I am disappointed, but not surprised by the recent decision of The Correspondent (a future English offshoot of the Netherlands-based news site de Correspondent) to remain headquartered in Amsterdam.
After they raised more than $2.5M through a historic crowdfunding campaign — promising to “build a movement for radically different news” through an “inclusive, collaborative, and completely ad-free platform” that aims to “unbreak the news” — on March 25, 2019 one of The Correspondent’s co-founders disclosed that the new English-language headquarters would be in Amsterdam and not in New York, where the company ran its crowdfunding campaign.
“…those at the heart of The Correspondent’s journalism — the correspondents themselves — will be based all over the world, some in the US no doubt, but not by default,” wrote Ernst Pfauth in a Medium post, and announced the site will launch in September of this year.
Many of The Correspondent's high profile funders and supporters, who thought they are investing in a U.S. news company, were not happy with the news. “As a funder, my expectation was that they were starting a new US news org. I support their overall mission and have on intention of asking for a refund, but without a doubt i feel this is a major pivot from what the crowdfunding campaign sold,” tweeted Vivian Schiller, CEO of the Civil Media Foundation.
“This was the first announcement email I got from The Correspondent: ‘We’re coming to America! Our goals? To find out how our member-driven model for in-depth journalism might work in a US context’,” wrote Joshua Benton, head of the Nieman Lab at Harvard.
It’s concerning that people who’d make natural partners with The Correspondent have suggested they were misled. “As a founding member, I’m very disappointed that The Correspondent decided not to open in the U.S.,” wrote Travis Mannon who works for The Intercept, “The fundraising campaign was driven largely by the plan to launch in the U.S. The Correspondent is built on ‘trust.’ I think Rob Wijnberg and Ernst Pfauth owe members a better explanation.”
Journalists have also pointed out the misleading messaging of The Correspondent’s campaign. Cale Weissmann, who writes for Fast Company, stated that his team was initially pitched a “U.S. launch”:
Indeed, The Correspondent’s CEO, Ernst Pfauth, emailed my colleague about the project last October and clearly described it as the organization “launching in the U.S.” The subsequent coverage described it thus too. “If it raises the money, it will launch in the U.S. next spring,” wrote TechCrunch. “A Dutch news startup has crowdfunded more than $1 million for a U.S. version of its reader-driven news model,” wrote NBC News.
The Correspondent’s co-founders have addressed mounting criticisms by stating that “it’s always been our intention to expand to the English language, not just the US market, and we consistently talked about going global during the campaign.”
While that may be true, it wasn’t communicated well. The issues addressed in The Correspondent’s historic 30-day crowdfunding campaign were highlighted by a diverse group of U.S. representatives — a professor, comedian, political wonk, and others — who were clearly talking about issues in the U.S. Their main fundraising video specifically addressed the news business industry here and how it affects the daily experiences of many Americans.
Ironically, The Correspondent’s team blamed the journalists who covered their story, while admitting that the mix up regarding their U.S. presence might have been “20%” their fault — not a good look for a company that prides itself on building trust between journalists and readers.
When someone on Twitter expressed their disappointment at how The Correspondent let “every piece of news coverage of their fundraiser paint it as the launch of a ‘US-based’ operation,” and wondered “what percentage decided to join based on that spin,” co-founder Rob Wijnberg replied:
20% of the answer is that we weren’t clear enough about it. 80% of the answer is that it truly didn’t matter how many times I / we emphasized we weren’t expanding to the US but to the English language, journalists just wrote the former.
If journalists supposedly got the story wrong, what’s left for the folks who were inspired to “join the movement” by one of many U.S. public figures, “thinkers,” and entertainers who vouched for the platform? How would they feel once they find that “expanding to the U.S.” actually meant expanding to the “English language”?
Regardless of whether the “we are coming to America!” notion was a case of sloppy messaging or conscious exploitation of potential supporters, The Correspondent's campaign addressed a real problem — the “dry rot in American journalism,” as Hunter S. Thompson called it. Even though it was driven by soundbites and pushed primarily through mainstream outlets, the company’s message made people believe that something can change the death spiral of the U.S. news industry.
Given the rise of member-driven platforms like Patreon (where I support shows like Media Roots, Chapo Trap House, and Current Affairs), it’s not too radical to imagine a similar platform that pays journos to pursue their beats and be accountable to readers.
Yet, it is difficult to conceive that such a platform can exist without having a physical presence in the places it covers. This is why so many are disappointed by the The Correspondent’s recent change in plans — journalists can’t simply be parachuted into select U.S. sacrifice zones and expected to produce in-depth journalism without the infrastructure and community investments needed to support their efforts.
This is why it’s not professional trolls and paid agitators who are firing back at The Correspondent — it’s people who are well aware of the structural issues of journalism in the United States. “I’m thinking of how often I rip corporate chains for not having a physical presence in the communities they cover, and I can’t come up with a reason to give The Correspondent a pass,” wrote Dan Kennedy, associate professor at the Northeastern School of Journalism.
When I found out that the fundraiser would allow The Correspondent to hire five reporters (or less) for their entire English-language operation, it became clear to me that this experiment will go down as either a boutique dive into member-sponsored news model at best, or a “news nerd Fyre Festival,” as one critic described it, at worst.
Joshua Benton at Harvard’s Nieman Lab compiled the unenviable score sheet:
So that means:
— nearly 3 yrs of work
— $1.8 mil in foundation $
— 60 “ambassadors”
— Daily Show, CNN, endless media
— $2.6 mil in funding from tens of thousands of Americans
will likely turn into:
— 3–4 reporters working for 1 year
— 1ish stories/day
In an interview with Nieman Lab after the company announced their decision, Winjberg claimed that the story is being over-hyped because of “nine people on Twitter” and doubled down on the narrative that it was all a big misunderstanding:
The only thing is — the attention that is given to the nine people who were confused on Twitter kind of becomes a bigger and bigger story because of everybody talking about it. Although what actually happened is: Some people thought we were coming to the U.S. We are coming to the U.S., because we’re going to have journalists covering important developments in the U.S. as well. The only thing we’re not having is a coffee machine and a desk in the United States. That’s the only thing we’re not having there. I can understand the confusion, but, um, I sincerely don’t really see how the confusion itself is the bigger story — do you understand what I’m saying?
Winjberg’s answer is curious in that it both gaslights those who are rightly questioning the credibility of The Correspondent’s fundraising campaign (people who work in places like Pew, The Intercept, ProPublica, Harvard, Columbia Journalism Review, etc.), and stumbles into what would actually make a difference — investments in local journalism through good pay, security, and accountability.
It’s not about coffee machines or desks, but about money that would go a long way in places like the Appalachian region, where the decline of American journalism is truly a matter of life and death. Whether the issues of Central Appalachia and Flint, MI, would be highlighted as part of The Correspondent’s “global perspective” is now anyone’s guess.
It’s useful to zoom out a bit and consider the larger context in which The Correspondent has positioned itself in the U.S. with the help of third parties.
Massive technological shifts have changed the business model of how we get the news. The internet has undercut the value of print advertising and created a variety of inexpensive alternatives. Over the past ten years, newspaper newsroom employees have dropped by 45%, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017.
This crisis in journalism, defined by declining revenues and staffing, hasn’t made a huge impression on the U.S. public — according to PEW, “about seven-in-ten Americans think their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially (71%).”
Unfortunately, that can’t be further from reality. “Since 2008, the number of digital-native newsroom employees increased by 79%, from about 7,400 workers to about 13,000 in 2017,” the report states. “This increase of about 6,000 total jobs, however, fell far short of offsetting the loss of about 32,000 newspaper newsroom jobs during the same period.”
Given this context, The Correspondent’s pivot to a distributed model and recent comments by one of their co-founders that “location is secondary” to “developments” only add insult to injury.
In the end of the day, what matters most is the quality of content and the commitment of news companies to pursue the truth— something that The Correspondent doesn’t need to reinvent in the U.S., since there are a number of independent news organizations and journalists who have challenged dominant narratives for decades.
This is why I found it odd that the company’s co-founders weren’t featured on The Young Turks, Democracy Now!, The Real News Network, Jimmy Dore Show, Secular Talk, Redacted Tonight and other outlets dedicated to amplifying independent journalists. Instead, the project received coverage in the mainstream press and The Daily Show.
I am not familiar with de Correspondent’s work in the Netherlands (perhaps to my own detriment), but one account of their work might explain why it was liberal pundits and popular figures —and not independent journalists and progressive media organizations—that were tasked with pushing the crowdfunding campaign in the U.S.
“The Correspondent positions itself as a highly desirable newcomer in an American media landscape saturated with centrist takes and ‘all opinions are equal’ noise,” writes Flavia Dzodan:
However, many in The Netherlands raised an eyebrow with this marketing effort since their domestic track record has left a lot to be desired throughout the years: So much so, in fact, that they are locally known for their middle of the road, centrist takes that operate under the assumption that all opinions are equal and the feelings of racists are as valid as those of their victims.
This story is strikingly similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S. through the rise of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” Rubin Report, Quillette and other right-wing operations that use “diversity of opinion” as a backdoor to appeal to people on the extremes. The same trick is utilized by The New York Times and The Washington Post, where racists and militarists are given ample space to voice their “alternative” opinions. It’s not much of a stretch to assume The Correspondent might follow a similar trajectory, given that they need new memberships to be sustainable.
However, without knowing what exactly The Correspondent is going for in terms of U.S. coverage — six months away from their launch date — we can only guess how their “global perspective” will affect their U.S. focus.
The lack of partnerships with those who are already defining the independent media landscape in the U.S. and the radio silence from The Correspondent’s team after their historic December 2018 campaign, made it obvious to me that something wasn’t going as planned.
Some of those who built the project’s credibility in the media have acknowledged the company’s failure to communicate their intentions. In a March 28 post, Jay Rosen, an “ambassador” of The Correspondent who teaches journalism at NYU, admitted that the company “screwed up its communications with members.” According to Rosen’s post, the original plan was to have English-language headquarters in New York, but the thinking of the co-founders evolved.
Paradoxically, the company that claims to challenge the concept of “breaking news” and the cacophony of our news-obsessed lives, was pressured by their 30-day campaign run to put the question of where they will be based on hold.
Some other things that were going on might make this a little more explicable. It’s in the nature of a crowdfunding campaign with a do-or-die target and a 30-day run that all sorts of questions are put off while you are working on the campaign, because only if the campaign succeeds will there be any cause to examine those questions. That’s not an excuse for what happened, but it is part of the context.
Similarly, you can try to estimate from Amsterdam what the true costs of running a newsroom in New York are, but for the founders of The Correspondent it was the experience of moving their own lives to the US, establishing a campaign office in the city, hiring people to staff it, paying for their health insurance, getting visas to work in America and a hundred other, smaller real-world discoveries that slowly, and bit-by-bit weakened the case for a New York newsroom.
It made sense then to consider other American cities (Detroit? Pittsburgh?) but did it make sense to try to decide on newsroom location before you even knew if there would be a newsroom to locate, or what the budget would be? The feeling was that it did not make sense to decide that now. Instead we would practice message discipline during the campaign itself, so that no one felt misled about an HQ decision that was very much up-in-the-air. (Not saying it happened that way. I am saying this was our thought.)
Like many progressives, I was interested in the project because I care about U.S. journalism that is not beholden to corporate interests. The concept of a member-supported journalism platform sounded like a great start, but there need to be explicit goals and stances beyond “progress,” and a plan beyond “do-or-die” targets.
I don’t know if future supporters would be willing to pay for rent, health insurance, desks, and coffee machines for independent reporters — perhaps that should’ve been the ask all along. Instead, The Correspondent sold their vision to thousands of U.S. supporters and then decided to embrace a distributed model of operations with a “global perspective.” Will that global perspective include hard-hitting pieces on injustice and corruption in the U.S., or will it echo the soap operas of mainstream media? We might find out in September.
The Correspondent’s brilliant fundraiser proved there’s an enormous amount of interest in getting an independent, member-supported news platform off the ground. Now that we know the campaign was not intended to build a “national U.S. news organization,” but to “cover the greatest challenges of our time from a global perspective,” it’s worth asking ourselves what needs to be done to actually address the dire crisis in U.S. journalism beyond marketing campaigns and fundraising deadlines.