10 BFD takeaways from the past for the future of journalism

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A newsstand on 34th Street in New York City. Credit: Lorna.

Public Insight Network recently announced the official end of Spot.us.

But before the pioneer crowdfunding journalism website goes wherever it is crowdfunding platforms go to die, Through the Cracks decided to take a look back at two illuminating studies that reveal the relationship between funders and journalists and the wisdom of the crowds.

Both reveal some incredible things for journalists who want to crowdfund and the future of journalism in general.

We begin with the work of Tanja Aitamurto, deputy director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford University. She interviewed seven journalists and eight donors to Spot.us campaigns to try and determine the impact of crowdfunding on journalism.

Before you dive in, keep in mind that Spot.us centered its attentions on communities in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Also Spot.us donors were free to donate money or skills and that standards for what is considered an acceptable story may vary depending on the platform.

1. Unlike newsrooms, crowdfunding can be treated like a research and development lab for journalists.

Interviews conducted by Aitamurto (and the kind we do everyday) make clear that crowdfunding takes most journalists out of their comfort zones, a departure that can assist the process of discovery.

“The models in traditional publications prevent journalists and publications from experimenting, and therefore learning new from experiments,” she wrote.

Learning what your audience is willing to pay for is a pretty important lesson that may be even more important as journalists consider funding models that go beyond ads and page views. It may also be a good forerunner to the creation of a niche news website.

2. Readers were no longer seen as passive recipients but active investors who expect a return on investment.

A direct connection to readers made journalists see readers as investors and gave some who were interviewed a feeling of obligation to deliver for someone who chose to invest in their work.

It is more than having it written in a nice style and formatted properly, things you worry about for an editor. You worry more about the accuracy, really honest reporting and presenting the issues correctly, because these people have directly invested in you.
– Reporter, 22 years old

3. Instead of editors or peers, in the world of participatory journalism the crowd can act as gatekeepers and decide what’s worth reporting.

“Thus, the community actually takes on the gatekeeper role for the public sphere, the role that used to belong to editors in established news publications,” Aitamurto said.

The crowd as editor helps identify the kinds of stories that will be popular and is important in an increasingly social world where readers expect the ability to participate. It also plays into the notion that there is wisdom in the collective voice.

This interview was published in early 2011 at a time when social media, another crowd editor, was not as utilized or part of the job as it is today. Crowdfunding is still different.

“When a donor donates for a pitch, he or she uses their judgment, and supports a story she thinks is important. When these decisions accumulate, they illustrate the power of the crowd in story topics.”

Journalists interviewed by Aitamurto said “…the practices and interests in traditional publications do not often match the interests of the public, and furthermore, that these practices create more distance between the public and journalism by covering irrelevant topics, or using outdated models when practicing journalism.”

4. Ethics concerns can get in the way of journalists raising money in crowdfunding.

For some journalists, asking for money to make journalism possible had become a taboo.

“I’m a journalist, not a salesperson. I can’t make myself go out and promote my pitch,” one reporter told Aitamurto.

Some reporters interviewed said a need to approach funders crashed against the church and state separation of reporting and financing they were used to in the past.

I’m a journalist, not a salesperson.

“These reporters are socialized in the old role of journalist, which does not include the marketing part of a pitch,” Aitamurto said.

5. A sense of responsibility to the donor that goes beyond approval from colleagues and “beyond professionally motivating.” 

Reporters, moreover, find it rewarding to have a direct connection with community members since this makes them feel they are working directly to the public rather than to editors,” Aitamurto wrote.

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Reporters notebook. Credit: Roger Goun.

6. Journalists think asking for money can feel like begging with a tin can.

Quotes from two journalists interviewed:

“And then I just do wonder… I do want to meet my fundraising goal. But on the other hand I’m really hesitant to send out that e-mail or put up on Facebook, ‘Hey, I’ve got this pitch going you know, think about donating.’ I just don’t feel comfortable doing that.” (Reporter, 31 years old)

“It [pitching in public] almost feels unprofessional sometimes, and I feel like that was hard for me to swallow. I have a lot of pride. I like to think that I’m self-sufficient and it almost felt like begging. It felt like asking for donations and I had mixed feelings about that.” (Reporter, 25 years old)

7. The need to market a story in public and hope for approval is a brand new experience for most journalists that has never really existed before.

Whereas before the story was often a secret to the journalist, editor and a few colleagues until the moment it was published, with crowdfunding your idea is public (for sources and competitors to see) before it has been reported. Some reporters said they were worried they would get scooped while others felt they could readjust and move the story forward if another outlet wrote the story first.

The relationship and reporting process can benefit from a crowdsourcing approach to journalism following a crowdfunding campaign, editors at De Correspondent and Contributoria recently told Journalism.co.uk.

8. Pictures of individual donors can have an impact on a reporter’s psyche.

Because Spot.us allowed donors to use pictures on their profile page, some journalists said they remembered donors’ faces when they reported the story.

And even then, writing for a magazine, I don’t think that I’ve felt the same responsibility for the individual buying the $5 magazine as I would if someone gave me $5 to do my story. But then that made me feel very personally invested in it. It made me work a lot harder I think. Then I felt like they are individuals that I wanted to impress and do right by.

9. That intense bond reporters feel? It isn’t always mutual.

Donors did not express the same kind of bond that reporters said they felt.

Most donors Aitamurto interviewed (six of seven) were journalists, journalism students or otherwise interested in journalism who wanted to support an innovative approach and investigative journalism , so the chance to support an innovative approach to journalism and investigative journalism were considerable factors.

They primarily chose to support reporting that impacts their lives or those of people in their lives, like a college employee who supports an investigation into affairs at the college or a long distance commuter’s interest in the bullet train.

10. Very often donors gave because they like the journalism, not the journalist. They want to advocate for something they believe in or the kinds of stories they think there should be more of in the world.

Donors weren’t interested in returning to Spot.us to read the finished product but they were interested in seeing the story make an impact.

“This leads into a thought: if we gave readers the possibility of seeing the impact of a story, for example changes in legislation or societal practices, readers would be more interested in following up the story process, and maybe, even more interested in paying for the story,” Aitamurto said.

“Journalism takes its role as a catalyst for change often times for granted and does not help readers to see the connection between journalism and change. That is why readers do not see the value of journalism.”

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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