Alumni profile: Frederik Fischer

Having helped launch Germany's first and largest crowdfunded news network, Krautreporter, Frederik Fisher is no stranger to innovation. In this alumni profile he reflects on the development of the concept 'audience engagement' as a new metric for success in journalism.

2015.04.30 | Hannah Spyksma

Frederik Fischer at IJF15, photo by Isabella Borrelli

Frederik Fischer / Germany 

Mundus Cohort 09-11 / London

Crowd funding for journalism is a concept that has been alive in the USA for several years now, starting with community news site Spot.US in 2008. Perhaps because of its fundamentally different and less commercialized media systems, Europe, by contrast, has been slow to play catch-up on the phenomenon. But that is changing. In mid-2013, De Correspondent was launched in the Netherlands, marking the beginning of a new era for journalism initiatives in Europe. The national network exploded onto the new scene with its original take on author-driven journalism and its ad-free, membership-based financing model. Since then crowd funded journalistic initiatives have begun popping up across the continent, with projects starting everywhere from Spain to Hungary.

Hot on De Correspondent’s tail and one of the most visible examples of a successfully crowd funded initiative is Germany’s Krautreporter. The site was originally conceived as a space for others to crowd fund their own journalism projects, but in early 2014 a small team led by German entrepreneur Sebastian Esser decided to turn the site into a dedicated news hub focused on long-form journalism and analysing issues that mainstream media often overlooks. In the space of one month the team raised 1.06 million euros in seed funding, spurred by donations from audience members wanting to be part of a new type of European journalism in action. 

I think the most pragmatic way to go about recreating journalism is by looking at the things that work and just trying to adapt whatever appeals to you. I don't think it will really help you if you just copy what works, but maybe combining elements - whatever resonates with you - whatever appeals to your passion. 

Mundus Journalism alumnus and former Tame.it CEO Frederik Fischer has been with Krautreporter from its beginnings as a news site. Since then he has been working on a key component of the business: Audience engagement. Like De Correspondent, Krautreporter is actively aiming to reinvent the relationships between journalists and their readers and in doing so is challenging the traditional assumptions driving journalism. Objectivity is out the door, and transparency is in, says Frederik, who spends a large proportion of his time interacting with and including the site’s original crowd funding supporters in the production of Krautreporter’s journalism.

On his return from presenting Krautreporter at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, we spoke to Frederik about the challenges of navigating audience relationships and expectations in his role with Krautreporter, and what industry shifts he sees happening in the process of establishing a new frontier for European Journalism.

EMJ: Could you summarise your role with Krautreporter?

Frederik: At the moment my job is basically to reinvent the relationship between journalists and the audience. So to make journalism a bit more exciting and not just text based. 

What does this ‘reinvention’ involve?

We try to work together with our audience as much as possible. We have a (voluntary) database of all the people who supported us and we ask everyone to fill in a small profile. So whenever we work on a story, we can ask the database and gather an expert circle within our membership. And that is really a great resource. It is something we use a lot.

For example, at the moment I'm working on a text about inflation. So [to accompany pieces] we also produce text that explains something not well covered in other media. So I write a draft, and then put in all the email addresses of the experts in our group - which I can find through the database. It really varies a lot, but when it comes to the economy guys, for example, there are at least 15 who are heavily involved and who help me edit the explainer text and provide contacts to professors and politicians. I work with all the information they've provided and then I throw it on Krautreporter. I say thank you for helping me and invite everyone to help me on further parts of the series. So the email list grows and more people are getting involved in the process and appear to really enjoy that. 

I think that's also a big misunderstanding in this talk of audience engagement and just promoting more interaction with your audience; you can't have like a meaningful conversation with your whole audience.

How challenging has it been to play with established journalistic norms in terms of blurring the boundaries between professional journalist and audience? 

Most journalists find the idea of involving the audience interesting but wouldn't really do it themselves because it just takes too much time. So that's a big problem. I think the other big problem is that the other journalists they just don't have the information on their audiences. So I think the really cool thing about the database is that you can address people that are relevant to each story. I strongly recommend everyone who's working in news to set up such a database because I think that is crucial to having a meaningful conversation within part of the audience. 

I think that's also a big misunderstanding in this talk of audience engagement and just promoting more interaction with your audience; you can't have like a meaningful conversation with your whole audience. You really have to find the people that have an interest in the things you're writing about. With them you can have a very interesting conversation, but not with everyone. 

What importance does Krautreporter place on the word 'transparency'?

It's extremely necessary. There's an eroding trust in the press that we have not only in Germany but the rest of the world as well. I think it stems from the fact that the world is way too complex to be explained in a few lines. There is a very small space that we as journalists have and yet we still try to explain things in this space because we think that's our job.

I think you can't really explain the complexity of a lot of stuff that's going on. But what you can do is do your best in explaining what you can and you can be really transparent about what you don’t know and why you've come to a certain conclusion. If you do that, we have had the experience that people immediately trust you more. And there's not enough research to compensate for this level of trust you build when you're just transparent about your person and where you come from. 

And what about transparency in regards to individual journalists? Does slow, long-form journalism help in moving away from this lack of trust?

When you be transparent about you as a person I think that really helps a lot. I mean the point where obviously it becomes intimidating is when you make mistakes and people call you on your mistakes. Now if people know your face, and people know some personal details, then when they attack your text they automatically also attack you. And that's really tough for a lot of journalists.

What has running Krautreporter meant that you've had to relearn about the model of journalism?

The real tough situation that we're in is on the one hand that we shouldn't care about the traffic because that was basically our promise: We do journalism that is kind of slow form journalism that is possible because you (the audience) enable us to work in a different way. I mean there's no way we can replicate the mistakes that we've criticized others for, because we deeply are convinced that this is not sustainable to basically do the same journalism that everyone else does. But on the other hand we can't just be ignoring what the audience wants. So this is a real tricky kind of negotiation. 

When you be transparent about you as a person I think that really helps a lot. 

Figuring things out is an ongoing process and we don't have a solution yet. To be honest, it's tough. I mean, for sure through our original crowd funding we made a big enough dent to be funded for the next one or two or even three years but I don't think that our brand of journalism can be done by three or four newsrooms, I think the market is just too small. And I think what we also realized was that a lot of people - and we knew that from the beginning - were supporting us because they were so unsatisfied with what was out there already. Now we see that everyone projected their own kind of wishes - everyone had their own kind of idea about what Krautreporter should be. It's really tricky to kind of do your own thing and still be totally dependent on your readers. 

So in this framework of uncertainty, how do you sustain such a business?

We don't really have a master plan. We are well aware that you can't really plan ahead and so we're not really doing it. We just have assumptions and we test the assumptions all the time and we reconfigure and just try to find our way in our model and our niche as we walk along. I mean it's impossible to come up with a master plan where we say we just ignore all the critical voices, all the data because we know this will work. It does not work like that. 

Some of the learnings of small organizations that are in this process of really starting up are that you get frighteningly little shit done. It's just there are so many things that you're caught up in that don't really end up on actual content. You've got structures to build and I mean if you look at Tame.it - software development is sort of easy to manage in that regard because there are fewer variables - but journalism, it's way more complex. We've found a lot of things that work but that are also way less ambitious. I mean I was expecting to experiment more to be honest but we were way sooner in the situation that we had to realize the time for experiments are over, we really have to focus on the things we do well. 

And I still think, it even sounds cynical; it's an amazing time. It's just not an amazing time for the journalism we grew up with. 

Do you feel like you’ve had to compromise or is it almost grounding to know that even if you wanted to do everything, in order to survive you’d have to really focus? 

It once again proves that you have to work with data, there's no other way around it. You have to collect data and analyze data. You can never allow that your feelings or your personality steers you.

So given your experiences so far, do you think can you really recreate the rules, is it sustainable to innovate and do journalism differently?

I've already said that during my studies, and I was even sure when I started tame. And now I'm even surer: The rules of the old journalism world they just don't apply anymore. 

I mean, I don't like a lot of things journalism evolved into and I think the journalism that we lost, it is a big loss. But I think the old journalism had a quality that was only possible because there were funds that are just not there anymore. I think the most pragmatic way to go about recreating journalism is by looking at the things that work and just trying to adapt whatever appeals to you. I don't think it will really help you if you just copy what works, but maybe combining elements - whatever resonates with you - whatever appeals to your passion. And you don't have to - you shouldn't - only look in journalism; look what goes into the start up field, what works in other industries. Just look at best practices and what role models apply to your reality and then think about how you can make, translate that into journalism. 

And I still think, it even sounds cynical; it's an amazing time. It's just not an amazing time for the journalism we grew up with. 

Photo credit: Isabella Borrelli for the International Journalism Festival 

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Tags: International journalism festival, perugia, journalism, audience engagement, entrepreneurial journalism