something that I believe touched on this anxiety.
We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition.’ And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition.’
By “baited” he clearly meant the taunts of people like Steve Bannon and President Trump. By “applauded” he meant, I think, the pressure coming from Times loyalists. For the most part these are people appalled by Trump who want to see him further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lies. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions, the corruption of the American Republic — and to act accordingly.
But these people are perceived as a threat by the Times newsroom. The fear is that they want to turn the Times into an opposition newspaper. This is not how the Times sees itself. The fear is that they want the Times to help save American democracy. This too is not how the Times sees itself.
Remember when the Washington Post came out with its new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness?” It put Post journalism on the side of keeping democracy alive. Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, made fun of it. “Sounds like the next Batman movie,” he said, while being careful to express admiration for the Post and its editor, Marty Baron.
The Times debuted a new marketing program around the same time, but the message was different. It went something like this: People on all sides are shouting at each other, full of zeal and certainty. Amid the claims and counter-claims of a polarized nation the truth is hard to find, hard to know. But the truth is more important than ever, and that is why you need the New York Times. Not for its defense of democracy, but for its careful distance from the cacophony, in which Times loyalists are themselves participants. Watch this and you will see what I mean:
Let’s bring these strands together. Times journalists are aware that they are more dependent than ever on their core readers. They also feel incredibly lucky to be working at the New York Times. Mostly they are institutionalists, whose worst fear is screwing something up that would injure the Times, which they love and respect. They are further aware that their most loyal readers want a more confrontational approach taken toward the Trump movement and government. And they know that enemies of the Times, including the movement that brought Trump to power, want to see it fail and lose face, lose influence, lose power.
Navigating these tensions and sensing what needs to be done— that is the job of leadership. How do you recognize the rising power of core readers and still maintain a healthy independence from them? How do you fight against a political movement that wants to destroy the Times without politicizing the product? How do you oppose Trump’s attempt to discredit the Times and the press as a whole without becoming “the opposition?”
Well, you don’t do it by eliminating the public editor. You don’t do it with a flippant, “sounds like the next Batman movie” when a rival is trying to stake out territory as democracy’s defender. You don’t do it by worrying about whether a hostile White House perceives the Times arts writers as unfriendly voices on social media, as Dean Baquet said he does. For as I wrote then, “if the perception of critics can edit the actions of his staff then he has surrendered power to enemies of the Times, who will always perceive bias because it is basic to their interests to do so.”
The rising power of Times readers has, I believe, unsettled Times journalists. They are both grateful and suspicious. They want the support, they also want to declare independence from their strongest supporters. (And they do not want to open the box that is marked Coverage of Hillary Clinton, 2016.) They are tempted to look right and see one kind of danger, then look left to spot another, equal and opposite. They want to push off from both sides to clear a space from which truth can be told. That would make things simpler, but of course things are not that simple. The threat to truthtelling — to journalism, democracy, the Times itself — is not symmetrical. They know this. But the temptation lives.
These are matters of institutional psychology, which I observe from the outside. I am sharing my impressions as a close reader, a subscriber for 30+ years, a loyal critic myself, and a watcher of Times journalists. In any relationship, a shift in power alters the dynamic between the parties. In so many ways since the election, the Times has risen to the occasion and excelled. But it has a problem with its core supporters. Until it is put right, there will be blow-ups, resentments and a lot of misunderstanding.
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 TheCorrespondent, 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.
1. Across Europe and the United States there moves a right wing populist wave that includes in its political style the rejection of the mainstream press as corrupt, elitist and part of the system that is keeping the good people, the pure people — the Volk — down. Illiberal democracy is on the rise. It has no use for real journalism, except as hate object. (Link.)
2. For most news publishers the advertising model continues to decline. Google, Facebook and ad tech companies dominate the digital ad market. The VC route does not seem promising. (“Pivot to video” is a good title for that feeling.) The chances of generating more state support — on the public service media model of the BBC, CBC or ZDF — are zero within the current climate. That leaves subscription, crowd-funding and friendly billionaires. Each is shaky in a different way. The business model for serious journalism remains unclear and unstable. That’s a problem.
3. In the United States the President is leading a hate movement against journalism, and with his core supporters it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running. Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone. No one knows what to do about it.
4. Marty Baron’s famous phrase, “We’re not at war, we’re at work” captures the consensus in American newsrooms about how to respond to Trump’s attacks. As I wrote here, “Our top journalists are correct that if they become the political opposition to Trump, they will lose. And yet, they have to go to war against a political style in which power gets to write its own story.” How to put that distinction into practice is not clear. That’s a problem. So is thinking you’re not at war, when in some ways you are.
5. Leading journalists in the US seem stuck on what they regard as a supremely telling fact: the same man who is leading the national hate movement against their profession cares desperately about his portrayal in the news media, consumes news with a vengeance, loves hanging out and sparring with reporters, and admits that he still holds tender feelings for the New York Times, which he nonetheless attacks as corrupt and failing. Struck uncommonly hard by this irony, they underrate the damage his campaign is doing. (Link.)
6. In local news the wreckage continues, with newspaper staffs reduced by 3X or 4X from their highs. TV newsrooms, public broadcasting and digital start-ups cannot make up the difference. The eye on power that local journalists once provided, fitfully and imperfectly, is today withering away, with no clear answer in sight. The slow motion collapse of the local newspaper is especially painful because that is where a relationship with trusted news providers typically begins.
7. The lack of diversity in American newsrooms and the loss of trust in the American news media are factors clearly related to one another, but there is no agreement on how to move forward, or even on which diverse perspectives are most needed. On top of that, most of the newsrooms from which genuine diversity is missing are officially governed by the View from Nowhere, an ideology that stands in subtle contradiction to the very premise that diverse perspectives are required to produce a fair and compelling portrait. No one wants to deal with that mess.
8. I refer now to a cultural condition and media climate involving bad actors and false claims that is so confusing and seemingly hopeless to most of us that terms like “death of truth” and “post-fact” are routinely used by educated people as they try to name and frame what stands out about this. Journalism’s response has been more fact-checking and the calling out of untruths, but it’s clear by now that fact-checking is not having the desired effect. So what lies beyond fact-checking? We do not know.
9. For 50 years or more, university-based journalism schools in the United States have connected with the news industry and the journalism profession using a simple formula that worked for everyone. “Send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow.” This was the agreement these schools had with students and their future employers in American newsrooms. But it isn’t good enough anymore. For one thing, the production routine itself has to be re-engineered, and the J-schools of America aren’t set up for that. Finding a business model that can sustain a quality newsroom is the industry’s biggest problem, but J-schools aren’t designed for that, either. There’s plenty of change, energy and optimism in journalism education, but it’s not clear what replaces the prior consensus: “Send us people we can plug into our production routine tomorrow.”
PRESSTHINK is a project of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. It is written and edited by professor Jay Rosen, who has taught at NYU since 1986. The blog is about the fate of the press in a digital era and the challenges involved in rethinking what journalism is today. It presents essays, press criticism, interviews and speeches. PressThink does not accept advertising.