Low renewal rates, high churn, and below-average membership fees have forced English-language ‘unbreaking the news’ publisher The Correspondent to close, with members citing financial problems and the Covid-19 pandemic. But the pandemic hasn’t been the only storm to hit the publication.
- The Correspondent was launched in September 2019 by De Correspondent following a $2.6 million crowdfunding campaign, on a ‘pay what you want’ membership model. De Correspondent is a Dutch advertising-free, member-funded publication that focuses on in-depth reporting.
- On the back of a campaign to ‘unbreak the news’ backed by prominent industry leaders including Jay Rosen and Trevor Noah, many were expecting The Correspondent to set up a New York office. But the publisher remained headquartered in Amsterdam, saying that the intention was to launch an English-language title, not a US-based title.
- Following a triple whammy of less than 30% of members renewing, an increase in churn rates, and a lower-than-average membership fee, a memo confirmed that the site was no longer financially viable and would close on Dec 31st.
Another Covid victim?
Chief Executive Ernst-Jan Pfauth and Founding Editor Rob Wijnberg blamed the Covid-19 pandemic as playing a ‘significant role’, because The Correspondent was designed to avoid the daily news cycle and focus on wider, longer-term global developments.
- Local and national coverage has been in huge demand this year as people seek information about the pandemic and restrictions, leading to subscription surges for those with strong coverage.
- “With the Covid-19 pandemic dominating headlines non-stop for much of the year, it proved very difficult to offer ‘unbreaking news’ to members in over 140 countries,” Pfauth and Wijnberg said. “People want to know from their media source: ‘Is my kid’s school going to be closed tomorrow and when will I be eligible for a vaccination?’ While essential, this is not the kind of journalism we were set up to do.”
- Political issues – both US and European – were another big subscription driver for some publishers this year. Again, this did not play well to The Correspondent’s promised coverage.
However, a row about promises to open a US office mired the launch and angered several US members.
- The Correspondent’s 2018 crowdfunding campaign had an office based in New York, and many ambassadors for the campaign gave the impression that this was a US expansion of De Correspondent, with journalists and a presence in the country.
- But in early 2019, the team said that The Correspondent would be headquartered in Amsterdam. They would hire US correspondents, but with founding members from over 130 countries, they didn’t believe they needed a physical office in the States.
- “There’ll be US correspondents, and they don’t need to cluster in an office in Manhattan,” Pfauth told Nieman Lab.
US supporters – who formed around 40% of The Correspondent’s new members – were upset and felt like they had been misled. Eventually, in early April, The Correspondent issued an apology.
- While the incident can’t be completely to blame for The Correspondent’s drop in membership, it will have certainly played a part.
- The Correspondent only ended up hiring one US journalist, who reported on climate. He left the publication in November.
Setting out the numbers: Membership to The Correspondent was based on a ‘choose what you pay’ model, where members could theoretically pay as little as $1.
- The average fee members chose to pay was lower this year than anticipated – down from 70 euros to 43 euros.
- But membership dropped off as well. In 2019, the publication had 55,000 members. By this month, they had just 20,000.
- Less than 30% of the founding members renewed, with a proportion of this being blamed on failed payments.
- Churn increased to 25% for annual members, with Pfauth saying in a memo that many members were citing financial problems due to the pandemic.
The last word: Whether the timing or the communication was to blame, this is sad news. But this doesn’t mean membership models can’t work – De Correspondent itself has continued to see success this year in The Netherlands.
- There is still a demand for ‘slow journalism’ and carefully-crafted, in-depth pieces. The Atlantic in the US and Tortoise in the UK are examples of that. But in a year where location-based reporting has been in higher demand than ever before, a global outlook alone isn’t enough to retain members.