Back in December 2018, the Netherlands-based news startup De Correspondent commenced its crowdfunding campaign of raising $2.5 million (€ 2.23 million). The goal of securing funds was to launch in the US and the company did raise the money but as it turned out, it didn’t actually expand to the US. Co-founder and CEO of De Correspondent, Ernst Pfauth, said that they were raising funds to launch an English version of their service and a headquarter in the US and not expand to the US. Additionally, they planned to establish a headquarter in the US, which they later decided was not feasible and chucked the idea.
The company’s PR bore the brunt as it was said to be gross miscommunication and nothing else. However, media outlets like TechCrunch reported how Pfauth, the company’s co-founder, himself conveyed the message in a convoluted manner, which suggested that the company will be launching and covering news in the US. Now, the company’s first US employee Zainab Shah has now revealed what actually transpired and gives her take on where the entire thing turned awry. However, before we get to that, let’s understand what De Correspondent is all about.
How De Correspondent works
The news startup De Correspondent aims to break away from breaking news and fueling the hype, which it believes to be superficial. Instead, the company focuses on covering important issues with the help of its readers, which it calls ‘members.’ Its readers play a prominent role in shaping and changing the direction as a story develops. Additionally, the startup doesn’t earn from ad revenue and relies solely on the subscription and pledge of its readers.
What happened with De Correspondent’s US launch
As we mentioned earlier, De Correspondent blamed miscommunication for conveying the wrong message of the startup’s expansion to the US. It said it was launching an English version of its website and that is what the crowdfunding was for. However, Pfauth led people to believe that the company will be expanding to the US since the global lead for strategy and operations at BuzzFeed, Zainab Shah, was its first hire. Additionally, shah said that a managing editor would also be added to the team but this too turned out to be an empty promise.
De Correspondent later announced that it will not open an office in New York. the company will employ the raised funds to continue its operations from Amsterdam and new correspondents, some of which will be based in the US and will report back to the company. On March 15, Zainab Shah tweeted about her resignation from the company and now, she speaks with NeimanLab about her experience at the startup. Shah says that she was excited to become the first US employee of an early-stage startup. “I’d have a role building out the team of journalists to launch this really awesome new thing,” she said. “That’s why I joined.”
Every publisher was writing that De Correspondent is expanding to the US. However, during the crowdfunding campaign, founders of the startup apparently said, “‘Oh, we should probably not say ‘the U.S.’ We should probably just say: ‘expanding to the English language.’” When Shah asked them why, they said, “When you say the U.S., people think we’re only for the U.S., but we want to let people know that we’re for the whole world.”
When the crowdfunding campaign was underway in December, a Dutch employee of the firm told Shah that the startups’ founders decided to keep the office in Amsterdam. However, in an email, Pfauth said that Dutch employees of De Correspondent were uninformed of the company’s decision to not open a New York office until January. Pfauth also said that the startup “did think for a while” of opening a New York newsroom, but said about it only before the campaign launched and not when it was ongoing.
It would be bold and admirable if they hadn't let just about every piece of news coverage of their fundraiser paint it as the launch of a "US-based" operation, and I'd love to know what percentage decided to join based on that spin.
— linds ? (@styrovor) March 26, 2019
However, Shah begs to differ since the company’s campaign was focused only on showcasing iconic American locales and a team of “ambassadors” who were American, adding to the sense that the company is expanding to the US. “I do sometimes wonder if there was never a plan to launch in the U.S.,” Shah says. “I think they had to sell the U.S. launch to ambassadors. I don’t think that kind of high-profile ambassador would have come on board if they hadn’t said ‘We’re launching a U.S. office.’”
20% of the answer is that we weren’t clear enough about it. 80% of the answer is that it truly didn’t matter how many times I / we emphasized we weren’t expanding to the the US but to the English language, journalists just wrote the former.
— Rob Wijnberg (@robwijnberg) March 26, 2019
How Shah’s stint ended in The Correspondent
There were numerous oversight and decisions about which De Correspondent was not transparent with Shah. However, after the fundraising campaign successfully ended, in February 2019, the company’s founders officially announced of not opening a New York office but told Shah that there is still a role for her at the company. “The role they offered me was recruiting,” she said. “They said, you can recruit the correspondents in the U.S., and help us recruit correspondents other places. When I asked them how many correspondents I would be responsible for recruiting, they said 1 to 2 in the U.S, and a total of five to seven globally.”
Shah was also asked to represent the startup at events and conferences in the US. However, she says “I also did not feel comfortable representing them after everything that had happened. I didn’t know if I wanted to put my name and my reputation on the line any further after everything that had happened.” She goes on to explain how not being embedded in the newsroom would render her unable to truly talk about what the company is doing. Shah adds, “I just didn’t feel comfortable representing them further and working at an organization that was doing this. I honestly felt like it was a betrayal, and we had raised funds on false pretense.”
thanks so much for making The Correspondent a reality Zainab! We will miss you here, and are excited about your next steps!
— Ernst Pfauth (@ejpfauth) March 20, 2019
So, Shah declined the job and started looking for other opportunities. “They’re really good at the PR thing, and it really feels like gaslighting,” Shah said. “They were like, ‘Well, we never promised a U.S. newsroom.’ I was like: Wait, did I just imagine all this?”
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