details on that.) It was also announced today that I am going to help them. With $515,000 from the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund, I am launching at NYU a research project that is designed to benefit American news organizations that have a membership strategy while improving the odds that The Correspondent will succeed in its move across The Atlantic. I have further agreed to become The Correspondent’s first “ambassador” in the U.S. market. That means I will help introduce its model to others who might be able to assist — including possible funders. (Are you one?) As you might have sensed, I believe in what these young Dutch journalists are doing. I think they have a strong sense of how to build a sustainable newsroom. But what really impressed me is what I said before: the way they optimize for trust. In this piece I will:
- unfold what I mean by “optimized for trust”
- describe the research plan for the new Membership Puzzle Project, funded by Knight and Democracy Fund
- explain why I am supporting The Correspondent’s move to the U.S. and lending my name to their efforts.
- We only collect data required by law or necessary for the proper functioning of our platform.
- We do not sell this information to third parties.
- The purpose of any data collection must be clearly explained to our members.
- Members should, where possible, have control over their data.
Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. (And to mistrust Trump’s attacks on it…See how that works?) He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe. He is not “solving,” but he’s certainly helping with the trust problem.Fahrenhold came to this style on his own, and was widely praised for it. Journalists at The Correspondent are required to operate this way. And it pays off. Here’s a callout to readers (and people the readers might know): “Dear Shell employees: Let’s talk.” And here’s what resulted from it: ‘Shell knew’: oil giant’s 1991 film warned of climate change danger. Impressive. And here, readers explain in their own words why they contribute knowledge to The Correspondent. In 1999, my friend Dan Gillmor, then working as Silicon Valley columnist for the San Jose Mercury news but early to blogging, came to an important realization: “My readers know more than I do.” It took 15 years, but a news company finally baked into its business model Gillmor’s profound insight into what journalism could be in the internet age. This is from an excellent article in The Drum about The Correspondent’s rise, which quotes cofounder and current publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth:
De Correspondent’s philosophy is that 100 physician readers know more than one healthcare reporter. So when that healthcare reporter is prepping a story, they announce to readers what they’re planning to write and ask those with first-hand knowledge of the issues — from doctors to patients — to volunteer their experiences. “By doing this we get better informed stories because we have more sources from a wider range of people,” Pfauth tells The Drum. “It’s not just opinion makers or spokespersons, we get people from the floor. And, of course, there are business advantages because we turn those readers into more loyal readers. When they participate that leads to a stronger bond between the journalist and the reader.”Right! And that is how you maximize trust — and produce quality journalism — through genuine reader engagement. Notice how all the pieces fit together: When you don’t have advertisers, there’s nothing you have to cover because it brings traffic or offers the right environment for ads. Release from the 24-hour news cycle — coupled with dropping the advertisers — lets you grant your writers more creative freedom. This in turns helps attract talent. Requiring the talent to interact with the readers and draw knowledge from them not only improves the journalism by broadening its base, it also binds the readers to the writers and gives them a stake in the final product because they joined in its formation. They are thus more likely to share it with others — and more likely to renew their membership. Here I have to explain something about how The Correspondent’s “pay” model works. If you go to the homepage and try to access its contents, you will be asked to join and pay the membership fee. But that is the one and only incarnation of any pay “wall.” On the web or via email, any link you come across to an article in The Correspondent is always free to access. Members can share links with their networks without limit, and those links will always work. No one ever gets a notice like: You have accessed 9 of the 10 free articles you are entitled to this month… Members don’t pay to be members because they’re getting exclusive access to something the rest of the public is denied. That’s not how it works. That’s how Politico Pro works. That’s how The Information works. The Correspondent wants its work to spread freely. It also wants you to become a member. It refuses to grant any contradiction between the two. Again, I think this is the right way to maximize trust in a “readers pay the freight” model.
Part Two: The Membership Puzzle ProjectAs I have tried to make clear, I think The Correspondent has a good model. But so far, it has only proven itself in the Dutch market (17 million people). The American market (325 million) is different: far bigger and vastly more competitive. It would be foolish to assume that The Correspondent could simply transplant itself and thrive in the United States. Member-funded journalism has a long history here, most obviously in public radio but not only there. And there are membership organizations in fields other than journalism that might have good insights. At the same time, The Correspondent knows things that local, nonprofit and specialized news sites in the U.S. can benefit from as they turn to readers to support them. Knowledge ought to flow in both directions. From American sites to The Correspondent, and from The Correspondent to American journalism as the Dutch site brings its model to the U.S. This is where the Membership Puzzle Project begins work. It is designed to answer three questions:
- What can American journalism learn from The Correspondent’s success in developing a membership model for the support of public service journalism?
- As it expands to New York and the American market, what does The Correspondent need to know about how membership has worked — and not worked — in the U.S.?
- If readers are going to support public service journalism by giving money directly to it, what does the social contract between them and the journalists have to look like? What are best practices for keeping that relationship strong and alive?
- Find out how membership has worked — and where it has failed — for news organizations in the U.S that have tried it, which means traveling to key sites, interviewing knowledgeable participants, compiling documents and statistical measures of success, and piecing together a portrait of best practice that focuses on lessons learned.
- Using similar methods, research The Correspondent’s experience with membership since 2013 and distill the lessons of it for American journalism.
- Organize in-person events among those with knowledge and experience to lend so they can pool what they know and learn from each other.
- Share the results of this work in a series of published reports and articles that make the findings available to the journalism community and other researchers, focusing especially on the social contract that has to exist between journalists and readers if readers are going to the work directly.
Part Three: Why I’m supporting The CorrespondentBecause I think they know what they’re doing. Because they have the right priorities. Because American journalism needs to open itself to influence from abroad. Because the production of public interest news cannot be successful without the reproduction of trust in the people who are authoring that news. Because Aron Pilhofer asked a really smart question: What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust? Because Trump is manufacturing mistrust at a faster rate than journalists can adapt their methods for inspiring public confidence in what they do. Because we don’t have a lot of time, people. Because readers, viewers, and listeners, waking up to the urgency of the moment, are ready to support real journalism with real money, but only if the social contract changes. Because what good is an academic reputation if you aren’t prepared to spend it on something you really believe in?
Photo of De Correspondent office via Momkai.