Dutch journalism platform the Correspondent reaches milestone of 40,000 paying members

And some notes about our dependence on other platforms (and yes, we mean Facebook)

Dear readers,

It’s high time for an update from Amsterdam on the Correspondent!

Over the past couple of years, we’ve shared stories here on Medium about our world record in journalism crowdfunding in the spring of 2013: In just 30 days, nearly 20,000 pioneering members backed our new venture. With total contributions of $1.7 million, they showed their support for the Correspondent’s mission to produce in-depth journalism using an ad-free platform that actively engages readers. We put together an editorial staff, found ourselves an office, and got to work building the online platform with partner Momkai. The Correspondent — our platform for interactive and constructive journalism — went live September 30 that same year.

Starting then, readers could become members for €60 (about $65) a year, giving them access to all stories, as well as the opportunity to engage with the journalists, both through online discussions and at live events, and share articles with anyone they wish. In April 2015, we introduced the option of a monthly membership, for €6 a month. In the two years since our launch we have published over 3500 articles, and our members have posted 80,000 reader comments. While we started in 2013 with a team of 13 fulltime employees, we continue to outgrow offices and there are now 31 of us and counting. And we are pleased to announce an exciting new milestone this month: we now have more than 40,000 paying members making our new form of interactive journalism possible! That’s more than double the number we had just two short years ago.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of this achievement: 40,000 members for a Dutch-language medium in the Netherlands, a country with a population of 17 million, is comparable to having 750,000 subscribers in the U.S. To our knowledge, only two news organizations in the world have passed that number: The New York Times, with over 1 million digital-only subscribers, and the Wall Street Journal, with 900,000.

Of course our little operation is by no means comparable to those media giants, but here in the Netherlands, the Correspondent is certainly making a name for itself. We continue to see swift growth, aside from one blip in membership numbers in 2014:

September 2014 was the big moment: everyone who had invested during the crowdfunding campaign had to decide — at the same time — whether to renew their membership for another year. To do so, they had to take action to renew and initiate payment. We were pleased to see that 60% of the crowdfunders chose to stick with us! And we’ve been steadily growing by over a thousand members a month ever since.

Our retention rate for people who joined at later stages is much higher, as the renewal process for all post-crowdfunding members proceeds automatically. We now enjoy annual membership renewal rates of 79% after the first year, and our monthly membership renewal rates have reached 89% after the first month. We are proud to have such a loyal group of paying members.

Journalism by virtue of member expertise

We can now conclude that crowdfunding can be a great kickstart for a member-based publication, but no more than that (read more about the other lessons we learned from our crowdfunding experience here). From the start, you have to concentrate on attracting new members and offering them a fine product.

That ‘product’ in our case is in-depth, constructive journalism — stories that serve as an antidote to the seemingly endless news hypes all around us. In a recent investigative piece, for example, we broke the news of a major European bank’s involvement in illegal land grabs in some of the poorest regions of Europe; in another piece, our Technology and Surveillance Correspondent warned readers about the security risks of using public wifi networks; and our Hacker Correspondent demonstrated why you might want to think twice before posting photos of your children online. With these and other stories, we strive to provide readers with new perspectives for understanding how the world works.

We do this not only for our readers, but also with our readers. The greatest untapped source of knowledge in journalism is the readers themselves. Our platform allows journalists to function as true discussion leaders, inviting readers to share their expertise and then responding with their own findings. This collective research leads to richer, more well-founded stories. After all, 100 physician readers and patients invariably know more than one Health Care Correspondent. And who better for the Education Correspondent to discuss classroom innovation with than teachers themselves? (Read more about our interactive journalism here.)

Our dependence on other platforms (and yes, we mean Facebook)

The narratives emerging from this unique online collaboration are changing journalism. The Correspondent gives sound knowledge and new voices a firm foothold in the media, shaping the stories we tell one another. The chance to be part of the emergent knowledge-driven community is one of the main reasons people choose to become paying members. Because we give our existing members the chance to share articles freely with anyone they wish — they have funded the stories themselves, after all — potential members can get acquainted with the Correspondent before joining. And what’s more, we share one or two pieces every day with 122,000+ users who have liked us on Facebook. When they opt to read an article, we ask them (using a popup and a call-to-action at the end of the story) if they would like to receive a sample story each week by email.

The header banner reads: This article has been given to you by a correspondent. The popup reads: Here’s your free article! Would you like to see more articles from the Correspondent? Sign up for our newsletter and get free sample stories.

Once they’ve signed up, readers will receive the email newsletter from Editor in Chief Rob Wijnberg with a selected article from the past week. He emphasizes in the newsletter that the Correspondent owes its very existence to paying members. Last weekend alone, the conversion rate of newsletter recipients who become paying members was 1.8%.

With the sample story newsletter, we try to benefit from the massive reach of Facebook while at the same time establishing our own bond with these new readers. We organized a “Likers-turned-Members” Day, for instance, a special Facebook event during which we explained to Likers why we cannot continue to do what we do without their support. One of the things we shared with them was this pie chart, showing how we invest the fees paid by members:

In addition, our Creative Director Harald Dunnink and CTO Sebastian Kersten are working to develop the narrative forms of tomorrow — forms you can’t simply reproduce in a service like Facebook Instant Articles. Read this piece by our CTO, for example, on how we at the Correspondent devised three alternatives for hyperlinks, which have vastly improved the online reading experience for our users.

Thanks to our 40,000 members, we can practice our form of in-depth journalism on a scale that was previously unthinkable for us. We are doing everything we can to continue to grow, and we would like to involve you, English-speaking readers, more and more. We have starting translating select stories into English and will soon publish one a week. Interested in reading more? Sign up for our English newsletter and get our stories delivered straight to you.

Come join us!

We are currently looking for an engagement editor who will help us foster an English-language readership. Are you the person we’re looking for? Read more about the position here. Or perhaps you’re not a journalist, but a developer? We’re looking for front-end developers, too!

Meanwhile, we will continue to share our findings on Medium. We hope our experiences prove helpful for determining your own strategy. Do you have any questions about the Correspondent? Feel free to email me at ernst-jan@thecorrespondent.com or tweet me @ejpfauth.

And did I mention you can sign up for our English newsletter?

Until next time!

PS. Check out what Fortune, The Next Web, Journalism.co.uk, WAN-IFRA and Nieman Lab have to say about our news.