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.”