Paying for journalism: Community-based crowdfunding

Corey Hutchins at CJR does a good job rounding up the issues, pro and con, surrounding the News & Record’s agreement for arts coverage with ArtsGreensboro. I won’t repeat them.

But because we’re talking about experimenting with new business models for reporting information, let’s take it a step further: community-based crowdfunding of coverage topics.

Steve Buttry suggested it on Facebook last week when he read of the N&R’s arrangement. The idea is simple to articulate, and, certainly, not so simple to execute. But Tim Howard didn’t become the most popular man in America because his role was simple. Rather than contracting with a specific organization or business for coverage, the paper would ask the community what additional coverage it wants and solicit contributions to fund that coverage.

More coverage of UNC sports? Or, in Greensboro, more coverage of A&T sports? More coverage of nightlife? More coverage of the quality of schools. Investigative reporting of governmental practices. The possibilities are endless.¬†When I was at the News & Record and we canceled our New York Times subscriptions, readers called me and offered to pay more so that we would publish Tom Friedman. That’s how devoted readers are to certain topics.

Aside from the financial reward, there are two primary benefits to this method:

First, it permits the community of readers to weigh in on what it wants. As I said earlier, I’m sure that the News & Record readers appreciate additional coverage of the arts, but I doubt it is in the top 5 or even 10 areas desired. My memory of our surveys indicated that education and local government coverage were highly rated. But I am also aware that surveys lie. So, ask readers straight up — in person, in print and online. My observation is that they will tell you straight up, if you just ask. And asking brings engagement and buy-in, both qualities news organizations want.

Second, it spreads the funding responsibility among the entire community of readers. Everyone has the opportunity to give money to supplement a topic of interest. This avoids the sense that one major organization or business is underwriting the coverage. For instance, neither the Sierra Club nor Duke Energy should be sponsoring environmental coverage. But if the entire community is contributing to coverage, there is no “funding overlord.” It seems fairer and less likely to draw accusations of favoritism or bias.

The other advantage in the funding model is that you have less worry about the major underwriter withdrawing. If, after a year, ArtsGreensboro decides the investment isn’t worth it, will the paper go back to its former arts coverage? Readers won’t like that. Under the community-based model, the funding is more diverse.

The obvious hurdle is how to make it work: Will you get enough money? Who will do the additional reporting? How will you avoid the complaints from those who want you to report on their pet areas and reflect their biases? How do you monitor who is donating? Should you monitor who is donating?

Smart people in newsrooms and in the community can answer these questions. (They aren’t really that difficult to answer. Executing them may be.)

Kickstarter has shown that people will invest in good ideas without expectation of a direct payback. “Backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not to profit financially.” ¬†Other sites — the CJR article links to some — use non-traditional funding models. But neither I nor Steve are familiar with any newspapers that have attempted community-based crowdfunding.

An offshoot could be that as newspapers erect paywalls, they could crowdfund additional content behind that paywall to entice people to pay for the subscription. Or, if the interest is high enough, they could create a pay-only site on the topic and let contributors have access.

Experimentation by journalistic organizations is vital, and newspapers don’t experiment enough. For that, I applaud the News & Record. So, let’s push the experimentation even further.

What is there to lose in giving it a shot? Not much other than time, as far as I can see. So, in the spirit of innovative experimentation, will someone please try it?