Breaking away from the usual ad funded topics

This week we learned that Vice has entered into a multi year deal with Unilever to support the launch of its new channel Broadly, aimed at young women. Speaking about the deal Eddy Moretti, Vice’s chief creative officer said there are many content “white spaces” in the market where Vice could look to expand, including genres such as travel.

What other “white spaces” might exist besides a women’s channel and a travel channel? How about a finance channel, a motoring channel, something on entertainment and TV listings (call it arts and culture, it sounds better) and a business channel?

These are the usual suspects. They are the newspaper sections and online channels that advertisers want. Spare a thought for the writers and PR staff brought in to breathe new life into them.

I’m reminded of two young Dutchmen who spoke at the Digital Media Strategies conference in the spring. Ernst-Jan Pfauth and Rob Wijnberg looked more like Hamburg era Beatles than publisher execs. Head to toe in black, they dwarfed Professor George Brock who chaired the session. They spoke about their time working for the same Dutch newspaper.

“When we worked at the newspaper we saw there was a new career magazine or a new travel magazine – not because the newspaper wanted to cover those subjects but because they couldn’t find advertisers”.

The two regularly shared a car journey to work and the conversation was about how they would do things differently. Eventually the conversation became serious. When Wijnberg lost his job they already had an action plan.

The result is De Correspondent, a Dutch language journalism platform. One of its founding principles is that advertising will not dictate its direction. It carries no ads. When I asked them if they would consider opening the doors to the right advertisers eventually they were adamant that they would not.

“We’re basically in the business of building trust. We are only worried about what our members want. We don’t have any other stakeholders because we have no advertising on our website. The main reason for this is that you have to turn your audience into a target group”.

They are led by a belief that news companies can turn a profit without advertising. This might sound like bravado to those British news companies who make no profit despite carrying advertising.

Wijnberg says, “from my experience at large news organisations I can tell you that the importance of advertising in journalism is blatantly overrated: you can have a solid business case without ads; the only reason why we are lead to believe that journalism cannot do without it is because without ads it is much harder to maximise profits for shareholders. Which, in my view, should not be the primary goal of a journalistic enterprise (which is not the same as you cannot make a profit at all)”.

It’s an interesting attempt to address the decline of trust in journalists, to free journalists to write about new topics and to guard against declining online advertising CPMs – but cutting out advertising altogether is a dangerous way to do it. Looking for news about the health of De Correspondent is a little like scanning casualty lists in The Times in 1916. Happily they’re still alive and fighting despite their dangerous position.

Their plan was and still is crowd funding. They are adamant that it is “the one truly independent way to fund journalism. We only have to acknowledge the wishes of ourselves and our readers” – not advertisers, not shareholders.

Initially they raised $1.7m from 18,933 crowd-funders – no small sum. It helps that Pfauth and Wijnberg are famous in Holland and that Wijnberg announced the initiative on a popular TV programme (during the show more than 5,000 people donated $80 or more).

Matthew Ingram, writing for Gigaom, described this beginning, From the sounds of it, De Correspondent is a little like the homepage editor and the managing editor of the New York Times starting their own online magazine — and launching the crowdfunding project on Oprah, with Glenn Greenwald sitting by their side. That’s going to give anyone a head start”.

Of the initial crowd-funders 60% renewed their membership despite no auto-renewal system being in place. A year after launch they had 28,000 members and their target is 50,000. Membership is $76 per year.

To put that into perspective The Sun has reportedly signed up around 225,000 subscribers to its £2 a week digital service Sun+. £2 a week is £104 a year or, in dollars, $163. 225,000 is 0.4% of the population of the UK (64m) and 28,000 is 0.2% of Holland’s 17m.

Crowd funding wasn’t their only idea. In fact, they believe their survival as a business depends on not following well-ploughed content furrows.

“Finding a new business model has to start with finding a new product to sell in the first place. If you don’t have any new ideas about the content your business model will not be as new as you might think”.

Their idea about content involved freeing themselves to be more creative. Where the business model involved freeing themselves from the shackles of advertising, the content strategy involved emancipation from the daily news cycle.

That would come as no surprise to followers of Wijnberg who lost his job at Handelsblad because he “wanted to steer the newspaper away from current events, since they already get wide coverage from free and ubiquitous media outlets,” and felt that the newspaper should focus more on “developments that are less spectacular than most news events”.

Although they plan to report on ‘less spectacular’ events than those reported in breaking news the plan is to focus on trying to “uncover, explain and highlight deep-lying structures and long-term developments that powerfully shape our world”. It is part of the new trend of ‘explainer’ journalism. If the mainstream news takes the form of ‘man bites dog’, they want to explain the conditions that led the man to bite the dog.

Another key ingredient of their content strategy involves the members themselves. They believe digital journalism has a different dynamic to analogue journalism and it changes the role of the reader to one of reader and contributor. It is a change in the dynamic that some journalists struggle with as they become more like moderators than opinion leaders.

“In the past journalists just wrote the pieces printed in the newspaper and then went home. Actually the conversation afterwards about your piece, questions that arise, answers you might have, questions you might have to experts who are following you [are]… the most important part of your daily job.

Journalists who formerly worked at newspapers or magazines said well that’s a lot of extra work, having a conversation with readers and we said no that is your work. You write your piece and then the other 50% is building a trustful relationship with your audience. Journalists you are now not messengers, you are conversation leaders; your audiences are expert contributors”.

It is an interesting concept. As an example they said their education specialist has several members who are teachers and professors giving him advice. In theory he can learn more and burn less shoe leather doing so.

Pfauth and Wijnberg believe about 10% of the 28,000 members are expert contributors. With age comes experience and the expert contributors tend to be older. De Correspondent might have youth appeal but it appeals to and relies on older members too.

Their members experience is their guide in more ways than one. It doesn’t just inform their current areas of interest, it opens up new areas too. They say, “we hope that in a couple of years we have hundreds of little niches with journalists as conversation leaders and members as expert contributors”.

Who knows where that might lead or how successful De Correspondent will continue to be. It does, however, suggest that any “white spaces” they explore will be more varied in terms of topic than those explored by media owners dependent on the advertising dollar.

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