Friday, 4 April 2014

Crowdfunding critical journalism, and why it's good for democracy



(Note: I originally wrote this article for Contributoria as Crowdfunding Critical Thought, and it is republished here under a Creative Commons license. To republish please attribute original)


Greg Palast’s approach to investigative journalism can be summed up in one phrase: Stand up for the underdogs, and take on the fatcats. His hard-hitting reports on corporations like ExxonMobil, politicians like Bush, and shadowy institutions like vulture funds stem from an impulse to challenge those players with the power to bend the rules to their private advantage. That’s why functioning democracies need people like Palast.

Such a role faces two unique challenges though. Firstly, powerful institutions and individuals tend to hide behind walls of secrecy that extend over vast geographical space. Investigating a corporation, or a government spy programme, requires a lot of time, a lot of travel, and a lot of prying into hard-to-access information sources.
HMM, WHERE TO START?
Secondly, it entails a lot of risk. People like Palast by necessity must make corporations, governments, and powerful individuals very angry, but those are also the parties that have the most ability to hire expensive legal teams to intimidate challengers. They also frequently own the media outlets, or have the most ability to buy the advertising space that media outlets rely on for income.

Therefore, not only is investigative journalism the most expensive style of journalism, but it is also the most likely to incur further liabilities once a story gets published. Providing finance to underdog investigative journalists – fronting them money to go off in search of stories – has always been a risky undertaking.

In an era when media groups are under increasing financial stress then, the position of the investigative journalist is under threat. Pressure to deliver advertising click-throughs, for example, drives online publications towards shallower stories with limited shelf-lives. I call this FMCJ, for ‘fast moving consumer journalism’. Like fast moving consumer goods, the aim is to create a high volume of low cost media product to be quickly consumed and discarded.

Rather than prioritising investigation and analysis, FMCJ journalism rewards content that draws short-term attention whilst inspiring minimal reflection. It thus has much in common with the field of marketing, with the same use of catchy taglines and graphics to churn social-media sharing. Most journalists don’t want to be marketers though. They want to do meaningful reporting that makes a lasting impact. To do this, they need new outlets for publishing, and new ways to finance themselves.

Alternative model 1: Project-based journalism crowdfunding

THIS AIN'T NO HOLIDAY - THIS IS BRITISH PETROLEUM
So where does Palast get his financing from? He draws at least part of it from the Palast Investigative Fund, a non-profit fund that individuals donate to in order to support his ongoing muckraking. In essence it’s a personal crowdfunding site, enabling him to remain independent.

Drawing on one’s readers for direct financial support has grown much easier in an age of digital communication, and established crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo have been used to this end already. For example, Peter Jukes recently raised £14 552 on Indiegogo to live tweet the UK Phone Hacking trial. Likewise, journalism startup Matter raised $140 201 on Kickstarter, allowing them to fund long-form pieces to be published on the Medium platform. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are generalist platforms for raising money, but even more interesting are those sites that offer niche services and support for journalism in particular.

Take, for example, Indie Voices, which aims to match up independent journalists in the developing world with readers – or ‘social investors’ – who wish to fund them. The Indie Voices team curates the process, only allowing media projects (including documentaries and articles) that seek to improve the media landscape in developing countries. Projects can then seek contributions in the form of donations, and, in the future, in the form of no-interest loans, low interest loans and equity investments (where funders buy ‘shares’ of ownership in a media project such as a film).

A second example is Inkshares. Unlike Indie Voices, which is explicitly political in nature, Inkshares is open to anything from science writing to children’s stories. Initially set up with the aim of creating an equity crowdfunding platform for books, Inkshares now also provides a donation-based crowdfunding platform for thoughtful long-form articles. And unlike normal publishing, the author retains the rights to the work that gets funded, which means they can also publish the material elsewhere.

Alternative model 2: Subscription-based crowdfunding


The shortcoming of sites like Indie Voices though, is that they’re really geared towards once-off projects. What if you wish to run a year-long investigation of tax havens, during which time you plan to run a series of 12 articles? Do you try raise the whole lot in one go, or run 12 separate crowdfundings?

One startup with an interesting solution for this is Beacon Reader. Rather than funding a once-off project by a particular writer, Beacon Reader is a platform for writers to collect paid subscribers who will offer an ongoing stream of support. While a normal crowfunding project only succeeds if a minimum amount of money is raised, a Beacon Reader crowdfunding campaign succeeds if a certain amount of people (normally 25-100) pledge to pay you $5 a month on an ongoing basis, in exchange for ongoing access to your stories, but also access to all the other stories on the site.

Backing a particular writer on Beacon is thus a gateway into a broader subscription to the work of the whole Beacon writer collective. It feels loosely like a kind of writers co-operative, but a competitive one in which writers have to earn their place (and a share of the resultant income stream) by securing a certain number of new subscribers (and to continue building more subscribers over time). Writers get 70% of their subscribers’ cash, and the surplus goes into a collective bonus pot to reward those whose stories receive the most recommendations, thereby incentivising consistent high quality writing.

Crucially though, the writer still owns the rights to the pieces produced, and they can be published elsewhere or sold on to media outlets to further monetise their work. This might be a great option for a writer looking to work through a big issue in small chunks, and who needs stable baseline support to cover their basic costs whilst waiting to get the pieces accepted by bigger publications.

A second attempt at a subscription model is Uncoverage, which is being set up by Israel Mirsky. Mirsky, recognising both the increasing marginalisation of investigative journalism, and professional journalists’ need for ongoing financing (‘serial funding’), is explicitly targeting the site at professional investigative journalists. Like Beacon, the goal is to establish a subscriber base for individual journalists, but unlike Beacon the ambition is also to create an ‘open, lean newsroom’ that provides a suite of key services like fact-checking, editing, legal support and technology solutions.

Alternative model 3: The ‘credit union’ approach

In the examples discussed above, the ‘crowd’ is mostly conceived of as readers who wish to financially support the quality journalism they enjoy. What if the crowd was given a closer role in the actual article production process though? That’s what Contributoria attempts to add in. When one becomes a member, you get the right to pitch articles to be funded, but also to financially support other’s articles, and to offer editorial advice to those who you’ve backed.

It thus has the feeling of a true writers’ co-operative, or perhaps a credit union for journalism in which members support each other. This very article, for example, was originally pitched on Contributoria, but in joining I got to vote for other articles I want to see, including Joel Benjamin’s guide to Freedom of Information requests, and Dom Aversano’s exploration of city soundscapes. This also gave me the right to provide input into those articles. As a user of the platform I am thus a hybrid between a receiver of funding, and giver of funding, a receiver of editorial services and giver of editorial services.

Right now though, Contributoria is in beta phase, and is free to join, which means it still hasn’t started asking members to pay dues. It will be fascinating to see how the process is managed going forward. Could it become a vibrant self-sustaining community of writers, readers and editors, or will members’ dues need to be supplemented with money from external sponsors? Another key question is how to incentivise members to devote time to checking each other’s articles. Could editors and writers team up to be funded together?

Democratic commons in commercial context

The diverse crowfunding platforms discussed above have a number of common themes. Firstly, they set themselves against both corporate-backed media (in developed countries) and state-backed media (in developing countries) by offering a technological means to decentralise funding, and thereby to ‘democratise journalism’.

Their claim to democratisation rests on the assertion that they both maintain independence of journalists, but also give voice to journalists that might otherwise be ignored. This message is complemented by the claim that this can be a sustainable way of financing high quality journalism (after all, a platform might be democratic, but that’s no guarantee of quality or long-term viability).

Secondly, the platforms are converging on a model of prepayment by some, for the common benefit of all. In contrast to the buyer of a magazine, who purchases content once it is produced (and thereby pays back the original financiers and publisher), the crowdfunding backer in essence prepays for material that will be developed in the future, and thereby brings production of the material into being.

That said, although the core body of funders bring an article to life, they frequently do not have exclusive access to the material, but rather subsidise the broader public who will get access to the stories too (via, for example, the articles being published elsewhere on a Creative Commons license). In essence, private individuals are holding the commons open for others to use, in much the same way as Wikipedia gets supported by donations from a small percentage of its users.

Interesting, and potentially conflicting, commercial dynamics emerge from this. We could argue that what the crowd is actually doing is shielding a writer from normal media commissioning processes – whether those are corporate or state led – maintaining the independence of the journalist to the point where an article is ready to be released into the public. In the cases where the journalist retains the rights to the article though, and the resultant piece is then sold on, we could also argue that the crowd is subsidising media companies who would otherwise have to take on the risk of commissioning work.

If this was to become widespread practice, we could begin to see a separation of journalism production from distribution. Platforms like Uncoverage might begin to serve a role analogous to a literary agent, providing a platform to develop quality journalism which is then cherrypicked by publishing outlets. We could conceivably even see the emergence of journalism ‘offtake agreements’, media companies offering advance guarantees to publish content if it gets initially funded by the crowd.

The reader as creative producer


But what kind of reader is prepared to fund articles which may then be used by the broader public or potentially even commercial media outlets? Perhaps it is a new sort of reader, seeking a more active, creative role.

The irony of our information-saturated era is that in the face of overwhelming amounts of content, people feel a sense of ‘opportunity cost’ to engaging with it, the perception that committing to reading anything must entail not reading something else which is also available. Thus, many people find themselves skimming a lot shallowly but reading very little deeply. It’s questionable whether a person browsing websites every day absorbs any more information than a person in 1897 with a single weekly newspaper.

The real question then, is how to create a society with wide access to diverse media, but one in which people actually engage with such media meaningfully. One might imagine, as a thought experiment, a giant benevolent foundation that funds all manner of amazing content, only to dump it into people’s already saturated Facebook newfeeds. True democratisation is not just about what content gets created. It’s about how people use and act on that content. Is an article about corporate fraud just another dramatic item in a stream of flickering entertainment passing by you each day, or is it actually something that might make you get out onto the streets to protest?

Creating a decentralised crowdfunding infrastructure perhaps offers one means of combining the creation of diverse content with a new means of connecting with it. People who have prepayed for content in the knowledge that they are helping to bring forth unique critical voices, are also people who wish to move past being mere passive consumers of media. Instead, they are hybrid producer-consumers with an interest in critically engaging with the content they helped bring to life. And perhaps it is in the development of this new type of participatory reader that the true democratic potential of crowdfunding lies.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brett,

    I found this article very interesting, and found it evoked a lot of questions. Here are a couple of my thoughts on it:

    Even with a large number of supporters, do independent journalists like Greg Palast have the money and resources to be able to fend off serious legal challenges from corporations or governments? One of the reasons Glenn Greenwald gave for being part of First Look Media, was being part of an organisation with large financial backing, so its journalists could afford to be adversarial. It makes me question whether 'independent journalists' should form collectives (perhaps they do?), retaining their editorial independence, but providing them with shared resources/workspaces/and collectively pooled money for defence against legal challenges.

    The example you gave about 'Matter' raises a point about economic relationships in journalism. By crowdfunding their journalism Matter will have given a substantial amount of money to the Amazon owned Kickstarter, and will provide journalism to Medium (I assume) for free. I doubt it is their ideal situation - financially or journalistically. Of course, being compromised like this is nothing new. I pointed out to the environmental journalist George Monbiot the contradiction of his video on flooding on the Guardian website being preceded by an advert for a Mazda; rather than being defensive, he was supportive of the point. With the Internet it seems desirable to filter out as many exploitive economic interactions as possible, so the economic interactions and the journalism are aligned.

    If and how this can be done is difficult to imagine, but perhaps with a few more technological leaps it will become clearer.

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