NYU and De Correspondent Launch New Laboratory for Community Supported Investigative News

Jay Rosen to help spread the lessons of a newsroom “optimized for trust.”

Rebuilding trust in journalism means rethinking the relationship between readers, revenue and reporting. That idea is at the heart of a new project launching today.

The Membership Puzzle Project, a collaboration between New York University and Dutch news site De Correspondent, will create a laboratory to study ways community engagement can strengthen investigative reporting and make journalism more sustainable. With $515,000 in funding from Democracy Fund, First Look Media and Knight Foundation, the Membership Puzzle Project will tackle specific problems and develop scalable solutions for developing strong membership programs, and share those lessons throughout the United States’ journalism landscape.

De Correspondent launched in the Netherlands with one of the largest crowdfunding campaigns in journalism and now has over 50,000 members paying $63 a year, with an 80 percent renewal rate. Their reader-funded $3.2 million budget supports 20 full time “correspondents” who work closely with their communities to report on issues of critical public interest. De Correspondent operates in the open, sharing their budget and decision-making transparently and building deep and diverse relationships with its community in ways that strengthen the reporting and the sustainability of the newsroom.

De Correspondent announced its expansion to the U.S. market today.

The site will be incubated at New York University for the first year, where professor Jay Rosen will help translate their model to the United States and convene leading thinkers and innovators from across U.S. to exchange ideas, spread best practices, and train people on both sides of the project. This two-way laboratory will serve as a catalyst for creating new ways of supporting and strengthening the Fourth Estate.

This project is part of more than $12 million in new grants dedicated to supporting a robust and free press announced by the Democracy Fund and our partners at First Look Media earlier this week. Other grants include $3 million each to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, and ProPublica, $800,000 to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and $500,000 to the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. In addition, Democracy Fund announced a $1 million commitment to a new fund to invest in state and local investigative reporting.

A healthy democracy requires a free and robust press that responds to the needs of its communities and holds power to account. The critical role of the press in American democracy, as expressed in the First Amendment, is rooted in the information needs of communities which seek to be self-governing. At a time when the press is under attack and traditional business models continue to erode, the public becomes all the more central to securing and supporting the critical democratic function of journalism.

Democracy Fund’s investment in this project builds on more than $18 million in earlier grants which have focused on supporting a vibrant public square in America. We are particularly excited for how this project can dovetail with the work of the recently launched News Revenue Hub which is providing shared membership administration and strategy for small local newsrooms and topical reporting sites around the country. That work is already seeing profoundly exciting results and they will be core partners in the work with New York University and De Correspondent.

For Jay Rosen, one of the pioneers of civic journalism in the 1990s, this project is the culmination of years of work focused on putting people at the center of journalism. Ten years after Rosen dubbed the term “the people formerly known as the audience” this project asks, what is the social contract between journalists and the public that we need today? De Correspondent provides one answer to that question.

De Correspondent has shown that when newsrooms embrace the public as core to their work they can navigate through the stormy waters we are currently facing. Together we believe this project can help more newsrooms chart a path towards a robust future.

Josh Stearns is Associate Director of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to the weekly Local Fix newsletter.