Tanja Aitamurto on crowdfunding and the future of narrative journalism
Yesterday’s Storyboard post was on ”Finding Dolly Freed,” an innovative approach to narrative journalism. For that story, we shared comments on the project from Tanja Aitamurto, a researcher at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, who did a case study on Spot.Us and has a particular interest in crowdfunded journalism. She had additional interesting thoughts on the future of long-form reporting in the digital era, and so we wanted to offer readers more of our conversation with her.
How do you define crowdfunded journalism?
When we talk crowdsourcing or crowdfunding, it’s how we are using collective intelligence in journalism. Crowdfunding is one of the new revenue models. It’s about building a new relationship to readers. It’s also about empowering readers in a new way.
One way to describe crowdfunding is that it’s like decentralized editorial power. In a crowdfunded journalism process—if we think about Spot.Us model, for instance—there’s not the old, traditional news operation, they don’t have a role as gatekeepers anymore.
The readers at the Spot.Us community can decide what kinds of stories they want to read. They donate money or talent—meaning time—for the story topics they want the most. It’s making a connection between the readers and the reporters, and the traditional journalism organization doesn’t have any role. It’s a bit radical in a way, but on the other side of the coin is where traditional news organizations buy a story, and donors can get their money back.
What do you think are the most interesting examples that we’ve seen of crowdfunded journalism so far?
Kickstarter is another good site—not just for journalism; they do other kinds of work as well. We have seen the same development in music in SellaBand, a site where for people who produce—meaning write, play or sing—music.
What do you think we can learn from the “Finding Dolly Freed” experiment?
I think it’s a great idea. I’m very excited about this project. It shows that people are willing to pay for in-depth journalism, not just blog posts or news stories. Some of these stories take a long time to produce; they’re complicated and involve deep relationships with sources. You see this with “Dolly Freed.” When the reader decides to donate, is there any better reward for a journalist than that—to actually have your readers pay to support you? Your actual readers pay you for the story. You might even see that relationship become more of a fan relationship.
Also then the journalist can be seen as a sensemaker, an expert that the reader has hired. In the Dolly Freed case, the reader says, “Okay, this writer is an expert. I’ll support her.”
What was interesting in my case study of Spot.Us, when I asked donors why they donated, they said the first reason they donated was because the story was relevant. For example, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. These people might be using the Bay Bridge all the time, so they want more information. But they also said they wanted to support a good cause. So it’s not only about the specifics of a one-time news story, it’s also about supporting a good cause.
The CJR piece on Williams’ story discussed the notion of prospective vs. retrospective funding, of which “Finding Dolly Freed” is the latter. Do you have anything to say about either model?
I think we need them both, because in the retrospective model, you can actually have a beginner show up and do the story as a part-time reporter or after their day job. When they show they have the skills and the talent, and people donate, they can get funding for future projects.
In the Spot.Us model, the prospective approach seems to work well for journalists who are already established. Of course, Linsdey Hoshaw, who wrote the garbage patch story, is not a veteran journalist, and she managed to raise thousands of dollars for her story.
Long-form narrative has been described as being problematic online. Does crowdfunding have any specific potential as a way to do long-form journalism?
Right now, online is not the best way to read a long-form story. You don’t want to read it on your laptop or your screen, but as E-readers and tablets become friendlier and more popular, things will change. There’s a term called “device convergence,” meaning this range of devices we use are moving toward one specific device. In the future, we won’t need a mobile and a laptop—we will likely use one device. When the long-form reading experience becomes more pleasant, the attitude toward long-form online reading will change. The reader experience will change over time.
Also when we think of long-form journalism, there is definitely a need. We can see that people are willing to pay for it. There is a movement called “slow journalism,” that emphasizes the role of the journalist as a sensemaker for the reader.
If you look at, for example, TechCrunch or Talking Points Memo, or ReadWriteWeb, sometimes the most popular stories they have might be very long, but they might be very analytic. I would call them long essays in a way. So I wouldn’t be worried about long-form, because device convergence will take care of the reading experience.
But what kind of topics will people find appealing enough? That’s the fascinating thing with crowdfunding. With traditional news organizations, when they don’t have the role of gatekeeper anymore, the community gets to decide. Then the readers get exactly what they want.
What kind of crowdfunding models do you think would be most promising? What would you like to see people trying?
I can see two different directions. I’m pretty sure these will be realized in the near future. I can see crowdfunding used more and more in established news organizations, so they offer more investigative stories and more time-consuming stories. They might franchise the Spot.Us model. I could see a local newspaper doing a special investigative story and saying, “Okay, we have this story topic. If you want to see this story, please donate.” Even if it had very traditional model of funding otherwise, they can use crowdfunding as an additional revenue stream.
I also see Spot.Us connecting freelancers with readers in a more and more direct way. Given what’s happening in the industry, it seems that there will be more freelancers anyway. Those freelancers will need to sell their stories.
The retrospective model for the Dolly Freed project may become more popular. But first there needs to be a platform to make the donating part as seamless an experience as possible.
Do you think emerging funding models will change the way we tell or build stories?
One thing that I noticed in my Spot.Us research is that even now the crowdfunding revenue model encourages reporters to experiment with story topics and how to produce a piece, to experiment with sources and information. It’s encouraging journalists to be more innovative. I think that’s a great idea.
We can see many of these things happening on Spot.Us already. Most of the reporters pitching on Spot.Us, they blog about the story as they’re working on it. They treat it as an ongoing process, and share the process with the readers. I found out in my research that reporters feel a shared ownership with the readers. They feel that they don’t own the story—not in the sense of being unprofessional—but that the readers have ownership of the story, too. Traditionally, journalists own the story. You research, talk to sources, write the story, fight with your editor about what it will look like. It’s yours.
Will new funding models change what actual stories get done?
It’s pretty early to know that. For example, Spot.Us just turned one year old. But the stories that get funded there, that are successful, seem to be about environment, education, local things concerning infrastructure, and power—“where is the power in Silicon Valley?” I see all these topics as valuable for a democratic society, so I wouldn’t worry so much about these kinds of topics not getting covered. But since crowdfunding is such a new approach, there are things we will improve on over the years. How do we pitch the stories so they can actually raise money? Is there a worry about promising too much or becoming too commercial just to raise the money, but then the story can’t deliver?
It’s a kind of power shift to the reader. I’m a journalist, too. Sometimes we have the idea that we know what other people need, but oftentimes people know better than we do. That’s the whole point of crowdfunding and collective intelligence. As far as “Dolly Freed,” I’d love to see more like this. These kinds of efforts are the only way for us to find out what kind of revenue models are possible.