De Correspondent: a new way of getting the news

Article published on Dec. 1, 2013
Article published on Dec. 1, 2013

In the Nether­lands, a new kind of media - in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar - is al­ready smash­ing all the records de­spite being just a month old.  In­vited to Paris on In­ter­na­tional On­line Press Day, run by a French in­de­pen­dent on­line press union, the team be­hind De Cor­re­spon­dent talk about their suc­cess, based on an in­clu­sive pro­ject 'in com­plete contrast to all the rest'

cafébabel: Both of you have worked in the printed press. How did you set up De Cor­re­spon­dent?

Rob Wi­jn­berg: First of all, we wanted to be in­de­pen­dent of banks, of loans, of in­vestors. What we wanted were read­ers.  So, we turned to crowd­fund­ing, which al­lowed our fu­ture read­ers to di­rectly fi­nance the pro­ject.  We tried to con­vince them based on an ed­i­to­r­ial promise:  De Cor­re­spon­dent would be writ­ten by ex­perts in their field.  In eight days, we raised over a mil­lion euros.  We put the site to­gether in five months, and it went live in Sep­tem­ber 2013.


cafébabel: How come your fundrais­ing was so suc­cess­ful?

Rob:  In­tegrity.  It was clear that we were going to be more in­de­pen­dent than other media.  No ad­verts, no ad­ver­to­ri­als, noth­ing. Sec­ondly, we got a lot of media at­ten­tion.  We wrote a book on jour­nal­ism, which was very suc­cess­ful, and I'm a for­mer ed­i­tor of nrc.​next, an off­shoot of NRC Han­dels­blad, the lead­ing daily in the Nether­lands.  I'm fairly well-known back home.  And Ernst-Jan is the for­mer ed­i­tor of the NRC web­sites.

Ernst-Jan Pfauth: We de­cided we needed to mark out our media ter­ri­tory. Our slo­gan is 'from news to new'.  The idea in Rob's book was ba­si­cally ‘don't bother read­ing the news be­cause it doesn't ac­tu­ally tell you what's re­ally going on.’ I think in­for­ma­tion has to be new to be in­ter­est­ing.  In a sense, you need to build sus­pense, let the reader wait.  And you don't see that any more.  The orig­i­nal idea was to show that new and bet­ter in­for­ma­tion was pos­si­ble.

cafébabel: And how does your site give bet­ter in­for­ma­tion?

Rob:  I'll give you an ex­am­ple.  We have what we call ‘guardians’.  In other words, the au­thors them­selves who, once they've pub­lished their ar­ti­cles, talk with the read­ers about the ori­gins of these ar­ti­cles, how to write about a topic, or just to an­swer cu­ri­ous read­ers' ques­tions.  We pick the best ques­tions and then pub­lish the con­ver­sa­tions in the com­ments.  Which al­lows us to break with the one-way vi­sion of jour­nal­ism and to pro­mote real ex­change.

Ernst-Jan: So new in­for­ma­tion can emerge.  If you pub­lish an ar­ti­cle about med­i­cine and the 100 most in­flu­en­tial doc­tors in the coun­try come and de­bate, you have an ex­cel­lent con­ver­sa­tion from which new per­spec­tives will emerge.


cafébabel: Now let's talk num­bers. How many read­ers have you had?

Rob:  Right. We've been on line for six weeks, so... We have weekly fig­ures, of course, but they can only be in­ter­preted after a month.  What we can tell you is that we have 26000 mem­bers.  Over the last month, we reg­is­tered 25-30000 unique vis­i­tors each day.  But we're also count­ing mem­bers who we can't iden­tify be­cause the site's con­tents can be shared by mem­bers.  You can't ac­cess ar­ti­cles if you're not a mem­ber, but if you are, you can share an ar­ti­cle with every­one.  So I'd say that we still don't know where half of our traf­fic comes from.

cafébabel: So ac­cess to your ar­ti­cles is free when a mem­ber shares it. Where do you make your prof­its?

Ernst-Jan: The shar­ing as­pect is very im­por­tant to us.  If a mem­ber de­cides to share an ar­ti­cle with his or her net­work of friends, we'll have more chance of get­ting new mem­bers.  For ex­am­ple, hav­ing read the col­umn on the de­bate sur­round­ing Zwarte Piet in the Nether­lands [he brings the ar­ti­cle up on the pro­jec­tor - Ed.], 200 peo­ple sub­scribed.

cafébabel: How many per­ma­nent em­ploy­ees do you have at De Cor­re­spon­dent?

Ernst-Jan: We have twelve peo­ple - seven are ed­i­tors and the rest are tech­ni­cal or proof­read­ing staff.  And we also have six­teen reg­u­lar free­lance con­trib­u­tors.

cafébabel: And how did other media react after your launch?

Ernst-Jan: A lot started by say­ing that we were elit­ist -

Rob:  And that we weren't doing any­thing new, that it had al­ready been done.  But that's a fairly com­mon crit­i­cism in the Nether­lands.  Es­pe­cially when you create some­thing which is the com­plete op­po­site of every­thing else.

cafébabel: You've spec­i­fied that  your busi­ness model is also about being clear about your part­ners and the or­gan­i­sa­tions you work with. Who are they ex­actly?

Rob:  The most im­por­tant part­ner we have is the web agency who de­signed the site, Momkai. They're one of the best-known - and the best - in the coun­try.

Ernst-Jan: It was re­ally im­por­tant to be able to count on them be­cause in today's world, in­for­ma­tion alone isn't enough.  De­sign­ers help us to think up new ways of pre­sent­ing in­for­ma­tion.  And I think that's es­sen­tial.  

In­ter­view by Alexan­dre Heully and Matthieu Amaré on 15 No­vem­ber 2013, dur­ing the 4th In­ter­na­tional  On­line Press Day.  More in­for­ma­tion (in French) avail­able on the SPIIL's web­site.