Last week the crowdfunding site Kickstarter introduced two new crowdfunding categories: one for crafts and the other for journalism. In their words:
[I]t’s more important than ever to make sure journalists have the tools and resources to try new things — whether they’re professionals looking for innovative ways of funding and sharing their work, or ordinary folks with a hunger to tell the stories around them.
As Gabe Rosenberg notes, this move allows for “a more inclusive definition of what constitutes an act of journalism and who can be considered a journalist.”
This observation is particularly relevant to brand journalism. Brand journalism thrives when subject matter experts report on stories that might not have broad appeal but are important to smaller groups. Together these news articles can help define a market, differentiate products, and build emotional connection to a brand. Does that make it any less journalism? Does it even matter?
Crowdfunded journalism is moving mainstream. A few years ago Spot.us launched “community-funded reporting” through a Knight News Challenge grant, according to the Nieman Journalism Lab. The site was later acquired by American Public Media and, after some successes, stopped accepting new pitches or donations. Perhaps it was just ahead of its time.
In January, an English startup called Contributoria was launched, backed by the Guardian Media Group. The process, described as “if Kickstarter and Medium had a baby,” might “just change the landscape of journalism away from an editor-driven model,” reported Jenna Kagel at Fast Company.
Said co-founder Matt McAlister about the platform:
We’re trying to put some transparency around the journalism process — the core premise being around collaboration with your peers, with other writers — and the mechanisms and the processes that journalists operate by. We wanted to create a platform that just sort of opened that up, so any number of people in the community could participate in it openly.
Contributoria’s process works like this:
Anyone can submit a story and compensation request. Funders pay cash directly to writers for journalistic projects. Instead of being rewarded with goods and services, as on Kickstarter, funders are rewarded with a look over the shoulder at various drafts prior to publication. Stories develop in the open. After open periods of “proposals” and “production,” the articles are published with a Creative Commons license for all to see in an online magazine format.
Cynics might argue that crowd-sourced journalism would omit news reporting on topics that inflame society or challenge authority. Perhaps. However, this model could foster the reverse. Kagel concedes “that [pretty terribly named Contributoria] could give underdog stories a bit of leverage.”
A crowd-sourced journalistic future may have several positive ramifications for brand journalism.
1) More Editors and Stakeholders. Crowdsourced journalism may be the future of reporting, but I disagree that would be a future without editors. If anything, multiple funders might each be motivated to fact-check based on the selfish self-interest to preserve their good name. Maybe we should move away from a single byline to that of a hive-mind byline. (This Story, By These Undersigned Funders).
Brand journalism scenario: Consumers themselves could take the lead and fund specific experiments that could translate into brand news stories. How do Harley Davidson motorcycles fare traveling outside the U.S.? These consumer evangelists hire a team to travel in the most remote locations and report back on everything from culture shock to motor repair.
2) Increased Transparency. Brand journalism’s close association with their financial backers makes some traditional journalists uneasy. As it becomes more natural to see who funded what story, it could make evaluation of sources easier.
Brand journalism scenario: Brand journalism is already upfront about its underwriters, either through explicit messaging or implicit location of publication. If more news organizations adopted similar clarity, brands could selectively curate content whose provenance is better understood. This would further develop a sense of trust between brand and consumer.
3) Payment of Journalists. The wisdom of crowds is nothing compared to the wallets of crowds. Crowdsourced payment for stories, even branded or sponsored stories, would support specialized reporting by participants on the ground.
Brand journalism scenario: As the motorcycle example above … Do Acme Tents really hold up under rugged conditions camping cross-country? I’d like to know in a detailed article about traveling the Southwest, written by a person who is using an Acme Tent and reporting, occasionally, on its wear (for better or worse).
It remains to be seen what, if any, fiscal model to support journalism will win. It is my guess that the future of journalism, including brand journalism, won’t be limited to one model at all.
Katie McCaskey is SixEstate's content director. She tests real-world application of content marketing techniques using the cafe she co-owns as a laboratory. She was Tech Editor of Chief Content Officer, 2010-2011, and contributes to the Content Marketing Institute. Connect with her on Google+ or @KatieMcCaskey.