Something incredible is happening in journalism and it has nothing to do with BuzzFeed

Khari Johnson. Photo by Jaryl Cabuco.
When I officially started working at Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism last October, I was very excited to get my hands dirty. I was also a little uneasy about entering somewhat unfamiliar waters. Even though I have launched a project on Kickstarter, crowdfunding was still a relatively new thing for me.

Khari gave me a chance to look deeper into this new way to make storytelling possible and together we’ve searched for and found stories that we can share daily, stories with good ideas that media companies big and small can emulate.

I’ve known Khari for more than four years and have found him to be not just a talented reporter and photographer but a diligent leader who really cares, not just about crowd journalism but about diversity too. He cares who covers the news and how to get those projects noticed. Plus he’s not such a bad guy from what I can tell (If your mom says she loves you, check it out!).

So to continue our series of interviews with Through the Cracks staff, here’s his answer to five questions that can tell you a little more about who he is and why this website exists.

Through the Cracks: When was the last time you laughed until you cried?

Johnson: I’ve been binge listening to the podcast “Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period” and a while back they were talking about how Samuel L. Jackson refuses to run in movies, even though he’s a part of the Marvel Avengers series. That made me laugh for a good while but on another episode they were talking to an actor who worked with him on a play in the 1970s and he said Sam. L spent a lot of time in the dressing room watching TV and yelling at contestants on Family Feud.

So now I’ve got this visual of a man who refuses to run in an action movie today and who spent part of the 1970s yelling at game show contestants. Toss in a visual from the back of my mind of his character in the movie “School Daze” (my little sister loves that movie) and this was all more than I could handle.

Through the Cracks: What are you working on right now?

Johnson: Mostly Through the Cracks. In my free time I look for work as a copywriter or freelance photographer and work on my Finnish.

Through the Cracks: What has surprised you about or captured your interest in crowdfunding journalism?

Johnson: The six or seven-figure campaigns always come as sort of a shock. I’m used to the idea now but when you see a documentary put in the effort then make $100,000, I can see why people sometimes place a lot of confidence in crowdfunding.

The most surprising thing for me is that you don’t need decades of experience or a million followers to have a successful campaign.

A great idea can travel fast, gain momentum and produce the seed money a storyteller needs to give an idea life. The idea that a reporter can identify a need, present a plan to the crowd and then have the seed money to explore and fill that need still blows me away. 

I’ve only seen a handful of business ventures in or outside journalism sustain themselves with reward-based crowdfunding alone.

Sometimes it’s part of a larger revenue model, but the idea that a new or nonexistent news outlet can get funding without the need to rely on a bank or venture capitalists seems unimaginable. It feels brand new and it’s just going to continue to grow and be considered a viable option.

Get a clear view and understanding of this possibility and it will change the way you think about journalism.

Through the Cracks: Why are you a journalist or photographer or generally awesome person?

Johnson: I got into journalism as a writer for my high school newspaper, The Foothill Echoes. I was the opinions editor but I think my first article was an interview with the head of the school English department. I wanted to know why students were required to read the work of a less than diverse group of authors in order to graduate. I was taken aback by the fact that my questions were taken seriously; that reporting can provide useful information, start a conversation or lead to change.

I’ve been asking questions ever since – about sports that aren’t always considered sports (Cardboard Tube Fighting League, Lingerie Football League, International Pillow Fight Day, etc.), about small businesses, crime, City Hall, local government and environmental issues, about national policies and politics, etc. You can see some of my work as a reporter and photographer at kjohnsonmedia.com.

As soon as I entered journalism the decline began so I’ve spent much of my professional life thinking about ways to provide communities sustainable sources of news.

My general interest in crowdsourcing started a few years ago.

Before creating this website, I worked with a team of freelancers and the crowd to build a news startup in Imperial Beach, Calif. It’s a city of less than 30,000 people that hadn’t received consistent coverage in decades and to my knowledge had never received daily coverage. It was one of the most educational and rewarding experiences of my life and I think collectively we were able to make an impact.

Through the Cracks: Why did you decide to become a contributor to Through the Cracks?

Johnson: Ha well I created this website, so… I started Through the Cracks for a few reasons that have evolved over time. 

For starters, I was frustrated because the only stories I could find about successful crowdfunding campaigns by media entrepreneurs were focused on the rare campaigns that raise $50,000 or more.

Those campaigns are incredibly important, especially when they supply the money necessary to stand up a news startup but money raised does not reflect the total value of a crowdfunding campaign in journalism.

Crowdfunding is a form of marketing, a way to deepen relationships with readers, increase engagement, fund experiments, etc. There are so many unique ways to incorporate crowdfunding that weren’t utilized or understood until just recently.

When you take a look at the way campaigns, big and small, are carried out and the sort of things they pay for you find innovation and interesting new approaches to make reporting and storytelling possible.

I was also concerned by the number of professional journalism organizations that have no training or guidance for journalists, photographers and documentary filmmakers.

This despite the fact that journalists aren’t trained to market but are encouraged to become entrepreneurs. We’re trained to characterize marketing as the dark side.

If journalism campaigns have underperformed in the past it may be due to the fact that asking for money and marketing are taboos or unnatural for journalists.

I think it’s asking a bit much to expect journalists to just dive in so we share these stories to inspire good ideas and reveal the challenges and benefits other storytellers, photographers, documentary makers etc. have encountered.

Another reason I made this website is to spread ideas that may benefit communities that lack coverage today, whether they’re a local community or a specific niche.

There are entire communities around America and the world who are typically overlooked or were deemed unworthy of consistent coverage by previous media business models. The applications of crowdfunding in journalism seem narrow to me right now. I’m anxious to see this spread.

Should media entrepreneurs or a community decide they want to build something then crowdfunding may act as a good gauge of public interest.

Sometimes people in new media talk about crowdfunding as a way to fund an alternative to traditional media. I think in some cases crowdfunding can give people options where few or no options exist today. Crowdfunding may be part of a solution to ensure people have the information they need to make good decisions, to be good neighbors and to be active citizens.

Finally, among some reporters who cover the media there has been this fixation on BuzzFeed, New York Times, Vice and Vox, both in regular coverage and talk of the future of journalism.

If innovation happens at the edges then BuzzFeed, Vox and the like may be at one end of the news startup spectrum but some of the news startups brought to life by crowdfunding may be on the other end. 

This site was created cognizant of the fact that roughly 40 percent of all online journalists in America work for websites where the staff is young, the news organization is young and the average number of employees is three or less.

I’ve read about all I can about the inner workings of these other news outlets. A funding model that may help supply communities with the info they need though? That’s really exciting.

It’s also worth remembering that BuzzFeed began as an experiment and crowdfunding has been called a research and development lab for journalism.

Crowdfunding gives us insights into crowdfunded news startups, most of which are less than a year old. That’s unique and to my knowledge cannot be found anywhere else.

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Carlos Moreno
Carlos is a freelance photojournalist and part-time fashion staff photographer at Designer Studio Inc. He is based in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico and does freelance work across California, Baja California and beyond. Carlos is the co-founder and photography / Latin America editor of Through the Cracks. He is also a photo contributor at Getty Images. When he is not taking photos, he is a photo mentor at Las Fotos Project branch of Tijuana.

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