Platforms such as Spot.Us and Kickstarter have shown that crowdfunding can work as a financing mechanism for journalism. We will likely see more crowdfunded stories in the future, which means it’s important study how crowdfunding impacts journalism and the role and work of a journalist.

I’m currently in the process of completing a Ph.D. project about collective intelligence in journalism, and my case study about Spot.Us attempts to address these issues. I interviewed 15 Spot.Us donors and reporters for the study, which I presented last week in the form of a research paper at IJ-7, the Seventh Conference on Innovation Journalism at Stanford.

This is the first of two blog posts based on my paper. In this post, I offer five observations on how the crowdfunded process impacts journalism from the reporter’s and donor’s point of view. The quotations below are taken from the interviews I conducted with Spot.Us reporters and donors.

The Reporter’s Point of View

Donating bonds readers to reporters — Donating is a significant act that bonds reporters to the community members (a.k.a. readers). Reporters said it’s very motivating to see that the community is willing to support their work. This is how one Spot.Us reporter described the feeling: “It feels great. It feels gratifying … And seeing somebody paying $20 for a story — it is way more than 20 cents.” Reporters described the act of donating as “heartening,” “gratifying” and “personally motivating, beyond professionally motivating.” They consider the donors as their supporters. For them, donating is an act that supports their work and the topics they are working on.

Strong sense of responsibility — The connection created by donations develops a strong sense of responsibility within the reporters. Reporters described this as being different from the feeling of responsibility that comes with a traditional assignment. It goes beyond the usual feelings of “professional responsibility.” A Spot.Us reporter explained how this additional level of responsibility felt to her: “It is more than having it written in a nice style and formatted properly, things you worry about for an editor. You worry more about the accuracy, really honest reporting and presenting the issues correctly, because these people have directly invested in you.”

Direct connection to the readers — Rather than writing for an editor, reporters said they feel as though they’re writing for the community. They find it rewarding to have a direct connection to readers, and to know who the readers are. One reporter said: “When I started working on the story [for Spot.us] I already knew who the readers are, whereas when writing a usual story [in a traditional journalism model] sometimes it feels like writing for a black hole.”

Discomfort with pitching — Spot.Us reporters don’t feel comfortable pitching in public. For example, they feel hesitant to reach out to their social networks to raise awareness of their pitch. “I’m a journalist, not a salesperson,” said one reporter. “I can’t make myself go out and promote my pitch.” Another reporter compared pitch promotion to begging by saying it’s like asking for spare change by shaking a tin can on the street. Traditionally, journalists pitch directly to editors rather than to the public. Reporters said they would feel more comfortable promoting their pitch in public if Spot.Us organized promotional events that they could participate in.

Freedom to experiment — Reporters said Spot.Us is more than just a way to finance their work; they see it as an opportunity to experiment with new methods of journalism, and an opportunity to experiment with tools such as video and infographics. The platform gives the reporters freedom they have been longing for.

The Donor’s Point of View

Donating doesn’t bind donors — Donating doesn’t bind donors as strongly as it binds journalists. After donating to a story, donors often don’t return to the Spot.Us site to read the final work. They are more likely to stay connected with the story process if they receive notifications from Spot.Us, but even then the connection remains loose. “I’m not actually engaged with what has happened on the site,” one donor said. “I will wait to get the email [telling me] here’s the story done, here you are, here’s the output of it. A part of it is that I’m not incredibly close to these stories.”

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Not eager to leave comments, submit tips — Donors are not eager to participate in ways other than donating. They usually said that they don’t have enough knowledge to submit tips to a story. One donor put it this way: “I participated by donating. I don’t have so much to say about the topic, and I’m not used to leaving comments on websites.” The donors rarely interacted with the journalists, even though Spot.Us encourages readers to do so.

Donating to a good cause — Donors tend to support stories that have relevancy or connection to their lives. However, the primary reason for donating seems to be that they want to support a healthy society, and they consider journalism to be an essential element of this. Donating is more about supporting a good cause or the common good, rather than supporting a specific story pitch. Donors do not expect a master journalistic piece for their donation, though they are happy if that happens. “I don’t think I’m gonna get anything [for my donation],” said one donor. “I’ll learn something out of the process … I consider this as a donation for the common good, more than anything else, or any kind of personal gain.”

Donating to change the world — Donors hope the stories they support will make a difference in society. They see articles as a way to produce change for the better in society by revealing wrongdoings or inequalities.

Donating builds one’s identity — The act of donating to a pitch helps builds one’s sense of personal identity. Donors who are on Twitter usually tweeted after they had donated. Some donors said the act of donation made them feel part of the community, even though they were unable to define what that community is.

In my next blog post, I will discuss and analyze what these observations mean for journalism. For more information about the study or for the full paper, please contact me at tanja.aitamurto at gmail.com or on Twitter as @tanjaaita.

Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a Ph.D. student studying collective intelligence in journalism. She has studied innovation journalism at Stanford, and has degrees in journalism, social sciences, and linguistics. Tanja advises media companies and non-profit organizations about the changes in the field of communication. As a journalist, she specializes in business and technology. She contributes mainly to the Huffington Post and to the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily newspaper in Finland, as well as to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Tanja splits her time between San Francisco and Finland, her home country.

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