Farewell, The Correspondent

A feisty new media platform from Amsterdam has retreated from the English language media market. If you haven’t read the English edition of De Correspondent, the subscription-based journalism platform, then hurry. TC, as it’s known by staff, stopped publishing on January 1st  2020 but an archive of stories from the past 16 months will stay online at TheCorrespondent.com.

The younger sibling of its six year-old Dutch predecessor, TC brought to the anglophone media everything that DC did to the Netherlands – and a lot more besides. Next to its coverage of familiar left-liberal territory such as Trumpism and the climate crisis, TC correspondents defined their terrain – what old hacks once called their ‘beats’ – in terms that defied the conventional thinking in other newsrooms.

A ‘Sanity correspondent’, Tanmoy Goswami, set out “to chronicle and catalyse the decolonisation of the global mental health movement”. OluTimehin Adegbeye, ‘Othering correspondent’, wrote defiant despatches from Lagos on themes from queer pride to her own experience of being raped while still at school. Watch here to see Irene Caselli explain her investigation of the ‘First Thousand Days’ of human life.

Renewals – which required subscribers to opt-in, rather than an auto-renew mechanism – fell a few percentage points short of a minimum threshold to service TC’s loans

This kind of writing – autobiographical, combative, often confessional – is tough to sustain. TC eschewed the easy route of relying on seasoned hacks in favour of new voices with vivid life experience (and, ideally, a big following on social media).

Quite often, TC’s articles seemed overweight in polemic and underweight in rigour – at least to me. But the same criticism is levelled routinely at DC, from where many of TC’s articles were sourced. In translation, its Dutch assets sometimes became liabilities: repetitive, rhetorical and very long. DC loftily refuses to cut articles of 3,000 or 4,000 words down to optimal size, a burden not carried by any of its English language competitors.

Editorial process matters enough to make or break a good idea. But even so, TC’s vision reached far beyond the horizons of its Dutch sibling. Its writers brought the global ‘periphery’ to centre-stage in ways previously unseen – in anglo-American media at least, where most liberal opinion prefers to tread gingerly between the deep schisms of our post-colonial culture wars. Not so for TC writers.

Under managing editor Eliza Anyangwe, the first Cameroonian journalist to work in the London newsroom of the Guardian, TC grappled with the hydra-headed meanings of diversity in the real world. Its writers started with a vision of struggle, and fought the good fight against domination and injustice – in climate politics, economy, sexuality, asexuality, and wherever that fight could be found.

That’s emotional, exhausting, passionate and relentless work – and not easy to sell. But what TC brought to the media landscape was a rainbow against a monochrome sky. Vital and necessary. The burgeoning digital universe will be a poorer place without it.

Unbreaking news

In a memo to staff, CEO Ernst-Jan Pfauth explained the decision to close TC barely three months after securing €200,000 in new financing to underwrite its second year. Subscribers had dropped from a peak of 56,000 to 21,000. Renewals – which required them to opt-in, rather than an auto-renew mechanism – were a few percentage points short of the minimum set as a condition for TC’s loans.

That the margin between survival or defeat was so slim makes the outcome more poignant. TC – established as a separate company from DC – will default on its debt. The contracts of its seven full-time employees won’t be renewed. What are the lessons to take from this sudden, sorry exit?

Disclosure: I worked as an interim copyeditor for TC on several occasions during the past 16 months, usually when full-time staff were absent. I enjoyed the project and admired its talented employees, who rose to the demands of a start-up and the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic. This explains my attachment to TC, but for this article I have relied only on information already in the public domain.

De Correspondent was founded on a philosophy of “unbreaking news” – a rejection of the 24-hour news cycle. “The news makes you sick,” explained editor-in-chief Rob Wijnberg. DC’s ‘pay-what-you-choose’ model of ‘memberful’ journalism promised an “antidote” to the daily torrent of depressing headlines.

TC aspired to export the same editorial principles, focused on societal and structural trends, to the anglophone sphere. Optimistic, polemical, crowd-funded and advertising-free, it reflected the dream of DC’s entrepreneurial founders: a re-engineering of liberal old media values for the new age of digitalisation. All of which is actually pretty standard thinking among Pfauth and Wijnberg’s 30-something generation of new media moguls.

Hopes for more connected, distributed ways to do journalism – where writers and readers interact in an online community – have inspired other high-minded start-ups, notably Quartz in the US and Tortoise in the UK. But these English language platforms benefited from wealthy parent companies or deep-pocketed philanthropists. They are heirs to the incumbents, the progeny of the upper echelons in the old industry.

DC is more surprising. In the short history of these young platforms, DC has earned its own unique chapter. Wijnberg’s feisty performances on Dutch television opened the doors for a record-setting crowd-funded launch which raised $1.3 million in just eight days. Six years on, DC’s readership has grown steadily to its current tally of 69,000 subscribers.

Stories from The Correspondent archive

In any reckoning of important ideas, DC punched well above its weight too. Its best-known correspondent, Rutger Bregman, turned his online articles into international bestsellers, translated from the Dutch originals released by DC’s in-house book publisher. His Utopia for Realists (2016) made the case for a universal basic income – het basisinkomen, open borders, a 15-hour working week and other utopian ideas – andere utopische ideeën.

Word travelled fast. Before launching the English language edition, DC’s founders embarked on a 2018 fundraising tour of the United States. Their notion of “unbreaking news” won powerful admirers, including eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and former crime reporter-turned-screenwriter David Simon, creator of HBO mini-series The Wire.

Helped by its high-profile friends, TC’s crowd-funding campaign raised $2.6 million, albeit at a high cost (reportedly $1.8 million). While prospective new members logged on to pay up, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen toured prime-time television talk shows to herald a new kind of “news organisation built on reader trust”.

In retrospect, that well-meaning enthusiasm looks quite parochial. To fellow-travellers, the Dutch example offered something like redemption: a prototype for transforming the US media landscape. But when TC’s founders abandoned plans for a New York newsroom and several US-based correspondents, these endorsements were swiftly retracted in a Twitter storm of recriminations.

Just as well, perhaps. It’s unlikely that the TC which ultimately emerged would have answered their prayers. Arguably it’s most distinctive editorial attribute was that its aspirations felt neither elite nor liberal. Not in the sense familiar to more mainstream English language media.

No doubt US journalism needs new answers to the problem of diminishing public trust. But vesting so much hope in a little-known Dutch start-up reveals more about liberal anxiety in Trump’s US – “It’s All About Us!” – than it does about De Correspondent. (Meanwhile, Trump’s assault on “fake news” has paid off handsomely in new subscriptions to the New York Times, Washington Post and their peers.)

Nor is fixing American media a task that was suited to TC. The Netherlands is a culture of pedantic engineers, proudly so. And as it turned out, TC strayed from its Dutch predecessor too. Its editorial antennae relayed signals of resistance from far beyond the US, via correspondents based in Africa, India and South America.

I’m reminded of a labourer I met in Kinshasa, sweeping the shiny surface of a motorway sent to the Congolese capital from Beijing in exchange for mining rights and free trade. This person knew a great deal about power, independence, the polity 

Objectively, TC operated outside the comfort zone of its founders. The decisive element, surely, was their decision to hire Anyangwe to helm the new edition. An anglophone Cameroonian, educated in East Africa at Kenyan boarding school, she understood (better than any Amsterdam native) the liberal conceits and cultural baggage of the English metropolitan media. After formative experience running the under-resourced Guardian’s global development professionals network, she saw a different editorial path for TC.

What then is the legacy, the claim to recognition which I believe TC richly deserves? Its brief life marked a big step towards a more substantive idea of pluralism in our globalising digital media. By which I mean: a pluralism of culture and ideas, in contrast to the dominant power centres. It signalled a small advance from the fashionable but timid embrace of diversity-as-a-virtue, as cherished by countless comfortable metropolitan liberals (and me too).

A world of difference

Pluralism of this sort is not wishful thinking. It’s disruptive, practical and – now – online. TC gave us a taste of it: the real thing, a corrective to the pervasive virtue signalling by highly educated people who lament “the lack of diversity at my alma mater” (as described by Ed West, a right-wing British journalist). This kind of pluralism is nourished by a fearless, borderless and free press. It’s what, if I understand, TC has chosen to call “transnational” journalism.

The future will bring more vital work for critical and enquiring minds, spanning myriad new struggles: we can expect more inhuman reality and more human justice. TC’s editorial stance hinted at the possible contours – as yet unrealised – for a global community of difference. Its example nurtured dissent. Its correspondents championed a rights-based order, through the hard graft of building new intellectual capital. In the old adage, this is how to speak truth to power.

Writing this, I’m reminded of a man I met in Kinshasa more than a decade ago. A labourer, sweeping the shiny surface of a motorway with a broom – which almost echoes a famous speech by Martin Luther King, but in any case happens to be true. He wore blue overalls emblazoned with the logo of a Chinese building contractor. The glimmering tarmac highway was sent to the Congolese capital from Beijing, in exchange for mining rights and free trade.

This person knew a great deal about power, independence, the polity. Or so it seems now, as I mull this epitaph for The Correspondent. We talked for probably 10 minutes, slipping comfortably into the kind of inter-racial, cheerfully ironic pavement philosophising that happens easily in his corner of the post-colonial world. I asked if he shared the fears of many European liberals made anxious by the imperial scale of China’s involvement in Africa. The man shook his head:

“No,” he said, “China is Roman. But Africa is Greek”.

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