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Interviews

An Interview with Rob Wijnberg, Co-founder of The Correspondent

At 27 years old, Rob Wijnberg became the youngest editor in chief of a national daily paper in Europe with nrc.next, the morning edition of the leading Dutch daily, NRC Handelsblad. Under his leadership, nrc.next reached a paid record circulation of 82,000 and a daily reach of 350,000, making it “the most successful new newspaper in Europe.” His essay collection on Nietzsche and Kant sold 65,000 copies, becoming one of the bestselling philosophy books of the past decade, and he is the author of six books, three of which are bestsellers. In 2013, Mr. Wijnberg founded De Correspondent, a Dutch news website which rejects the daily news cycle, and he was elected Journalist of the Year by the Dutch Association for Journalists. De Correspondent set a crowdfunding world record by raising $1.7 million from 18,933 backers. Currently, De Correspondent boasts over 60,000 paying members and 52 full-time staffers, including 21 correspondents. Mr. Wijnberg is now co-founding a U.S. equivalent, The Correspondent, which has raised nearly $850,000 in less than a week while boasting high-profile ambassadors including FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, Black Lives Matter’s DeRay Mckesson, The Wire’s David Simon, and many more.

The Yale Politic: I thought you wrote a really great piece about the importance of truth-telling comedians– can you talk about drama school and your hopes of someday becoming a cabaret performer?

Rob Wijnberg: Oh my gosh! [laughing] I went to theater school when I was 19 years old… about 17 years ago. I liked the idea of becoming a comedian, but not the road towards it. [laughing] I actually ended up studying philosophy instead. I never went to journalism school, which might explain my non-traditional take on news. In fact, when I went to study philosophy, I simultaneously started working at a newspaper. The contrast between the two, the philosophy classes I had and the work I did at the newspaper, was so big that I started asking, “What is news?” and “Does it have to be like this?” These are the kinds of questions you ask when you go to philosophy classes.

Comedians have always been one of my big inspirations for the journalism we do. Now, I’m not saying that comedians should be journalists, or that journalists should be comedians, but the fact is that they can cut to the heart of an issue, speak truth to power, and speak truth to hypocrisy, without the classic, traditional journalism rules that sometimes make it hard to speak that truth to power. You end up doing ‘false balance,’ where you want to be neutral and don’t want to seem to have an agenda, due to the traditional journalism rules that comedians don’t need to apply. Also, a lot of those comedians I started following when I was younger were really critical of media– Jon Stewart is obviously one. His whole program, The Daily Show, was pretty much one big media critique of the breaking news culture, and there are many more comedians who pointed to the failures of the 24-7 information system that we have. I took a lot of cues from them about what’s wrong with the media and what we can do to fix it. The only thing is that I wasn’t funny enough to do so as a comedian. But, basically, a good journalist is probably just a comedian without the humor. [laughing]

I know you’ve publicized ten different goals online for The Correspondent. Do you want to talk about the platform’s mission?

The central mission of The Correspondent is to unbreak the news. We like to see ourselves as a movement for ‘unbreaking news,’ which basically means three things: we want to change what news is about, we want to change how news is made, and we want to change how we pay for news. The first part is–very simply put–that most news, or most breaking news, is sensational exceptions to the rule; instead, we try to make newsworthy stories out of the rule. The way we phrase it is usually, “News will tell you what happens today, but we want to tell you about what happens every day.” If something happens every day, it’s probably pretty influential in terms of how society works because it’s systematic and it’s unsensational. You probably won’t notice it that much, but nevertheless, it’s very essential to what society looks like.

It’s kind of like the David Foster Wallace speech, This Is Water. He starts off saying two fish are swimming in the water, and they don’t know what the water is because they’re in it. We try to make journalism out of that water. Our stories will help you understand the world more foundationally, and then explain the sensational, exceptional things you see in the news constantly or why these things are happening. We do this in a different way than a lot of journalism is made because we collaborate as much as we can with our readers. We see our readers not just as passive consumers of the information we put in front of them, or potential clicks or likes as most big media companies do; we see them as the biggest untapped resource of knowledge and experience that journalists have at their disposal.

The internet, luckily, brought us many new ways of tapping into that resource. Most of our stories begin with call-outs to readers asking, “What do you know about this?” For example, our healthcare correspondents might say to doctors, patients, and hospital managers, “What is going on in your hospitals that should be on the front page but never is because it’s not unusual enough?” We do this with teachers, firemen, and all kinds of people, depending on the beat we’re covering, in order to figure out the structural realities that we are all surrounded by. We can do this, in part, because we are a membership-driven platform. We’re ad-free, which makes a huge difference. Most non-journalists would not know, maybe, why this would make such a big difference. But, because we’re ad-free, we’re not in the ‘clickbait’ game. We don’t need to attract your attention to sell it to advertises because we’re paid by the readers themselves. That changes the whole incentives structure behind our journalism. Because we’re member-funded, we can get rid of the most sensational issues and talk directly to the readers who fund us. That’s basically the philosophy in a nutshell.

In one of your articles, you mention six different, concrete projects that De Correspondent’s been able to accomplish by collaborating with its members. For example, you managed to get 30,000 signatures on a petition to the Dutch parliament about the broken debt industry. Can you run me through that start to finish?

To clarify, those examples are just a few of many, because this is pretty much how we work; I give these examples because they illustrate, in different ways, how we operate. So, you gave the example of our debt correspondent in the Netherlands. It all started with one letter– somebody who told him, “My life got ruined because of a traffic ticket.” It was a very simple, one anecdote story about someone who got a traffic ticket for a car that did not exist anymore, who couldn’t convince his municipality that the car didn’t exist anymore, and who got more tickets and more tickets because he didn’t want to pay them. Eventually, he ended up going to jail for it.

Weird story… the kind of unusual story that we don’t cover because it might be the exception to the rule; but, we gradually discovered that this is the rule. We discovered that the Dutch government is one of the biggest drivers of people going into debt, for example, through traffic tickets, which are enforced in all kinds of ridiculous ways. We started asking, “Hey, are there more people in debt that have these experiences?” We got tons and tons of letters from our readers who either had the same experiences or knew someone else who had the same experiences. These piled up into a series of stories, where the common thread was that… We like to think of the Netherlands as a country where real poverty doesn’t exist, and if you look at the statistics, you would think so because it’s a really wealthy country and income equality is also pretty high. But there’s one misleading fact in those statistics: they don’t take debt into account. If you subtract the people who are actually in debt, the poverty figures would look very different. So, we found this big, undercover structure called the ‘debt industry.’ Then, we got this whole big story on our platform, and also outside of our platform, because of all the different parties finding common ground.

This is the great part of trying to have a conversation about this as you figure these things out: what happens is there are all these different stakeholders, and they all know about this structural reality, and they all see the same problems. If you invite their perspective, then you will find common ground and common solutions to these problems– ones that everybody mentions. We are used to most problems in the media being polarized, where one side says we should do one thing and the other side says we should do the opposite. That’s basically how most issues are shown in the media, but that’s not necessarily fruitful, for one thing, and it’s not the way the world actually works. People with real problems don’t want to argue about their ideological differences. They want to solve these problems.

So, out of our conversation came five practical solutions that almost everybody agreed on unanimously– from the people who were in debt to the people who were owed money. This is part of our philosophy as well. You want to do journalism because you see problems, but you don’t just want to cover the problem; you also want to cover what you can do about it. That’s one of our founding principles. A lot of traditional journalists would see that as ‘activist,’ but we see that as part of why you do journalism in the first place. If you didn’t believe you could change the world for the better, in some way, then why do journalism at all? [laughing] Eventually, this became a petition. It was adopted in the Dutch parliament by virtually all parties, and there were new rules and regulations proposed. Uncovering the debt industry was one of our more successful series– one which actually enacted change in society as well.

I’m amazed by the sheer range of those six examples– from exposing a Dutch oil giant for knowingly contributing to climate change, to collaborating with The Black Archives and bringing out the history of genocide and Dutch colonialism, to supporting the local feminist movement, through which you discovered that 80 percent of streets in Amsterdam were named after men. When you look for these solutions, do they all come from your members, or do you talk to experts outside of your organization?

As a general rule, we have this philosophy in mind: most people know nothing about most things, but everybody knows a lot about something. We see our readers as a huge source of knowledge, experience, and expertise, not because everybody knows everything about all these things, but because–within our membership base–there are always a couple of people who know a lot. Sometimes it’s one, or ten, or a hundred people, and sometimes, by virtue of the topic, it’s thousands of them. So, the range of where the solutions come from and how the stories develop, really depends on the subject matter and the kind of expertise we need. For example, in the series, “Uncovering Suppressed History,” as our beat is called, from Dutch colonialism, we depend a lot not just on The Black Archives, who document this history, but also on a lot of first-hand or second-hand experiences with this history from people themselves. This is very much an experience-oriented topic, where people can chip in if they come from Suriname, have witnessed certain things, etcetera.

There are other topics where the expertise– the things we need to know, do, or get help with–is way more specific. Let’s take the street name example. There, we just asked for some people who were good with data analysis because the biggest challenge was collecting data on street names. So, there were just two or three people, who helped us out by collecting all the street names–we later did different cities as well–in Amsterdam and by analyzing the data, that brought us these conclusions. Then, a feminist activist group helped us put it on the agenda by themselves changing a couple of these names from male to female.

There’s a difference in the kind of involvement we do with readers from topic to topic. One great example is with the refugee group interview, where we just said, “Hey, we don’t just want do a portrait of two or three of the refugees coming here, or living here, because everybody does that. We all live in the Netherlands, everywhere, so let’s each find a refugee in our community and follow this person for at least a year.” Ultimately, five-hundred members actually signed up, found a refugee in their own community or neighborhood, and followed them for us. We sent them surveys with the questions we wanted to ask, and we conducted this kind of mass group interview through our members. So, the participation can vary very, very much depending on what we want to figure out.

I saw that in a recent Q&A, De Correspondent’s Conversation Editor (which I take is a new position you’re trying to cultivate) mentioned the goals of (1) inviting members to partake in discussions they’re knowledgeable about, and (2) helping correspondents to enrich their reporting with the knowledge and experience of De Correspondent’s members. Drilling down, how do you identify members who are knowledgeable about a particular area? How do you communicate that information to the correspondents without bogging them down with the task of sifting through what’s important and what isn’t?

That’s actually a big part of what we’re doing. The position of Conversation Editor came from this concern because the more of these conversations we have with members, and the more fruitful they become, the more work it becomes. [laughing] Because you get a lot of responses, you have to sift through all these responses, and you also get the responses on email. You have to figure out if these people really are the experts that they say they are, so we verify ‘expertise titles.’ People can fill in their expertise title on our platform; for example, they say, “I’m a teacher at this school, or I’m a doctor at this hospital.” We actually check– do you really work there? Is this really your occupation? Could you send us something to prove it? Gradually, we’re building this rolodex of verified members whom we know have a certain expertise. We have groups–history teachers, doctors, all kinds of different groups–of expertise that people filled in themselves and we then verified. That’s one way.

And the Conversation Editor pretty much has two basic jobs. One is making the contributions below the articles, the call-outs, and the conversations they have with correspondents as fruitful as possible. That’s also why we call it the ‘Contribution Section’ instead of the ‘Comments Section.’ We don’t necessarily want comments. [laughing] There are a lot of comments out there, and usually when people start commenting… The less somebody knows about something, the more they generally comment. [laughing] The more somebody knows, the less likely they are to comment because then people know the nuances and they know how difficult it is. So, we try to get people not to comment, but to contribute what they know. Our Conversation Editor helps correspondents do this, for example, by helping them formulate a good call-out. What is the exact question you want answered? Who do you want responding below your piece? Not just, “Wow, I have 245 comments!” If you only get four comments, but they’re comments by exactly the right people, that could be way more valuable than 245 comments from people who don’t know anything. So, helping to formulate call-outs and reach those people is one part of the job.

The second part of the job is inviting those contributors proactively. Here’s how we do that. The correspondent, herself, speaks to a lot of people about her subject. We make sure all these people are invited to the conversation on the platform. We also make sure that they get a notification once the article goes up. We send them an email saying, “Hey, that article we talked to you about is online now, so we would really like to have you participate in the conversation!” If there are specific experts that we spoke to for the article, we sometimes ask them, “Could you answer questions from members?” Then, below the article, we say, “This expert will answer all your questions between 9am and 12pm, so if you have questions as they’re hearing them, they’ll respond right then and there.” We proactively organize the conversation, and what we also di is highlight the best questions and comments as well. People who post these contributions will get a notification saying, “Hey, thank you for sharing this! We highlighted it because we thought it was really good.” People get a reward for posting good comments. Sometimes we ask the experts, but sometimes we generally know we don’t have a lot of farmers, for example, with expertise in this subject area amongst our members, so we invite them. What we’ll do is we’ll look for farmers’ organizations– or, sometimes, we can do Facebook call-outs saying, “Hey! If you’re a farmer, we are doing a new series on farming in the Netherlands. Would you like to participate?” So, the Conversation Editor finds the people we want to hear more from on our platform and invites them into the conversation as we go along.

It almost seems like a combination of Quora meets Twitter Verified.

Yes! [laughing] It actually is!

One of the things your Conversation Editor mentioned was that “We often get feedback that accuses our members of ‘group think’–of being a left-wing, highly educated, white male group.” That’s interesting because it seems like your platform is centered around proactively reaching out to those who are underrepresented and have more skin in the game to talk about the issues that are important. Thoughts?

Yes, but actually the criticism is partly right. Obviously, we don’t reach everybody, and obviously, we skew towards well-educated people who can afford to pay for journalism. We work constantly to think of ways of broadening the accessibility of our journalism to other people. One big thing we’ve done, as we’re now expanding to the English language, is making a ‘pay what you want’ model. In the Netherlands, we have a fixed fee. It’s only $7 a month, but theoretically it excludes people who can’t afford paying $80 a year for journalism. So, we have a ‘pay what you want,’ or ‘choose what you pay’ model here, so that everybody can participate. There’s no fixed fee you have to pay. You have to pay something, because we’re a paid journalism platform and we want to keep it that way since we’re ad-free, but you can pay what you want nevertheless. There are ways of also proactively reaching out to people and saying, “Hey! We’re writing about this subject, and we would like to hear your perspectives and knowledge about it.” If you consistently do this with everything you do, slowly but gradually you broaden the base of people who participate, who know about you, and who talk to you on the platform. We are way less homogenous now than we were a couple of years ago.

A bit unrelated, but you mention Vox’s “explaining the news” and Axios’ “Smart brevity” as notable exceptions to the rule of viewing the Internet as “nothing more than a new distribution channel.” What lessons is The Correspondent learning from Vox and Axios? What’s new that The Correspondent brings to the table?

I worked at traditional newspapers for a long time before I founded The Correspondent. Obviously, I generalize… but as a whole, you can say, for most of these traditional news companies, innovation is trying to find new ways of doing the same thing or making the same thing. So, fundamentally, the Internet has just been a different place where news companies put out the same information. I exaggerate a little bit [laughing. But, if you go to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., you can see newspapers from the 19th century. What’s in the papers is not that different from what you’ll see as breaking news in 2018. The kind of information, the format of the information, the way the information is made, the way journalists operate– it’s still very much… You have these professional spokespeople who are trained to speak to the media, these are the sources, and these are experts in their rolodex. The spokesperson basis of most journalism hasn’t changed. The formats are also the same; it’s just traditional, short copy headlines. That’s what most news is. And actually, that kind of reminds me– the cases for DVDs are the same size as the cases for VHS tapes, not because DVDs are the same size as VHS tapes, but because they didn’t want to change the closets they put DVDs on display in shops. [laughing] They basically just made the same case for a very different technology, and that reminds me of how most news items are still made. It’s the same, derived from a print newspaper that’s one hundred and fifty years old.

You mentioned a couple of platforms–Vox and Axios–and there are probably more. Quora and Wikipedia are examples, although they’re not seen as journalism platforms. These are exceptions to the rule in the sense that they try to change their content, the sort of information you can get, the way it’s made, and the way it’s presented on a more fundamental level than just putting it out there in tweetable form. We do it very differently, but that’s innovation where you also start with, “Hey, does news have to be like this to begin with?” and “What is news actually?” A good example is Vox doing ‘explainers’ on Netflix, for example, in a very different, documentary-type style– or, you see them do this new solutions-oriented project where they say, “Okay, you read a lot of terrible things in the news, but who’s working on the solutions to this? Can we highlight these people? Can we focus on that?” It’s exclusively in their newsletters and stuff like that.

So, there is this kind of innovation with the kind of news you can get, but generally speaking, most journalism is very status quo. It might be a bold statement, but my idea of news is that it’s all Conservative. [laughing] All news is Conservative news in the sense that if you peel it down to its core, it will focus on negative change. If you watch a lot of news, then the basic worldview you’ll get is that the world changed for the worse. You get a negative view of change, basically, and it also reinforces the status quo because it’s heavily focused on ‘rule-based,’ right-wing ethics, which says, “This person didn’t obey the rules… or crime is an individual choice, rather than it being a consequence of poverty or something similar.” The thing I always get in trouble for saying, but nevertheless I still say is, “If you watch a lot of news, you will end up being a Conservative for sure.” [Laughing] If you lock yourself up in a room and watch news for ten years straight, you will not be more liberal than when you went in– I guarantee you that. The basic tenets of news–if you take away the content and just go to the tenets–or the regulating criteria for what’s in the news and what’s not, are all Conservative. Here’s the funny thing, which is that you could almost say it’s the most brilliant PR spin ever invented. The Conservative spin is, “All media are Liberal,” “All media are the opposite of Conservative,” and “There are no Conservative media out there.” It’s absolutely ridiculous because all news media–I’m not saying media in general–are deeply Conservative in their worldview. Deeply. So, there’s no actual progressive news in the sense that it highlights change for the better, it gives perspective on how to organize that change, it doesn’t leave you cynical or depressed about what you see, and it also focuses on systematic change.

It’s very telling in journalism culture–especially in the United States–that the high point, the highest you can achieve, is Watergate. If you ask any random journalist, “What do you think is the greatest journalistic achievement of the past century?” Nine out of ten will say Watergate. The ingredients of Watergate are the following: you have two groups of elites, Democrats and Republicans, fighting each other, and the revelation of wiretapping forced one party to leave in disgrace. In this case, the individual, Richard Nixon, had to resign, etcetera, etcetera. But, the system remained intact. It’s not systemic critique at all. The most revelatory journalism, or investigatory journalism, focuses on the idea of “Here’s a bad apple within the system.” Getting rid of this apple is the change that most journals are comfortable advocating. That is, in a very deep sense, Conservative change. [laughing] If you just say, “The system works– you only have to get rid of the bad people,” that’s the same logic as people saying, “Guns are not bad– people are bad.” So, most news is very status-quo reinforcing in that sense.

To close, I noticed that The Correspondent has ambassadors from radically different ends of the political spectrum–from Steven Pinker to Rosanne Cash and Baratunde Thurston. What’s the secret recipe? Maybe this is a good segue into also talking about the crowdfunding campaign, where you guys have interest from, etc.

It’s not like they agree with every tenet of The Correspondent and we agree with every tenet of their worldview. I wrote somewhere, because we frequently get the questions, “Are you left-wing, are you right-wing, or what are you?” and “Are you pro-Trump or anti-Trump?” that it doesn’t at all make sense to reduce even one person or one person’s worldview, let alone a group of people or a whole journalism platform, to these polarized words. They just don’t cover the nuances, and also the contradictions, in every worldview, or in every group of people you can gather. That’s one thing.

But, what probably unites these people–first of all–is that they agree on the fact that if you take a closer look at structural reality, instead of the exceptions you see in the news, you get a closer sense of what causes most problems and what is needed to solve those problems. They agree, very basically, that if you just focus on the surface you see in the news, then you won’t get towards a better world ever, because the world doesn’t exist solely out of events. This is also a very basic tenet that we critique, which says that all news is about events, and even if it’s not about events, people make them into events because otherwise it won’t get covered. I find the whole fuss about whether or not you’re allowed into a press conference of the White House fascinating. [Laughing] You hear that debate all the time. It’s fascinating because the whole press conference is a staged event to begin with, so the whole thing is like a theater show to get in the news– it’s meant to generate permanent news. The question is, “Why are we doing this in the first place?” or “Why are we faking events to fit the definition of ‘news’ in order to make news?” [laughing] That’s a whole other story.

The whole idea that the world exists out of this never-ending string of unrelated events is already misleading because obviously events matter, some events matter more than others, and certain events change the course of history in certain ways. I’m not saying events don’t matter at all. They do matter. But, below the events in the news, or the surface of these events, are structures that matter at least as much if not more. The metaphor we use is, “News is about the weather, and we will tell you about the climate.” The weather matters because if you want to know if you need an umbrella, or even worse, if there’s a wildfire next to your house, or if there’s going to be a hurricane soon, then the weather obviously matters. If there’s a hurricane, I wouldn’t recommend turning off the weather channel and saying, “Oh, that’s just sensational headlines.” No, you need to know it. But, these things happen because of the climate and the climate change we’re seeing. No weather report ever starts with, “Today, the climate changed again, like it did yesterday, because it’s warming.” You won’t really understand the things that are happening, in a deeper sense of the word, if you don’t understand the climate in which they’re happening. I think you can unite people from very different philosophies, very different communities, and very different ideologies with this very simple idea that, however big our differences might be on what to change about the world or what’s good or bad about the world, the one thing they can all agree on is that if you have a deeper understanding of the underlying forces that generate these outcomes, you will all be wiser for it. That’s where the opposites unite.