Kickstarter’s dedicated journalism category raises interesting questions

Every aspect of journalism is undergoing drastic change in front of our eyes.

News of a distinguished, award-winning publication lopping off a significant portion of its newsroom is a regular occurrence as organizations with a business model from another time struggle to generate enough revenue to stay afloat.

Some choose to reduce the number of days on which they publish. Others consider merging with a similar organization  in the hope that realized synergies will allow them to continue operation. Many shrink the size of the publication as advertisers use one of the number of options available to them. Fewer ads lead to less content.

If the publication in question is your favorite daily, the cuts will be noticeable in the amount of investigative journalism you see over a period of time.

These are the pieces which can take weeks of time for a team of people to delve into. They result in features that may begin with the Sunday edition and last for several issues, maybe longer if affected parties respond and the journalism itself raises more questions which need to be addressed.

These are the pieces which attract most journalists to the field in the first place, as such an assignment offers them the chance to speak to many people, research facts, question norms, and to learn.

Yet they are the first to be cut, as they are labor intensive and take a long time to show results. In this culture of the immediate, breaking news and regular news producers such as legislative sessions and sports-related events command attention, leaving scant time for anything else. Breaking news also lends itself well to social media and the use of smart phones by which an increasing percentage of people are consuming their news.

Is quality investigative journalism dying? No, but it is radically changing before our eyes. Who does it best, where they are found, and how they are funded are all changing. News organizations themselves are struggling to cope with this as the variety of different (and many failed) paywall formats proves. Individual journalists, finding fewer jobs in traditional newsrooms, are migrating to websites, blogs and freelance work.

In short, news media is primed for disruption. It is already happening with some new journalistic models that are producing great work, and it will continue in many new directions as we are at the beginning of movement in this area.

guardian-kickstarterIt is this environment that Kickstarter, in partnership with the Guardian, has decided to unveil a category specifically for journalism. The Guardian will have a curated page on the Kickstarter site where they will pick out projects they find most interesting.

Up to now those looking to support investigative journalism on the world’s most popular crowdfunding site had to do some investigating of their own. Even with that extra step, Kickstarter reports more than $10 million has been pledged to journalism projects since the site’s inception.

KDOCTORHow might the creation of a journalism category impact an industry that is already in flux? How will crowdsourced journalism compare with with content produced in more traditional ways? I spoke with Ken Doctor, an industry analyst who spent more than two decades with Knight Ridder, including stints as Vice President of their digital division and as Managing Editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Mr. Doctor is the author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get and also runs the book’s companion website,

Many traditional news organizations have had to drastically reduce staff as revenue sources decline and a more diverse set of competitors emerge. When media organizations reduce staff, which departments and news areas suffer the most?

Cuts have been across the board at newspapers in the U.S. and Europe. Overall, newsroom staff is down about 30% over the last seven years, with about 17,000 jobs lost, with about 38,000 remaining. Interestingly, daily newspapers only spend about one of every eight dollars in expense on journalists and that percentage has stayed the same through those cuts. That tells us that newsrooms, production departments and ad departments have all seen fairly even cutting.

Can crowdsourced journalism pick up some of the slack?

Yes, it can pick up some. pioneered the notion of the public funding specific projects, and succeeded, but in a small way. The voluntary membership models of Texas Tribune, MinnPost and Voice of San Diego — all NPR-like — are a kind of crowdfunding, but membership has paid for station programs overall rather than news, or more news, directly. I believe we’re starting to see more enterprise/investigative-directed crowdfunding offers. In fact, the Guardian’s Contributoria has just announced one.

How much of a role can crowdsourced journalism play in the future of news?

News organizations need to pay full-time journalists, and that requires sustainable funding, whether through conventional business models or crowdfunding of sufficient scale. I believe that both metro area publics and national publics will fund high-quality news/journalism projects, like De Correspondent, about which I recently wrote. The key here is news reporting; Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” is a crowdfunded success, but it is mainly oriented to commentary. The real vacuum in America is a lack of local in-depth reporting, and that’s where the money should go.

How will traditional organizations adapt?

Local newspapers are expanding their ad/events/reader revenue business models, and I’ve written reams about those efforts. We have seen some for-profit newspapers gain foundation grants to further parts of their reporting work. I think that’s part of the puzzle solving going forward.

Is giving consumers a say over which news they wish to consume good for the industry?

It’s fine — and social aids that, of course. Tomorrow’s journalism is a mix of crowd reaction, algorithm and the same kind of good editorial judgment that distinguishes good and great work from the mediocre.

Do people always know what is important?

Of course not, but input now if much more varied, and weighing it appropriately only makes sense.

In a polarizing political climate like the one we see in the United States, does crowdfunded journalism lend itself to an increasingly rare middle ground or to the loudest extremes?

Undoubtedly, both. We’re in a time when tech can fund great and bad ideas and it will do both. The number of Americans who do value real, deep and accurate connect-the-dots journalism has been underestimated.

We’re seeing a revival of sorts in that area nationally, with explainer models from the NYT’s The Upshot to Ezra Klein’s Vox, and we now need to see a spreading revolution of it locally.

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