De Correspondent - future of journalism?

One of the things I’ve been following closely these past few weeks is an initiative for a new kind of journalism here at home. To me it’s not so much about the journalism as it is about the business model, which nicely ties in with other initiatives in the US, and is probably even more succesful right now.

De Correspondent aims to become a blog and news site supported by subscriptions. See also this English article for a summary of what’s happened so far.

The idea itself is not new — in the US both TPM and The Dish launched similar initiatives in the past few months. I always felt I should support them — there are times when I read them a lot, although at other times I don’t have the time to focus on US news. I still haven’t donated to them, but I did donate to De Correspondent.

I suspect that right now De Correspondent is doing better than them. The Daily Dish regularly publishes its fund-raising numbers, and although I can’t find them right now I believe I read they gathered US$ 900K a few weeks back. Not bad at all, and it puts them in the black for the first year. I’ve never seen TPM numbers, but I may have missed them.

De Correspondent raised more than €1 million in a month (call it US$ 1.3 million) — and that is all the more remarkable for the facts that the site does not actually exist yet and is aimed at a language zone of only about 25 million people if you count generously.

A stunning start, but will De Correspondent amount to anything? I believe it will, but even if it doesn’t I still consider my subscription fee (plus the bit extra I sent) an excellent investment.

To me personally the journalistic content matters less than proving that this business model can work — and in fact that has already been proven by the large amount of subscriptions. The target was 15,000 in a month, and the counter is now at 18,000 with still a few days to go.

In the past few months I’ve started wondering about subscription-based (or even plain fee-based) online business models a lot. Why do people refuse to pay for online quality? Related: why do they pay even less for apps? Most importantly: how do we change this behaviour?

Take the MindFeud iPad game a friend hooked me up to a few weeks back. The app is free plus advertising, or you can pay €3.60 . After a few days I paid up. I mean, I regularly spend €35-40 on a board game, and don’t consider that odd at all. Then why not spend 10% of that on a game I may play even more than the average board game I buy? To me it sounds logical, but I expect the vast majority of players to use the free version “because €3.60 is really a lot of money.” No, it isn’t. It just feels that way, for reasons I don’t understand.

Something similar is going on in online news and journalism: we expect it to be free, but why, really? Journalists also need money, and there are development costs for the website, and so on. If we don’t learn to spend money on such online services they will eventually be ad-supported — and in the near future ads don’t mean useless and easily-blocked banner advertisements, but actual stories that masquerade as editorial content to a greater or lesser degree.

So to me the choice was simple: if I don’t support De Correspondent now we won’t have any journalism left in 20 years. Instead, we’ll have paid copywriters for large companies who squeeze out a news item every now and then.

So I will follow De Correspondent with interest, for its journalism, for its business model, and of course, being what I am, for the technical solutions they’re going to choose.

Right now the mobile site (or rather, the mobile view of the site) is not very good, with stilted scroll scripts that don’t work everywhere, and no zoom possibility. I assume that this is because the current site was thrown together hastily to support the fund-raising, and that these problems will be solved later.

Just about the only part of the plan I disagree strongly with is the creation of iOS and Android apps. I think they’re a useless waste of money: people want to read content, and whether that’s on the web or in a “native” app is immaterial. Use the money to pay an extra reporter, I’d say. More content, less cruft.

But we’ll see. In any case I’m very happy with this initiative and I hope it will prosper.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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