A short guide to crowdfunding journalism

In the spring of 2013, we raised 1.7M dollars with a crowdfunding campaign for our Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent. Two years later, we still receive invitations from conferences, students and journalists to talk about how we did it.

We feel flattered by these requests. Yet we’re way too busy with our current challenges to honor them all. Our goal of growing our member base to 50,000 requires all our attention.

But De Correspondent wouldn’t exist without our 18,933 crowdfunding backers. That’s why we wrote this guide to journalism crowdfunding. In the hope it might even inspire you to start your own campaign. Continue reading “A short guide to crowdfunding journalism”

In response to @ev: these are our metrics for success

I want to go as far as saying that this article by Evan Williams alias @ev – who (co-)founded Blogger, Twitter and Medium – is already a classic, even though it appeared online today.

Because I haven’t seen anyone else explaining the difficulty of measuring the success of a new media company in such a clear way as Williams does.

He shares a great example from his own experience:

Medium had its biggest week ever last week — or so we might claim. By number of unique visitors to medium.com, we blew it out of the park. The main driver was a highly viral post that blew up (mostly on Facebook). However, the vast majority of those visitors stayed a fraction of what our average visitor stays, and they read hardly anything.

That’s why, internally, our top-line metric is “TTR,” which stands for total time reading. It’s an imperfect measure of time people spend on story pages. We think this is a better estimate of whether people are actually getting value out of Medium. By TTR, last week was still big, but we had 50% more TTR during a week in early October when we had 60% as many unique visitors (i.e., there was way more actual reading per visit).

TTR is essentially the least worst metric for Medium, Williams writes. And he concludes to say how hard it is to find the right metrics for your new media company.

De Correspondent’s metrics for success

At De Correspondent, we focus on three metrics. We trusted, like Williams says, ‘our gut’ by determining them. Because we’re a subscription-based outlet, this is probably a lot easier for us than for a service like Medium.

  1. How much people sign up for a membership every month (which costs 60 euros a year).
  2. How many members read at least one article per month.
  3. How many members stay with us after year one.

The last couple of months, the average of new members is around a 1,000 per month. And 60 percent of our members read at least one article per month (when logged in). 80 percent of the members don’t cancel their subscription.

Our goal for 2015 is to double the growth of new members per month and to improve the user experience of our platform. We need better navigation, dossiers and, yes, a search feature other than Google. These improvements will hopefully lead to even more active members and a lower cancel rate.

Getting past the dynastic Bush Clinton narrative

In a delightful honest and transparent post, The New York Times‘s public editor Margaret Sullivan expresses 17 hopes and dreams for her newspaper in 2015. She kicks off with this one:

“Presidential campaign coverage that does not seem based on the idea that the presidency is dynastic, and must be handed down to a Clinton or a Bush.”

This is a very important hope for all journalists. To not give in to the seductive narrative of the two dynasties, but to cover the ideals and ideas of the candidates. Whether they’re called Bush, Clinton..,

or Warren.

The Problem With The King Of Clickbait

This The New Yorker profile of a young ‘viral guy’ shines a light on the supply side of the ‘ads race to the bottom’. It’s hilarious. Especially when the journalist visits his childhood home and meets the dad, who ‘speaks in passionate bursts that sound like unrelated fortune-cookie aphorisms spliced together’.

But it’s also a depressing article. It shows how the viral guy, whose name is Emerson Spartz, obsesses over getting pageviews and then plastering his sites with ads. Originality doesn’t meet his business standards, he says, because copy/pasting viral hits from your competitors generates more revenue for less effort.

“We’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.”

Here’s a screenshot to give you an idea what you’ll end up with if the above is your business ethos:

Dose.com, a site by Emerson Spartz

I don’t mind that Spartz has chosen this business model and I’m impressed he has built a company around it.

The problem with the king of clickbait though, is that a growing amount of journalists think they should compete with him. They adopt his tactics. They start preaching the viral Evangelic in their editorial offices.

Thinking about how you can reach your audience is fine. But lowering your journalism standards to go viral isn’t.

And that’s exactly what happens when you – as a journalist – look at Emerson Spartz as a source of inspiration.

You’ll then only focus on getting pageviews. You won’t worry about building relationship with readers. You just want to trick them in clicking on your next listicle. You’ll simplify stuff.

It’s a short-term strategy. And if you’ve chosen it, there’s no way back. When the advertisement revenues dry up, you won’t be able to ask for a donation or a subscription fee.

Because you have no loyal readers left.

You’ll end up hoping that you’ll have another hit on Facebook. As Spartz says, ‘Facebook should be eighty per cent of your effort’.

It will probably be right around that time when the audience is getting fed up with the click bait and will be looking for a thoughtful alternative. Deep reads, analysis. A news site that only serves their needs. That’s focused on getting them informed  rather than addicted.

A site they’ll probably be willing to pay money for.

How to invest in growth according to Buzzfeed’s publisher Dao Nguyen

“When media companies think of growth, they tend to think of it as a marketing function. We talk about growth as a technology function—building tools and products, and making changes in your platform. That’s more lasting than a marketing campaign. Marketing campaigns end after you run out of money.”

I agree 100% with Buzzfeed’s publisher Dao Nguyen. She said this in an interview with Wired.

The ‘Everywhere’ Strategy

With De Correspondent, we publish our stories everywhere. Listen to our podcasts on our site, Soundcloud or iTunes? It’s up to you.

Recently someone made fun of our low YouTube numbers. ‘They invested all this money in a video and all they got was a couple of hundred views’. Well, he missed the thousands of views of the  Facebook video. Continue reading “The ‘Everywhere’ Strategy”

Ophan: An Inside Look Into The Guardian’s Analytics Tool

A journalist from The Guardian once showed me their in-house analytics platform Ophan. I was really impressed by its clarity.

Unlike Google Analytics – which has an interface that’s littered with features for analysts and marketers – Ophan is every man’s analytics platform.  Everyone at the company can easily access the tool, even on their phones.

Yesterday, Journalism.co.uk published an extensive walk-through of Ophan and interviewed Chris Moran, the Guardian’s digital audience editor, about how it works. Continue reading “Ophan: An Inside Look Into The Guardian’s Analytics Tool”

Looking For Advertising Revenues, Advertising Revenues, And Advertising Revenues

Vox Media – home to Vox.com, The Verge, Eater and others – has raised a lot of money (again). Just like BuzzFeed and Vice did earlier. On The Awl, they know why:

These investments are neither mysterious nor confusing. They are bets that companies with advertising revenue will be able to produce more advertising revenue, or that maybe they will be purchased by companies with even more advertising revenue. Their editorial pitches might be different but their investment pitches are the same: They are, effectively, ad agencies for Facebook or or for YouTube or for Twitter or for Pinterest or for whatever new thing comes along.

I wonder how we should see traditional newspapers if we use the same definition. Ad agencies for kiosks? The main difference of course is that these newspapers used to also rely on subscriptions. And a subscription model leads to more trustworthy journalism.

An ad-based model on the other hand, only makes you look for more traffic – even when it hurts journalism.

To be honest, this is the cynical me talking today.

Because I just as much admire the tech journalism by The Verge, the competing-with-Wikipedia-quest of Ezra Klein and their incredible design skills.

PS. By the way, by its own definition, The Awl is also an ad agency.


Looking For The Best Content Management Systems (CMS) Out There

De Correspondent consists out of two parts: the journalism company and the technology company.

(For those of you who don’t know us: we’re a Dutch journalism platform, raised a world record-breaking $1.7M with a crowdfunding campaign and now have 28,000 paying subscribers – €60p/y.)

The technology company and editor is called Respondens and at some point we hope to market this and use the revenue to further develop the technology for De Correspondent (with which it has an eternal and free licensing deal).

Respondens. The editor behind De Correspondent

On this blog, I’ll publicly research our (often extremely well-funded and succesful) competitors. I’ll gather documentation about these companies, link to articles about them, probably write a couple of thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses. To see if there’s a chance that we can bring Respondens to the market.

Why do this in public?

Wildly succesful marketing author Seth Godin once said: “The act of writing is what moves things forward.” Writing about this research forces me to rephrase the incoherent thoughts in my mind into clear stories you should understand.

Moreover, by doing this publicly, I embrace the chance that some of you might point me to CMS’s I hadn’t seen yet or come up with better ideas about these competitors.

So here goes part 1. I’ll start with an obvious one. My blog has run on it since 2006 and when I was the digital editor of NRC Handelsblad, we used this service to build its news site nrc.nl: WordPress.

Read the WordPress review here.

Every month, our membership grows with at least one percent (thanks to Facebook)

I reckon that if the five dominating media companies joined forces, 80% of original-content news would be owned by that collective.

The five common-front news houses would need to make just one move: no more streaming of free news. The result? No more free news for Google News. No more Facebook news feed. If you want the news, you’ll have to buy it.

According to marketing author Martin Lindstrom, this is how the news business can survive Facebook. He wrote this in response to Facebook’s offer to publishers to host their content on their superfast, steady and mobile-loving social network (which David Carr reported for The New York Times).

Lindstrom thinks that newspapers should join forces just like the Swiss watch industry did when they launched Swatch together in the eighties to compete with cheap Japanese watches.

Newspapers should launch their own Swatch

(Dan Gillmor suggested a similar approach in 2009 – be sure to read the interesting discussion that followed.)

I think this would just lead to more aggregation sites. A bunch of bloggers would read the paid mega sites and then summarize the articles for a bigger audience.

I do expect a loyal group – small, but loyal – to happily pay a subscription fee to read world’s most in-depth and impressive longform articles (just as Dutch people are now paying for newspapers articles on Blendle).

Should publishers accept Facebook’s offer?

That leaves the question of Facebook’s offer to host articles of legacy media, because their own sites are loading painfully slow on mobile devices.

(I for one, haven’t recently experienced a crappy mobile experience on legacy media sites. I could read The New York Times column about this matter just fine on my mobile. Maybe it’s because I live in a 4G country.)

Joining such a content deal with Facebook sounds like a race to the bottom to me. It’s basically surrendering. Admitting that you’re nowhere without their superb platform.

How we use Facebook to attract more members

At De Correspondent, we try to profit from Facebook without becoming too dependent on them:

  • Last month, 79 percent of our social traffic came from Facebook. 232k of those visitors were new users.
  • As soon as someone likes our page (as 82k people did) we treat it like a trial subscription. We share our best articles with those likers and every time they’ve read one, we tell them we’re ad-free and hope they like the idea of making new stories like the one they’ve just read possible by paying 60 euros a year for a membership.
  • Last month, 267 people became a member of De Correspondent via Facebook (€60 p/y). 0.12% of the new users who came through Facebook became a member.
Here's the Facebook popup. Rough translation: 'Thank you for your interest in this story. Our correspondents gladly share their articles with you to get to known each other better. Like what you read? Become a member'.
Here’s the Facebook pop-up. Rough translation: ‘Thank you for your interest in this story. Our correspondents gladly share their articles with you to get to known each other better. Like what you read? Become a member’.

The conversion rate is still pretty low, but 267 new members on a total membership of 28.000 is a monthly increase of almost 1 percent in our membership, which already sounds more hopeful.

We’ll keep trying to use Facebook likers as trial members and hope not to become too independent on the platform (as in: what if members just read us when we share a link on Facebook?) and instead use it for our own good.

I’ll keep updating you on that challenge, of course (follow through RSS or Twitter).