Lyra McKee* is an investigative journalist in Northern Ireland. In this post, originally published on The Muckraker, she explains why she feels journalists are turning away from traditional outlets in favour of building their own brands while exploring crowdfunding and micropublishing.
When I talk to older journalists (older being over the age of 30), they ask me the same question: who do you write for?
It’s an awkward question. If it was 2009, I’d tell them I’d been published in (or had pieces broadcast on) the Belfast Telegraph, Private Eye, BBC, Sky News – a dozen or so news outlets that took my work back then.
In 2013 the answer is: none.
I’m part of a generation of “digital native” journalists who sell their work directly to readers, bypassing traditional news outlets like newspapers and broadcasters. Increasingly, reporters are using services like Beacon, Kickstarter and Woopie to raise funds directly from their readers and publish their work.
Why are they doing this?
“Getting paid was also a nightmare. Often, the cheques didn’t turn up”
For me, the decision to “self-publish” my journalism was born out of frustration. As Sy Hersh recently pointed out, if a story is particularly controversial, a non-staff reporter will find it very difficult to get it published.
Such was my experience. If I pitched a story to an editor about paramilitaries, it immediately got picked up. Anything concerning Northern Ireland’s government was usually shafted in favour of a press release from the government department in question.
Getting paid was also a nightmare. Often, the cheques didn’t turn up (check out Pay Me Please by freelance Iona Craig; it illustrates what a wide-scale problem this is). The most I ever made for a story – a six-month investigation in 2009 – was £50 from a national magazine. When that cheque arrived, I knew doing investigative work as a freelancer in the traditional sense just wasn’t sustainable. So I started exploring alternative ways of doing what I love and making a living.
“In my mind, this is going to be the defining trend of the next several years”
Traditionally, investigative journalism and foreign reporting has been funded by newspaper proprietors with big pockets or rich philanthropists, like those backing ProPublica and Northern Ireland’s own The Detail.
Yet with the emergence of crowdfunding, reporters are turning to their readers to ask them to fund their work, creating a new form of mini-philanthropy.
“In my mind, this is going to be the defining trend of the next several years,” says Dan Fletcher, founder of Beacon, a new site that allows readers to fund their favourite reporters.
“We’ve already seen the first signs of this with social media – platforms like Facebook and Twitter allowed a broad swathe of journalists to step out from behind the byline for the very first time and develop their own individualized followings and control their own channels of distribution.
“That’s a tremendously empowering thing. And generally, when something unbundles like that, it’s very difficult to go back to the world where brands have complete control.
“I think brands will continue to be powerful channels of distribution, but they’re paying less and less for the same amount of work. It’s an exposure play, more than anything else.”
Dan wouldn’t disclose how much money Beacon reporters were making but other crowdfunding experiments suggest the model is working.
- American broadcaster NPR set out to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to fund a story about the t-shirt economy; they raised nearly $600,000.
- In a recent interview with The Muckraker, Bobbie Johnson of digital publication Matter said they had 10,000 paying readers of whom “many thousands” were subscribers: “Certainly a single journalist could do pretty well with the user base we have.”
- Earlier this month, independent journalist Alexa O’Brien was heading to cover a trial and had spent $901 on her flight. She asked readers to donate cash to help her cover the costs. Within hours, she’d raised $763.
- Then there’s Andrew Sullivan who made his blog, The Dish, independent and asked readers to fund it. The latest update says they’ve hit $791,000 in subscription revenue as of November 2013, just 10 months after going it alone.
Even the New York Times has caught on to the trend, publishing a story last week about what it calls “micropublishing”: small journalistic/publishing enterprises that only need a couple of thousand subscribers to survive.
The advantages and disadvantages of ‘the new way’
While it may not be how you anticipated spending your career, there are many advantages to this new way of doing journalism.
Newspapers frequently cut stories that are critical of their advertisers. Being reader-funded means you’re only accountable to your readers.
While your friends inside news outlets complain about lawyers blocking their stories for stupid reasons, you can choose to listen to or ignore a lawyer’s advice.
The disadvantage is instability. You’re not taking a pay cheque home every month and to fund your stories in the first place, you need to spend time building an audience/your reputation.
*Disclosure: Lyra is a student of mine on the MA in Online Journalism by Distance Learning