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Inspired union: strategies for journalism to flourish

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Fiona Cullinan, Christian Payne and Lucia Adams

Conference report by Tim Dawson

NUJ freelances displayed an innovative range of strategies to survive and prosper at a one-day conference.  A capacity audience packed the event to hear from more than twenty speakers describing initiatives including: instant-video documentary making, selling into new foreign markets, self-publishing via Kindle, and creating iPad app publications.

Other novel funding sources and work models included crowd-funding foreign photographic assignments, working as a journalist on behalf of brands, cross-funding journalism with authoring corporate ‘white papers’ and, a number of successful co-operatively produced publications.

The event, organised by the London Freelance Branch, aided by the NUJ’s Freelance Office, was held at the London Welsh Centre on 17 November 2012.  Open to all, in excess of 200 people attended, more than half of them women, many of whom contributed to the lively event with their own questions and experiences.

Among the highlights was photographer, Guy Smallman, who has undertaken numerous assignments in Afghanistan, most self-funded.  By entering the country as a non-embedded journalist he has been able to cover stories that were not accessible to colleagues who worked more closely with the military.  The reputation that he has built as a result has more recently enabled him to source crowd-funding larger projects.

Christian Payne (documentally.com) describes himself as a social technologist, multi-tasking communicator or blogger.  After a career as a staff and freelance photographer, he now blogs and makes video documentaries, some following his own interests, others as commercial assignments.

Payne’s total engagement with Twitter started when, after a car crash, he used the micro-blogging service to ask, ‘what do I do now?’  “It was the first point of using social channels when I wasn’t bragging about myself.  I showed some humility, made myself look an arse and loads of people came to my aid.  At that point I decided to embrace the networks and be a storymaker”, he said.

He subsequently made a video from photographs he had taken in Iraq.  When he realised that more people saw his pictures on YouTube than had seen the same photographs when they were published in national newspapers, he decided that he was on to something.  “Although I wasn’t being paid for my pictures, I was building this huge audience of people who were interested in me, and some of them started to offer me work”, he said.

Fiona Cullinan’s (fionacullinan.com) entré to blogging came during a slow spell while she had been booked to work for a contract publisher.  “I would suggest to every journalist that they blog – not necessarily to monetise what they are doing but as a digital playground and as a place to experiment and to show potential clients what you can do”, she said.  Using her blog as a hub, Cullinan started writing about how her working life was developing – particularly as subbing opportunities shrank.  Subsequently, six months emailing a digital agency where she wanted to work eventually bore fruit.

“Freelancing has been a rollercoaster – but it suits me”, said Hina Pandya (@hinapublish).  After a varied career, five years ago she decided to freelance full-time.  Since then, relentless networking and going with the flow of work have been her watchwords.  After becoming frustrated with commissioning editors who would not pay, she published her own travel guide as an eBook and said that sales, to date, have exceeded her expectations.  Commissioned by the Syfy tv channel to blog about a television program ‘Continum’, Pandya found that her related Tweets about the program gained a significant following.  The broadcaster subsequently agreed to pay her to publish in this way.  Her tips for aspirant freelances are to make pitches short and sharp, try to negotiate your fee upwards every time, and invest in your own training.

Huma Yusuf spoke about ‘Breaking the BRICs’ or the media markets in such emerging countries as Brazil, India, Russia and China.  “Media is booming in these countries”, she said.  “In India, newspaper sales are growing at a rate of 1.5% a year and the Times of India has a circulation of 4.3m”.  Much of the media is trying to operate 24/7 so there is a desperate thirst for content – particularly news about how their country is viewed abroad, how their countrymen conduct themselves or are perceived abroad or more general diaspora news.

To break into these markets, Yusuf suggested initially offering material to smaller titles – for example in India the magazines Caravan, the Far East Economic Review or Outlook.  With your reputation established in ‘the only market that matters – their own’, approaches can then be credibly made to larger titles such as The Times of India.  Happily, at least in the case of South Asia, editors tend to display their email addresses on their paper’s websites, and most are ‘addicted’ to social media.  Pay rates vary between $50 and $1,000 for 600 words.  The best way to up these rates, Yusuf suggested, is to offer ‘multi-media’ packages, as many Indian papers have very ‘snazzy websites’ that are perilously thin on content.

The issue of credibility in foreign markets was also addressed by Max Glaskin (@cyclingscience1).  Specialising in engineering and technology, 20 years ago he faxed his details to 150 US magazines.  The replies were few, but made clear that a ‘as a Limey he was unlikely to be able to understand the complexities of American culture’.  Six months later, however, he received a fax from ‘Biophotonics International’ seeking a European contributor.  With credibility established at one journal he picked up work from publications in the same stable – and was then able to use those contacts to leverage work on other US titles.

Work in south east Asia came via a friend who moved there, that Glaskin nagged for work.  When his pal moved on, Glaskin stuck with the title and then made himself known to his friend’s new publication.  “I never pitch stories”, he said.  “I simply let publications know that I am here and that I can supply them whatever they want, so long as it interests me.”  Once his reputation was made with one or two ex-pat journalists, word of his competence was passed around.

Examples discussed at the event varied between techniques that have allowed jobbing freelances to reach new clients and extend their workbase, and more substantial business ventures.  The magazine that Una Murphy edits in Belfast certainly falls into the latter category.  View is a free-to-download digital magazine serving Northern Ireland’s voluntary and community sector.  Set up with Brian Pelan, like Murphy, a 20-year media veteran, the monthly magazine received modest grant support to get it established, but now survives on advertising from suppliers to voluntary organisations.  It is now generating more than £2,000 a month in revenue and is well-established in its target market.

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of subscription investigative news service, Exaro (exaronews.com) said that although the traditional media model is breaking down, opportunities are also being thrown up.  “The real enemy of journalism is not Leveson, but accountants”, he said.  “Accountants told us that churning copy was more profitable than real journalism, and they were behind the budget cuts at the BBC.  But all over the place real journalism enterprises are springing up to meet real-news needs – so freelances should keep their eyes open, and if you can’t see what you are looking for, maybe do it yourself”.  Watts did warn, however, that freelance looking for work at Exaro should obey the old rule – check out the product first – and make sure that they have the right range of skills, experience and contacts for investigative journalism.

David Boyle the author of The Case For Media Co-ops described several publications that have enjoyed success anew, having adopted a co-operative model. The West Highland Free Press, for example, was bought by its 13 employees in 2009.  Today, they pay themselves well and, after servicing debt, make a return of two per cent on capital.

Marlborough News Online, in Wiltshire, was established as a workers’ co-operative by four journalists.   Providing news for a town without a newspaper, it already generates sufficient revenue to employ all four members for one day a week each and is ‘on track’ to increase this to full times jobs within five years, said Boyle.

At Ethical Consumer magazine, declining advertising revenue threatened the business’ survival.  An appeal to readers, however, raised an investment of £200,000.  The readers are now the magazine’s owners and receive a four percent return on their outlay.  “In the conventional media, the number of titles and reporters is down and so are circulations – but there are outliers where they are proving that local readers do want local content”, said Boyle.  “The great benefit of co-ops is that young talent is in the boardroom from the start, because all staff are involved”.

Alex Klaushofer, co-author of Help Yourself: New ways to make copyright pay, and joint editor of this site, (@alexklaushofer) highlighted a number of trends.  There is life yet in print, she suggested, citing The Blizzard, a quarterly journal of long-form writing about football.  The jury is out on advertising, with profitable hyperlocal news publications such as the Filton Voice (filtonvoice.co.uk) confounding predictions that the advertising model is definitively broken. Meanwhile, foundation and grant funding is supporting a range of new media from investigative heavy hitters ProPublica in the United States to village newsletter The Ambler, in Northumberland. But the States are considerably ahead of the UK in funding quality journalism, innovative practice and research into the changing media landscape, she observed.

Other initiatives mentioned at the event included Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s Downfall, the story of Glasgow Rangers’ recent travails that was spawned from a blog and has now sold more than 10,000 copies, the Berlin Newspaper Die Tageszeitung, which is owned by its 30,000 subscribers and The Bicycle Reader, a Kindle-only magazine whose first edition was produced with no capital and has already sold 1,000 copies.

Closing the conference, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stansistreet committed the NUJ to extending its services for freelance members.  “It is really clear to me that that this has been a fantastically useful day and as our industry is increasingly freelance, I know how important it is for you all to keep your skills up to date – but it is also good for me to hear from you what you need from the union”.  Stanistreet promised that contributions made during the day would inform the union’s work in the months to come.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 22nd, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Narratively: long, slow journalism from The City that Never Sleeps

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

The new longform website Narratively has attracted interest ‘beyond our wildest dreams’, according to founder Noah Rosenberg. Even before its launch earlier this month, coverage of the New York-based magazine has been wide, while expressions of support have come via social media from around the world.

Such enthusiasm, thinks Rosenberg, is a measure of the appetite for in-depth storytelling not dictated by the 24/7 news agenda, and of a desire to get under the skin of a city such as New York which could easily be replicated in other parts of the world.

‘I’ve realised we have a readership which is beyond our base in New York,’ he says. ‘There are people who want the “slow journalism” approach'”.

The finance for the first six months came via crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Rosenberg looked at other quality journalism projects and saw that longform science journalism project Matter, for example, hit its $50 000 target within a few days.

Rosenberg decided to adopt a similar approach for the start-up, and $53 000 was raised for Narratively. Meanwhile, the fundraising process created considerable publicity: ‘It’s not just a way to generate the money,’ he says. ‘It’s also a way to generate a tremendous amount of exposure.’

Narratively backers can choose from a series of packages which give you more involvement the more you pay. $10, for example, buys the opportunity to vote on the themes to be covered during the launch period, while for $10 000 the Narratively team will fly out and spend a week covering ‘under-the-radar human-interest stories from the location of your choice’. (No one, so far, has gone for this.) In between, are a range of packages which include dining events, customised products and the services of a photojournalist.

The Kickstarter appeal secured around 800 backers, a number of whom, Rosenberg admits, are close friends and family. The rest are made up of journalists passionate about the project and consumers looking forward to a good, in-depth read. The pledges he’s proudest to have secured, he says, are the lowest amounts, indicating a vote of confidence from those who don’t have much cash.

The project has been in-the-gestation for the past couple of years, as Rosenberg has gradually been getting other media professionals on board. Weekly editorial meetings in a New York cafe have attracted a dozen to forty journalists all keen to contribute. To date, no one has been paid for their work, including Rosenberg, who has been supporting himself on a modest freelance income supplemented by savings.

But from now on, he says, contributors will be paid ‘a few hundred dollars a piece’, a rate which he hopes will rise to the level of the fees paid in the freelance marketplace.

How far is this is feasible will depend on the success of the three-pronged business model designed to sustain Narratively after the first six months. Discussions with advertisers begin this week. Then comes the possibility of syndication to a global media prepared to pay for high-quality content about The Big Apple. But the key plank is to be a premium membership/subscription package which will buy readers access to exclusive content such as a monthly ebook, interactive city guides, and live storytelling events.

The scheme is designed to create the ‘sense of community’ – aka brand relationship – between publication and readership that has long been at the heart of established media, while quietly selling non-editorial products as part of the package.

Further down the road, Rosenberg envisages an occasional print edition and expansion into other cities.

What’s not to like? As is so often the case in this brave new world of media pioneers, the editorial aspirations are laudable and there is doubtless an appetite among readers for what the Narratively team can produce. It remains to be seen whether the money will follow.

Written by Alex

September 17th, 2012 at 7:51 am

Perfect pitch – publisher invites the public to vote with their wallets

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Mitchinson: funding revolution

Case study by Tim Dawson

“The books industry has been very poor at getting money off people who love its products”, says John Mitchinson, the founder of crowd-funded publisher Unbound.  He promises to revolutionise both the financing of book production and the relationship between authors and readers; and over the past year has raised enough money from online pledges to turn 18 ideas into ‘beautifully produced volumes’.

The idea is simple.  Author’s take their ideas to Unbound, which is run by Mitchinson, Dan Kieran and Justin Pollard, who between them have considerable track records in publishing, book selling and writing.  Pitches for ideas that Unbound like are posted up on their website with an invitation to those who are interested to pledge financial support.  This can range from £10, in return for a digital copy of the book with the supporters name listed in the back, to £20 for a hardback edition and a supporter listing, to £150 in return for a book, various goodies and a lunch with the author.

At the moment, the potential books featured – 50 have gone up so far – are by established writers, or people with a pre-existing profile.  “Many are attracted to us because they have become so jaded with the traditional publisher/author relationship”, says Mitchinson.  “Others want to pursue projects that are a bit left-field for their existing publishers”.   At the point that a book is accepted costings are agreed for the production and marketing of the book, as well as the time that the author is willing to put into promotion.  Once these costs are recovered, profit is split 50:50 between Unbound and author.

The appeal for writers – and Stephen Fry, Robert Llewellyn and Terry Jones are among those who have signed up – is that they get significantly more control of their end product.  They are also able to develop a direct relationship with readers – indeed, some offer sponsors such opportunities as having characters in books named after them.

In the year since it launched, Unbound has attracted 24,000 registered users, around 70% of whom have pledged to support projects, with an average pledge value of £32.  Although the typical time to fund books has been six months, not the expected three, Mitchinson says that his model is viable, and expects to be in profit in year two.  “Its not quite a full-time job for us yet, we do need to work elsewhere to make a living but it pays us a small amount, and we have not fallen over so far”, he says.  With proof-of-concept under their belts, the founders will be seeking further funding towards the end of the year.

Mitchinson’s hope is that, in time, it will be possible for unpublished authors to pitch on their site.  For now, however, he thinks there is value in their ‘curation’ of the projects to which they give visibility, as well as the editing, designing and marketing familiar from traditional publishing houses.

Unbound has also diversified into live events where authors pitch in front of an actual crowd.  Some have even deployed highly theatrical devices – one appeared in pajama bottoms and a gas mask to perform a wordless routine of aerial acrobatics.  “I am painfully aware that there are some great authors who will never be comfortable in front of an audience”, Mitchinson accepts.  “Some love it though and the events have worked very well in terms of brining in pledges”.  Plans for ten further events will be unveiled in the next few weeks.

All of which amounts to a genuinely innovative boutique-approach to publishing that, in return for cash, promises reader and authors a richer experience.  Quite possibly, in the remorseless shift to ebooks, the market for an enhanced-value reading opportunities will be considerable.  Will history judge Unbound’s crowd-funding to be a paradigm shift that overtook publishing in the early years of twenty first century?  As the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said of the significance of the French Revolution, “It is too soon to say”.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

September 11th, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Self-help meets journalism: the Next Generation Journalist reviewed

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It had to happen. Someone was always going to write a self-help book for journalists in these difficult, interesting times.

Adam Westbrook’s e-book ‘Next Generation Journalist: Ten ways to make money in journalism in 2010′, starts out with some big claims: ‘This is a unique book,’ Westbrook writes. ‘It collides disciplines and ideas that have never been put together before. I’ve combined the craft and skills of journalism with entrepreneurship, life design and career theory.’

In reality, the book offers a mix of upbeat ‘Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway’-style inspiration with some supremely practical tips for making a living out of 21st century media. Like the best books in its tradition, there is some genuine wisdom for those who want to hear it, and his grasp of the range of opportunities and platforms out there is impressive.

Westbrook’s ‘ten ways’ range from developing a portfolio or, as he calls it, an ‘artisan career’, to setting up a hyper-local website. They blur traditional boundaries of what is considered to be journalism, presenting the old alongside the new: there are well-established approaches such as doing corporate work for organisations, and news aggregation and cutting edge stuff like developing smart apps for selling news stories.

A lot of the advice is basic. For example, to find new clients, Westbrook advises: ‘Research: do your research on the organisations you’re interested in. Who would you need to contact? Find out their name and email address.’

How useful is all this? The answer probably depends on who you are. If you’re newish to journalism and the whole dirty business of making a living, a lot of the ideas gathered here could be really helpful. If you’re more seasoned, particularly if you’re deep into building an online hyper-local news business, and realising just how much work and time lie in the way to success, it’s bound to be less so.

But along the way, Westbrook offers some nice observation of the new journalistic characters and practices to have emerged in recent years, such as Freedom of Information Supremos, and ‘nodes’ – ‘clusters’ of freelances who collaborate to share brands and work.

Above all, the central character that Westbrook describes – and indeed embodies himself – says a lot about the likely future of journalism. ‘The Next Generation Journalist,’ he tell us, is ‘the multimedia storyteller, entrepreneur, and technical all-rounder, who isn’t threatened by the decline in value of news, or the lack of jobs, or the slashing of budgets brought about by the digital revolution.’ Encouraged by the cheapness of building an online profile, s/he is happy to embrace risk, and just try things that may or may not come off: ‘All this means you can be OK with failure, because it won’t cost you much.’

It’s a compelling picture, particularly for the recent graduate with supportive parents and without too many debts, or for someone who’s just received a healthy redundancy package. But for others, for whom the rent/mortgage/kids means the clock is ticking loudly, I fear it misses a crucial economic point.

Spot.us expands

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The crowd funded news service, on which we reported here, has expanded to Seattle.

Written by Tim Dawson

April 18th, 2010 at 6:30 am

Posted in Crowd funding,US

Granville Williams – the future of the media

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To sustain journalism for the rest of the 21st century, governments must fund journalism, as they have funded the car industry or banks

  • Media companies are returning to profit – but this will not lead to a return of well-resourced journalism
  • Paywalls are unproven and online advertising does not supply the resources to fund good journalism
  • Journalism will be compromised if journalists have to spend too long thinking about sources of funding

There are two divergent perspectives on today’s media. One is apocalyptic – it is that of Robin Sloane and Matt Thompson in Epic 2015 (epic.makingithappen.co.uk). They predict that in three or four years, The New York Times will be a newsletter aimed only at elite readers.  It is the future predicted by Bob Garfield, who argues that we are seeing the collapse of the media infrastructure that we have known for the past 400 years; and by Clare Enders, who predicts that 650 local newspapers will close in the next five years.

The same view can be found in Michael Grade’s evidence to the Culture Media and Sport subcommittee, which he told ‘viewers would gain if ITV dropped all regional news’.

The opposing view was expressed in the last edition of the USA title Editor and Publisher. It said: “The newspaper business is rebounding from the depths of this worst-in-memory recession and big city papers are poised for a strong performance this year.”

That view is supported by figures showing the profit margins in the regional press groups – Trinity Mirror 11.1% in the last 12 months;  and, Johnston Press, debt-ridden, slashing jobs and job-cutting though it is, made profits of 17.5%.  By way of comparison look at Tesco – where the profit margin last year was just 5.1%.  Regional media companies are still healthy. ITV pleads poverty, but its portfolio of channels still draws in 40% of the commercial tv audience.  Those eyeballs translate into advertising revenue – revenue which, year-on-year, in the year to the end of December, was up by 14%.

Viewed this way, the media industry is financially in quite a good position – because it has torn out costs and overheads are low.  But our papers have been hollowed out and are filled with press releases and syndicated material. There is nothing to suggest that the return to profit means a return to well-resourced journalism, however.

So what is the solution, if we believe that news is a key component of a democratic society? Murdoch is pinning his hopes on paywalls.  I have my doubts about them.

Another possibility is web advertising – but all the evidence is that the revenue is miniscule. Big websites in the USA, such as The Huffington Post, are, at best, breaking even.  Others, such as talkingpointsmemo.com, is funded by venture capital, individual donations and volunteer labour.

Others rely on just donations – such as the aggregator commondreams.com, or Open Democracy in the UK.   According to Chuck Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity in the USA, all the foundation grants in 2008 gave around $20m for non-profits to undertake investigations.  That is about one tenth of the annual newsroom budget of the New York Times. Also, there is no equivalent of the foundation grants in the UK.

My message is that there is a key role for the state, if we want a vibrant journalistic sphere.

Government has made a token gesture. Ofcom and DCMS have set up three Independently Financed News Consortia, serving Scotland, Wales and the Borders.  These should be opened up, not to the old structures – newspapers and tv channels, but to new, innovative, bids.  At the moment it looks like the old gang – the regional newspaper groups and ITV companies – will be allowed to rearrange the deckchairs.

We have to forget about the old ways.  It is all too easy to compromise journalism if journalists have to worry about finance.

We are at a key point where government could intervene to sustain and support a new model for journalism in the UK.  They should not support organisations that have abandoned journalism, but instead, make money available so that young people, with serious ideas to put forward, can be sustained.  There are lots of technological developments that are very interesting, but few generate any money. 

Even if the economy is resurgent, companies that have given up on journalism will not change their priorities.  For this reason, government must rethink its role and fund journalism as it has the banks and car industry.

 

Granville Williams is a writer, media commentator and member of the national council of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF ) for whom he is directing a research project, Media Ownership in the Age of Convergence . He has written or edited books on media topics – Britain’s Media: How They Are Related; Shafted: The Media, the Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath.

Dominic Ponsford

How are we going to make journalism pay? By saying to advertisers that we can help them reach a mass audience online, an elite audience in print, and, get to interact with readers at events

  • Despite the recession, the media has remained profitable, and is now poised to bounce back
  • There are opportunities for micro publishing, some examples of which are already making money
  • There are signs that even traditional local newspapers are bouncing back

A year ago, the media seemed to be facing an apocalypse.  Johnston Press’s shares went down to about 12p and Trinity Mirror’s to 15p – that from companies that used to have share prices in the region of £5.  To those who invested in journalism, it seemed like the end.  There were big redundancies and closures of papers. Looking today, media share prices are nowhere near where they were – the share price of the above companies is now above £1.  That means that the worst of the crisis is over and people are starting to launch new products.

Press Gazette (PG) has gone into administration once, closed twice and gone from weekly to monthly – so we are not a shining example of a media brand that has triumphed.  We have survived, however, when everyone had written us off – and there are some lessons in how we did it.

Like most B2B magazines, the bulk of our income used to come from jobs ads.  The internet did for that, as did holdthefrontpage.com, which is jointly owned

Written by Tim Dawson

March 28th, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Gavin MacFadyen

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Foundations have become the key to funding investigative journalism in the USA

  • Similar initiatives are now underway in the UK
  • USA tax and libel laws made foundation-funded journalism a powerful force in that country, but conditions in the UK are not as favourable
  • University-based journalism projects have also created some important new models for investigative reporting

Today 75% of investigative reporting is not done by the media, but by foundations and foundation-supported NGOs.  There has been a profound shift away from newspapers and television.

That is why we started the Centre for Investigative Journalism – we were mainly former Panorama and World in Action staff.  We had realised that there was no training going on in the BBC or ITV for investigative reporters – that is why we set up the centre, as a means of training people.

We were frustrated that we couldn’t raise the funds to do the work that we wanted to do.  That has changed profoundly now.  We have raised more funds than have ever been raised before to do the things that we want to do, at least in the UK.

In the USA there are now 50 or 60 nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) that employ journalists. There are 65,000 unemployed journalists in the USA so there is no shortage of good people, and now organisations like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Greenpeace all have research staffs.  And those organisations all raise money from foundations.

These foundations are now moving to the UK.

In 2006, Chuck Lewis formed the Center for Public Integrity (publicintegrity.org).  Lewis decided that he needed to raise funds to research corruption in Washington – no small task.  He was able to raise $4m a year, from lawyers’ groups, free-speech groups, civil-liberties groups.  As a result, the Center produced 160 publications and four bestselling books.  It was the most successful single investigative operation undertaken.  Lewis was a genius at raising money.

Lawyers were an important element of his work.  Lewis went to the biggest, toughest law firms he could find and asked them to help the Center, on a pro bono basis, to defend the Center’s work.  That said, libel laws in the States are nowhere near as tough as they are here. Armed with these prestigious law firms on his board, the law suits started to melt away.

The only successful legal challenge mounted against the Center for Public Integrity was by an oligarch.  Four years ago, he almost succeeded in sinking the entire investigative community in Washington.  The Center only survived because of the massive influx of lawyers to support it.

In the USA, foundations are now spending between $75m – $95m a year on niche and investigative reporting.

At Berkley university, in March each year, there is a big meeting of all these funders.  The biggest is a guy called Sandler who owns about a quarter of downtown Los Angeles.  He is not a modest man, in resources or anything else.  He funded the biggest investigative unit ever assembled in the USA – called Propublica (propublica.org).  It is based in New York in swank offices in midtown Manhattan.  It employs 28 journalists, 13 researchers and 20 production staff.  Propublica’s annual budget is $20m a year. They now have enough money to operate for three years.

The interesting thing about this kind of foundation-supported approach – with the money put up by one family – is that they devised a system of control, like CBS.  There is a corporate wing, that deals with all the money, and an editorial wing.  Communication between the two is allowed only if there is a lawyer in the room to keep an independent minute.  That is intended to ensure that commercial pressures are never brought to bear on the editorial side of the organisation.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism is our attempt to do something similar in the UK.  It has now raised £2m. It is supported by, but not controlled by, City university.  The Bureau can produce research, but it can’t publish.  We could not find a single lawyer who would recommend that we could publish under our own imprint. We have to go through media outlets with deep enough pockets and liability insurance.  This is the only place in Europe where this is the case.

Libel costs are now estimated at £1,350 an hour.  And it could take two months work from a major law firm just to survive one bad judgement.  So, we must either operate out of Honduras or publish through The Guardian, C4, or whatever.  We also have options to publish through France, Germany, Sweden, Mexico and, the USA.  Currently we arein discussions with CBS Sixty Minutes, PBS Frontline and two outlets in French tv, all of whom are more favourably disposed to publish our work than anyone in the UK.

We have looked at the crowd-sourcing model for funding. There are several operations in the USA where that has been tried.  For example, the Voice of San Diego (voiceofsandiego.org) was started by four restaurant owners and a millionaire backer.  It looks at public health issues, fraudulent accounting and so on.  It has been successful.

I wish that outlets like National Public Radio could survive without money from huge and powerful foundations, but they can’t.  Every single outlet in public radio and television in the USA is funded by three large foundations.

The Park foundation is one, for example (parkfoundation.org).  Without it, there would be no social democratic television and no drama on USA television.  Today drama in the USA is better than here.  PBS Frontline is entirely funded by foundations and has an annual income of $40m a year. It is probably the best-regarded investigative programme in the world. It has roughly the budget that Panorama and World in Action had during the 1970s.

‘Spot.us’ is a new technique that organisations are using in the USA.  It announces, for example, that it wants to investigate road building or sewer malphesance.  The public can then decide whether to send in money, or not.  If the appeal generates enough money, the investigation goes forward.  That would not work in the UK because journalism is competitive and everyone would go after that story.  There is a lot of collegial and cooperate working in the USA that would not work in the UK.  In South Korea there is an internet newspaper with a staff of 30 and 27,000 reporters. Each reporter has his own web cam.  They produce all this stuff, the staff work as editors.  I think that it makes money, I don’t quite know how.  No one quite knows how anything on the web makes money.

Spot.us also has a model which is being investigated for Europe.  French, Italian and funders here, wondered if you could reduce journalism to niche groups – cultural, sports – and get money just for that. Then a federation of all those could be created.

There are some other novel models for funding journalism

The university funding model: unemployed journalists go to a university and extract a commission to train students. In exchange, the university provides research, publication and technical facilities.  That allows the journalists work to get out there – on the web, tv or radio.  There are 130 programmes of this kind in the USA at the moment, three of them very large.

Chuck Lewis has a big one at the American University in Washington (investigativereportingworkshop.org).  Their stuff is very good, so students, trained by professionals are now regularly reporting for the NYT, CBS Sixty Minutes and PBS Frontline.    Part of their success is down to having no material costs. The university has liability insurance.  That model has taken off in a number of universities.  The rich mix of people at most universities also adds to the mix.

Medill Innocence Project (medillinnocenceproject.org) at Northwestern University, is run by David Protess, who had been a Sunday Times reporter.  Protess put one law student with one journalism student to create 20 or 30 teams.  Each team was assigned a person on death row, and asked to exhaustively review their case.  There were plenty of people on death row in Illinois.  At the end of one year, the students’ investigations had led to 13 prisoners being freed because of police corruption, the planting of evidence and so on, uncovered by the students. The Chicago Sun Times jumped in and launched a similar campaign.  Total cost of the project was just $3,000 and it saved all these lives and turned around the way that journalism was perceived in that area.

Three or four UK universities are investigating this model – although you will, of course, have to reintroduce the death penalty.  Conventional funding from foundations, remains the main funder of investigations, however.

Ford Foundation started it, when they became independent of the Ford Motor Co.  It moved further and further to the left as time went on.  It has $35 billion to give away.  The Park Foundation gives away $240m a year.  Its money came from local newspapers in upper New York state.  Those papers provided the family with all the money.  The family split on left-right grounds and the left got the foundation.  They don’t even ask us questions about what we do with the money, they just say, ‘more power to your elbow’.

We get money from George Soros, from the Open Society Foundation.  We have not had a word of interference from them.  They just say ‘do your worst’, and we do our best.

The Lorana Sullivan foundation, is a British foundation. She was a Wall Street Journal journalist who ended up on The Observer for many years.  She was one of the best investigative financial journalists ever.

The Foundation supports the training of young female investigative reporters here and at Columbia in NY.  Her foundation supports the Centre for Investigative Journalism and will hopefully fund the Bureau.

These foundations support organisations such as Propublica, the Centre for Investigative Reporting at Berkeley, the Fund for Investigative Reporting in Washington DC, the Investigative Reporting Workshops at American University in Washington. Lowell Bergman (who was played by Al Pacino in The Insider) does the same at Berkeley. The Logan family give him $5m a year.

The real difference between here and the USA is that, in the USA, the laws are sympathetic to giving. If you can satisfy what is known as the 501c3 provision, you get a huge tax break for giving money.  So rich people get a tax write-off, plus they get a bit of a glow about their name. And this model is moving out of investigative reporting, into arts and sports journalism.

The Huffington Post has its own investigative bureau funded by the Huffington Foundation and another foundation.

The Fund for Investigative Reporting is very different.  It gives completion money or funds travel, if a reporter needs it.  The model is a similar fund in the USA that gives grants of $3 – $5000.  It’s not much money.  But, it was funding like that which gave Seymour Hersh the money to start My Lai – so is very powerful. We could not find anyone who would do that under the current tax law in the UK, however.  So, tax law is as important as the libel law.

Gavin MacFadyen is director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism and is one of the founders of the newly formed Bureau for Investigative Journalism, both foundation-funded non-profits and based at City University. These organisations were established to provide hands-on training for independent, skeptical journalism and to provide funds and resources to encourage high standards in public-interest reporting. He was a long-serving World in Action producer-director and has produced investigative current-affairs television in all the main channels in the UK and the USA.

Written by Tim Dawson

March 26th, 2010 at 8:16 am

Ian Reeves

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There are an increasing number of examples in the United States of media outlets being funded by community donations

  • National Public Radio raises 30% of its revenue from ‘pledge drives’
  • News sites in New York, Chicago and Minnesota have also had some success with this model
  • A handful of individuals have also sought reader-funding for their work, although there aren’t any examples of this working particularly well

There are some interesting examples of community-funded journalism from the United States.  It is plausible to ask a diverse community to donate to something that they consider a common cause.  The election of Barak Obama is a great example.  He used digital media to mobilise and raise funds for his campaign.  He raised record sums, more than $600m dollars from more than 2.5m individuals. More than that half of that was from individuals who gave between $5 and $200.  The average online donation was $80.  So, yes, it is plausible.

But is it plausible to ask a diverse community to pay for journalism?  There is a news-based organisation that operates more foreign bureaus than any other mainstream USA media; that has an operating budget of $150m per annum. And its audience has grown 47% in the last decade.  It is called National Public Radio (NPR) – which is rather an old fashioned brand, but its model depends on donations from its listeners.  It is actually a network of radio stations.  They frequently have ‘pledge drives’.  Station presenters directly ask the audience for money.  About 30% of NPR’s revenue comes from that source.

WAMU is Washington-based.  Its main pledge drive is in February.  Last year it raised $1.2m directly from pledges.  NPR, although not entirely community-funded, demonstrates that people can be persuaded to pay for something that is free-to-air.

It is an established organisation, however, with an entrenched infrastructure.  Is the model workable further down the food chain of journalism?  Would it work on a smaller outfit, or help to fund a start-up?

There are news organisations where they are trying to make it work.  The Gotham Gazette (gothamgazette.com) regularly runs reader appeals, usually for specific purposes.  In a recent one, the Gazette said that it wanted to fund a reporter for a particular part of the city.  So, they ran a $25,000 funding campaign for a reporter to cover that beat – and they were successful.

Chi Town Daily News (chitowndailynews.org) – is another not-for-profit news site.  Most of its funding comes from grants – but it has raised $25,000 from reader appeals.  The site has now closed.  Its owners thought that it was falling 60% short of funding needed.

The most positive example is Minnpost.com, based in Minnesota.  All its content is free-to-view, but they have a ‘membership approach’ to raising funds.  Depending on the amount that you pledge, then you are accorded ‘media baron’ status, or ‘city editor’ or, ‘cub reporter’ for a $10 donation.  In the first 12 months, 1,250 people signed up to the Minnpost.com as donor members at different levels. It was initially funded by various grants, but they have a robust business plan.  They hope to break even by 2011 or 2012, and appear to be on line for that.

The Miami Herald has started soliciting donations from readers. You see at the bottom of all their online stories a tip-jar style feature.  The paper is making positive noises about how they are doing, but some argue that it amounts to begging, and will damage their brand in the eyes of prestige advertisers.

Could you scale it down for an individual journalist to use a similar model on line? There are examples which give some credence to the idea.  Chris Allbritton (back-to-iraq.com) is a former AP and New York Daily Post journalist.  He was covering Iraq for the NY Daily Post.  They called him home and he wanted to stay.  He had been doing a blog that had quite a lot of readers, so he asked his readers if they would stump up to keep him there as a non-embedded war reporter.  He got $15,000, which was not enough for what he wanted to do, but it was enough for him to stay there for several months, just writing for that audience.

In 2005, tech blogger, Jason Kottke (kottke.org), had a three-week fund raising drive, made $40,000 from ‘micro patrons’.  He found the pressure of that number of owners to be far too onerous –  1,500 bosses was too many.  His relationship with the readers changed.  He could not go on holiday.

Jim Hopkins, launched a blog about Gannett (gannettblog.blogspot.com).  He is a former editor from USA Today.  He set up a blog about the company and asked if followers would donate.  He wanted to raise $24,000 to cover the costs he felt he was incurring running this blog.  In six months he raised half of that, but again, the pressure grew too much.  “I have grown weary of people second-guessing how I live.  Imagine having dozens of parents chastising you for taking a vacation?” he said.

So, the idea of community funding is plausible; but it is not a silver bullet.  There aren’t any examples going on over here, to speak of.  But it is worthy of investigation.

Ian Reeves is director of learning at the department of journalism at the University of Kent and a former editor of Press Gazette. He has made a study of how ‘crowdfunding’ works in the USA, both in the national public radio network and on news websites and of how the approach might be applied in Britain.

Written by Tim Dawson

March 26th, 2010 at 8:16 am

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