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Did The Correspondent dupe America’s media cognoscenti?

Did The Correspondent dupe America’s media cognoscenti?
[Photo: Roman Kraft/Unsplash]

About four months ago, the U.S. media world was told that a new player was coming to town. The project piggybacked off a Netherlands-based news site called de Correspondent (the new version bears the unoriginal but aptly translated name: The Correspondent). It was the perfect talking point for journalists and pundits who are prone to, in the same tweet, bemoan the rise of Trump, fake news, and social media while lamenting the demise of “discourse.”

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The Correspondent, we were told, would be different. It was founded on principles (principles!) like telling the whole story and building trust (trust!) with readers. The PR blitz name-dropped a bunch of big-ish personalities–including NYU professor Jay Rosen and comedian Baratunde Thurston–who expressed their support for the project via tweets and Medium posts. Rosen himself wrote nearly 3,000 words about what’s failing American media and what initiatives like The Correspondent can do to help. To bring the new platform to the U.S., all people had to do was contribute to its crowdfunding campaign. After 30 days, it exceeded its goal of $2.5 million, meaning it was primed to launch this new platform.

Since then, The Correspondent has announced its plans to launch its new newsroom later this year. But last night, it disclosed that the new English language headquarters would be in Amsterdam, not in New York–which is where the company headed up its U.S. crowdfunding campaign. This development surprised many:

The original pitch seemed to be that the news site was expanding and coming to the U.S.–and that goal helped it raise millions of dollars from Americans. Now, the company is saying the plan is actually to launch an English-language platform based in Europe, and that it never disclosed where the headquarters would be. Essentially, The Correspondent said this is a misunderstanding due to the poor reading comprehension of Americans.

That’s, however, not quite true. While, yes, some of the press releases did mention the English language platforms, others contained inferences of a U.S. launch. Indeed, The Correspondent’s CEO, Ernst Pfauth, emailed my colleague about the project last October and clearly described it as the organization “launching in the U.S.” The subsequent coverage described it thus too. “If it raises the money, it will launch in the U.S. next spring,” wrote TechCrunch. “A Dutch news startup has crowdfunded more than $1 million for a U.S. version of its reader-driven news model,” wrote NBC News.

Now, the company’s leadership seems to have changed its story, claiming that early on it considered a New York newsroom, but that during the actual launch it never made such promises:

Still, the organization never corrected any of the reporting that described the launch as U.S.-based.

I am writing this with a skeptical tone because, from the onset, The Correspondent was marketed as a panacea to the crisis in media. American journalism is plagued by bad faith and lazy methods, the story went–what the country needs is an organization founded on concepts of trust and community to help fix it. I’m all for new journalism projects–ditto innovative attempts to inform and break readers out of their shell. But navel gazing and didactic overtures only appeal to a certain class of media consumers–namely, the ones who critique the content and not the vast majority of American readers.

Today, I spent a good hour poring over The Correspondent’s launch materials, looking for a smoking gun to show the outlet misled reporters. The email to my editor was the closest thing I could find, the rest was based on reasonable interpretations by journalists filling in the blanks of the outlet’s vague description. But I realized that even the need to dig up such evidence discredits a truth-seeking project like The Correspondent; the irony is that all of this hoopla was prompted by its rhetorical bait and switch–something, one would think, an organization like The Correspondent would try to avoid at all costs.

It’s fine that the news organization wants to begin its English language program in Amsterdam. The Netherlands is a great country, Amsterdam is a wonderful city! But there’s still something wrong with pinning this on a misunderstanding, which is what Pfauth has been be doing on Twitter for the last day.

I reached out to both Pfauth and The Correspondent’s partnership manager Jessica Best for clarification and to point to the wording in the October email to my editor. They provided me with a statement from founding editor Rob Wijnberg:

The Correspondent will hire US based journalists. What we have decided is to locate our core supporting roles (for example our membership director and member support team) in our existing HQ in Amsterdam. In short, we will definitely have a US presence, just not an office. I agree Ernst could have been more precise in his email to Christopher [my editor]–emphasizing we were expanding to the English language.

For now, we’ll be waiting for the Amsterdam office to open and to see if it will be able to change U.S. journalism forever.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the timeline of when The Correspondent hit its U.S. crowdfunding goal. We regret the error. 

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