The Dutch independent journalism platform De Correspondent is well-known for its approach to journalism, involving members in the newsgathering process and considering readers as experts who can contribute to the reporting.
The site launched with a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign and has been steadily growing ever since, and the team is currently planning an international expansion. In April, Gwen Martèl became De Correspondent's conversation editor.
In this Q&A, she tells Journalism.co.uk more about the role and how it fits into the newsroom.
What is your job title and what does that mean in practice?
"My job title is conversation editor. It is a new role at De Correspondent, and we think maybe a first for journalism. In the coming months, I wilI focus on two things: inviting members to take part in discussions they’re knowledgeable about, and help our correspondents to enrich their reporting with the knowledge and experience of our members.
"At a later stage, I will add more goals. I will try to make our comment section more diverse by reaching out to groups that are underrepresented among our members. I also want to organise critical dissent. We often get feedback that accuses our members of "group think" – of being a left-wing, highly educated, white male group. I understand that people think of us that way – based on some comments – but that’s not an accurate reflection of our members as a whole, so I want to bring a wider variety of voices into the debate.
"For example, when we published a story about how a Los Angeles nonprofit helped former gang members reintegrate into society, some members felt we couldn’t use these lessons in the Netherlands because the situation here was too different. I invited a Dutch expert on juvenile offenders to the conversation; he shared how his organisation actually learned a lot from the American approach.
"And last week we published an article about Stefan de Vrij, a Dutch football player, about how he perfects his game with the help of a video analyst, Loran Vrielink. They both answered questions from our members in the contribution section during the two days after publication. What I liked most about that was the unusual level of access this conversation gave our members: it is not everyday that you can ask your questions to a famous football player and get answers from him.
"My final task is to transform the lessons we learn about member participation into new features for the platform and specifically the 'rolodex'. The rolodex is the database where we can find the members with a verified expertise in order to contact them."
What does a normal day at work look like for you?
"I walk in, say hi, go to the kitchen immediately for coffee. And then another. Sometimes one more. If it’s sunny I work in the garden.
"I start with answering all the emails in my inbox. Then I read the newly published articles and specifically the contributions. I check them for relevance or I think about people who could join the conversation. Then I always realise that I have to make some structure within my work, so I try doing that by making a to-do list. I never look at that list again. I talk with colleagues about their upcoming articles, there are meetings, there’s lunch.
"And, of course, I call or email members to ask them whether they would like to proofread or contribute to an upcoming article. I end the day happy because the responses to that question are always (at least until now) really positive."
Part of your role is to promote diversity in the community. How are you tackling that?
"I hope that I will be able to invite different voices and opinions to our platform so that more people feel welcome to contribute. I am aware that not everyone with an important voice is able to become a member of our platform, so I sometimes offer a free one-month trial to enable contributions.
"For example, the Dutch embassy in Bangladesh doesn’t give memberships to its employees, but we want to hear from them if we publish an article about the clothing industry in Bangladesh. I can offer a month’s free membership in order to hear their point of view. An important side note: this is always without the obligation to contribute and we never have any influence over the type of contribution they provide."
How are you managing negative feedback or even abusive language?
"Luckily there isn’t much negativity. I think mostly because members cannot contribute anonymously. When I was still editorial manager, I answered all the incoming emails from our members. Of course it did occur that people were angry about, for instance, an article, or a specific setting within our website. I learned that most negativity can be turned into positivity by just listening to the complaint and explaining why we do what we do. People are often surprised that it’s a real person that’s actually listening to them.
"For moderating, we set up a few house rules to keep the conversation on topic. If you explain to a member why their comment is deleted, most of them will understand the motivation. In the five years that we’ve existed, I think we banned around 10 people after warning them three times (and refunded their membership fee). I have never had to deal with abusive language, as far as I remember (maybe another first for a journalism platform)."
What do you look forward to most when you get in the office?
"My colleagues. I have the privilege to work with so many interesting, smart and funny people with so many insights and ideas. Everyone understands the importance of all roles, so we really work together on the outcome: an article and an informative conversation."
Should every newsroom have a conversation editor? Why or why not?
"That depends a lot on the type of newsroom you want to be, I guess. What you see is that a lot of newsrooms only moderate contributions or reactions. I really want to motivate people to share their knowledge. We don’t just want to send information, we also want to receive it. In order to structure that incoming information a conversation editor comes in handy."
What skills are most needed in order to do this job successfully?
"I think it is important that you take your members and subscribers seriously. Generally speaking, journalism relies on sending information to the public. With the internet it is possible to share information directly with each other. If you regard your readers as uninformed you will never learn what they know. If you take them seriously you will get to their knowledge and be a better journalist because of that."
How did your career in journalism start?
"With a lot of job applications to De Correspondent! I first applied during the crowdfunding in 2013, and then again after that, but I always ended up second. But I persevered! I was so annoyed by the media that I always felt I wasn’t informed well enough. I missed the answers to the questions that I found most relevant.
"For example, an article about a sentence for a crime never tells you how the judge came to that decision. I had to look up the court verdict to make up my mind if I thought that sentence was fair given our current law. I missed the nuance, so when I first heard about a platform that would focus on context instead of incidents I got really enthusiastic. A year after I first applied, they finally called me back and said they had a role for me. I’ve been here ever since!"
What would you say to someone applying to work at your organisation?
"Ideas matter more than your CV."
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
"Even if you spend your whole life reading, you won’t even be able to read even one per cent of the books ever written. So choose wisely."
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