Getting People To Pay For Investigative Reporting Directly

from the well,-there's-one-idea dept

When old school journalists complain about the supposed "threats" from companies like Craigslist and Google or things like blogging, one of the common refrains is: "but who will pay for investigative reporting." The idea is that these other services can replace the basic news facts, but it's tough to see how true investigative reporting will get funded. Yet, as with all markets in a state of flux, we've seen that if there's a real demand, new business models will come along to handle it -- and that seems to be exactly what is happening in the investigative reporting realm. The NY Times points out a few different experiments in other forms of funding investigative reporting, with the bulk of the story talking about getting interested parties to pay up front for an investigation. In other words, if there is a concerned group of folks worried about, say, dangerous chemicals leaking into the drinking water, it could put that story up, and if enough people contribute to the investigation, a reporter can get paid and do the investigation.

While there are some concerns that this would lead to biased journalism, there's nothing saying that the journalist's results have to support the initial worry. In fact, I would imagine that in cases where folks are worried about things like chemicals in the drinking water, they'd be much more relieved to find out that it's really nothing. Either way, this model fits exactly with the business models we've discussed in the past: getting people to pay for the creation of content. The creation of new content is a scarce good, and there may be some group of people for whom its worth paying for. In this case, the example fits the business model we describe for content after it's created as well, since the organization doing these investigative reports will then offer them to newspapers for free (so long as they don't want an exclusive right -- which would not be free). That's exactly how it should be: it costs money for the initial creation, but then the content is freed, where it adds much more value (and attracts more people to fund later stories). Who knows if this particular effort will work (execution is everything, after all), but the model is sound, and shows that despite gloomy whining from old school reporters, the new business models will show up.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    PRMan, Aug 26th, 2008 @ 4:26pm

    Yeah...

    Just like politicians would never make a decision based on the campaign contributions of their lobbyists, because people would like it better if they were honest...

     

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      Digidave, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 10:23pm

      Re: Yeah...

      The idea is that LOTS of people commission the journalist - so they are literally working for the public.

      Take our recently succesful SF election fact-checking campaign: wiki.spot.us/election

      74 different people donated an average of $33 each. That means the reporter is not beholden to any one of them.

       

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    cigarette man, Aug 26th, 2008 @ 4:29pm

    Just think, apparently all of those studies funded by cigarette companies that proved cigarettes are good for you were true.

     

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      mobiGeek, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 7:43am

      Re:

      And this isn't already happening?

      Lou Dobbs and Bill O' are not influenced in some (convoluted) way, and thus their reporting is biased?

       

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      Digidave, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 10:25pm

      Re:

      Actually - we limit the amount any one entity can donate to a pitch - so ciggarette companies can't fund investigative journalism.

      They would need to find 100 or so people willing to put down $25 each.

      Not to mention: No journalist is going to put their professional reputation on the line for that kind of story. Remember - they want to do articles in the future too.

       

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    John Doe, Aug 26th, 2008 @ 5:55pm

    Biased Journalism?

    Who ever heard of biased journalism? At least if they got paid for it you would know for sure where there bias lies; with those who are cutting the check. This has to be the worst article I have seen here yet.

    Your example says they would be relieved to find out that the water isn't contaminated. How can you be sure? What if they "want" it to be contaminated. Since they paid for the story can they keep it from running if it doesn't say what they want it to say? Can they make it say what they want to say?

    It seems that you have one tool in your toolbox; a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

     

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      Mike (profile), Aug 26th, 2008 @ 8:12pm

      Re: Biased Journalism?

      Who ever heard of biased journalism?

      Plenty of people. What is your point?

      At least if they got paid for it you would know for sure where there bias lies; with those who are cutting the check.

      Again, what is your point? Considering that this is paid for by lots of people, rather than just a single person, it's harder to see much bias.

      This has to be the worst article I have seen here yet.


      Thanks. We always strive for the best.

      Actually, I'm somewhat confused: is the concept the worst concept you've heard of, is our post about it the worst? Please clarify.

      Your example says they would be relieved to find out that the water isn't contaminated. How can you be sure?

      We can't be sure, but it seems like a reasonable assumption.

      What if they "want" it to be contaminated. Since they paid for the story can they keep it from running if it doesn't say what they want it to say? Can they make it say what they want to say?

      Well, if you had read the details, you would know that the answer is no, they cannot keep the story from running. They simply fund the investigation.

       

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        John Doe, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 5:04am

        Re: Re: Biased Journalism?

        If they fund the investigation, they own the story.

         

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          mobiGeek, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 7:51am

          Re: Re: Re: Biased Journalism?

          You are assuming the terms of the "contract" are that the funders control the publishing of the story. If I were a journalist, I'd establish a different set of conditions.

          Then there is the idea of an "investigative journalism co-op", where the funders pay into having a story put together but the co-op maintains control of publishing. In such a system, the are at least two incentive mechanisms that could be leveraged: (a) funders pay to get first access to the story [drafts, incremental investigation notes, etc...] and/or (b) funders get a percentage of the profits from the publishing of the story.

           

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            Digidave, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 10:27pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Biased Journalism?

            Thanks for all the feedback.

            re: Publishing - the content is commissioned by the public - so it is owned by the public. Any news organization can republish the content.

            The only exception to this is if a news organization gives a substantial amount of money towards the investigation - in which case they will get temporary exclusive rights to the content.

            If you want to talk about it more - don't hesitate to contact me at David at spot dot us

             

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    Seth Brundle, Aug 26th, 2008 @ 8:10pm

    This is a terrible idea

    This isnt going to happen - or, lets put it this way - if it was going to happen on any meaningful scale it would have started happening organially.

    Whats just as troubling is not 'hard-hitting' reporting, but just 'reporting' everyday events.

    Most blogs are just opinion - there is nothing wrong with opinion its great - but blogs are not going to replace the dude who has the schlep his way down to every town meeting because its his job.

    And so it goes that the only news that is going to be reported in the future is, indeed, sensational news like contaminated water and britney spears, while everyday stuff we should have a record of and have minority interest will just dissolve.

    Why? because content has to sell itself now. No one 'subscribes' to it anymore.

     

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    Laure, Aug 26th, 2008 @ 8:13pm

    Reporters of fortune?

    This seems confusing to me- first of all because it requires journalists also be skilled fundraisers, and the talent pools don't necessarily seem to overlap- we could simply end up with much more opportunistic reporting, which doesn't seem like a really viable "new business model" when it comes to investigative reporting.

    Also I don't think all investigative reporting necessarily covers issues in which people place a vested financial concern- at least not in a way for which you could find investors. The idea of a salaried reporter is that they have the luxury of covering both high-stakes stories and rooting around for the info that noone knows is a smoking gun until it's hot in their hands. This may go by the wayside but I'm not sure a purely mercenary model (or purely partisan one) could effectively replace it.

     

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      Mike (profile), Aug 27th, 2008 @ 7:08am

      Re: Reporters of fortune?

      This seems confusing to me- first of all because it requires journalists also be skilled fundraisers, and the talent pools don't necessarily seem to overlap- we could simply end up with much more opportunistic reporting, which doesn't seem like a really viable "new business model" when it comes to investigative reporting.


      No, the point was that it was a separate company that is handling the "fundraising" part, and then once a project is funded, a journalist can take it.

      This may go by the wayside but I'm not sure a purely mercenary model (or purely partisan one) could effectively replace it.

      No one said this model would replace ALL investigative journalism. Just that other models ARE replacing the old way.

       

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    Rose M. Welch, Aug 26th, 2008 @ 9:52pm

    Reputation?

    There are freelance reporters who find thier stories, write them, and them sell this. This seems good to me because the crappy stories don't get published or paid for.

    Also, with the Murdoch media giant firmly in place in the US, I think it's pretty fair to say that the media is biased to the people who pay them right now. Adding some private payees is not going to change that fact one iota, except where a journalist has shown themself to be unbiased, their reputation would make them worth more in the eyes of the public.

    Journalists with good reputations would become more popular, which would in turn make them more apt to stay unbiased in order to keep thier credibility, which would in turn make people more apt to hire the them if they actually wanted the truth, allowing the readers to vet the story in a way that we can't with traditional media.

    I can see the bad points, but I can see the good points, too.

    Sorry for saying 'apt' so much... It just seems like the right word, lol.

     

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      Lance, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 5:51pm

      Traditional model has its bias as well

      There's no reason to assume that the traditional model is somehow less biased than a crowdfunded model. The temptation to slant reporting to please a funder exists regardless of who the funders are. Traditional newspapers are regularly accused of slanting their coverage, or simply not reporting on certain stories, out of fear of offending their largest advertisers, for example.

      Whether this new model will find success is still to be determined, but I don't see that it is inherently more biased than the traditional model; the potential bias merely comes from a different source.

       

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      Digidave, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 10:29pm

      Re: Reputation?

      I think this is a very on-point comment.

      I don't claim that spot.us will be the end all savior of reporting. I think we will explore and find out a lot.

      I know this much: I'm very passionate about figuring out how we can continue to ensure that in-depth investigative reporting continues.

      Right now - this is my best attempt at figuring this problem out.

       

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    Ajax 4Hire, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 4:27am

    Two words: Max Headroom

    Edison Carter and Max Headroom will be the model investigative journalist of the future.

    MaMaMaMaMaMax Headdddddroooooom, Max Headroom.

    If you do not know you should.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 4:48am

    Pay journalists for investigating a story? That is all fine and dandy, but who pays Woodward to go out and talk to deepthroat? What about stories that are not known by others? "Hey, this water tastes funny, lets pay someone to investigate why."

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 5:01am

    Huh . . . ?

    "but who will pay for investigative reporting."

    NO ONE DOES IT NOW (outside Frontline and PBS)? Part of the reason "old media" is being so quickly and easily replaced, is they just dont do a very good job. Especially in regards to deeper more complex issues. To fear we may lose "investigative journalism" is to fear the dinosaurs may become extinct.

     

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      mobiGeek, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 7:55am

      Re: Huh . . . ?

      Then it sounds like there is a fantastic business opportunity in this area? Someone with a fresh approach might do quite well, unless we are saying that the public at large doesn't care for good journalism.

       

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    for reals?, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 6:14pm

    are you joking?

    The "unbiased" press got sucked into Iraq and we went with them. Some how this model that has bias built in will be better? This already exists in terms of reports funded by companies to prove, as the previous poster noted, that cigarette smoking is not addictive.

    You are being rather ridiculous.

     

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      Mike (profile), Aug 27th, 2008 @ 9:24pm

      Re: are you joking?

      This already exists in terms of reports funded by companies to prove, as the previous poster noted, that cigarette smoking is not addictive.

      Not quite. Unlike those reports, none of this can be funded by a single entity (it takes at least five separate entities). And, if the system is smart, it should keep the funders entirely secret from the reporters.

       

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    lilyleftthevalley, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 1:32am

    Call me crazy...

    So if groups such as the religious right suddenly want to pay for an article investigating something that they know will be good for their cause(s), now they can essentially just use dollars to get whichever publication(s) to go out and report it? With all the fake reality we live in these days, there just seems far too many ways to exploit this process in a biased fashion.

    Yes, some folks might be relieved that the water is ok. But more may want to be able to sue their water supplier. Only practical application over time will tell, and by then it might be too late.

    And how much longer then, until the front page starts to be for sale as well? I know the story doesn't say anything about placement, but if journalism heads down this road, eventually the real estate is going to start fetching a price as well. And then we can all sit back and enjoy the front page wars between opposing groups like the intellignet design and the FSM folks. Forget news! We've already headed down the road of provocative entertainment and gossip rather than thought provoking dissemination of information. Need we go any further?

    If they're that desperate for funding, tell 'em to add a donate button, even giving them a choice as to whom to donate the money to anonymously: the sports section, a particular journalist, etc. That'd still be better in my mind.

    Otherwise this whole third party process just sounds like some people sitting in a room thinking "How can we make money doing something that really doesn't need to be done because it will cause more problems than it will solve?"

     

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