Still. The amount she’s garnered so far is generally comparable to the funding brought in by pitches at Spot.us, the investigations-facilitating platform that also relies on a crowdfunding model—most recently, Spot.us funders have raised $350 out of a $450 goal for a report on the business side of marijuana; $265 for a $700 goal for a report on blight at San Francisco’s Market Street; and all $800 of an $800 goal for a piece on “The Story Behind the World’s Biggest Dam Removal”—an impressive comparison, considering Williams’s status as a person rather than an organization. And it’s one that may be indicative, more significantly, of that elusive yet essential feature of media innovation: scalability.
“Can this experiment work?” Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh asked this weekend after reading Williams’s appeal. “Can you pay yourself a kill fee?”
I’d say it’s got a good chance in the specific case, as enough people will point to it, and at some point Williams will get 2,000 diehard Dolly Freed fans willing to cough up a buck. Whether it’s scalable is another matter. My impression is that long, deep profiles like these have always been more reflective of what reporters want to do (spend a lot of time and travel on a subject that interests them) and what awards committees are looking for (class! class! nothing but class!), than they are of what readers want to read….
Lengthy, intelligent, stop-and-smell-the-roses stories like these have always been a sign of journalistic plenty, an affirmation that somebody was willing to pay the expenses for an army of printed-word Charles Kuralts. Williams’ model acknowledges that those days are, if not entirely over, dying out fast. It’s also one version of how the genre might continue when we are truly free of magazines.
That it is. (Though I’d change that last line to “truly deprived of magazines”…) And yet what distinguishes Williams’s crowdfunding experiment from other models is the retroactive nature of its appeal, in every sense of the word: It’s the Kachingle/Sprinklepenny method of retrospective story funding, only on a broader scale—and with an economic logic whose axis rotates around not reward, but recompense. It’s the Rapid News Awards method of retrospective news funding (for which, disclosure, I serve as an editor), but playing out on an individual, rather than institutional, basis.
And while Spot.us, to return to the most prominent crowd-funder, asks its community members to play, essentially, the speculative role of traditional magazine editors—determining stories’ worth in their gestational phases, divining their future shape through the vague contours of their prospective reporters’ pitches—Williams is asking hers to play the role of…consumer. Evaluator. Audience. But an audience, in a People Formerly Known As kind of way, empowered precisely by the transactional nature of its consumption. If we find this story valuable, we’ll pay for it. If we don’t, we won’t.
So you should probably make sure we find this story valuable.
“There’s still some mystery here,” Williams says of the experiment. “It’s very much 1.0.” Indeed, Williams realized last night that among the PayPal donor list were…Dolly Freed and her brother, Carl. “Bless her heart, I think she just wanted to jump in and express herself,” Williams figures. (When she wrote to Freed, explaining the conflict-of-interest potential in the donations and why she’d have to return them, the journalist received the following note from her subject: “…I would never ruin my reputation as a cheapskate that way. (So, pay pal is not anonymous?)”)
Still, what the effort hints at, even in its beta form, is a new model of patronage: crowdfunding, yes, but with the core transactional value residing in journalism that already exists, rather than speculation about journalism that someday will be. Williams’s strategy has a distinctly pudding-proofy sensibility to it. She is asking readers not merely to recognize a job well done—Kachingle’s tip-jar model—but to enable that job to be done in the first place. Retrospectively.
That readers have responded has been a pleasant surprise. “Frankly, I didn’t expect a dime,” Williams says. “I really didn’t. I thought maybe my mother would weigh in, but I didn’t expect anything. I just wanted to see what would happen.”