the news frontier


Paige Williams reported a story. She financed it herself. She'd love to be paid back.
January 11, 2010

In 1978, when she was eighteen years old and living, with the rest of the country, through an economic crisis whose depths would be unmatched until our current one, Dolly Freed published a paean to self-sufficiency. Possum Living: How to live well without a job and with almost no money was a how-to manual in narrative form, based on the lifestyle Freed and her father had cultivated while living in happy frugality in rural Pennsylvania. It advised readers on such budget-aiding practices as clothes-mending, vegetable-pickling, and discount home-purchasing (through, in particular, foreclosed-upon houses). It provided recipes for simple, homegrown meals. It encouraged people, basically, to take their economic situations into their own hands.

It was, in other words, the right book at the right time. And it won Freed a Fifteen Minutes that lasted longer than most. After Possum Living’s release, Freed-centered stories appeared in The New York Times, Seventeen magazine, and other national outlets, and Freed herself appeared on The Merv Griffin Show. An award-winning short documentary was produced about her daily life.

And then: Freed disappeared from public view. She hadn’t dropped out of society altogether—or died, as some Possum fans speculated—but rather did something perhaps more surprising: she went mainstream. She got married. She moved to Texas. She got a job—as an aerospace engineer, no less. At NASA, no less.

“We aren’t living this way for ideological reasons, as people sometimes suppose,” Freed had written, about herself and her father, in Possum Living. “We aren’t a couple of Thoreaus mooning about on Walden Pond here…. We live this way for a very simple reason: It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.”

Its relevance (perhaps) renewed, Possum Living will be officially re-released, in a revised edition, tomorrow. And Freed, having found a balance, it seems, between the rugged Possum life and the typical American commercialism, is now breaking her thirty-plus year reclusiveness. (To an extent, that is: “Dolly Freed” is a pseudonym.) The best evidence of her return to public life being “Finding Dolly Freed,” a rich and strikingly intimate portrait of Freed’s life and philosophy of living.

The piece, as a specimen of long-form narrative, is 6,000 words’ worth of the kind of deep reporting and lush prose that generally characterize Magazine Writing at Its Best—a compelling story that balances detailed idiosyncrasy with broad implication. But while Freed may be able to eschew what she calls “the money economy,” working journalists, generally speaking, are not. Freed’s story took time—and, yes, money—to report and produce. Which is why, on that story’s homepage, you’ll find a slight deviation from the standard Magazine Writing at Its Best layout: a sidebar, hued in urgent tones of black and red, its words aimed directly at the reader.

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“Finding Dolly Freed” is a piece of independent journalism that cost more than $2,000 to produce.

To help the writer recoup her expenses and perhaps bank a small paycheck, please click here and pay whatever amount you’d like. Think of it as Radiohead journalism. Thank you in advance!


Click on the box—anywhere on the box—and you’ll be led to a PayPal page. “Feel free to support the cost of this story,” it says. “Details: see ‘About Story’ on author’s website. Thanks!”

The author, in this case, is Paige Williams, a longtime, and decorated, magazine writer. “I’m self-publishing this story,” she writes, “because it had no other home. I wanted it to live in the world, not die in my notebook.” So she reported Freed’s story, independently…got it produced, independently…and now hopes to recoup the expenses of that work, opposite-of-independently: through reader donations. (Thus, “Radiohead Journalism”: named for the pay-what-you-think-our-album’s-worth experiment the rock group undertook a few years ago.)

The story itself, and the SUPPORT THE JOURNALIST button situated next to it, is, in its way, Williams’s own nod toward Possumian self-sufficiency—and away from the increasingly dire straits of the money economy that is the magazine industry. “It was just, you know, ‘I can do it.’”

Williams learned of Freed this past April, from her former literary agent, who happened to be involved with Possum Living’s re-release. (“Nothing lifts me more than a good story, nothing in the world,” Williams says, and “I just knew there was a good story there. Or: I thought there would be.”) The in-person reporting of the piece—which required a trip to Houston, which required in turn plane tickets, car rental, and lodging—took only a few days, Williams says…though “my intention, once I found a home for [the story], was to go back. I couldn’t wait—I was so excited to go back.”

She pitched the piece “all over the place: The New York Times magazine (rejected), Texas Monthly (rejected), The New Yorker (rejected), Philadelphia magazine (rejected), (crickets), and others. Nobody was interested.” Williams—who, over a twenty-year career in journalism, has received pretty much every honor a magazine writer can hope to: a National Magazine Award, inclusion in The Best American Magazine Writing, a Nieman Fellowship, and editorships at prestigious publications (she is currently the executive editor of Boston Magazine)—found her story, finally, homeless. The hoped-for return trip to Houston, and to her story’s subject, wouldn’t pan out. (“I just couldn’t do all that on spec. A month’s rent…”)

An acceptance-turned-rejection from The New York Times, just two days before the piece’s intended shorter-form Style-section publication, was the last straw. “It wasn’t about the time spent on the story,” Williams says; “it was just that, to me, it was a story I felt deeply that I wanted to tell.”

She continued reporting the piece, remotely. (Freed FedExed her letters, journal entries, and old NASA documents, and the two spent hours on the phone. “It was the best we could do,” Williams says, under the circumstances.) In late December, spurred by the news peg that was Possum Living’s re-release, Williams assembled an ad hoc team of fellow journalists to provide editorial feedback for the piece—an editor (her Boston Magazine colleague Geoffrey Gagnon, who did the work as a favor), a copy-editor (Jennifer Johnson), a fact-checker (Leigh Ann Vanscoy)—and signed a photographer (Audra Melton, whose travel expenses Williams paid, but who took no additional fee for the work) to shoot the images that now accompany the piece. “I wanted the story to come through all the channels that it would have gone through had it gone in a magazine I’d normally do business with,” Williams explains.

The final step, though, was taking the story beyond those channels—building the platform that would fill the most basic and essential function of a magazine: distribution. For Williams, as for many journalists, self-promotion is a task akin to dental visits, dish-doing, TSA screening: a necessary business, yes, but an unpleasant one. (Compounding the issue: “I’m Southern,” Williams, a Mississippi native, notes—“I was raised not to brag on myself.”)

So, though “I’d intended to have one,” she says of that most precarious of self-promotional precipices, the personal Web site…she hadn’t yet taken the leap. Before, that is, “Finding Dolly Freed” came in need of a place to live. To help its cause, Williams enlisted the services of Web designer Johnson Fung, who (for a fee) built, both as the host of “Finding Dolly Freed” and as, yes, an archive of Williams’s prior work.

In some ways—except, of course, for the financial—the story’s outlet-orphaned status was liberating. No negotiations with editors. No need to conform structure to the confines of the printed page. “The story still has to work, of course,” Williams notes—“it still has to perform the way it would in the print model”—but in the case of “Finding Dolly Freed,” the piece’s within-the-context-of-no-context publication allowed the story to be, in the fullest sense, a story: transcendent of outlet, transcendent of brand. True to itself and its author’s vision for it.

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, the investigations-facilitating platform that also relies on a crowdfunding model–most recently, 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, 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.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.