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Disclosing the world’s biggest issues: a crash course from De Correspondent

© Illustration by Tjarko van der Pol for De Correspondent

In November 2015, the European Journalism Centre awarded grants of €150.000 each to four media publishers to support long-term innovative development reporting. In this interview series, we invite you to take a look at what our grantees at Spiegel OnlineDie WeltDagens Nyheter and De Correspondent have been busy with.

In August we showed you how Spiegel Online’s project - Expedition Beyond Tomorrow - is taking constructive journalism to the newsroom level. In September, we let you explore Die Welt’s year-long reporting on water issues. Today, we’re giving you an insight into De Correspondent’s crash course on Global Goals.

We talked to Karel Smouter, managing editor at De Correspondent, to find out what you can expect out of this original take on development reporting. The course launched today, symbolically linked to the United Nations anniversary, and you can experience it for yourself here.

© De Correspondent

What is the objective of the online crash course?

We want to report on how the world progresses, how it will look like in 2030 and what the steps are between now and 2030. We conceived the global goals crash course keeping in mind the idea of future oriented journalism. This means the crash course is a place where people can go to read about how we are dealing with the most important issues of our time on the way to 2030. Entirely available in Dutch and English, the course is an online learning environment where readers can explore step-by-step the developments being achieved all around the globe, as well as the fields that still require change.

Taking into account there are as many as 17 Global Goals, are you focusing your investigations on some themes or regions?

The focus of the crash course is on three themes: povertyclimate and inequality. We believe these three issues combine a lot of the 17 goals and, at the same time, prevent us from creating a wikipedia-like database on the global goals. Besides, we feel that the average reader does not have the time to go through 17 different goals. That is why we also start off with the first two themes, in order not to feed people too much at once.

As an example, we assigned a Colombian journalist to write about Colombia, where the Global Goals have been adopted almost as their constitution. We are really interested to see how this is defining the country. Another story we produced is about the person who invented the dollar-a-day poverty line in India. Our journalists went there to interview him on how he felt about the poverty line also being used in the Global Goals perspective.

Regarding the regions covered, the project will contain not just stories from the South, but also from the North. We really want to pass the idea that this is something that the whole world needs to do, not just the North telling the South what (not) to do.

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How do you approach these themes?

The crash course has a question and answer approach. We raise questions and then provide the answers as short summaries of the stories that we have already made or are still making. We start off with rather naive questions and then move to more complex questions and discussions.

For instance: we start by raising the question what poverty actually is, then write about how (not) to measure it, and end with how to fight it.

The biggest challenge is of course to make people want to read these stories. Many times projects which are done with a lot of passion, like this one, end up not gaining much visibility on the internet. So a lot of our effort and time is going into finding the best way to get people’s attention for these stories.

Did you find ‘the best way’ to tell these stories?

This summer we invited readers to our offices for a test of the platform. In two separate groups, they tested a different version of the course. The two versions were distinct in terms of tone of voice, levels of expertise required and questions asked. During these sessions, we filmed our readers as they were exploring the course for the first time. We wanted to see what types of questions people clicked and which ones people skipped. Based on the test results, we decided on things such as the amount of infographics and videos we use. This experiment taught us not to distract our audience too much. We as journalists often think that people need as much visual support as possible. In reality, we learned from the audience that too much visual elements are distracting them from the story told.

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What innovative storytelling formats are you using in the crash course?

We make use of interactive infographics, but not in an excessive way. It needs to actually communicate something. We feel that a lot of great online projects are suffering from excessive visual impressions. The biggest example being the Snowfall format - done by New York Times that everybody seems to love. But at the end of the day, despite the great design style, do you really click on all these different things? Does it help to communicate the story better? My feeling is that too many possibilities to click on too many different things make it more difficult to use and to tell a story. So our focus is on the story and we kept the navigation as simple as possible.

Which target public does your project seek to address?

Our primary target audience is the 50.000 members of De Correspondent, who are usually curious people who want to know every little bit of how the world works.

At the same time, we also would like to reach a second group, which considers themselves interested but uninformed. I think a lot of people who watch the news are at the end of the day either confused or cynical or both because of the negativity bias in many media. There are a lot of reasons to be cynical about the world we live in, but just as many reasons to be hopeful. I use the term hopeful realism here. We certainly do not want to act as cheerful optimists portraying the world in 2030 as heaven on earth. Rather, we want to create an honest perspective on the things that are going well and on the things that are still not as good. If you take some distance, you see that the world is changing rapidly. So we want to find a way to report on change, in a manner that is making even cynical people understand that. So this crash course is also for people who want to understand the news but do not.

Hopefully the tone of voice will be a little more informal to make sure the pieces are not a dry read, but something that is fun and engaging. I always tell our editors - imagine that your parents or the 15-year-old read it. What would they think? Do not write for your colleagues, but for your relatives or for the people you are in the pub with.

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Does the crash course follow De Correspondent’s style and encourages the audience to contribute their expertise on specific topics?

Yes, we usually do it in De Correspondent and we do the same for this project. Bellow every question of the Crash Course, there is a conversation so people can contribute their knowledge in different chapters. It is not just a one-way flow of communication as people have the possibility to actually talk back. We want the contributions to be as good as the stories themselves. To ensure this, we block off the comments section. While the content is available for everyone, you have to give your full name and expertise before you are able to contribute.

Also if people miss something, they can vote for a new chapter to be added. Our purpose is to maintain it as something that stays alive for a long time. When the readers join the course, they will receive a notification every time new information or a new chapter is added. 

Are users’ contributions also integrated into the stories?

A lot of users’ expertise is being used in the stories. For instance, when we started our previous project on the UN at 70, we asked for the contribution of users who worked for the UN. In just one day, we received 70 emails from different people who were happy to talk about their experience. It is a great way for people to engage with a story.

We call our readers the largest untapped resource in journalism. Many people are really motivated to share their stories, but it is still not in the habits of journalists to integrate users’ inputs. This is a pity because sometimes people in your audience actually have better questions than yourself or they have more knowledge about the subject. 1.000 doctors know more about medical care than one medical care correspondent, for instance.

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What were the most challenging aspects of producing this project?

There were many challenges. One of them was to develop the whole project in two languages, which is always difficult because if you need to change something in the content, you will need to change it in two different languages.

Another difficulty we faced is related to the fact that when working in a small team if one of the members is away for a while, things do not go as fast as you expect.

And it is also challenging to do something for the first time because you do not have anything to compare it with. If you are writing an article, you know how an article looks like. But in the case of the crash course, it is not easy to translate a concept that is in the head of a few people to everybody else who is involved.

If a freelancer wants to work together on this project, how can they do that? What stories and formats are you interested in?

We are interested in any story related to poverty, inequality or climate, especially if they are connected to how the global goals are progressing in other parts of the world. We hope to have as many non-western voices as possible in this project. It would be great, for instance, if someone from China wrote us a great story on how China will be tackling climate change in the next 15 years.

If you want to send us a pitch, it is always best to first approach us in person instead of just by email.

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Are you also collaborating with other international outlets reporting on development issues?

I can hardly think of anything more important nowadays, considering that the world we live in is not limited by borders anymore. A lot of topics, especially in the development field, are borderless. If you report a development issue just from a Dutch angle you miss out on a lot of different angles. This is an area we still need to grow in. While we do cooperate with many freelancers, including IDR grantees, we also aim to establish partnerships with media outlets alike. The Panama leaks and similar big international collaborations really are the way for journalism now. It shows how much we can actually gain by working together. For this specific reason, we hired an international editor, whose role is to foster such cooperations.

Which outcomes do you hope to achieve for De Correspondent with this crash course?

I expect this project will be a showcase of De Correspondent not just to people who read Dutch, but also to an international audience. I hope that a lot of our older stories that we did on this topic will get a new life. One of the great things about the internet is that stories do not end up in the trash can. They can always gain a third or fourth life. So hopefully people will be intrigued to pick up on those stories again.

Additionally, once we have now developed the crash course technology/format, we hope to be able to make crash courses of basically everything. So the money that we received with this fund will be multiplied by many more stories to come with different subjects.

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What impact do you hope the project will achieve on your audience?

I hope that the project will encourage people to see how the world is actually progressing in a lot of different areas and also encourage them to be part of the change. This is a topic we are still discussing about. Maybe we will devote the final chapter of our course to the question “What can I do?”, presenting guides on issues like, for example, how to best spend 10 euros in a sustainable way. Because, of course, after digging into these goals for 10 minutes or so you really want to do something yourself.

The global goals are set to be implemented by 2030. What about the crash course? 2030 is of course an ambitious timeline...

We express the hope that we can keep on doing this until 2030. But of course 2030 is such a long time. Who knows how many things have changed by then? In principle, as long as De Correspondent is still there, I see no reason why we should not keep doing this. However, this is something we do not want to promise, because it is too big of a promise to make to. It is something that we hope and aim for. After all, we have only started two and a half years ago, so making plans for 2030 is indeed ambitious.

© De Correspondent


An interview by Sarita Reed, who interned at the European Journalism Centre. Sarita graduated in journalism at UFRGS, in Brazil, and holds a Master's degree in Media Culture from Maastricht University.

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