Deepr: Where Readers Commission Journalists

November 13, 2014 • Digital News, Specialist Journalism • by

In the digital story “As the Children Wait”, journalists follow homeless boys, living on the streets of St. Louis, Senegal. Video footage, part of an in-depth multi-media presentation, captures the boys begging during the day and sleeping on cardboard at night. Glossaries, photos and videos embedded within the text, provide background, analysis and context. What makes this reportage different is that the subject and content were chosen by its readers.

When the story first appeared on only readers who had paid in advance, were able to see it.

Deepr is a Berlin-based journalism start-up that asks readers to vote on, and pay for, multimedia packages before they are commissioned. Voters can also design the content. The long-form features, described by deepr as “an amazing digital reading experience”, include sleek video and sound clips, photo essays and timelines.

‘deeps’ can be purchased for one euro

When each ‘deep’, or story, is ready, the customers receive a customized link – which they can share with up to three people. After publication, deeps can be purchased by other readers for one euro. Currently there are 114 paid readers, and a newsletter with over 200 subscribers.

Deepr was launched in January this year by four 20- to 30-something Germans with backgrounds in coding, business, design and legal work. They were thirsty for well-written, web-savvy content they did not feel they were receiving from traditional media outlets. “It’s a strength that we are not journalists because then we can think things through from a reader’s perspective,” said Armin Eichhorn, 28, a co-founder and long-time National Geographic reader who dreamed of digitalizing the same absorbing quality of text and visuals.

Deepr aims to reinvent the relationship between journalists and readers

Deepr’s multifaceted multimedia concept may not be novel. But the website aims to reinvent the relationship between journalists and readers, according to Eichhorn. “The editorial office is the readers,” he said. In October, he presented the start-up at an event organized by Axel Springer Ideas, a new incubator of the German media staple behind publications such as Die Welt and the tabloid Bild.

Authors can apply to deepr and are selected by Eichhorn, who individually interviews them, based on what they have previously published. The current pool of authors mostly consists of German journalists, stationed abroad, with growing interest from international journalists from countries like Brazil, Italy and the US, said Eichhorn. The Germans write in their mother tongue, before they or the deepr team translates their work into English. The journalists propose a story and readers vote on the idea, also contributing a minimum of one euro. Once an article reaches 300 euros within a set amount of time, it gets the green light.

The latest successfully financed deep is about the cocaine trade in Peru: the author, according to deepr guidelines, will have “some weeks” to work on it, to focus on the quality of the story, said Eichhorn.

Business model is similar to crowdfunder, Kickstarter 

Another deep, about a man living for 20 years with Tourette’s syndrome, has only a few more days to be finished. If it is not, it will not be published and all the money will be returned to the funders. The business model is analogous to the American crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where a project must receive full funding or never see the light of day. Eichhorn hopes for high reader retention — Kickstarter users, he said, may cast their votes for a project or two and then scarcely return.

“The old media-way is that we think we know what the public needs to read, to know, to get,” said Frank Eckert, a freelance journalist who edits each deep on a voluntary basis. “That is very vague. Too vague. At deepr, the public makes a decision and bids for story stuff that sounds interesting. The content is in the hands of those who pay.”

Deepr is one of a number of new reader-driven websites in Germany, where paying members receive extra perks. Anyone can become a member of Krautreporter, a news and culture website launched eight months ago, for five euros a month. They are then like digital board members, enabled to vote on new content and leave comments on stories. Members of the new investigative website CORRECT!V receive additional background information, free books and are invited to special events.

Yet unlike these start-ups, deepr is eschewing non-profit status. The founders decided not to seek outside foundation funding, worried they may not have developed a sustainable model by the time the funding ran out.

Deepr is a lean start-up but interest expected to grow

The team, which is composed of volunteers, spawned the site based on the concept of a “lean start-up”: The less money the team has, the more carefully they have to think about its editorial and business models, Eichhorn told me, over a coffee after his day job.

“We expect the average funding per deep to go up over time and our transaction cost (currently they pay 20% to PayPal) to decrease as our transaction volume goes up,” Eichhorn said.

Deepr fits into an era when readers can easily customize their news choices based on their interests and habits. While advertisers can capitalize on this, deepr tries to keep everything free of commercial content. “We simply don’t see how independent quality journalism would go together with money that doesn’t come directly from the readers,” reads their detailed mission statement. Is the model self-sustainable? Eckert paused before answering. “Nothing is safe and everything is changing,” he said, “first the readers’ habits and then the recipients’ habits.”

 photo credit: Ingrid Hägele and Andrew Oberstadt

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