Thursday, December 2, 2010

Crowdfunding and Journalism: Problems and Solutions

Crowdfunding can be thought of as crowdsourcing with a professional twist. Instead of harnessing Web 2.0’s ability to turn the audience into the producers, it turns the audience into the financiers. This isn’t a new development; public radio has asked for donations from it’s viewership since it’s inception. Only a few weeks ago, Wikipedia founder Larry Sanger made a public appeal to Wiki users to donate money in order to keep Wikipedia ad-free and running. But, as with any revolutionary idea, a beta phase is needed to discover problems and tweak. Crowdfunding in journalism is in its beta phase, some sites are more successful than others, but all are experiencing a fly in the ointment: who pays and who plays (writes)?

The most notable example is the nonprofit start up of the Center for Media Change. According to the creators is, “an open source project to pioneer community powered reporting.” Through Spot.Us the public can commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics. Upon opening the site, the top stories that may or may not be show status bars of how much has been donated by interested readership and how much is still needed to make this story a reality.

Advantages of this model are obvious. Crowdfunding cuts costs by more than just the salaries journalists are paid to do their jobs. It saves green through efficiency; a journalist does not have to waste time, energy, or money on a project until the seed money has been secured. Less obvious though is the improvement in quality of crowdfunded content. Many of the pieces of the modern newspaper (even new site) are designed and written to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A piece featuring violence or celebrity gossip usually attracts more attention that a re-imagining of the San Francisco’s waterfront (a November piece). There is no greater indicator of people’s support and interest than the dedication of their pocketbooks. Great, interesting stories garner funding and rise to the top.

Critics of this model have questioned the role of the professional journalist in this model. Does the writer of the piece matter? Other criticism has asked crowdfunding stories to make their donators available to public scrutiny. There is a concern that big corporations could infiltrate these sites and turn stories into fluff, PR pieces. Global For Me has been another notable example of crowdfunding per se, as it provides reporters for multi-national partners like Fox and BBC.

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