Thursday, August 30, 2007

Innocentive for Journalism: Crowdfunding our Way to a New Business Model

Innocentive for Journalism: Crowdfunding our Way to a New Business Model
Posted by David Cohn
Over at PJNET Leonard Witt has begun blogging about something he calls Representative Journalism.
Meanwhile at Invisible Inkling, Ryan Sholin is harboring on a future blog post, which although still hazy, he refers to as the "What Are You Reporting On?" post.

I think they are talking about the same thing.

Representative journalism, as I understand it, is very similar to what Innocentive has done for science research. (More reading: Our Assignment Zero interview with Alpheus Bingham, co-founder of Innocentive.)

I'd like to add my voice to the chorus. This is a business model that we've thrown around as an idea here at NewAssignment.Net - and in truth I think it's the future of independent investigative journalism. I'm glad Leonard Witt has come up with a name for it. I've been struggling myself, often referring to it as "Innocentive journalism."

The basis of the model is micropayments. Independent journalists post what investigations they want to begin. With the potential investigations posted, individual readers can then decide to donate $10 or so to the investigation they are most interested in. If 300 people donate $10 you have $3,000. That's not a bad monthly wage for an independent journalist.

The individual funders are what Sellaband, an example of crowdfunding, would call believers. With enough believers, an independent band gets to record an album with SellaBand.

An immediate question that comes up when explaining this model is always "how do you keep the journalist honest." If a journalist is investigating something with a political slant and is funded by people who want specific results, how can we continue to keep those investigations fair and balanced?

Good question.

First, let's reconsider the relationship between funder and journalist. It shouldn't be that the individual funders are trying to hire a journalist to get the "truth" that they are looking for. What they are hiring is an umpire, somebody they can trust to dig deep and find out what's really happening. That might seem obvious to professional journalists, but whatever example of "Representative Journalism" comes to fruition will have to set that tone.

Second and more importantly, whatever organization creates the means for readers to find and fund journalists will have to be somewhat responsible for the end results. They will have to keep the independent journalists on deadline and working. In a sense, they will be managing editors. And if that means screening the journalists who can propose possible investigations, I'd understand that. Not in an effort to be top-down, but as a means to ensure that people's money is put to good use.

Benefits: An audience is automatically created. Just like the Spread FireFox campaign, if you donate time or money to something, you are going to use the final product (in this case read the final product) because you feel a sense of ownership.

A marketplace for independent journalists to find funders for the type of journalism they believe in. The bottom line is erased and re-written by popular demand.

A new organization that doesn't hire journalists, it allows them to make a case for their own work. Jobs might be limited right now, but there is space for anybody who is willing to commit to the job.

Funders/Readers can help with the investigation itself. This is a slippery slope. As we noted above, funders might also have axes to grind, and that is their right as citizens, so when I say they can "help with the investigation," I am not suggesting they have a role that would compromise the investigation. But I do believe that through the funding process a network would be created and the journalist who is spearheading the investigation could use that network in innovative ways.

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