Crowdfunding a Journalist? Huffington Post is Doing it Wrong
Over the last few weeks I, like many people, have been voraciously devouring every bit of media coverage I can find on the events happening in Ferguson after the murder of Michael Brown. I’ve been watching national outlets like Al Jazeera, locals like Riverfront Times, nightly videos from Vice, personal Vine’s from Alderman Anthony French, reading impact pieces from Colorlines and personal stories from local residents running on international platforms like the Guardian.
As a reporter who in my non-Care2 life spends most of my time writing about abortion and reproductive rights in red state and rural communities, especially in the Midwest and South, I deal with the conflicting pride and annoyance that comes from national attention finally arriving in local areas, and seeing an east and west coast spotlight finally drawn to the stories that those of us off the seaboards have been watching play out for years. As a reporter, I often pitch a story to a national outlet only to hear that they just can’t see how it will appeal to a national audience, or that these “local” stories just aren’t big enough to justify the resources.
It’s hard to convince a national news outlet that anything in flyover land is a national story until you present them with a tragedy. By then, of course, it’s too late.
From Ferguson to Moral Mondays, it’s clear that we need more national attention on movement and local political stories. Once the Missouri shooting happened and statistics like police profiling came into play, it was obvious that the Brown situation was always on the brink in that town. Once the tanks rolled in and the police armed up, we learned exactly how many other police squadrons have been plied with military equipment that can be used in similar “crowd control” situations.
Huffington Post has a novel response to this revelation. The outlet is “crowdsourcing” a Ferguson reporter to continue on the ground work on the story, working together with Beacon Reader and even offering Kickstarter-like perks for donors. It’s a novel move from an outlet that in previous years had their own “Off the Bus” cadre of local reporters who did work from areas all over the country, covering politics and campaigns in their own neighborhoods. Then there was that period of time when Patch was all over the nation, doing hyper local news. Why, now that they need an actual reporter to stay behind in Ferguson and supply them with stories, are they asking their readers to foot the bill?
Huffington Post may be doing it wrong, but what they are doing is fairly emblematic of where a number of journalists find themselves heading in an all freelance, hyper-specific news beat world. As freelancers spend more time pitching and less time writing, and continue to grow their own audiences independent of their publications thanks to social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Vine, and with access to more publication tools thanks to ebooks, blog sites and Tumblrs, more writers are feeling the need to strike out on their own, leaving behind the media gatekeepers that mainstream and indie media outlets represent.
It’s an experiment I myself have been dabbling in for the last few months, as I’ve attempted to grow my own media project, Clinic Stories. As I continued to visit more abortion clinics across the country, talking to abortion supporters and opponents, I wanted to spend more time writing about what was happening in the areas where abortion access has all but disappeared, and do more in depth reporting of how we got to that point.
Pitching articles, however, I often met with resistance from editors who didn’t have interest in longform, or didn’t want to look at a clinic unless it was the only one in the state, or thought that a historical perspective was too intellectually complex for their audiences. In short, I heard repeatedly that my ideas weren’t a “national” story.
Maybe they weren’t. But they were interesting enough that, when presented on a fundraising platform, they have convinced far more people than I ever thought possible to donate thousands of dollars to see them in print. And, thanks to those supporters, soon that will be a reality.
Crowdsourcing journalism, for good or for bad, will likely play an important role in the next phase of new media. More reporters will be able to reject the general media gatekeepers that get to decide what is or isn’t a story worthy of a national audience’s attention, and put their reporting directly in front of the audience itself for its opinion. If the author is right, his or her work will continue to be funded. If they are wrong, a project will die, and new ideas will need to be pitched. When reporters go to crowdsourcing for funding, it’s a true democracy, part marketing, part Darwinian survival of the fittest.
However, when media outlets do it, it’s an act of cowardice. It is an outlet saying they do not believe enough in their own reporter to invest in him or her, and they want others (including the reporter, who has to help generate a following) to take all of the risk. It also means they do not believe enough in their own editing team to be able to assign and cultivate quality work necessary justify taking a risk in hiring that person.
Crowdsourcing journalism is likely the wave of the future, but, in HuffPo’s case, this campaign seems like little more than an attempt to cash in on the interest in Ferguson, a story the media should have been allotting resources to long before it became a tragedy.
Photo credit: Thinkstocl