In a previous post I introduced the most significant findings from my recent case study of Spot.Us, a crowdfunding platform for journalism. In this post I discuss what my findings mean for journalism, and for the role and the work of a journalist.
Renegotiating the Role of a Journalist
A crowdfunded journalistic process brings a new element to a journalist’s job: Pitching in public. Traditionally, a journalist pitches his or her story directly to an editor. The journalist doesn’t need to think about marketing the story to the readers.
In a crowdfunded model, a journalist has to be willing to raise awareness about the pitch in order to attract donations. That means they have to assume responsibility for the marketing of the pitch by convincing the community of the significance of the story topic.
However, Spot.Us reporters expressed discomfort with pitching their stories in public and with asking for donations. To this end, the element of pitching in public brings new requirements and shifts the nature of the journalist’s role.
Similar shifts are occurring in creative industries as brands and institutions such as record labels and media institutions lose power. According to Mark Deuze, an associate professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, creativity and commerce in cultural work are increasingly coming together.
This development presumes that creative workers see their skills, ideas and talent in commercial terms. Traditionally, journalists have embraced creative autonomy and peer review rather than market appeal. In crowdfunded journalism, however, market appeal and readers’ opinions become more important than peer review.
These new requirements challenge the traditional journalist’s self-perception as that of an independent creative worker whose story topics are first and foremost accepted by colleagues, rather than by the public.
Participatory Culture Motivates Journalists
On Spot.Us, a participatory culture manifests itself in many ways: Community members (readers and donors) can donate money or talent for a pitch, they can leave a comment, submit a tip, or take on an assignment that a reporter has assigned to the readers.
These options for participation — particularly reader donations for a story — have a strong, positive impact on a journalist’s motivation to work. One of the Spot.Us reporters I interviewed said it was “beyond professionally motivating” the see that the public is willing to support her work by donating money.
From the journalist’s perspective, the act of donation creates a strong connection between the donor and reporter. Reporters find it rewarding to have a direct link to readers. This connectedness also creates a strong sense of responsibility for the story.
Typically, though, donors prefer to participate solely by donating; they are not eager to leave comments or submit tips, nor do they get engaged in the story process to the extent that they closely follow any story updates. For the most part, donors feel that they’ve done their part by offering up money.
Spot.Us: A Journalist’s Personal R&D Lab
For Spot.Us reporters, this platform is more than just a way to finance their work; they see it as an opportunity to experiment with new methods of journalism, for example in reader engagement.
The reporters also see Spot.Us as an opportunity to experiment with tools such as video and infographics. The site gives them the freedom to experiment that they seem to have been longing for. They feel there is a lack of opportunity to try new things when working for traditional news operations.
Reporters also consider Spot.Us as a good way to find partners for collaboration.
Donating for a Better Society
Donors don’t seem to be contributing to a specific journalistic piece as much as they are donating for the common good. Donors rarely follow up with the stories they help fund, and they might not even check up on the finished story.
For them, it’s not about the story; they want their donation to be a catalyst for change in society. They’re hoping the story helps make this happen.
This notion provokes a question about journalism’s role in society. Is the role of journalism only to inform people about issues and problems? Or should journalism also give the public a chance to make a difference, to attempt to solve a problem? If the latter is valid, then perhaps advocacy, cause-driven, or problem-solving journalism is more meaningful for the community than neutral, objective journalism that provides information but not the means to solve problems.
An example of problem-solving journalism is Huffington Post Impact, where journalism is married to causes. The stories on Huffington Post Impact report on issues like hunger at schools, or the misery of a family that lost a home in a flood. At the end of the story, the reader is given a chance to donate to a non-profit organization that can help alleviate the problem.
Based on my findings, at least some people consider journalism to be a means for contributing to social change. Therefore, journalism organizations should embed tools similar to SeeClickFix or new Knight News Challenge winner CitySeed, which allow the public to contribute to the betterment of the community with one click. Readers want constructive ways to participate, and journalism should give them the tools.
Journalism Aligned With Cause Marketing
Because the public donates for a cause, and not necessarily for journalism, the pitches on crowdfunded journalistic platforms such as Spot.Us should be more aligned with the features of cause marketing, a term applied to marketing efforts by non-profits working for social change.
In this era of declining media conglomerates, journalism organizations should have a clear message to readers as to why their stories matter, and how a reader can make a difference in society. It is important to note, though, that the strategy of cause-marketing works only for certain types of topics and journalism, such as the field of investigative reporting.
Participation as a Tool for Identity Building
In crowdfunded journalism, people share more than just the actual story — they share the story of their participation in the process by tweeting and Facebooking. This act of participation binds people together. As one donor put it: “I felt I belonged to a community when I donated.”
When Spot.Us donors spread news of their donation, they are also building their own identity. It says something about them, and they want to share that. That’s a significant result and benefit for donors. As a result, journalists should think of how they can provide the public with ways to link identity and causes to reporting.
For more information about the study, please contact me at tanja.aitamurto at gmail.com, or on Twitter @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.