And: readers, it seems, are responding to that. As of Sunday night, Williams says, the site has had some 3,000 unique viewers—a small number, to be sure, compared to what the story might have gotten as a Times or Slate piece, but a considerable amount given the story’s self-published (and -promoted) nature. As for time-on-site—a metric that speaks more revealingly to the journalistic goals of import and impact, and is often a more meaningful indicator of those goals, than one-off clicks—“the bounce rate has been low,” Williams notes. “People are spending some time with it.”
They’ve also been spending some money. On January 6—the first day the story, and its SUPPORT THE JOURNALIST badge, was live—twelve people contributed to “Finding Dolly Freed,” Williams says. By yesterday evening, that number had jumped to thirty-four—with contributors from Austin to Brooklyn to Chattanooga, from California to Brazil, donating a total of $423.18, in amounts ranging from $0.75 to $100. (“I’m trying to write a personal thank-you note to every donor,” Williams notes. “May take me a few days.”)
The numbers so far may be modest in relation to Williams’s broad recoup-the-$2,000-production-cost-and-also-maybe-get-paid-a-little goal for the project—particularly in light of the fact that, as a seasoned freelancer who writes for high-end publications, Williams generally (or, in today’s economic climate, ideally) commands $2 a word for her writing. (At that rate, had it been published in a traditional publication, “Finding Dolly Freed” would have earned her $12,000, rather than, as of now, -$1,576.82.)
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.