Turns out The Correspondent isn’t opening a U.S. newsroom after all

Dutch news organization The Correspondent surprised some of its supporters earlier this week, when co-founder and CEO Ernst Pfauth posted an update on Medium saying that the company would not be opening a newsroom in New York City.

Which was odd, since the organization raised $2.6 million in a crowdfunding campaign last fall with the express purpose of launching in the United States.

At least, that’s what I thought. After all, I wrote an article titled, “The Correspondent launches campaign to bring its ad-free journalism to the US.”

But here’s how Pfauth explained the decision in his post (emphasis in the original):

We’ve closed our campaign office in NYC, and we have decided that we won’t open a newsroom in the US for now. We don’t aim to be a national US news organization (we have founding members from more than 130 countries around the world!) but instead want to cover the greatest challenges of our time from a global perspective — in English. For that vision, Amsterdam is as a great place to start.

So was this the plan all along? In an interview with NiemanLab, Editor in Chief Rob Wijnberg argued that this is consistent what The Correspondent team promised in the campaign: “We’re setting up in English language, and we’re going to hire U.S.-based journalists as well.”

He went on to say that the team “never really talked about setting up an office” in the United States. Still, he acknowledged that it was a U.S.-centric campaign, with Wijnberg and Pfauth spending most of their time in New York, reaching out to U.S. journalists to write about the campaign and recruiting other journalists and pundits to serve as “ambassadors.”

“So it got interpreted by a lot of media who wrote about us as, ‘They’re launching in the U.S.,'” Wijnberg said. “Which is pretty much 80 percent true, in the sense that we are going to have English-language correspondents in the U.S. — just not only in the U.S. And we never promised — or never said, because that’s not our model — to have, to cover the United States or anything.”

So I thought: Okay, that makes sense. I must have misunderstood what Pfauth was telling me.

Still, I wanted to figure out how I got this wrong, so I went back to the initial email I received from Pfauth. Here’s how it began: “Dear Anthony, I’m CEO and cofounder of The Correspondent, an online journalism platform from Amsterdam that will soon be launching in the U.S.”

Then he gave a quick description of The Correspondent’s ad-free, reader-funded model, adding, “We aim to bring the same journalistic integrity and unconventional editorial approach when we launch in the U.S.”

It’s so weird that I ended up thinking they were planning to launch in the U.S.!

Wijnberg acknowledged the confusion in his interview, telling NiemanLab, “Tons of people talk about what we’re trying to do. So the idea that you can keep all these people on message all the time would be kind of totalitarian, right?”

Maybe … except this isn’t an overly-enthusiastic ambassador; it’s the company’s CEO. (And it seems he made a similar pitch to other publications.) One might argue that keeping him on message — a.k.a., making sure he accurately describes the company’s plans as he asks people for money — is not only not “totalitarian,” but actually the responsible thing to do.

The truth is, I don’t know what happened here. If The Correspondent never planned to open a U.S. office, thinks it can do a good job covering the U.S. without one and simply did a bad job communicating? Fine. If the original plan was to open a U.S. office, then it reconsidered? That would be disappointing, but if the model still produces worthwhile journalism about the U.S., then I suppose it’s a net positive.

But these confusing, convoluted, “I’m sorry that you didn’t understand us” explanations don’t just make the company look disingenuous — they also seem antithetical to running a newsroom that depends on readers’ knowledge, goodwill and money.

The Correspondent launches campaign to bring its ad-free journalism to the US

De Correspondent, a Dutch news organization aiming to “unbreak the news,” is planning to launch in the United States next year as The Correspondent. To fund its efforts, it’s hoping to raise $2.5 million from future readers.

Co-founder and CEO Ernst Pfauth (a former tech journalist who previously served as editor in chief at The Next Web) said this campaign is meant to test the waters of whether U.S. readers are interested in The Correspondent’s journalism. If it raises the money, it will launch in the U.S. next spring. If it doesn’t, it will reconsider those plans.

“We want there to be a critical mass that supports this,” Pfauth said. “We don’t want to launch, then see if enough people are interested.”

What the company has developed in the Netherlands, and what it’s hoping to replicate in the U.S., is a news organization with a direct connection to readers. For one thing, that means foregoing any ad revenue and relying entirely on readers for support. (Hence the crowdfunding campaign, where you can sign up by paying any amount you want.) It has a paywall, but any member can circumvent it and promote stories they think are important by sharing the individual links.

For another, it means treating readers as a key source for stories. In Pfauth’s view, by signing up as a “founding member,” you’re not so simply paying for a subscription, “You’re joining a cause. You not just giving us your money — though the money is essential — but you’re sharing your knowledge and spreading articles.”

The Correspondent

If that sounds a bit touchy-feely, here’s a concrete example: Last year, the organization broke the news that a videotape and related documents showed that Shell had detailed knowledge about the dangers of climate change as far back as 1991. And apparently it obtained the crucial material from a reader.

Pfauth said that in most cases, reporters at The Correspondent will share their story ideas with members as soon as they start working on it, which allows readers to share their perspectives as the story develops. That can mean talking to doctors about hospital bureaucracy, or interviewing refugees about their experiences. It also means that The Correspondent encourages its journalists to spend 30 to 50 percent of their time going through the comments section (which it calls the “contributions” section), where only members can post.

Pfauth argued that all of this is crucial for breaking out of the limited perspective of so many news stories, where journalists “only talk to people who get paid to talk to the press.” That description struck close to home — I’m someone who spends a lot of their time dealing with PR pros who, yes, get paid to talk to me, or to entrepreneurs who are trying to convince me to write about their companies.

So how do you get people to share their perspective in a less self-interested (or, in the case of comments, less rant-y) way? Pfauth pointed to tactics like making sure to verify the identity of sources and asking “really specific questions.” But he also said, “Most people are idealistic about the thing they really care about. They want the information to be good.”

“You are going to find examples of other newspapers who have done things like this, but it’s always incidental, it’s not routine,” he added. “In our organization, we have this systematic approach to every story that we cover.”

This strategy makes it harder to quickly cover breaking news, but in fact, Pfauth said that’s quite intentional.

“We tell our correspondents, please ignore the news — the news is about incidents,” he said. “Focus on the topics in your beat that are really changing our society.”

As part of this campaign, The Correspondent has also enlisted a number of high-profile “ambassadors” who support its mission. Those ambassadors include FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, Wikimedia’s Jimmy Wales, director Judd Apatow, journalist, musician Roseanne Cash, journalist and investor Om Malik and others.