Reinventing the Rolodex: Why we’re asking our 60,000 members what they know

There’s a great untapped resource in journalism, and it’s available to journalists right now.

It’s the experience and expertise of your readers.

Your work is seen by doctors and patients, teachers and students, CEOs and janitors. Together, they know more than you on any number of issues.

And to get them to share that knowledge, you just have to ask.

In the print era it was difficult to reach out to readers. Not anymore.

In the digital age, readers can be sources — if you give them the chance to share what they know.

At our Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent, we’ve learned that joining forces with our 60,000 paying members leads to richer, more grounded stories. As The New York Times recently wrote:

“At the Dutch news organization De Correspondent, journalists share story ideas with subscribers before they write them, so they can harvest community knowledge”

This interactive approach even leads to scoops that we would never have found on our own. Just last week we had breaking news on Shell. Turns out the oil giant was well aware of its own role in climate change back in 1986, and we had the documents to prove it. Guess who helped us find them.

Our readers.

Our scoop was picked up by The Washington Post. That’s where David Fahrenthold works, by the way — the reporter who won a Pulitzer last year after putting readers at the heart of his reporting.

In this article, I’d like to share what we’ve learned at De Correspondent about making reader knowledge visible in a more systematic way— both to journalists and to other readers. And how that’s helped us expand our network of sources, better our reporting, and enrich the conversations our work prompts.

(Want to know how to involve readers in your reporting every day? Here’s a five-step guide.)


Let’s talk about a CRM for journalists

I bet your publication’s subscription division has a customer relationship management system for your readers — but do you?

At De Correspondent, we want to know what our readers know — so that when we cover something they have experience with, we can reach out to them.

We don’t want this to be stored in just one journalist’s head or on one writer’s laptop, we want all 21 of our staff writers to be able to access and draw on reader knowledge in their own reporting.

That’s why we need a CRM for journalists — a new and improved version of the good old Rolodex.

Here’s how we’re building ours (I’ll elaborate on each step):

  1. We ask readers to submit an expertise title.
  2. We verify their credentials.
  3. We categorize members in expert groups.
  4. We reach out to members to proof articles and invite them to join relevant conversations.

We ask readers to submit an expertise title

When one of our correspondents has an idea for a new project or story, they share it with readers. Like this:

Or this.

By sharing ideas before you get started, you give readers the chance to be involved in your reporting — to help you figure out where to look, what to ask, and what to make of what you find.

Any member can share what they know in response to an author’s callout, in the contribution section under the piece. (They can of course also opt for a private message or encrypted email.)

See that little block next to the reader’s name? That’s what we call the expertise title.

Every time a reader writes a contribution, they can change this expertise title:

Maybe a reader who’s a doctor has two kids in high school. When contributing to an article about bureaucracy in health care, she’d share Physician as her expertise. But when participating in a discussion about smartphones in classrooms, she could call herself a Parent of two high school students.

We love the expertise title, for these 5 reasons:

  1. It instantly puts readers in the mindset that it’s all about sharing knowledge, and that we see them as potential experts.
  2. Readers no longer have to awkwardly explain why they’re an authority. (Hello, Mr. Modest.) It’s right there next to their name.
  3. The titles show other readers that their peers are taking part, which can motivate them to join in the discussion, too.
  4. Journalists and readers alike can easily scan the comments by expertise title.
  5. We can use these expertise titles to build our CRM, which brings us to point two.

We verify their credentials

When our journalists wanted to quote a member’s contribution in their reporting or interview them more extensively, they reached out to the member to verify whether she was a physician.

This was a necessary, but largely ad hoc process. We didn’t keep track of whether a member had been verified before.

That’s why we introduced the verified expertise check in February 2017.

Once a journalist has verified a given expertise title for a member, a check mark appears:

We also offer members the opportunity to request verification. They can submit things like their work email address, links to interviews, diplomas, certificates, and so on. They also give us permission to call the organization they’re with to confirm they actually work there.

So far, we have verified close to a thousand expertise titles. We decided to initially look at job titles and degrees. It’s more work (and more complicated) to verify personal experiences — but we plan on investing in that in the future.

An added benefit of this expertise check is that it’s also visible in the discussions on our platform — so as a reader you know that physician there is the real deal.

We categorize members in expert groups

Our developers then created an admin feature that allowed editors to create categories for expertise titles, such as:

  • Anthropology
  • Architecture
  • Armed forces
  • Medical professionals
  • Natural sciences
  • Linguistics
  • Psychology
  • History

This taxonomy isn’t perfect, but it’s already helpful enough for point four:

We reach out to members to proof articles and invite them to join relevant conversations

When working on a series about hidden histories, one of our authors got the idea of searching the rolodex and reaching out to history teachers.

One teacher she found also wrote curriculum, and she interviewed him about how we decide what to include — and what to leave out — of history textbooks. Another teacher checked all the history books he could get his hands on for her, to see if our stories truly qualified as untold stories.

Inspired by this success, our authors started asking members to proofread articles in their areas of expertise before publication. An epidemiologist took a critical look at our series on polio and a renewable energy researcher checked an article on the exponential growth of solar energy. They then joined the discussion afterwards, where we highlighted them as invited experts, like this:

This section shows who’s leading the discussion under an article. Here you see the author Jelmer, our Energy and Climate correspondent, and our infographics designer Leon, but also a member we invited to join in because of his specific expertise: Auke, an energy transition researcher

Because of these successful experiments, we started inviting more members to join relevant conversations. When discussing a piece on bureaucracy in health care for instance: we reached out to members who we know are doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, or who work in health insurance, and invite them to share their professional experiences with our Healthcare Correspondent.

This process takes a lot of effort and experimentation, and that’s why we’ve decided to step up our game…


We’re stepping up our game and introducing a new role: the Conversation Editor

We’re still very much in the experimental phase with this rolodex. There are countless other features we could build, like full member profiles and a better verification flow.

But initial results are promising: from the former director of Red Cross joining a discussion on development aid to a train engineer weighing in on the move to privatize railroads. Members are showing us they don’t just want to support journalism financially, they also want to contribute their knowledge and experience. It’s our responsibility as journalists to help them do that.

Gwen Martèl is our first Conversation Editor

That’s why last week, we created a new position: Conversation Editor.

And our own Gwen Martèl has taken on the challenge.

Gwen’s former role was to answer questions from our members. After thousands of conversations with them, no one at De Correspondent knows our members better than she does.

That makes her the perfect Conversation Editor, a position which entails these five goals:

  1. Invite members to take part in discussions they’re knowledgeable about.
  2. Help our correspondents to enrich their reporting with the knowledge and experience of our members.
  3. Make our comment section more diverse. If we’re writing about a group that is underrepresented among our members, the Conversation Editor can reach out to people from the group, give them a one-month trial membership, and invite them to share their experiences. For example, we’ve invited a group of refugees to share their experiences with our members.
  4. Organize critical dissent. When everyone seems to disagree in a discussion, the Conversation Editor wants to steer away from group think by organizing dissent. When we published a story, for instance, about how a Los Angeles nonprofit helped ex gang members reintegrate into society, some members felt we couldn’t use these lessons in the Netherlands because the situation here was too different. Gwen invited a Dutch expert on juvenile offenders to the conversation; he shared how his organization actually learned a lot from the American approach.
  5. Transform all the lessons we learn about member participation into new features for the rolodex and the platform. Developers and designers are the Conversation Editor’s friends!

In a year or so, Gwen can then share her knowledge with her international counterpart. Because in 2019, we hope to launch the global version of De Correspondent.

Taking the conversation to the next level: a global edition of De Correspondent

We cover global developments, but only 24 million people in the world speak Dutch. That means that the discussions on our platform inherently reflect a limited perspective, while the issues themselves go well beyond national borders.

To involve readers worldwide, we want to set up a global edition: The Correspondent. Because true insight into the forces that shape our world only comes when we’re all included in the conversation.

We want The Correspondent to be the first ad-free, member-funded journalism platform with a global reach — transforming the role of journalists into conversation leaders and members everywhere into active contributors of expertise.

Making this happen — together with readers

We announced our plans on Nieman Lab in May 2017. I moved to New York with my family in November of that year to make this happen, and we hope to start publishing in 2019.

Like its Dutch counterpart, The Correspondent will be made possible by future members. We’ve received runway funding from the Democracy and Media Foundation and craignewmark to set up a campaign to help build our member-funded and ad-free platform in the US.

Want to be the first to know when we launch our English-language site? Sign up for updates at thecorrespondent.com. Or send me an email at ej@thecorrespondent.com and I’ll do it for you!

In the meantime, I’ll continue to cover reader engagement on Medium and would love to hear about your experiences in that field.

Let’s continue the conversation below!

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