Is there a future for crowdfunded journalism?

11 Jun 2014  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Is there a future for crowdfunded journalism?

From courtroom tweeters securing thousands of pounds from strangers, to bedroom bloggers becoming international experts, something very interesting is stirring in journalism, writes Raymond Snoddy.

Peter Jukes, the journalist and writer, holds the title of top UK blogger but has perhaps another more significant claim to lasting fame.

He is believed to be the first, and possibly only person so far, to have used crowdfunding to finance a journalistic enterprise in the UK.

If there are others, then it would be lovely to hear from them.

The story is a simple one to tell but more complex in its context and implications.

Jukes started blogging during the first Obama Presidential campaign and wanted to pursue his interest in the phone-hacking trials in the UK, following the publication of his slightly premature book - The Fall of the House of Murdoch.

He thought he could only afford to cover the opening days of the trial but set up a home page on indiegogo.com, the crowdfunding website, to explain his predicament.

Crowdfunding is typically used by entrepreneurs looking for some of that essential seed money needed to get new business ideas off the ground. Small sums from large numbers of people can make all the difference.

In a way it's like a mini version of the stock exchange for those who could not possibly afford to go down that route.

But journalism?

Jukes himself admits he was initially queasy about what he did. After all, it did look a bit like begging. Why should complete strangers support him to sit in the Old Bailey day after day tweeting continuously on the progress of the trial?

It was hardly as if he was the only person covering the trial on twitter. Lisa O'Carroll of the Guardian was also devoting months of her professional life tweeting away without the need for crowdfunding.

The New Yorker noted earlier this year a growing number of well-known journalists were setting up their websites and going it alone."

Yet support Jukes they did. He was looking for around £4,000 to keep him at the trial until Christmas but in fact got more than £6,000 and then a further £14,000 which will keep him there until the verdicts, and sentences, if there are any returned.

Some of the sums involved were substantial and from well-known people who could afford them, others were for as little as £2.

In a way the payments represent a very direct form of endorsement of Jukes and his work. The crowdfunders must have trusted him and wanted to hear his voice, otherwise why would they bother?

As a result there will be a new edition of The Fall of the House of Murdoch and he has around 500,000 tweeted words to form the basis of the book of the trial, The Inside Story of the Phone Hacking Scandal.

The obvious questions include whether this is one possible strand of the future financing of journalism or simply a one-off caused partly by the fact that courts in the UK are one of the few places where cameras cannot penetrate - not even Daily Telegraph drones - and that restricted access provides opportunity.

An immediate outbreak of large-scale crowdfunding of journalism is scarcely likely. But you can see the potential for cases of talented and iconoclastic journalists, on the public service rather than the commercial wing of the trade, being funded to explore difficult and under-reported stories in dangerous places.

The Jukes case, however unusual it turns out to be, does highlight once again the issue of how serious journalism in the public interest is going to happen in straitened times for the established media. Bloggers, like Jukes, with or without crowdfunding, are clearly going to be part of the answer.

There are many other examples of "non-traditional" people springing up from their bedrooms - people such as Leicester-based Brown Moses, real name Eliot Higgins.

In what started as a hobby, Moses trained himself to become an expert in arms used in the Syrian conflict and has been cited by both human rights groups and in Parliament for his reports.

In the eastern provinces of the Ukraine bloggers on both sides fight for dominance in the social media stream and are an important source for Western journalists trying to take the pulse of the region.

Perhaps the most significant blogger of all is the statistician Nate Silver. He did better than pundits and traditional pollsters talking of an outcome too close to call by going against the trend and predicting every single US state correctly in Barack Obama's march towards a second term.

Something is definitely stirring in the embers out there.

The New Yorker noted earlier this year a growing number of well-known journalists were setting up their websites and going it alone. The numbers include Silver himself, and Glenn Greenwald of Edward Snowden fame. The latest addition is Bill Keller, the former executive editor and columnist of the New York Times who is trying to raise $5 million a year to provide specialist reporting on the American criminal justice system.

That's crowdfunding on the grand scale.

Then there are the serious online predators turned information philanthropists such as Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay, and Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief executive and since last year owner of The Washington Post.

Bezos has recently come up with his first Washington Post initiative - lifting the Post's paywall for subscribers to a number of local newspapers in the US not reached by the Post's paper editions.

The likes of Bezos and Omidyar are the inheritors of a long tradition of rich men who move from other spheres into the media in search of fun, mischief and political influence.

The arrival of the likes of Peter Jukes and Brown Moses into the online media domain could be more significant because there could be many more of them and it is impossible to predict how great their impact could ultimately be.

Do you think it might be possible to crowdfund a weekly column on the media?


You can hear Raymond in conversation with Peter Jukes in the Media Focus podcast

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