Four ways crowdfunding for news is going to change journalism

Four ways crowdfunding for news is going to change journalism

Editor's note: Uncoverage, a new site that will "power investigative journalism that matters" via crowdsourced funding has been gaining significant media attention over the past few days, including a story in the New York Times. We thought you'd like to hear about this new venture straight from Uncoverage's founder, Israel Mirsky. 

Democratizing patronage for the news isn’t simply about rejigging the Kickstarter model for journalism.

It’s about looking at the nature of the business models for news that have worked in the past, and figuring out how to use technology to transfer the power and effect of the business model and value exchange implicit in patronage for news from the few to the many. This is what happened when the Internet transformed media by democratizing publishing and advertising, taking the ability to broadcast a message or story to as many people as would listen from the hands of a very few with printing presses and making it something that anyone could do, and be paid back for doing.

What about patronage must we democratize for the value exchange to be made available to the many? When a wealthy industrialist becomes a patron of a paper, part of the implication is not only that he will run the business, but also that he will, through employing specific editorial and journalistic voices, have a say in what kinds of things get written about. These people patronize whole papers, not only individuals or handpicked groups of journalists, because they know that the voices they sponsor will have the editorial and legal support they need to execute trustable, high quality work, and that the work product will be taken seriously because it has had the supervision of the editors and fact checkers who stake their reputations on the stories they write. 

That’s the key difference between crowdfunding and democratized patronage for news.

Crowdfunding platforms that don’t explicitly maintain the contract between the public patrons and the journalists doing the work don’t command trust, quality or momentum. Developing technical mechanisms that democratize the action of patronage - serial, momentum focused funding at the topical and journalist levels, editorial oversight, fact checking and legal - is the path forward to making patronage something that anyone can do. Otherwise, they’re just crowdfunding. 

What will happen when this begins to work? 

1. Democratizing patronage will change the de facto model that the value of online investigative journalism-not other content-is best measured and paid for based on attention garnered. Topically relevant investigative journalism, grumpy cat and opinion-based top ten lists- this post included, are not equivalent in value to the public even when equivalent in attention. They are, however, mostly treated that way by the advertising business model for content, which assigns that content a dynamic dollar value based on its ability to garner attention and conversions from the audiences that a brand wants to reach. This isn’t a bad thing, except that it means that deeply researched, expensive pieces like investigative journalism are riskier and harder to pay for than other types of content. Crowdfunding will change the business model for news by enabling the public with a powerful ability to signal which content they believe has the most value by funding the production of more of it. 

2. As a result, crowd-patronage will help increase the amount of news content that is investigative in nature by providing focused funding that improves the financial case for that content. If, for example, a given piece of investigative journalism is about corruption in prisons, millions of families of inmates across the US may feel a deep emotional connection to that piece and to the journalist who wrote it, because the issue has affected their lives. Instead of demonstrating their high opinion of the content solely by sharing that piece to social networks, they can dimensionalize the value they feel the piece has by funding more investigation on the issue. 

It’s not that the ad dollars are wrong and the crowdfunding model is right; we need both for publishers to do their work effectively and provide the content that audiences want to spend time with. In a world where every publishers eye is focused on the ROI of the work they produce, an additional mode of funding deeper investigative and public interest content could dramatically change the ROI of those types of pieces, taking them from a potential net loss to a net gain. 

3. Crowd-patronage will rebalance the equation between the editor and the journalist. Personalities and brands are a major driver of crowdfunding projects -personalizing the individual and team crowdfunding for a given project is an essential part of garnering the trust of the public. That means funds will be accruing directly to the journalists, via the pitches they post for public funding and the subscription funding model for journalists that we are creating. 

When journalists come to the table with money of their own, the nature of the relationship with the editor changes. Instead of a sometimes paternalistic “do this or else” attitude, the journalist and editor are partners in the production of a piece, with the common goal of creating serious, trusted content that the audience will connect to. 

4. Crowd-patronage will bring journalism into full contact with the question of viewpoint. I’m a big proponent of the “View from Somewhere,” Jay Rosen’s contention that journalists shouldn’t pretend that they don’t have biases by excising their viewpoints from their pieces. Instead, he contends, journalists should disclose them, enriching the content produced with context and providing a realistic understanding to the reader of the lenses through which their work should be viewed.

When the primary success of a journalist changes from creating pieces that attract significant attention to creating pieces that the audience wants to pay for more of, the View from Somewhere goes from being a potential liability (appeal to fewer people as some will not share your viewpoint) to being a potential asset (appeal to fewer people who are more highly motivated to pay for more) 

That doesn’t mean journalists get to write whatever they want or that they aren’t subject to fact-checking. It is each journalists choice how to proceed. But I believe that joining responsible investigative journalism to viewpoint will result in more success with funding more of the investigations that we as a democracy desperately need. 

Israel Mirsky is the founder of Uncoverage, a platform for democratizing patronage for investigative journalism. When not working, he's reading the news. To learn more about and support Uncoverage, please visit them on their Indiegogo campaign page.

Photo: Uncoverage homepage courtesy of their Indiegogo campaign

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