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article imageDutch website offers US 'antidote' to daily news grind

By Jo Biddle (AFP)     Sep 28, 2017 in Internet

A Dutch ad-free news website, which actively seeks contributors' help in its reporting and foregoes breaking news in favour of deeper analysis, is about to expand across the Atlantic.

Amid the blaring headlines, the breathless drama of 24-hour TV news, the lure of clickbait and noisy hand-wringing about a media industry in crisis, De Correspondent deliberately spreads an aura of calm.

So successful has it proved in The Netherlands in living up to its pledge to provide "an antidote to the daily news grind" that it is now planning to go straight to the heartland of so-called fake news -- the United States.

But don't expect a reporter from its new English version, The Correspondent, to be jostling for space at a Donald Trump press conference any time soon.

"We won't be focusing on what is in the media today, but on what is not in the media and should be in the media," said one of its two co-founders, Rob Wijnberg.

De Correspondent launched in September 2013 after Wijnberg, 35, and Ernst-Jan Pfauth, 31, both journalists, found themselves out of a job in late 2012, but driven by an idea of what they felt journalism should be.

In an audacious crowd-funding campaign launched in March 2013, they raised 900,000 euros (then $1.3 million) in just eight days.

By mid-April, the pot had grown to $1.7 million, enough to fund 13 staff, premises in Amsterdam and the design of a website.

In the days when crowd-funding was in its infancy "we figured this is kind of a long shot," Pfauth told AFP.

- Journalism manifesto -

But idealistic, and brimming with ideas, Wijnberg had drawn up a manifesto of principles around which to build their members-funded platform.

Co-founders of De Correspondent online news website  Ernst-Jan Pfauth (pictured) and Rob Wijnberg  w...
Co-founders of De Correspondent online news website, Ernst-Jan Pfauth (pictured) and Rob Wijnberg, were driven by an idea of what they felt journalism should be
Jo Biddle, AFP

De Correspondent sets out to challenge over-simplification and stereotyping, is openly subjective in demanding its reporters are engaged with the world, is ad-free and strives for maximum diversity, but not maximum profits. Indeed, it has set a profit cap at five percent with 95 percent ploughed back into the business.

It struck a chord with the Dutch.

Four years on, the site now has 59,000 subscribers paying either 60 euros a year, or six euros a month, and employs 46 full-time staff.

Its approach to news is also unusual.

Wall-to-wall coverage of events "like a terror act, or Hurricane Irma" have a function, Wijnberg acknowledged.

"I've been watching the news because my brother was right in the middle of Irma. I know the function of news. There's a threat coming, watch out," he said.

"But leave it at that... and you'll never understand for example the climate change behind those weather phenomena," he added.

- Crowdsourcing the news -

In its bid to dive deeper, De Correspondent has developed a unique relationship with its members, actively seeking contributions to help its reporters.

Pfauth said in his previous job as an online web editor for a Dutch daily that "people were really interested in sharing their expertise. Three thousand doctors know more than one medical journalist."

So reporters at De Correspondent email members who have signed up to follow them about stories they are working on, asking for help, which is unpaid and on a voluntary basis.

It has not been "an easy process," Pfauth admitted, acknowledging "the comments section on news sites were places where conspiracy theorists shouted at each other basically".

But a desire to attract English-speaking contributors and help deepen their knowledge has driven the quest for a separate English version.

- Crisis? What crisis? -

The two men leave for New York soon, where they will help complete a year-long study called the Membership Puzzle Project in collaboration with New York University, researching how to build a sustainable news organisation that restores trust in journalism.

The project will end in May 2018, and with the results in hand, the pair hope to launch The Correspondent by late next year.

But Wijnberg and Pfauth are adamant about what they are not doing -- they are not out to "save journalism."

"I don't actually believe journalism is in crisis," said Wijnberg.

"Certain big organisations, that are very slow or very unable to adapt, are in extreme crisis because their models are not working any more."

Pfauth goes as far as to say that "this is one of the best times in journalism", adding "it's easier than ever to reach a large audience, and get them to pay for what you do".

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