Lessons 1 through 1,000 of this week's standoff in Ferguson, Missouri, are about race, power, police brutality, the militarization of law enforcement, and the misuse of the apparatus of state control. But if you squint hard enough, way down on the list — around number 1,324, maybe — is a debate about crowdfunding and the Future of News.
You see, an Oakland-based crowdfunding start-up called Beacon (not to be confused with the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative tabloid) is making it possible for members of the general public to support independent journalists in Ferguson. The site has raised nearly $4,000 for on-the-ground Ferguson coverage, and several journalists backed by the site have produced credible, competitive news stories. All of which has stirred some excitement about this innovative new model of paying for journalism. "Can we crowdfund breaking news?" asked a post on Beacon's blog.
The idea of crowdfunding journalism isn't new. It's already popular in Europe, where start-ups like Krautreporter and De Correspondent have succeeded at raising millions to fund their news-gathering operations. And the Guardian Media Group, among other Establishment media companies, is experimenting with its own crowdfunding platforms.
Some particularly fervent crowdfunding fans think it's poised to replace major parts of the old journalism model. Gigaom's Mathew Ingram wondered aloud if crowdfunding certain stories could "give website publishers a lot more financial freedom" by eliminating the need to sell ads. The Guardian's digital GM believes that crowdfunding will be "an enabler of the total overhaul of every aspect of production," journalism included. And Beacon's founders are, predictably, bullish on the idea. ("In the future, there has to be some way for people with large followings on the Internet to really group together and … be supported,” one of them told TechCrunch earlier this year.)
Crowdfunding works well in breaking news situations like Ferguson, or with one-off projects like "Climate Confidential," a climate-change series that raised $45,000 on Beacon earlier this year. But the crowd is not the savior its proponents hope it will be. There are several reasons for this: First, most news isn't sexy, sensational, or difficult to access. It might be tempting to send $10 to an independent photojournalist traveling to Ferguson under threat of tear gas; it's less compelling to consider sending that $10 to a reporter covering the latest Congressional budget debate from a cubicle.
also, #ferguson is the first time i've backed a journalist via beacon, and i'm converted— Sam Altman (@sama) August 18, 2014
Second, a lot of what ends up being great journalism starts out looking fairly useless. Who will back the videographer who spends weeks chasing down leads on an enterprise story, only to have the real story arrive by accident a month later? Or the investigative reporter who spends a year filing FOIA requests that may never materialize? Who will shell out for sufficient equipment to protect the reporter covering an Ebola outbreak from inadvertent exposure?
App idea: Allow crowd to send mobile payments to reporters who are verified to be in harm's way on the front line. Likely to outpace salary.— Semil (@semil) August 18, 2014
Third, and perhaps most important, the economics of crowdfunding probably won't work at the scale we're accustomed to. A celebrity like Anderson Cooper could surely crowdfund his way to Iraq, if his CNN gig fell through, but it would be hard for the average reporter — or even the average New York Times foreign correspondent — to raise enough money to get there with a Beacon campaign. There's a reason news organizations like BuzzFeed and Vice have raised millions of dollars in venture capital. You need up-front capital expenditures to train reporters, pay for editors and producers, and build an apparatus that supports that kind of ambitious journalism. (As Ann Friedman put it in a CJR post, "Kickstarter works best for labors of love and journalistic projects that are proof-of-concept — examples of what’s possible, not long-term endeavors.")
So, sure, send money to independent reporters covering big news stories like Ferguson. But don't mistake these efforts for the kind of model that could fulfill the long-term needs of the news business. The crowd is powerful, and often well-meaning, but generosity alone can't fix the news industry's problems.