“Maverick businesses that a generation or two ago might have had little choice than cooperation now find investors willing to buy in and take over before they bother considering other options. Awash in investor capital, most ambitious entrepreneurs seem oblivious to the prospect of funding and growing business grounded in the communities they serve. But not all have.” - Nathan Schneider in his book “Everything for Everyone”
Over 30 days in November and December 2018, the Dutch member-funded journalism site raised $2.6 million for its ad-free, inclusive English language platform The Correspondent. Founding members were invited to become active participants in a movement for "unbreaking news,” to change what news is about, how it's made, and how it's funded, and to contribute to a community of knowledgeable members sharing expertise from around the world. With the involvement of members from more than 130 countries, the campaign became the most participatory journalism crowdfunding project in history, a classification formerly reserved for the organization’s initial Dutch campaign in 2013.
The Correspondent doesn’t have a top-notch data team or a social media team of 10. It pulled the campaign off with a team that is smaller than most American newsrooms. As the research arm of De Correspondent, the Membership Puzzle Project got a front row seat to see how their teams in Amsterdam and New York City operated. They gave themselves 30 days, knowing that they couldn’t expect more attention from potential founding members who were invited to pay what they could. These members ultimately represented people in countries so widespread that they cover about three fourths of the world. Based on our analysis of data provided by De Correspondent, more than 42,000 people gave an average of $50 each to the cause.
This success reflects three years of diligent preparation; cohesive design elements; and putting people at the center. While people have frequently congratulated the team on its good luck, noting “ambassador #1” Jay Rosen’s high profile December appearance on The Daily Show, The Correspondent did not get lucky in crowdfunding $2.6MM. Almost everything in the campaign was the opposite of accidental. As Aron says, De Correspondent didn't luck its way onto The Daily Show, or into having so many prominent ambassadors, or into telling its story so effectively. Those all happened by virtue of years of planning and hard work.
Crowdfunding campaigns require a huge amount of planning and management. They’re a way to test and improve upon your contract with early supporters of your work. You can help prospective supporters say “hell yes!” to the idea of backing you by offering a clear vision for what your goal is and why you need them. Even if your site is not immediately going to be in fundraising mode, there is still a lot to be learned about articulating a clear value proposition and being in close contact with supporters of your work.
To cover the cost of the campaign, the team raised $1.8 million from media funders Stichting Democratie & Media (“SDM,” a Dutch foundation that maintains veto power over any possible De Correspondent’s profit maximization attempts, however unlikely, as a built-in safeguard to protect its public service mission), Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and Omidyar Network (also a funder of the Membership Puzzle Project and now known as Luminate). This covered staff, travel, consulting from the agency Blue State Digital, Manhattan office space that was partially subsidized, materials, a large “Unbreaking News” van, and more.
Some may ask if all the effort of generating $1.8 million in foundational funds to host the campaign was worth it to raise $800,000, the difference in the the $2.6 million it raised in crowdfunding. But The Correspondent is looking to generate support for a sustainable news organization in the years to come alongside individual members. Had it put the original $1.8 million funding into a newsroom directly, The Correspondent wouldn’t have brought more than 42,000 people along who want to be part of its approach. The Correspondent will be going back to founding members to opt in to renew in 2020. As Joseph Lichterman reported for Solution Set, The Correspondent is already thinking about its retention efforts for how it will convince its initial members to re-up.
This campaign also publicly demonstrated how capital intensive it is to launch a new journalism organization. This is important because most people don’t have insight into the true costs of news reporting and distribution; those have long been obscured by advertising. This is a form of transparency that we repeatedly hear supporters of independent news value.
Even with the support of an existing Dutch newsroom and design firm, how did a campaign team with only 10 full-time campaign staffers at its largest point pull this off? Our observations:
With 60,000 paying members in its home country, high-profile reporting projects completed with input and knowledge from readers, and five years in operation, the model was working. In interviewing De Correspondent’s members in and beyond the Netherlands, we heard many say that after getting to know De Correspondent’s journalism they came to the conclusion, “I should support this.”
That didn’t mean that The Correspondent was a likely success globally, though. Some members of the Dutch press were highly skeptical that the company’s growth attempts would work and there were vocal concerns about the company’s diversity efforts in the Netherlands. (You can see co-founder and editor in chief Rob Wijnberg’s response here.)
The Correspondent was pitched to Dutch readers as an expansion campaign, and 19,811 Dutch people contributed to the English language campaign. Most were already members who were told they would have access to the English language site whether they contributed to the 2018 expansion campaign or not. Their decision to back The Correspondent reflected an interest in “open access and global knowledge exchange,” said co-founder and publisher Ernst Pfauth.
De Correspondent member campaign lead Daphne van der Kroft added, “I was amazed by how many Dutch members trust us to that extent that they believe we can add something to journalism on an international scale in another language. There was no example of what they would get, once again,” she said, referencing the 2013 crowdfunding in which prospective De Correspondent members had little to reference in the way of published journalism from the site.
Engagement editor Jessica Best said that the support of an existing newsroom in Amsterdam was vital: “I had thought it will be great to have the Dutch team--but they were absolutely crucial. The emotional support [they offered] and how they mobilized the Dutch members to get this campaign off to a good start” made a major difference, said Jessica, who also edits and conducts research for this project.
Plenty of planning
The founding team registered the domain TheCorrepondent.com and created the logo immediately after their successful Dutch crowdfunding. This was six years before the English site would launch...and reflects serious international ambition.
De Correspondent co-founder and creative director Harald Dunnink said the approach was “we think it through; we think it through with outside experts; we improve, improve, improve.” The team is highly detail-oriented and, according to Best, its exacting attention to design made the campaign as easy, usable, and beautiful for users as possible.
Early conversations with international sites about an English language publishing collaboration fizzled, and the team recognized that they were largely on their own. Their idea was to spend a year building a network of ambassadors to demonstrate social proof. After months of planning and outreach, they fostered relationships with high-profile individuals including musician Rosanne Cash, statistician and writer Nate Silver, and other well-regarded people in their fields with their own sizable networks.
Jessica said the ambassador strategy was important for gaining credibility in a new market. It came not just from a dream wish list of people who could endorse the idea (though the team did have one) but seeking out people who connected clearly with the principles. There was an element of what researchers call snowball recruiting too: The Correspondent team asked people who are bought in as ambassadors to suggest others who might connect with the concept and similarly lend it social proof. Jay brought in Rosanne Cash, who suggested David Simon as an ambassador. On the first day of the campaign ambassadors received personalized social media materials, such as activist Blair Imani’s shown here. This was low cost but high in human involvement and required months (and in some cases, years) to develop relationships that could be called on during a key period.
Making people visible
At the news organizations where we interview supporters, even long-time members and donors usually can’t name more than one person behind the site, suggesting we can make our staff more visible--and ourselves less institutional.
The Correspondent puts people--its members and staff--at the heart of its work. Starting with The Correspondent’s first full-time staff member, Zainab Shah, who joined as operations lead from BuzzFeed International, staff and ambassadors were introduced with hand-drawn avatars and encouraged to share who they are and what resonated about the approach in their own words. This felt refreshing, especially alongside a logo that was created by hand by Harald.
A steady drumbeat of communications
In 2013 Ernst started writing for journalism industry aficionados on Medium and the site started translating high-interest stories into English to increase its visibility. De Correspondent created an English language newsletter in 2014. In 2017 it began partnering with this project and started sending pre-launch emails to its Dutch members.
The list was 20,000 subscribers long by the time of campaign launch, and subscribers received multiple emails per week during the campaign. As Ben Whitelaw wrote for the Engaged Journalism Centre about the campaign execution, “Emails came from ambassadors such as Baratunde [Thurston, an advisor], or people in the team, like operations lead Zainab Shah. As soon as people converted to members, they went onto a different list and received a different email flow with different messaging.”
People who talked about the campaign or asked questions on social media received personal responses. This was taxing on the team, but the investment in individuals mattered. The campaign earned one $25,000 contribution, but there was no single backer who “swooped in” to help the campaign reach its goal. The median contribution was $28.50 and the smallest contribution was one Australian Dollar.
As Harald told me, “This is [about] not being afraid to tell your own story. You have to get comfortable sending 10 emails to get a yes or no.This is persistence, not sheer luck.” During the 30 days of the campaign, four members of the team spent 80% or more of their working time on incoming member communication through social media, with rotating “social shifts.”
An early edition of the English language newsletter in 2015 described how 40,000 members of De Correspondent was the then-equivalent of 750,000 subscribers in the US, a rate achieved by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The campaign wasn’t perfect, of course. On November 22, writer and former De Correspondent freelancer Sarah Kenzior tweeted that the site had deleted her past work. The company issued a statement that 120 English language articles, including Sarah’s, had been accidentally redirected to The Correspondent homepage and reinstated them. Ernst said, “We made a stupid mistake” and that not providing access to the URLs “is something you don’t do in journalism.” A Twitter debate with many of Sarah’s more than 430,000 Twitter followers lasted three days.
Consistency around their goals
The middle two weeks of the campaign were arduous (which Emily can attest to, having seen the team members’ sleepless eyes during and after Thanksgiving). It wasn’t clear that the crowdfunding goal would be reached, and the campaign said it wouldn’t take any money unless the full $2.5 million goal was raised to open an English language newsroom.
Harald described “a skate ramp-shaped crowdfunding experience: people who know you support you at the beginning, then there is a horrible grind period in the middle.”As Thomas Baekdal’s wrote in his useful analysis of the campaign, it wasn’t obvious that the effort would succeed. He described a close call: “If you just look at the data, they should not have made it. But they were saved by outside influence…”
The team’s commitment to press outreach was arduous but important. The campaign launched on November 14: purposely timed after the US midterm elections and unexpectedly around the same time as membership announcements from Quartz, BuzzFeed News, Tortoise in the UK, and more. Even the most seasoned press person is dependent on other gatekeepers for coverage of their work. In the final week, a series of just-in-time, hard-earned television appearances by Jay on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (which the team first pitched in February 2018, nine months before an appearance on the show) and Rob on CNN helped expand project reach.
The team maintained and publicized its 10 founding principles that they had tested in the Netherlands, adapted to a different language market, and done business by. The news climate had changed dramatically since the English language project began in 2015, and they spent months refining the principles for English-speaking audiences with Jay and NYU’s Studio 20 Master’s students. Principles include “we don’t just cover the problem, but also what can be done about it.” This orientation around solutions-oriented storytelling is crucially important, and hard to demonstrate for the uninitiated. There were no existing examples of what the site would produce, because there was no reporting and production staff yet hired or members yet contributing to The Correspondent conversation.
As Guardian columnist and director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University Emily Bell wrote,“Particularly admirable about The Correspondent’s campaign was that it raised membership without publishing a word. It asked people to buy into the idea of journalism created in a transparent, non-hierarchical way.”
The site design and newsletters are consistently clean and non-distracting. The color palette is warm. Not having ads invites more pixel space for stories and conversation--and more headspace for readers.
Having designers, developers, and other people with audience relationship skills working alongside editorial staff on the campaign involved in strategic decision making--not just creating deliverables, as they may have been at other organizations--was important. Jessica said, “One thing we heard a lot was how easy it was to make a contribution, and that was because we designed the site with users in mind, not fancy tricks.”
The overall conversion rate on the site was 15% and increased with more visitors, which ProPublica director of online fundraising and outreach Jill Shepherd called a natural effect of a month-long campaign that was thoughtfully executed. “Fifteen percent is better by at least five percentage points than what I’d expect from a crowdfunding campaign on a product that doesn’t exist yet,” Jill said, with the caveat that they had support from De Correspondent’s existing audience. She said The Correspondent launched conversion triggers at opportune moments:
“When they saw increasing traffic volumes, they took advantage of the greater quantity and changed the site’s messaging a bit to focus on ‘any amount counts,’ which successfully encouraged more people who weren't quite sure if their $25 was worth it. When the end was getting close and the volume of members grew, they inserted a tiny additional +100 floating text near the ticker, really hitting a homerun on the social proof aspect of showing users that they're not alone in thinking this is great concept.”
The team conducted A/B testing to understand what drove conversion on site but, with advising from Blue State Digital but without a data analyst on staff, wasn’t able to analyze email and social interactions as well as they might have. They were also working within a set of restrictions: one of their principles, “we protect your privacy, by minimizing the personal data we collect,” is an important point of differentiation, but means they operate without much of the information their colleagues have access to.
For context, in the Netherlands, De Correspondent collects data including time on site, bounce rate, visits per visitor (according to cookies), e-commerce sales, and events like clicks on menu items and comments, all of which is tracked anonymously. Location information doesn’t get more specific than city-level, and the company uses a visitor’s full IP address to determine his or her location before stripping off the last digits and storing the address. There’s no tracking of visitors across their devices.
A clear value proposition
The Correspondent diagnosed what’s not working in the field. As this project identified in studying members of independent journalism in the Netherlands and elsewhere, people want to back organizations whose coverage stands out from the news of the day: they want journalists who can help solve the problems that digital publishing has brought on and those that offer smart takes on issues with depth, integrity, and a focus that is otherwise rare.
The Correspondent team took a non-competitive but honest approach: they didn’t criticize other sites or journalists, but they did talk openly about what isn’t working in the industry. Some advisors suggested that The Correspondent be more adversarial during the campaign and that picking a visible “enemy” would help its crowdfunding. Creating that tension didn’t seem on brand for an organization that aims to be constructive, Ernst said.
Harald added, “Journalism is really sick [but] there’s enough pie for everyone,” Harald said. This abundance mindset is generative, inviting...and rare. In journalism, we’re still in the early days for the intersection of audience revenue and substantive engagement as publishers’ digital ad businesses continue to decline. While many sites are instituting paywalls, we hear from most supporters of news organizations that they want information and analysis to be freely available so more people can access them, not fewer. We hear that people are highly dissatisfied with most news they encounter: it feels more dramatic than actionable and doesn’t respect their privacy or attention. This call for more inclusive, interactive journalism is timely and imperative for the sustainability of the field.
This will be far from The Correspondent’s last 1:1 interaction with these individuals. De Correspondent has made a routine of soliciting what its readers and listeners know, and it starts with not treating them like an open ATM. As Daphne said, “It’s as if we had a first date [with founding members] but have never really talked to each other. Now we’re starting a relationship.”
Editor’s note: An earlier headline for this story referred to The Correspondent’s campaign as the largest crowdfunded journalism project in history. El Español holds the fundraising record, and The Correspondent earned more members than any journalism crowdfunding campaign in history. Credit due to Eduardo Suárez.
Thanks also to Ariel Zirulnick, Jay Rosen, Gonzalo del Peon, Ernst Pfauth, and Jessica Best for contributions to this post. Original illustrations by Lukas Kouwets. The full-time campaign team for The Correspondent was Alexa Sonnenfeld, Zainab Shah, Joris Tjaden, Jessica Best, Harald Dunnink, David van Zeggeren, Rob Wijnberg, Ernst Pfauth, Ruben Nascimento, and Martijn van Dam.