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Aug. 5, 2021, 2:24 p.m.
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“There was a trap built into the very principles that we got people excited about”: Jay Rosen and Rob Wijnberg on why The Correspondent failed

“It’s important to speak truth. It’s not that important to speak about truth as part of your brand.”

We’ve written quite a bit about the failure of The Correspondent, the English-language site from the founders of Dutch news site De Correspondent, which launched in 2019 and shut down on December 30, 2020.

De Correspondent had originally promised that The Correspondent would be headquartered in New York City. It tapped “ambassadors” like Nate Silver, David Simon, and Baratunde Thurston to help spread the word, and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen appeared on The Daily Show to talk up the U.S. product. The Correspondent ultimately raised $2.6 million for its launch. But after the money was raised, the news gradually trickled out that De Correspondent’s founders weren’t planning to operate a site in the United States at all.

[Read: The Correspondent apologizes as Nate Silver, David Simon, and Baratunde Thurston speak out]

“What some had been sold as a multi-million-dollar effort to “‘unbreak’ U.S. news” would end up hiring roughly two reporters in America,” I wrote in 2019. (Ultimately, it turned out to be just one full-time journalist based in the U.S., who quit after about a year.)

[Read: “I felt like it was a betrayal, and we had raised funds on false pretense”: The Correspondent’s first U.S. employee speaks out]

Rosen was The Correspondent’s first U.S. “ambassador.” In 2017, he launched the Membership Puzzle Project at NYU; writing at Nieman Lab at the time, he explained that MPP was “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.”

This month, the Membership Puzzle Project is winding down, culminating in an online summit that my colleague Sarah Scire wrote about here. In a panel on Wednesday, Jay Rosen and De Correspondent cofounder Rob Wijnberg, who served as editor-in-chief of The Correspondent, spoke with Hearken founder and CEO Jennifer Brandel about what went wrong.

The panel was really something: A mixture of actual lessons, a smattering of humility but no apologies, and a heaping dose of confidence (“it’s sort of like the Obama campaign in 2008”) that I find weirdly fascinating and hard to identify with in part because, for better or worse, it is so difficult to imagine a female founder talking about a failed company in this way. (See also: My 2019 interview with Wijnberg.) Some excerpts and takeaways from the conversation are below. I’ll grant them this: It’s hard to talk about what you did wrong, and that is done here in a fairly straightforward fashion.

Focus on marketing, not substance

“We really didn’t envision too much of the kind of newsroom we had in mind,” Wijnberg said, adding, “I’m a trained philosopher, so I’m good with ideas.”

Rob Wijnberg: We focused a lot on the campaign, getting our principles across, getting our ideas across, getting the necessity across of why we think this is important to do. And that was a success. I mean, it was amazing to see that we could raise over $2.5 million with these ideas. But putting that into practice, that was something that was just hugely underdeveloped.

Jay Rosen: To go back to the campaign, because The Correspondent felt very strongly that the campaign should be based on principles, we declined to do what many people’s first instinct was — and mine in fact — which was to produce some sample journalism so that people might know what kind of thing they were joining. Rob, I remember many conversations about this many times with him, was very clear on this: “No, we must not do that.”

And I think the reasoning — he can correct me if I’m wrong — I think the reasoning was, if you get people excited about the principles of The Correspondent, they will each imagine it in their different way in the shape of the journalism they want to see, and this will cause them to become members.

Now, inevitably, when you move from the stage of the campaign, where you’re exciting people about the possibilities of The Correspondent, to the stage where you actually have to start publishing, some of those people are going to drop out because it doesn’t turn out to be what they thought it was.

It’s sort of like the Obama campaign in 2008. This was a very unknown person, in many ways untried, but very promising, his rhetoric was soaring, he was articulate, he was dynamic, and so people tended to imagine Obama in the shape that they wanted him to be. So we were prepared for some people to not find The Correspondent that actually began publishing their thing, because that had happened with De Correspondent, but other people who didn’t join the campaign would sign on and hopefully the wins outweighed the losses. That was the way it was supposed to work. But I think the whole idea of “global but in English” contained many more traps and problems than anyone involved in The Correspondent knew.

This philosophy of constructive journalism: Not just the problems, but what can be done about them.

Well, when you get to what can be done about them and you’re trying to publish globally but in English, that immediately puts you into the frame of the nation state. We can only do things about problems from within the resources of the nation, but there is no one nation that The Correspondent was publishing about or to.

I think the whole idea of global journalism is problematic and perhaps mislaid because there really isn’t such a thing as global citizenship. There’s a kind of global awareness that citizens can have — you can have concern for the planet, for example — but you can’t actually live as a global citizen. So that was a big deal. I think The Correspondent underestimated the difficulty of transforming its principles into practice at that level.

Another problem was, with $2.5 million, that sounds like a lot of money but it only went so far. The original news room of The Correspondent would only be 5 or 6 journalists, which is not enough to meet the potential that people were sold on during the campaign.

So, to sum it up, there was a trap built into the very principles that we got people excited about. They became fans of a concept that was never going to be translated into actual journalism they could patronize.

Why did people cancel?

Brandel asked why people canceled their subscriptions. One reason, Wijnberg said, was Covid:

Rob Wijnberg: An example, not as an excuse example, but because it illustrates our more fundamental shortcoming: Obviously Covid, the pandemic, hits. Now in some sense, this is a dream topic for a transnational journalism platform because it’s the ultimate manifestation of globalization and transnational problems that we’re all in together. This is basically the first time that the whole world has the same problem. From a theoretical viewpoint, this should be a huge leg up from a transnational journalism perspective like ours.

And it wasn’t. On the contrary. It was a drain on our membership. A lot of people canceled because of it. And not because of the financial insecurity, though that might have played a role, but because we were not offering them something that actually mattered to them enough to pay us for it.

At the same time, membership on the Dutch side surged because of the pandemic. […] The information that people wanted was quite local. Especially at the beginning [news outlets] were talking about the number of cases in their country or number of cases sin their area, not let’s say globalist origins of the whole problem. The Dutch site became quite relevant because it was confined to this space. The transnational side became sort of irrelevant because people were trying to get more local information than we had to offer.

Here’s the thing, we had some great journalism on this topic. We had amazing features about how social distancing wouldn’t work on the African continent, about global inequality with regards to the vaccine, but the context view that we took was ahead of the curve of the actual necessity that people felt they wanted with regards to their information. It’s an illustration of how the view from somewhere wasn’t thought through enough to actually be able to connect what people were caring about with what we were offering.

“Manna from heaven” for funders

Even before The Correspondent launched its membership drive, it raised about $1.8 million in “runway funding”.

Jennifer Brandel: We have an audience question about why The Correspondent got such big funding before the initial membership drive. While The Correspondent was focused on becoming sustainable just through memberships, there were a few million dollars put in from different foundations to launch it and get going. Why do you think it got such big funding before the drive without the local knowledge and sample projects?

Rob Wijnberg: Well, the political answer is you have to ask the funders, of course, but we had a sample, which was a very successful Dutch version, and also one of the foundations that actually helped us do the international expansion was a Dutch foundation [the Dutch Democracy and Media Foundation]. They knew our Dutch platform very well. They were excited about the principles and the idea of exporting those principles to the rest of the world and not making it just sort of a Dutch endeavor.

And obviously the charisma of the founder. I mean — right? [pause] I’m kidding. I’m kidding.

Brandel: No, I mean, it is true.

Jay Rosen: I think there was an attraction, also not just to the fact that the Dutch model was working, but that the funders could fund the infrastructure and the costs of the campaign and know after a certain amount of time, a year, two years, whether the operating expenses were being met by the members. There was a test for whether their funding would work. And the test basically was, after the first year of publishing, how many of the members renew, and did enough renew to keep publishing?

Very rarely in grantsmanship do you get a clear answer to what you’re trying to support. I think that had something to do with it as well. You could tell after one year of publishing whether the thing was working or not. […] They had a sustainability test, and the fact that they didn’t have to fund the operating cost is, as you know, manna from heaven for every foundation because that’s the last thing they want to do, because then they don’t know if a thing actually can survive without their care and help.

Brandel: How do you handle funder expectations and what was the reaction when it didn’t work?

Wijnberg: [The institutional funders] were very supportive, and if I could distill one lesson from the past few years in regard to this, it’s: Be much more proactive on asking for help. These people are there to make you succeed.

If you run into problems and the thing is not going well, the first inclination is to say we have to fix this because they don’t want to hear it’s going badly, they have so much invested in this, we want to show the results.

Which is definitely not a good idea. They want to hear what is going badly because then the possibility arises that they can help with it. The assumption that you have to deliver can be very problematic in the sense that if you are not and you feel ashamed to say so, you don’t give them the opportunity to help you out.

My sense is they were way more willing to help than we were willing to ask for help.

Rosen: This is a lesson, not necessarily for dealing with funders, but I think it’s important and that I’ve learned from this episode: It’s really important to be trustworthy as a publisher of journalism, but it’s not that important — it can be counterproductive — to talk about trust all the time and make it part of your brand.

Because when you do that you create a risk, and the risk is: You do one thing that’s not trustworthy and the whole thing can be brought into doubt.

This is another risk in having raised money for a concept but not having any journalism that proves that concept yet. That’s actually a very fragile and risky state and I don’t think that we were aware of how dangerous that condition is.

Similarly, it’s important to speak truth. It’s not that important to speak about truth as part of your brand because when you do that you invite, again, either attacks or criticism. This is one of the big lessons in the TC episode for me.

“American journalism eats its young”

In my first interview with Wijnberg, about The Correspondent’s decision not to have an office in the United States, he told me, “You make a story out of [the office issue] then you’re kind of, how do you say this, legitimizing the confusion, or making the confusion sound true, because the idea is to make a story out of where we’re based. Do you understand what I’m saying?” The argument at the time was that Nieman Lab was making something out of nothing. It was that interview — Wijnberg’s insistence that there was nothing to see here — that made me want to continue to report on what was going on at The Correspondent. Rosen alludes to this in his above remarks, where he stresses that actually being trustworthy is more important than talking about how trustworthy you are.

Brandel asked Wijnberg and Rosen what they thought of the media’s critical reaction to The Correspondent. (I’d point out that the journalism industry’s reaction to both De Correspondent and The Correspondent was glowing for a long time, and that few English-language journalists ever actually read what De Correspondent was publishing.)

Brandel: As someone who is on Twitter, like many journalists, seeing the reaction that the journalistic industry press and ecosystem had to the campaign not working, it made me think, as a startup founder myself: Do they understand how much power they [journalists] have right now in attacking what is a very fragile experiment? Doing any kind of startup is very difficult, as anyone on this call knows who’s starting their own thing, and having a big PR nightmare is something that could potentially end it.

What lessons did you learn from taking that heat from the industry press? Did it make you think about how you are vocal or critique others as well, now having been in the seat of someone having journalism “done to you”? I’m curious to know how that felt and if that’s changed anything.

Wijnberg: Every individual journalist that calls you up and makes a critical piece about you, for them, you are the only one that they have on the phone. For the other side, which in this case was me, you have many of those people on the phone in a cumulative fashion. As a journalist, you’re probably not aware that you’re one of many, in these cases.

You, necessarily, are not the problem. It’s the whole, the media as a whole that comes at you, which can be very overwhelming. It’s not the fault of any individual journalist or media outlet that’s part of it. It’s the combination of factors that makes it so difficult, so overwhelming. My biggest lesson in all that is that you have to be much more proactive in sharing not just your answers but your questions, your dilemmas, your challenges, your thoughts, your mistakes — you tend to try to solve the problem before you go out and tell everybody what you figured out: “Here’s what we’re going to do, this is our mission, this is our plan, this is our annual report, this is what we’ve done.”

Rarely do you say “This is what we don’t know, this is what we’re breaking our heads about, this is really a problem that we now have and we can’t figure it out, this is what we’re thinking about now.” If you do that way more proactively, I think the sort of inevitable mistakes and problems you run into will be received much less critically because you were there when you headed toward the problem. Not necessarily from all journalists or competitors or whatever, but especially from the people who are watching it, if they were already with you — for example, our newsroom controversy — if we had actively spoken to our members about the dilemmas we faced, cost problems if you opened a second office, is it worth having a second office or not, then we probably would have noticed, for example, that they may have expected us to do so, and we wouldn’t have only heard about it after we decided it.

Being proactive in the phase where you don’t know yet would be my biggest lesson.

Rosen: There’s no doubt that The Correspondent and the campaign fucked up hugely in handling this question of where it would ultimately be located. There’s no doubt that it miscommunicated during the campaign in a serious and in some ways fatal way and all of the criticism and online chatter and journalism that was done about those mistakes was about something real. It wasn’t a phony controversy. I don’t believe that at all.

At the same time, I would say this: American journalism eats its young and Twitter heightens that appetite.

I think most media startups in the U.S. actually launch to enormous goodwill (see: The 19th, Capital B, The Markup, dozens of Substacks, and certainly The Correspondent itself before the floor fell out from underneath it), especially if you’re only using Twitter reaction as your guide. Most will never receive the funding or benefit of the doubt that The Correspondent did, and they will also not receive the same attention if they mess up.

But it’s a deal some founders might accept happily. In exchange for the scrutiny if you mess up, would you take the money, the attention — the assumption, from the start, that you are worthy of someone taking a chance on you?

You can watch the panel here.

POSTED     Aug. 5, 2021, 2:24 p.m.
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