While talking to an editor at a newspaper that had made a splash with a crowdsourced investigative story a couple years ago, I remember the subject of payment coming up, to which she made an interesting point. The citizens who contribute their time and effort have a personal interest in the story and do it because they want to help the paper – this is a citizenry interacting with its hometown newspaper for the betterment of the community and for the good of democracy. It was a valid point. After all, if they paid their citizens, they wouldn’t just be citizens anymore, they’d be employees.
News organizations have long been excused from digital sharecropping, a label that has been attached to crowdsourced businesses that exploit free labor from the public without offering compensation. Perhaps, media entities benefit from the altruistic and democratic nature of information sharing. The millions of Internet users that voluntarily put content out for free are more than a testament to that.
But where should the line be drawn? When should news organizations and media conglomerates begin to have to start paying for utilizing the time and resources of their volunteer contributors while holding complete ownership of the product – or at the very least, making revenue off of an individual’s product?
When Lindsey Hoshaw, a California journalist keen to investigate the “great garbage patch,” a huge mass of plastic flotsam circulating in the Pacific Ocean, pitched the idea to the New York Times, the paper’s Web site expressed interest in the story and agreed to potentially pay her $700 for pictures. The trip alone would cost Hoshaw 10,000$, however. So she approached the crowdfunding Web site Spot.Us (where readers pledge donations to fund stories of interest to them) in order to raise money to cover travel expenses. The organization is hoping to garner 60 percent of the entire amount, and Hoshaw plans to take out a loan for the remainder.
The paper – and Hoshaw herself – justify the partnership because it is “a story she has long dreamed of, and [it’s] a chance for a byline in The Times,” one that allowed her to use the stalwart organization’s name to raise funds. The Times is not doing anything different in this case than it would do in the case of any farfetched freelance pitch – outlining how much it would pay her for the story and leaving it up to her to figure out how to obtain the remainder of the funds.
Jeff Jarvis calls this a necessary “collaboration” in the new media ecosystem. His argument is that this is not very different from the Times site picking up a story that someone may have posted on a blog, for instance. Legally speaking, it’s more than fair. The paper’s Web site doesn’t own the story unless it funds fifty percent or more of it.
As per Spot.Us’s terms, unless a news organization decides to contribute one hundred percent of the funding, it doesn’t get exclusive rights, and if that were to happen, donors get reimbursed.
In an age where newspapers are struggling to raise revenue, all options are on the table. “Whatever you call it, what’s happening spotlights an important step in how we’ll pay for the news: finding some workable alternatives to news organizations shelling out big bucks required to cover important news in far-away places,” writes Bill Mitchell in Poynter this week.
This is not the first time The Times has partnered with a nonprofit site. It also has an ongoing collaboration with the publicly funded investigative reporting site ProPublica, which routinely offers its stories to America’s most influential newspaper for greater impact.
While this “journalist as entrepreneur” model is fueling important stories that might not otherwise get covered, it is also dangerously shifting the costs of reporting on to the shoulders of young, enthusiastic reporters.
Over the past couple of years, American journalist Jason Motlagh has reported on everything from the Maoist rebels in India to civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but doesn’t get much more than a travel stipend for his stories.
Motlagh is part of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis reporting, which I wrote about in a previous post; the nonprofit is covering stories that traditional American media are not covering for want of international bureaus that were shut down during the start of the industry’s crisis over two years ago.
The Center helps its reporters market their stories to other news organizations to “maximize impact.” In partnership with the organization, Motlagh’s work has appeared in the public broadcasting show, Foreign Exchange, the Frontline’s iWitness webcam program, and the Virginia Quarterly. But it is unlikely that this concept of “reporting first, money maybe later” will continue to allow journalists to make a career out of reporting.
This has, perhaps, been the plight of freelancers for decades, but what is scary is that veteran newsmen and stalwart news organizations are hailing these projects as exemplars of the new journalism model. Motlagh “is the prototype for the journalist of the future: a free-lancing, multimedia correspondent who knows how to market his work and live on a tight budget,” writes David Westphal in the Online Journalism Review.
If the news industry plans to rely on young, ambitious journalists eager enough to make a career so as to pay for their own breakthrough stories, where will subsequent stories come from? While journalists like Motlagh and Hoshaw should rightly be lauded for their determination and passion, this is simply not a sustainable model. Media scholars should be talking about workable ways to fund these projects and urging mainstream news organizations to get behind them, instead of making the case that this is the future of journalism.