Why we see journalists as conversation leaders and readers as expert contributors

Every reader is an expert at something

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about news sites shutting down their comments sections, since readers’ contributions are often too obtrusive (read Mathew Ingrams excellent post about this).

Here in Amsterdam, we sincerely regret these developments, since we believe that modern journalists shouldn’t see their readers as a passive group of annoying followers. Instead, they should regard readers as a potential gold mine of expert information. That’s why, at De Correspondent, we encourage our journalists to function as conversation leaders and our members as expert contributors.

At De Correspondent, we owe our very existence to our members, since we launched our Dutch ad-free journalism platform after raising a total of 1.7 million dollars with a world record breaking crowd-funding campaign. We encourage our correspondents — who all have their own niche — to tell the stories that they feel are important, instead of just following the hype cycle of the news.

By doing this, we try to go from ‘news’ to ‘new’.

These ‘new’ insights do not only come from our correspondents setting their own news agenda. No, lots of insights are shared with us by our members. This makes sense, since a thousand school teachers who read De Correspondent together know more than just one Education correspondent.

And we’re just getting started. Here’s how we’re trying to turn our correspondents into conversation leaders and our members into expert contributors.

1. We don’t call them ‘comments’, we prefer ‘contributions’

Instead of asking for their opinions, we ask our readers to share their ‘experience and knowledge’. And we don’t say ‘comments’, we prefer ‘contributions.’ This may seem like a minor detail, but the first step to great reader contributions is an articulation of your expectations.

‘Conversations’ points out the number of discussion threads

2. Only members can contribute (under their real names)

Only members can freely navigate our website and share our articles. A membership costs 60 euros (around 80 dollars) a year. When you become a member, you can see the reader contributions and you’re able to contribute as well.

It’s not possible to change your name into a nickname. If you’d like to contribute anonymously, you can send an email to the correspondent. Still not anonymous enough? Use the PGP-key of the journalist to get in touch.

3. We don’t allow search engines to index contributions

Quite a few members have requested to ‘hide’ their contributions from Google and other search engines, so they can write freely without the fear of being followed by their contributions for the rest of their lives. We have honored this request.

4. Members can share an ‘expertise title’

When writing a contribution, members can specify their authority or expertise by adding a short bio:

Members can add a specific bio for every contribution they write.
And here’s how the bio looks in the contributions

5. We have different knowledge entry levels for articles

Our correspondents can publish two kinds of articles:

  1. Articles, podcasts or documentaries that are suitable for every member, regardless of their interests or level of expertise;
  2. Shorter updates that we only show to members who have chosen to follow the specific correspondent. If members are following a correspondent, we can safely assume they know more about the correspondent’s niche, or are willing to learn more about it.

By making this difference, it becomes more attractive for experts to share their knowledge, since the updates and discussions will be more in-depth than the articles that are meant for a general audience.

6. We end every article with a question to our members

In our custom-built editor Respondens, we have a special field called ‘Oproep’ (which translates to ‘Call-up’). Correspondents can use that field to make explicit what they would like to know from their readers. The call shows up underneath the article and steers the contributions in the direction the correspondent finds journalistically most relevant.

7. We invite members to write guests articles

We continuously invite our members to write guest posts. For example, our Progress correspondent Rutger Bregman aims at solving all the world’s problems. He writes about such revolutionary ideas as giving free money to everyone (read a translation), introducing a fifteen hour work week and opening up all the country’s borders.

A PhD student in the Philosophy of Law had a problem with that last post. She argued that our correspondent didn’t account for the social and cultural dimensions of immigration and integration.

Bregman then invited her to write a guest post, which he introduced with a short explanation:

On the top right, you see the avatar of our correspondent. After his introduction, you see the name and photo of the contributing member.

8. We’re building world’s greatest rolodex

We’re currently involved in an experiment. Our correspondents can highlight great contributions by tagging the author as an ‘expert’. We don’t show this on the front end of the website, but we do collect the data to see whether our correspondents can build the world’s greatest rolodex. Eventually we might give members who have been tagged as experts multiple times some sort of badge, or highlight their contributions.

Or we’ll just invite them to become a correspondent too.

9. It starts with the right attitude

We’ve just released a new version of De Correspondent, which contains a lot of the features I’ve just mentioned. Since our launch on September 30th, 2013, our correspondents have always replied to great contributions and invited members to participate. Eventually, that led to these improvements.

So it starts with the right attitude. Technology follows. If you’re a journalist and you don’t have a custom-built CMS like Respondens at your disposal, you can still start experimenting with the means you already have.

Journalists are great at selecting and presenting information. With online media allowing readers to talk back, they should also become great conversation leaders.

Please don’t hesitate to tweet me if you have any questions or remarks (@ejpfauth). You can find our site at decorrespondent.nl or like our English Facebook page to receive translated stories.