Last April, Rob Wijnberg and Ernst-Jan Pfauth raised $1.7 million in crowdfunding for De Correspondent, a new, online-only publication
The idea was to go from 'the news' to 'the new'," said Wijnberg, De Correspondent's editor-in-chief, who was previously editor-in-chief of nrc.next.
He and Pfauth, publisher of De Correspondent and former online editor of nrc.next, said they had tried to change the direction of their previous publication and failed. Instead, they took the ideas they had tried to implement for their own project.
"I thought the conversations I was having with the people writing articles were more interesting than the articles they were writing," said Wijnberg, and resolved to create a new publication based around each journalist – or correspondent – the stories they can tell and the conversations they can create.
A year after securing a reported world-record in crowdfunding for journalism, Pfauth and Wijnberg shared the lessons learned from their experiences so far at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
1. Don't think you know what people want
Instead, said Wijnberg, give people what they should want.
"Henry Ford said 'If I had asked people what they wanted they would have asked for faster horses'," he said, and the same concept should apply to journalism.
Writers at De Correspondent were hired based on their expertise on a topic and given free reign to explore the ideas and stories that are important to that area, rather than following the news cycle.
"What we tried to look for in our correspondents is not so much traditional journalists but conversation leaders," Wijnberg said. "They need to have a mission in journalism and explain to us why they want to write and perform journalism in the first place, and you have to have some kind of expertise or fascination."
Ernst-Jan Pfauth (left) and Rob Wijnberg presenting De Correspondent
This helped in the crowdfunding stage, in having Femke Halsema, the former Green Party leader turned journalist, and documentary-maker Jelle Brandt involved from an early stage as journalists who "exemplified the kind of project we want to make".
"Almost all news and media platforms say their stories matter," he said, "but what you need is people who symbolise what they mean by good journalism."
Wijnberg and Pfauth recognised that they had an enormous boost in crowdfunding by appearing on television to promote the campaign early on, but by employing experts who are passionate about a certain field lets readers know that they will be producing quality content.
"Most important difference in how we operate is that the correspondent is the central point of the conversation," he said, allowing subscribers, or "members" to follow correspondents for detailed updates as well as receiving individual articles.
2. Don't wait for innovation to happen
Being able to build their own platforms and solutions "without compromise" is central to how De Correspondent works, said Pfauth.
For writers, the content management system automatically previews the finished article, and for readers the site displays as a responsive web app, he said, so to not alienate iOS or Android users by releasing on one platform first.
Other features of De Correspondent were built to fit with the ideals of the founders in mind, rather than sacrificing certain elements to fit with the technology.Just publishing an article as an end point isn't enoughErnst-Jan Pfauth, publisher, De Correspondent
"Every author has a 'garden'," Pfauth said, a working name for each author's blog or personal home page that stuck, "they share the research they are doing now so readers can contribute."
Writers submit two types of article: small updates for members who follow them and general articles for everyone else, and members can engage with writers in a real conversation that adds to the article.
"Just publishing an article as an end point isn't enough," Pfauth said. "An article is an update in a bigger story, it is never the whole story itself."
Another innovation involved a sidebar next to articles to provide extra information, rather than hyperlinking text in the article itself.
De Correspondent is funded entirely by members – a little over 20,000 at launch in September, now more than 32,000 – but the paywall this creates is 'soft', said Wijnberg. Members are able to share stories to social networks for their contacts to view with a clear marker at the top of who shared, and paid for, the article originally.
This adds value to the article by showing that it was paid for, he said, while drawing more readers to De Correspondent, another example of innovation from the outlet.
3. Have a designer and developer in the highest ranks
The 'board', as Pfauth described it, is made up of himself and Wijnberg plus a designer and developer from Momkai. These are the people who know how to present news stories, he said, so it is important that they are always involved in the process early on.
The innovations in publishing at De Correspondent are based around early conversations on an idea, looking at it from every angle, before going ahead with making something new.
This led to the creation of their own content management system (CMS), called Respondens, which allows writers to act as the "conversation leaders" Wijnberg and Pfauth want them to be.
4. Attitude comes before technology
De Correspondent's comment system has been updated recently, Pfauth said, although they prefer to call them "contributions".
By creating an environment and terminology for comments that ties into the idea of an ongoing conversation around a topic, and reinforces a positive attitude towards that, members are more likely to be involved in a positive manner, he said.Trends are almost always about the past, you should look to the futureRob Wijnberg, editor-in-chief, De Correspondent
Members only give their name and email address, to reduce the barriers to entry, but are able to share a line about themselves to highlight their knowledge or expertise. They are then invited to offer their "experience and knowledge", said Pfauth, and take the conversation further, rather than merely commenting.
By recognising a positive attitude and atmosphere will benefit everyone involved, the team at De Correspondent went to work on how to create that before adding it to the site.
5. Forget about the hype
When Wijnberg and Pfauth first started planning De Correspondent, they were told by contemporaries to follow the trends: sponsored content, short articles, start small, and not to expect engagement. They ignored them all.
"If you're going to do online journalism, do it without compromise," Wijnberg said. "How can we make it as in depth as possible?
"There are no constraints on the web, no page size or deadlines, you can write layers on top of each other and go on and on until you have the depth you want."
So writers submit articles based on what their audience and reader want, with the journalist at the centre of the conversation, rather than to pre-set ideas about how long posts should be. Sponsored content would go against the ideals behind the site and the readership engagement is central to how De Correspondent works.
"[Trends] are almost always about the past," Wijnberg said. "You should look to the future."
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