The Correspondent who doesn't correspond
Probably the most interesting saga in the audience engagement business in recent times has been De Correspondent's move to the US as The Correspondent. Or, as it turns out, not that at all - it's a move into the English Language.
That's quite a difference when you've just raised a few million of crowdfunding money from people who are expecting you to open an US headquarters and start hiring American journalists.
I'm not going to rehash the story in detail here. If you're a subscriber to this newsletter you've probably seen it play out in real time. There are plenty of posts detailing what happened, how it came out — and what the organisation is going to do. The net result is that they've been forced into a pretty big apology after many of their high-profile supporters criticised them — but they're just sticking to the existing plan, while promising to communicate better.
The best Engagewashing case study yet
Here's a confession, which I will deny if you try telling anyone else…
I'm feeling a touch smug about this, and not just because I now have an extra set of slides in my deck for next year's Interactive Journalism MA. The truth is that I've just never been part of the fan club of De Correspondent that has existed for a while in digital journalism circles. I never quite saw what was so special about what they were doing - which is why One Man & His Blog has never mentioned it.
I admit it: I can be a skeptic, after 15 years of watching big journalism's notional "audience engagement" experiment crash and burn. All too often they are just not what they claim to be. My experience is that when people from either a traditional media or a VC-backed background start talking about audience engagement, they're normally somewhere on the spectrum from "lip-service" to "thin veneer over the top". And this fiasco has proven that De Correspondent has been sitting rather firmly on the engage-washing end of the scale.
There's no doubt that the idea of audience engagement is a powerful marketing tool. We humans are social creatures. We love to feel like part of a community, and there's a deep seductive sell in telling people that you want them to be involved. However, the hard reality after the initial sell is much harder work, and is very challenging to operate at scale. And this is an organisation that was able to get exposure on some use US TV shows - and then failed at very very first communication hurdle.
If you follow the reporting about The Correspondent, it seems that their thinking evolved rapidly, with them moving away from the idea of a US HQ while they were crowdfunding, but they failed to communicate that as they went. That failure to communicate is the original sin of poor engaged journalism, not the decision to abodunon the idea of a NYC newsroom - which would have been an expensive and probably unnecessary proposition.
As vocal proponent and ambassador Jay Rosen put it:
But we know now that this was a failure of imagination, especially for a site that talked about “optimizing for trust” and working collaboratively with members.
If people are committing to being members of your organisation, they don't just want to get the finished results - they want to come on the journey with you. If the team had communicated as their thinking evolved, they could have avoided the backlash, either through persuading the members, or through learning that the members couldn't be persuaded — and then changing plans.
Community = Conversation
Back in the mid-2000s, when I was helping run a huge network of blogs for a B2B publisher, one of the (rather off-colour, sorry) phrases we used to use was "opening the kimono" when we talked about blog content. We were trying to find a way of differentiating it from the mainstream journalism, and give our journalists examples of the sort of content that worked on a blog. One of the most successful was giving readers insights into the discussion and process that went into the rest of our journalism - opening the community.
The tighter the niche, the more people tend to value that conversation. Open the digital doors to the readers, give them insights into the conversations in the office, and they invite you into their community.
The broader challenge that The Correspondent has now is that its only real niche is people who want to "unbreak the news". That's a broad remit - and it's "nice to have" content, not "essential" content. That's an easy initial sell, but a much harder longer-term one. And they've just taken the trust and goodwill they built up, taken it behind the shed, and shot it in the head.
Can they recover? Yes, of course. But they've just made it so much harder for them to build a sustainable business around this. And they might need to be a lot more revolutionary than they are right now.
Big is not always beautiful
More generally, this is another good example that big is not always beautiful when it comes to audience engagement. People from Big Journalism don't tend to be good at genuine engagement - they're used to hob-nobbing with an elite of sources. To some degree that informs my scepticism of Tortoise. Its pricing model suggest that it's a title built for a wealthy elite to engage with a wealthy elite.
I don't think that's were the engagement innovation we need is going to come from.
I was fortunate enough to have a chance to catch up with Ben Whitelaw, my former co-tutor on the audience engagement module at City, who is now doing fabulous work with the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, at Hacks/Hackers London last month.
One of the things we touched on is that so many of the people that he's working with are smaller, start-up news organisations, that tend to be less hobbled by the the language, habits and thinking of traditional journalism.
Journalism needs to get over its obsession with the big. Great experiments in audience engagement are being run at every level of the industry. Let's let go of the snobbery and actually start learning from each other.
I'm experimenting with shifting the format of the paid edition this news letter a little. I'm trying to build a rhythm that makes it work better. My intention is to try and send two newsletter a week from now one. One is like this - largely a piece of analysis - and the other will be largely links, with a little analysis.
Let me know what you think - and thank you for sticking by me in the early rough stages of this newsletter.
Hacks/Hackers London: News for millennial investors, engaged journalism and data leakage to Facebook
My live-blogged notes from the session, including Ben's talk.
Ben's newsletter about content moderation on the web and the policies, people and platforms that make it happen. Free, unlike this one. :-)
Ben's colleague Kathryn gave a talk at the last news:rewired, which covered a lot of their learnings from the first year of the accelerator. Some obvious stuff here - but also some eye-opening insights, too.
Jessica Best from The Correspondent also spoke, and her comments make interesting reading with what we know now…
Rewind a year, and we can learn how the original site was thinking about memberships…