Members made a moral decision: this is something I should support. They placed a high value on transparency and the kind of in-depth journalism that shows them how things got this way—and how they could be different.
On July 24 and 25 my colleague in the Membership Puzzle Project, Emily Goligoski and I, joined by 19 people from the staff of De Correspondent, interviewed 30 members about why they support the site.
This article is a summary of what we learned from those discussions.
Before we get to our discoveries, a few notes about how we did this research. (You can read more about exercises and materials we brought with us in this blog post.) First, we posted an invitation for De Correspondent members to participate in our interviews in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam. We received 108 responses, many more than we could include. So we had to choose. And of course there is no perfect way to do that.
In selecting people to interview, we tried for a good mix of members. We had a 19 year-old student and people who are retired. One member was unemployed and described himself as poor, another had started her own catering business, a third worked for the Labor Party, a fourth was a civil servant and architect. We talked to a student born in Iran and living in the Netherlands for 24 years, we talked to another who studied medicine in Groningen, originally from Twente.
We mention these details not to suggest that our interviews reached across the diversity of Dutch society, or of De Correspondent’s membership. We know that our sample size is too small for that. We know that our ability to generalize is limited, and this research was always intended to provide a sample more than a comprehensive census. We are not trying to claim that what we heard in these interviews captures what all members of De Correspondent believe. We cannot say that. What we can say is that some common themes emerged from our discussion with members. And that is what we present here.
But this is only a start! In order to improve our knowledge we need your participation. After reading this summary you can help us develop a better understanding of De Correspondent’s membership by:
Here is our summary in 13 main points.
But keep this in mind: When we say “members” we mean the people we talked to July 24-25. We are not assuming that what we heard is true for all members, which is why our research is continuing with members of De Correspondent and other sites around the world.
1. The value proposition resonates.
When we asked members what makes De Correspondent distinctive and valuable to them, the answers they gave were largely the same as the core principles by which De Correspondent tries to make itself distinctive and valuable.
By core principles we mean things like: “Antidote to the daily news grind.” No hot takes or quick reactions to the news, just deeply researched articles that explain the relevant context. Not the weather (surface events) but the climate (the deeper forces at work.) Not just the problem, but what can be done about it. What you can do, as an individual, and what the “system” can do: government, law, business, party, bureaucracy. In other words: there is hope.
“You get the feeling they really looked into it,” said member Eva Aertse about articles in De Correspondent. This feeling is probably the main reason the people we talked to become members. They draw a contrast between the rest of the Dutch media and what De Correspondent does. About other major news producers in the Netherlands, member Eef Grob said “most of them don’t go into details because that would be too complicated.”
Also important: Dutch members want those principles to be kept alive when the site expands to the United States. They were very clear about that.
2. De Correspondent’s visual and interface design — its look and feel— communicates calm, simplicity and a human touch.
The fact that it isn't always grabbing for your attention is noticed and deeply appreciated. Members frequently mention that the hand-drawn avatars of the correspondents have a humanizing effect and offer a personal touch they especially like.
3. Trust through transparency is almost universally seen as a key principle and point of distinction for De Correspondent.
Transparency — which means many different things to the members — is a term they spontaneously brought up: not once or twice but over and over. It is a principle they believe traditional media is unwilling to practice. It shows respect for the reader, and it invites their participation, not just their attention.
Members shared these instances that demonstrated transparency to them: the fact that De Correspondent often has nothing useful to add about a breaking news event—but will in 100 days, that it lists sources alongside articles, that authors disagree with each other on the site, that a writer who changed her mind explains why. “As long as you’re transparent about it...” (then it’s okay) was a phrase we heard again and again in our interviews.
“I appreciate that De Correspondent is open about the fact that journalists have opinions,” said member Hakim Achterberg.
4. Comment threads are a flashpoint and sore spot for some, but hugely valuable and critically important for others.
Members love to complain about them, almost like "hate watching" a TV show. But for other people these threads capture the essence of De Correspondent, especially when they allow for diverse perspectives to emerge, rounding out what the correspondent was able to accomplish in the article, or indeed correcting the writer. Members deeply appreciate it when correspondents participate in the discussion with readers. The fact that people have to write under their own name is considered a big plus.
Some members would never post a comment. They have privacy concerns, they’re afraid of being attacked, they are turned off by excessive conflict, or they think the participants are just listening to themselves. We heard from several women members that they didn’t write comments because they frequently saw commenters question one another and put each other on the defensive, which didn’t feel inviting. Some members told us they are reluctant because they don’t know if what they have to say meets the quality bar for De Correspondent. And a handful contribute when they have knowledge to add. Several mentioned that when experts add their knowledge to what the writer found, that is when comments are are at their best.
5. Even among some of its biggest fans, De Correspondent is almost universally seen as “narrow” in its appeal.
It reaches and in a sense represents only one sector of the Netherlands. Educated and progressive would be two words for it. The staff is not very diverse compared to Dutch society as a whole. But De Correspondent is also seen as relatively open and non-dogmatic, more willing than most sites to encourage debate, test assumptions, show the argument, and own up to having a contestable point of view. There is a kind of paradox here, or at least an unstated part of the argument. The same people who say it's too narrow also say it's more open.
Question for members: How would you explain this?
6. Avoiding the View from Nowhere (or the “voice of god”) approach works.
Letting the correspondents draw conclusions, allowing them to state their views, while also acknowledging the existence of other views, encouraging them to say where they're coming from and explain why they changed their minds, along with the personal newsletters that inform followers what the writers are researching...these things seem to be working as intended. They increase trust in the platform, they impress members as demonstrations of intellectual honesty, and people find it a more engaging style. This also helps members form their own opinions, often by disagreeing with the author.
The lesson here is clear: tell people where you are coming from. Share your learning curve. Be clear about your conclusions. They will love you for it. And when the writers make themselves vulnerable — by, for example, admitting mistakes or acknowledging areas where they need additional reporting — the readers will notice that. They consider it a plus, a sign of maturity and confidence.
7. De Correspondent would be crazy not to create more opportunities for correspondents to disagree with each other on a common set of facts or a common problem.
Members like this. There is something about revealing to them that De Correspondent disagrees with itself that makes them feel even better about supporting it.
“I would like to see more interaction between correspondents,” said member Max Krakers.
8. The 90/10/1 percent rule seems to apply to participation by members at De Correspondent site.
(This rule says: 90 percent of your users will just consume the product, 10 percent will interact with you, one of the 10percent will become core contributors.) Don't try to force everyone into one box. People want to participate in different ways, and some never will. Some want the option even though they will not use it. Participation, we observed through our interviews, is deeply connected to identity: “I'm not the kind of person who...” “I am the kind of person who...”
My advice: instead of telling members how to participate, or telling them that they should, concentrate on making the options clear and reducing friction. It doesn't make sense to want members to participate more—in the abstract. It does make sense to multiply the avenues for participation and make it easier, more convenient, more effective. Publicize existing calls for participation: even some of the most loyal members didn’t know that taking part in hackathons of De Correspondent was an option. Also, it’s important to the members we talked to that correspondents are easy to reach, whether or not they have tried to reach one.
9. It was striking to us how many members said that after getting to know De Correspondent’s journalism they came to the conclusion, “I should support this.”
Emphasis on the word: should. For a minority it was a matter of utility: if I become a member, I will have full access, I can save articles, it will be more convenient. These are practical concerns. For the majority it was not a product or practical decision, but closer to a moral one: If I think quality journalism like this is important, I should support it.
We also heard about members’ involvement having a virtuous effect on their interest in paying for other causes. Hakim Achterberg told us that he started paying for The Guardian after realizing that his monthly support could help underwrite investigative journalism. “I would never have paid for The Guardian if De Correspondent didn’t trigger me,” Hakim said.
These members didn’t value keeping non-members off De Correspondent's platform, or having exclusive access to its journalism. They ranked “exclusive access” as the thing they value least in being members. A major driver, however, is supporting independent journalism—“especially journalism that otherwise doesn’t get done,” member Aster Iris Fliers said. (One complication: the policy that only members can comment at De Correspondent articles was supported by some.)
10. Members notice that in its communications with them De Correspondent speaks in a human voice.
It doesn’t sound like a distant institution, but like people, talking. (Especially one person: founder Rob Wijnberg, but not only him.) “There are real people behind it,” member Damion Gans said. People who have personalities, opinions and limitations— and who make mistakes. This is one reason members trust it.
11. Diversity of voices matters.
The members we talked to appreciate De Correspondent’s efforts to include international voices on the platform. They noticed articles by Turkish and Colombian journalists, which they applaud exactly because they have different viewpoints than Westerners. The same principle goes for diversity within the Netherlands: two people felt the Turkish-Dutch columnist Sinan Çankaya represented their views. But they also said that true diversity is more than simply having ethnically different journalists writing on racism or inequality, it's those journalists writing on any topic.
12. Members who had become attached to De Correspondent’s journalism frequently said they would pay more after being immersed in it.
Many said they would pay €100 to €150, much higher than the current €60 annual ask. Yet they acknowledged that a higher starting price might have kept them from signing up at first.
13. De Correspondent has tapped into a deep well of idealism among its members.
Here is perhaps the deepest lesson for me from our research. It was not said by any member directly. Rather, this is something I heard beneath the words that were spoken to us. It is my interpretation— and of course, I could be wrong. But I don’t think that I am.
You could call it the hope for a better world. But that’s the same reason they might support Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or a charity that helps villages in Africa become more self-sustaining. (All of which we heard about.) De Correspondent is touching something different. In a way it’s more fundamental than the hope for a better world. It’s the belief that we can still understand the world, that we can figure out how we got ourselves into this mess, that the systems that run our lives are not completely opaque, that the problems we face every day are not impossibly complex. They have causes. They have histories. We can explain them. There are actors who are responsible, and we can identify who these people are.
If it is still possible to understand the world — and know where its problems come from — then it remains possible for us to change it. That is big news. And it may be the deepest “service” that De Correspondent provides.