At the end of January, De Correspondent announced it had passed another milestone: 50,000 paying subscribers, growing from 42,000 members at the end of 2015.
The Dutch news website now counts more than 52,000 readers who pay monthly or annual memberships. Seventy-eight per cent of its subscribers pay €60 (£50) a year, while the remaining 22 per cent contribute €6 (£5) a month, Ernst-Jan Pfauth, co-founder and publisher of De Correspondent, said in a Medium post announcing the growth.
The post also outlined three areas the outlet will be focusing on in 2017: continuing to build trust in journalism by working with its audience, giving readers a way to build their reputation on the platform and experimenting with "more sustainable" formats beyond traditional articles.
"Trust in journalism is at a historical low, so we should start listening to our readers, and that philosophy of closing the gaps between journalists and readers has really been the core of our work," Maaike Goslinga, international editor at De Correspondent, told Journalism.co.uk.
Trust in journalism is at a historical low, so we should start listening to our readersMaaike Goslinga, De Correspondent
Here are some of the steps De Correspondent is taking to address these challenges:
Tapping into readers' knowledge
The outlet often asks its members to contribute their expertise to the stories its correspondents are researching, and, over the past year, it has experimented with more reporting initiatives that "tap into our readers' knowledge".
One such example is 'New to the Netherlands', a project that started in October 2016. De Correspondent invited its members to find refugees that had arrived in the country in the last 12 months and meet up with them over the course of five months to conduct questionnaire-based interviews about their arrival and life in the Netherlands.
Four hundred pairs of readers and refugees ended up taking part in the project, and two De Correspondent journalists worked with the members to write stories and analysis based on their findings across the country. "New to the Netherlands' is still ongoing and is the outlet's biggest initiative involving its members, with some 20 articles published so far.
"The reason why we started this project is that we always hear about refugees when they come into Europe, but we don't hear what happens to them once they're in Europe.
"['New to the Netherlands'] led to a wealth of new perspectives and new stories, ranging from individual portraits to more general pieces on what refugees run into when they want to start a life in the country."
Other examples of De Correspondent crowdsourcing readers' expertise for editorial initiatives include: a project inspired from On Our Radar's Dementia Diaries in the UK; a piece about how the United Nations works as an organisation, to which 17 UN workers around the world contributed by keeping a diary; and a story about the use of smartphones in the classroom, written by the outlet's education correspondent (and part-time teacher) with input from his students, who kept diaries about what it was like to not use their mobile devices for a week.
Allowing readers to build their reputation with verified function titles
Aside from projects of this kind, De Correspondent members also weigh in regularly through the comments section. Sometimes, this leads to correspondents following up on certain stories based on comments, or asking members to contribute articles themselves, as was the case with a recent article about the rise of populism in the Netherlands.
"In the first article, our correspondent mentioned that most populist voters are low income families in old parts of town, but one commenter, who is an electoral geographer, responded and showed us some maps that painted a very different picture.
"So our correspondent and the reader went on a guided tour through one of the middle class suburbs of The Hague, which led to a new article, and that member is also going to write another article for us about the rise of populism and how to understand it by looking at maps," Goslinga explained.
One way De Correspondent wants to build on this is by introducing verified function titles, which are currently being tested, that would allow members to have their background or expertise showcased alongside their name when they comment. In the initial phase of the pilot, correspondents will invite members who regularly respond and contribute to articles to fill out function titles that will then be verified by the newsroom, such as doctor, anthropologist or volunteer.
"That way, we know what background they come into the conversation with and we show that we take our readers seriously and that they are actually members, experts and possible sources, so they really become part of the journalistic journey.
"We chose the function titles because they are easier to verify than expertise, which was our initial idea, but we hope to be able to do that in the future as we think everyone is an expert in something."
Using comments as a metric for success
In September 2016, De Correspondent published an article about its commitment to improve readers' privacy on the website, by changing how much and which data it was collecting about its audience (De Correspondent also publishes an annual breakdown of how member fees are spent and how its newsroom and coverage have changed).
The team set up a privacy manifesto telling readers it was dropping the use of Google Analytics in favour of an open-source platform called Piwik, which is hosted on De Correspondent's server and does not send user data to other companies.
The change also altered what metrics were available for stories, as the new analytics platform makes it harder to look at the number of page views a story has. However, since De Correspondent is advertising-free and relies mostly on member contributions, its concern lies more with if and how often readers comment on stories, than with the number of clicks.
"With the new system, it's very difficult to say how many page views we have because if someone uses a track blocker in a browser, Google Analytics knows ways to circumvent that, but Piwik does not, and because many people have ad and track blockers, we can only measure part of our visitors.
"We think the currency of our medium is readers' trust and bringing them into the conversation so they feel like they're part of a journalistic movement almost, because if they take time during their day to read and reply in the comments, that means we have done our jobs well because we've provided food for thought."
Introducing formats that 'stay with readers'
Recently, De Correspondent created a new section on the website called 'Project 101', pages that guide readers through single topics by putting the bare bones of issues such as poverty or climate change front and centre, with additional background and context available on the right hand-side of the page.
"We thought about building something that stays with you and that you can go back to if you want more information, so people can click on the individual articles if they are compelled to learn more.
"These themes are updated frequently and are collections of stories from different authors that paint a comprehensive picture of those issues, so we hope they will stick to people more than an article does."
De Correspondent has also tried to diversify the format of its stories by investing in a studio that makes audio and video production easily accessible to any staff member who wants to experiment.
If people take time during their day to read and reply in the comments, that means we have done our jobs well because we've provided food for thoughtMaaike Goslinga, De Correspondent
Its podcasts are available on the website and other services such as iTunes and Soundcloud, and audio tracks are often embedded in articles. Video stories are usually produced by the in-house documentary maker, but De Correspondent journalists have also experimented with shorter videos on Facebook, to introduce their beat and build a more personal rapport with readers.
De Correspondent is also looking for new ways to get in front of people who wouldn't otherwise visit the website, both in the Netherlands and internationally. As of this month, all of its correspondents have individual newsletters, which is one of the ways they can reach people who are interested in specific topics, whether that's education or basic income.
Some of its stories are translated and published both on De Correspondent website and by other outlets in the US, such as Quartz, and staff members now include an English language correspondent and an engagement editor, both based in the US.
There are some basic rules for deciding which stories get translated, Goslinga said, such as ensuring they are relevant for an international audience and choosing pieces that are not only informative, but also show how De Correspondent works with its readers (the 'New in the Netherlands' series fits both of those requirements).
"We believe our stories are for a larger audience because we have articles that reveal patterns across countries, for example our coverage on the World Bank or forgotten conflict.
"We really try to reach out to international audiences not only by translating articles, but also by inviting journalists from different countries to write for us. We will take care of the translation costs, but we want pieces that provide a unique view into their world – we don't believe in parachute journalism."
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