Crowdfunded journalism startup The Correspondent under fire

The Correspondent is one of the most successful crowdfunded journalism startups of all time: it raised $2.6 million in just 30 days, in a campaign that ended in December, and drew in a number of high-profile supporters, including activist DeRay Mckesson, musician Roseanne Cash, and Jordan Hewson, daughter of U2 frontman Bono. The campaign’s success mirrored that of its parent company, De Correspondent, which also set a record for journalism crowdfunding when it launched in 2013, after co-founders Ernst Pfauth and Rob Wijnberg raised $1.7 million in just 30 days (it also gets support from a Dutch investment fund). The launch of The Correspondent last year was welcomed by journalists who were happy to see the company’s successful reader-funded, public-service model expand to the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Those plans came under fire this week, however, when a number of prominent journalists—including many who said they donated to the campaign—criticized the company’s plans to shut its US office, as described in a blog post by Pfauth. The Correspondent CEO said the New York office was only set up for the crowdfunding campaign, and that the new, English-language operation would be managed from De Correspondent’s existing office in Amsterdam. Critics of the move said the impression given by the company’s promotional material—including interviews with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, an advisor to the company—as well as a number of news stories written about it (including one in CJR, based on interviews with Pfauth and Wijnberg) was that the new venture would include a US office and/or newsroom.

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In public statements on Twitter in response to the criticism, both Pfauth and Wijnberg said that they were originally planning to have a US office, and admitted that this was mentioned in news stories and interviews (as well as in job openings for editors and other staff) but maintained that having a US office or newsroom was not specifically mentioned as part of the crowdfunding campaign. Both of the co-founders said their plan was still to have at least half a dozen US-based journalists reporting on and writing about topics and issues of interest to the US, but that they believe it is possible to manage them from the company’s office in Amsterdam. Both also said the intention behind the new venture was always to serve the needs of the English-speaking world, not just the United States (a point also made by Rosen).

Some of the company’s supporters point out that the new venture might actually be better off not having an expensive New York office sucking up resources that could be better used for journalism. It’s an interesting question: does a digital-only media outlet, especially one serving the entire English-speaking world, need to have a costly US newsroom in order to do its job properly, and if so why? The backlash seemed to some to be evidence of a pervasive US-centric—and New York-centric—view of what a media company should be. Much of The Correspondent’s campaign was aimed at portraying itself as not being a traditional media company, but instead being one that focused on only the important issues, without all the daily noise, and also one that was based on cultivating a deep relationship with its readers.

Is the response to The Correspondent’s latest move evidence of a misunderstanding, or a sign that the company didn’t communicate its plans properly? It feels as though it’s a little of both. Even some supporters of The Correspondent and its goals said they felt misled by the shift away from having a US presence, since it was initially part of the way even the company itself talked about the project. Others suggested the option of getting a refund. A number of critics of the move—including Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia—suggested that even if the backlash was a result of a misunderstanding, it wasn’t a great way to start a project designed in part to help restore public trust in journalism. What remains to be seen is whether The Correspondent can find a way to put this controversy behind it and move on with its plans to reinvent journalism.

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Here’s more on The Correspondent and its plans:

  • No coffee machine: Co-founder Rob Wijnberg spoke to NiemanLab’s Laura Owen about the confusion over the company’s plans, and said he wants everyone to know The Correspondent is committed to the US. “We’re going to have journalists covering important developments in the US,” he said. “The only thing we’re not having is a coffee machine and a desk in the United States.”
  • Built on trust: In an essay written in 2017, NYU professor Jay Rosen wrote about what attracted him to The Correspondent and why he decided to act as an advisor to the company for its English-language launch. He said it was because the company’s Dutch version was “what a news organization built on reader trust would look like.”
  • No more fast food: In one of the manifestos written about The Correspondent’s plan to “unbreak the news,” Wijnberg wrote that too much of the news we consume is like fast food, in that it briefly satisfies our appetite for spectacle and diversion, but ultimately leaves us “unsatisfied and uninformed.”
  • Dutch and American: At the end of the crowdfunding campaign, Ernst Pfauth said The Correspondent raised money from more than 45,000 members in about 130 countries. According to his co-founder’s interview with Nieman Lab, about 40 percent of the donors came from the US and about the same proportion from the Netherlands.

Other notable stories:

  • Emily Bell, director of Columbia’s Tow Center, writes for CJR about the tensions inherent in deals like McClatchy’s arrangement with Google, in which the tech giant is funding local journalism experiments run by McClatchy. Bell points out that while Google says it won’t interfere, “tools, software, and analytics applied to journalism inevitably end up shaping aspects of editorial content.”
  • Bryan Goldberg, the entrepreneur behind a suite of sites including Bustle and Elite Daily, is acquiring The Outline, a startup run by veteran tech journalist Joshua Topolsky, for an undisclosed sum. Last year, Goldberg bought the remaining assets of Mic.com and his company also acquired Gawker after its parent company went bankrupt.
  • The New York Times described in a recent story how it went through more than 900 pages of material related to the Michael Cohen case in just 10 minutes, using a tool that the newspaper’s developers built called Document Helper. A reporter said it “served as equal parts power drill, spotlight, microscope and jackhammer.”
  • The BBC is blocking Google from indexing its podcasts, which means users won’t be able to find them either in the Google Podcasts app, Google search, or through Google Assistant. The British public broadcaster said that Google was directing people to its own podcasting app, instead of directing them to the BBC’s podcasting app.
  • Some of the members of the European Parliament who recently voted to impose controversial new copyright laws—which require aggregators to pay for even short excerpts of text, and also require tech companies to filter content before it is uploaded—say they mistakenly voted against amendments that would have altered those laws, but chose the wrong option because the voting order was changed.
  • After pressure to change the way it handles racism, Facebook says it will now treat white nationalism and white separatism the same as it does white supremacy—that is, it will block and remove those posts. Those who search for associated phrases will be shown a pop-up promoting the work of Life After Hate, a group run by former white supremacists.
  • A new report on local journalism from the Pew Center shows that many newspapers and other outlets may have some work to do in order to convince readers to sign up for a paywall or membership: more than 70 percent of those surveyed said they think their local media outlets are doing well financially.
  • The founder of a Vatican women’s magazine has quit, along with her entire all-female editorial team, over what they described as an orchestrated campaign designed to discredit them because they reported on the widespread abuse of nuns.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.