by Massimiliano Sfregola and Francesca Polo
Web startups and journalism could seem like two apart and parallel worlds: if the news find themselves in the middle of the digital revolution, the economic hopes of this sector aren’t so high. Is journalism’s destiny to dissolve in the ocean of the web, among amateur sites and blogs, a credible or feasible internet-based model not yet available? Maybe not, if we look at the example of digital native newspaper De Correspondent, which, since its founding in 2013, has shown that a new journalism is not only possible, but also very appealing to many.
Traditional journalism is dying out, due to its readers and advertisers escaping and not least to its ambiguous liaison with the internet. If, on one side, the web has meant lots of opportunities for finding information, financing is yet the major problem: the linear relationship between readers and copies sold has faded and new models are struggling to consolidate their funding.
Regarding this aspect De Correspondent can be called a case study: born thanks to the resoundingly successful crowdfunding campaign that raised 1,5 million euros for the journalistic platform even before it started publishing, today De Correspondent is a healthy enterprise that aims to extend beyond the Dutch borders in a not too far future.
The journal’s office, to be honest, meets all the clichés of a start-up: young, informal, a little ‘hipster’. Looking at it from outside, its location, an ex-gallery, can be confused with a marketing agency, but in this case prejudices are misplaced: De Correspondent is an excellent editorial product that could soon set the rules, even for traditional newspapers. “Dutch media don’t do it so badly altogether, but looking closer they don’t do so well either,” editor Rob Wijnenberg tells 31mag. “Look at a newspaper like NRC: all ratings have gone down and keep doing so. Yet traditional media won’t make a total transition to digital, their core not being that. They are dying slowly.”
New readers are used to getting a lot for free on the internet, but they don’t say ‘no’ to paid
high quality content. “Journalism’s role traditionally is to talk about what has happened today. We want to talk about what goes on, not only today, place it in a context. And to propose stories that the mainstream media often do not consider.” The world is increasingly complex and people are eagerly looking for explanations and interpretations of this complexity. The outcome of the challenge set by De Correspondent was unexpected: Rob Wijnenberg was certainly a name already known in the media world but this fact alone would have not guaranteed this result. “I studied philosophy and this certainly helped me in building a humanistic newspaper, based on emotions and a direct relationship with the reader,”continues Wijnenberg. ”From the beginning we have tried to do something the old school journalists are not accustomed to: talk to the readers. Each of us is an expert in some field, and we thought to interact with our subscribers, turning their comments into real editorial content and trying, at the same time, to “check out” their experience. A large part of our pieces were suggested by readers.” The director-in-chief of De Correspondent shares with us an uncommon view on the journalist’s figure: neither a member of a dynasty, nor a precarious worker struggling to make a living, but a primus inter pares with his or her readers. “When I was director of NRC.next,” Wijnenberg goes on, “I used to ask my team what were according to them the most important stories that were going, and I guarantee you, they inspired me,” he says with enthusiasm, “but then, at the desk, all that creativity was lost because the newspaper expected much more conventional contents from them. With De Correspondent I decided to leave the editors free to follow the fields they were most experienced and passionate about, this results in ‘connected’ editors, to whom readers easily connect.
“Today there is an absolute need for specialization,” argues Wijnenberg. This Amsterdam
platform may seem a paradise to any operator of communication, but the challenges are many, the first one of them being embracing the fact that anything on the internet is a potential competitor. It’s hard to say whether a similar model will survive the test of time in the digital environment, where enterprises seem to dissolve faster than dust. But the intellectual and subjective journalism of De Correspondent, tied to a large but identifiable community, seems to offer a good example to the independent press, orphan of the paper (and of resources) and in search of a new model that works.