Explanatory news startup aims to build a new type of online community

Dutch website De Correspondent responds to negative comments sections with a new kind of quality engagement

In April 2013, Nieman Lab covered the story of an amazingly successful crowdfunding campaign run by Dutch startup De Correspondent, prompting New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to tweet the link to the piece:

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And just like that, De Correspondent—which is based in Amsterdam, and publishes in Dutch—was on the American (and international) media map. After breaking records by reaching over 18,000 members and $1.7 million through crowdfunding, the site, which is dedicated to explanatory journalism rather than breaking news, launched the following September. During its first year in existence, several English-language media tackled the language barrier in return for insight into a crowdfunding success greater than the much discussed case of Matter.

On Tuesday, exactly one year after the launch of De Correspondent , co-founder Ernst-Jan Pfauth posted his “Lessons from year one of De Correspondent” on Medium and declared the startup a success. 17,000 new subscribers have signed up since the launch, while more than half the total crowdfunding group of 18,933 people have renewed their €60 ($76)/ year subscription. Pfauth wrote that he believes more will follow in the coming weeks as subscriptions run out.

In his Medium piece and in an interview with CJR, Pfauth attributed the site’s rapid success in part to its focus on engaging its members and building community around its work.

“We’re not a mass medium, and the conversation is really personal,” Pfauth says.

These engagement efforts include transparency—De Correspondent published a report that breaks down how subscriber money has been spent and how renewed subscriptions will be put to use, while problems and improvements are openly discussed in a post on the site (all in Dutch).

Staff also emphasizes building relationships between readers and journalists. Highlighted by GigaOm on Thursday, the goal is to strengthen reader engagement by making writers, experts in their field, more visible to build a closer relationship between them and readers, and by encouraging readers to contribute with insights. (At De Correspondent, subscribers are “members” while comments are referred to as “contributions.”)

Only members can comment on articles, and posts don’t show up in Google searches since you must be logged in to see them, Pfauth says. Members are identified by their full name (but can email journalists anonymously) and a voluntary one-line bio, but it’s all invisible to non-members.

This all creates a positive environment for members to contribute, Pfauth says.

“Everywhere [readers] see comments, they’re terrible,” Pfauth says, and that makes readers reluctant to participate in online conversations, he adds. “Here, both journalists and the editor in chief are reading every comment out there,” and Pfauth hopes that when members realize that their contributions are a priority, they will start engaging more.

De Correspondent is currently experimenting with a type of badge that won’t be visible to members but used by writers to identify contributing readers who could be useful sources for future stories. Meanwhile, members will have their own “dossier” or profile where they can share links and information as an attempt to flip the traditional journalistic cycle: Instead of journalists always starting conversations that readers can then join, readers can suggest stories. Since De Correspondent has members that cluster in a few fields, like education and information technology, those areas are ripe for member-initiated coverage.

It seems like there may be some potential pitfalls here: If the limited group of members, who debate amongst themselves, are also sources for articles and decide which stories to pursue, what is to prevent De Correspondent from becoming an incestuous outlet, blind to the interests or opinions of the non-member world?  

Pfauth says he is aware that the perspectives of non-members need to be included.

“Its  a danger that we certainly have to address. We have to figure out ways that we can get people from other parts of society participating. One way is good old journalism of hitting the street,” he says.

While it may be too soon to call De Correspondent’s approach to reader engagement a lesson, it is certainly an interesting experiment, and one that it may become easier to follow in the future, as Pfauth says, De Correspondent has plans to translate more stories into English: “Our ambitions are definitely international.”

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Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.