This case study was first published in Engagement Explained, a fortnightly newsletter that brings you in-depth and replicable engaged journalism case studies from news organisations across Europe. Sign up here to receive the next edition in your inbox.
In a nutshell
A 30-day campaign to crowdfund $2.5 million to start an English-language newsroom that draws on the same participatory style of journalism of its Dutch sister organisation.
- De Correspondent is a Dutch journalism platform that was founded in 2013 with the promise to be “an antidote to the daily news grind.” It was born following a fundraising campaign that raised €1.2 million from 19,000 members, a record for journalism crowdfunding at the time.
- It is supported through membership revenue and has pioneered a form of journalism that seeks to involve its community in stories. It now has more than 60,000 paying members and 52 full-time staff members based in its Amsterdam office, including 21 correspondents.
- Following its success in The Netherlands, the organisation recently sought to raise $2.5 million to start The Correspondent in English. The crowdfunding campaign launched in November 2018 was billed as “building a movement for unbreaking news”.
- After a month of campaigning, The Correspondent reached its goal of $2.5 million with 34 hours left, having signed up 45,888 founding members from more than 130 countries.
- The Correspondent will begin hiring staff in February and start publishing its first stories in mid-2019.
How did they do it?
- Ernst-Jan Pfauth and Rob Wijnberg, the co-founders of De Correspondent, always had the intention to create an English version for a global market. The domain for The Correspondent was bought back in 2013 and the logo for it was created at the same time.
- They moved to the US in November 2017 to meet funders and potential ambassadors. Between then and May 2018, they raised $1.8 million in philanthropic funding from the Omidyar Network (now Luminate) and other donors to build their own membership tool, set up a US campaign office and create videos and other promotional tools.
- Ernst and Rob sought out ambassadors who connected with their 10 founding principles and who were well-known for championing diversity, challenging the news industry or campaigning for privacy rights. More than 100 people became ambassadors, including Hollywood producer Judd Apatow, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and musician Rosanne Cash, and shared quotes, campaign messages and appeared in videos to support the campaign. No one was paid (although Baratunde Thurston later joined the team as a paid campaign strategist).
- They decided to launch the campaign in November 2018, a week after the midterms, because they felt their 10 founding principles would resonate against the political coverage at that time. They were also aware of the trend of giving value-based products to friends and family at Thanksgiving and the holiday period and wanted to take advantage of that.
- There were 10 people working full-time on the campaign, who were based in New York from the start of November 2018. As well as Ernst and Rob, the team included an operations lead, engagement editor, operations assistant, developer, designer, and project manager as well as staff support from creative partner Momkai, campaign specialists Blue State Digital, Baratunde Thurston and The Correspondent’s Dutch newsroom.
- There was a daily 30-minute operations call at 9 am New York time (3pm Amsterdam time) to discuss what needed to be executed that day. The team would go through the day’s campaign communications and troubleshoot any issues that had arisen in the last 24 hours, for example, problems with gift memberships. There would be other stand-ups for the design and development team as needed.
- Throughout the rest of the day, the team would use Slack to communicate key milestones. There was a channel for everyone (#campaign-live) with others for separate teams. A Slack bot was also created to broadcast key metrics - total raised, member numbers, total broken down by currency, countries, average giving rate - into a channel every four hours. WhatsApp was also used outside working hours.
- In the first few days, The Correspondent raised more than $500,000 from over 10,000 members and by the end of the first week, they had $800,000.
- 21,000 people had signed up to receive information about the campaign before it launched and an email strategy was created with Blue State Digital to encourage these people to become members. Emails were designed to empower the recipient, as well as convert them, and came from ambassadors such as Baratunde or people in the team, like operations lead Zainab Shah. Longer emails from Rob about The Correspondent’s approach to ads or why they’d chosen a ‘pay what you can’ model were sent at the weekend, when people had more time to read them As soon as people converted to members, they went onto a different list and received a different email flow with different messaging. A different flow was also set up for people who decided to repledge later in the campaign.
- After contributions plateaued in the second week of the campaign, the team pursued appearing on TV programmes with large audiences to spread the word. Rob and Ernst had been pursuing shows since February and had met with writers and producers on The Daily Show. On 6 December, Jay Rosen, an ambassador for The Correspondent’s expansion, appeared on the show after direct messaging Trevor Noah on Twitter. Rob also appeared on CNN and Jay appeared on The Young Turks which caused a surge in sign-ups. Rob also did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit.
- The team checked numerous sources of data throughout the campaign. The main dashboard looked at money raised, total members and countries. MailChimp was consulted for email campaigns and another dashboard had details of the tests that were being conducted on the site (for example, buttons). Data collection is minimised as far as possible, in line with The Correspondent's seventh founding principle.
- On the 29th day of the campaign, The Correspondent reached its funding goal of $2.5 million and activated stretch goals. By the end of day 30, it had reached $2.6 million from 45,888 members from more than 130 countries. They published a Medium post explaining the timeline for what would happen next.
- The funding will allow The Correspondent to hire around five full-time correspondents, a managing editor, membership director, copy editor, image editor, editorial designer, operations lead, and a back office for human resources and finance, and keep them employed for a year.
What did they learn?
- The focus of email campaigns changed over the 30 days and new elements were added. For example, moments of celebration were built in to mark the campaign passing 10,000 members and moving past $1 million and $2 million raised. This was designed to help members feel like their efforts were having an effect and to share the team’s excitement.
- The team found that posing very specific requests to members in the campaign emails worked very well. For example, members were asked to share The Correspondent’s mission with friends, give a gift membership or fill in a form about stories they’d like to see the newsroom cover. The open rate for these member emails was more than 50% and often higher.
- The TV appearances were crucial not just to help the team reach their goal but to find a more diverse audience. Donation amounts and countries people signed up from were more varied after appearances on The Daily Show and CNN. Overall, the median donation was $30 with the mean average is $49.
- The website did a very good job of converting people who visited (15% of people who visited went on to contribute) and improved even as traffic spiked after the TV appearances (when conversion tends to dip). This validated the team’s decision to create their own platform rather than use Kickstarter or Indiegogo and to have as much control as possible over their message and design.
- Successful crowdfunding makes hiring much easier. De Correspondent had 1,800 CVs sent to them when they were successful in 2013 and have received hundreds of applications for The Correspondent already. Hiring will take place over the next few months.
- It was a challenge at times to keep everyone abreast of how the campaign was changing. The morning operations call was execution-focused but in a rapidly-changing environment, situations would alter several times in each 24 hour period.
In their words
Jessica Best, engagement editor, The Correspondent
"It looks like a 30-day crowdfunding campaign but it’s so much more than that. It was more than a year of preparation, and it’s very rarely luck."
How would you improve it?
"I wish we had found a way to update the whole team on what had happened over the last 24 hours in a smarter, more centralised way.”
Now try it for yourself
- This guide to crowdfunding for media professionals from 2014 explains the risks and potential rewards and includes short case studies (including De Correspondent)
- The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) has put together a link-laden post with the top sites for crowdfunding in different countries and tools for helping you reach your goal
- The Poynter Institute crowdfunded $10,000 for a new project a few years ago and rounded up their top ten tips