Crowdfunding – A Rant on Platforms and Ownership Signifying Nothing

When I first started talking about the idea behind Spot.Us (not the actual organization) it was late 2007. The first time I spoke about Spot.Us publicly in 2008 the audience at Investigative Reporters and Editors attacked like wolves. I held my ground, but it wasn’t easily forgotten. Good questions were asked. Some of them mechanical, some of them ethical. There were also plenty of silly questions asked. Some of them mechanical, some of them ethical. But I would guess that none of the same questions would be asked if Spot.Us launched in 2013. In fact, I suspect nobody would blink an eye.

And this is a good thing. I’ve often described my career as trying to push the boundaries in transparency and participation in the process of journalism. For Spot.Us the transparency and participation was specifically around the funding models of journalism. In other words – Spot.Us was about making a kind of artistic statement to the journalism community as much as it was about funding journalism for the world. (Wait for future post on Art/craft and Journalism)

An important thing to note, however, is that crowdfunding is old old old. Spot.Us wasn’t the first crowdfunding website. It wasn’t even the first attempt to crowdfund journalism. It was, to my knowledge at least, the first PLATFORM to crowdfund for journalism.

Today crowdfunding is everywhere. It’s almost a strange mockery of what I envisioned. Within days of each other Donald Trump backs his own crowdfunding platform (gross) and Gawker uses IndieGoGo to try and pay for a damning video of Toronto’s mayor smoking crack (a potentially awesome use but very strange).

I still occasionally get asked questions about crowdfunding for journalism. Sometimes the questions feel strange and silly both mechanically and ethically. The most cliche question: “What’s the best way to raise money?” That’s not a fair question to answer. More importantly – I think it’s missing the point about crowdfunding’s potential role with journalism. It’s missing the forest for the trees. I fear the moment is slipping and some journalism organization needs to step up before the moment is way past us (maybe it already is).


One could argue the written word freed information for mankind, bringing on a more democratic and just society for all.

But the truth is – the power of the written word belonged to those who were literate – a small part of the population.

One could argue that Gutenberg’s printing press freed information for mankind, bringing on a more democratic and just society for all. And by that time literacy rates had risen!

But the truth is – the power of the printing press belonged to those who owned it – a small part of the population.

One could argue the Internet freed information for mankind. It no longer is cost prohibitive to express oneself to the world.

But the truth is – the power of the internet belongs to those who code on it. Just ask Matt Mullenwag, Mark Zuckerberg,  or David Karp.

Those who create the platforms… own and define the means of expression.

All code is political

Technology companies are media companies. Their power lay in creating platforms and every choice defines the type of media they enable. Netflix is a streaming video company. That’s not a mistake. Facebook is a “social utility” – that’s not a mistake. And thus – journalism companies must create platforms that will enable journalism – or hope that a technology company does it for them (hint: “hope” is not a strategy).

And this is why I say above the question on “what’s the best way to crowdfund” is not the important question we, as a professional community, should be asking ourselves. Certainly it is helpful. But to be honest – my answer isn’t rocket science. It involves lots of elbow grease, having a good project, etc. etc. (having a built in Andrew Sullivan audience doesn’t hurt either but getting there is more of the same “hard work, work smart, be a good reporter, etc).

But the more interesting and nuanced question, the question we aren’t necessarily asking ourselves is – what platforms can journalists use to enable their kind of media to be produced.

And so we get back to the question of crowdfunding. Which platform is the best for journalists? Ideally a platform that self-proclaims to have journalism at the core of their interests. Kickstarter is FANTASTIC – but their mission is to fund “creative projects.” IndieGoGo is great – but it’s interested in funding…. anything (?). There are a few crowdfunding platforms that aim to have journalism as a mission – but they have not really been embraced by the community they profess to serve. One could argue Spot.Us had the most warm embrace and is now owned by a media company, but it isn’t a stretch to say that not much has happened on Spot.Us since I left.

Dan Gillmor has warned the journalism community about our relationship with Apple, Twitter, Facebook and Google. These are the companies that build platforms (iTunes, social networks, YouTube, etc) that thus get to define the kind of media that is produced. We are at their mercy for better or worse (and who knows – maybe it IS for better).

I think the popular crowdfunding platforms are great – but there are ethical questions that need to be raised when already famous stars use it to raise money so they can work on their movie projects. There are logistical questions that need to be raised when an organization like ProPublica (which already asks for tax-deductible donations on its website) uses a crowdfunding platform to raise money (non-tax deductible donations) for a reporting endeavor.

Is it to try and reach a new audience? Perhaps. But then what are we really saying the crowdfunding platform is for? To solve a monetary issue or to reach out to hipsters? And how long does that gimmick really last? Is that building sustainability or buzz?

Ownership……  Who owns what in the case of a ProPublica project funded via Kickstarter. There are multiple levels.

I don’t profess to know anything deep or concrete. These questions feel very fleeting to me. But the questions are real and I am perturbed that we aren’t asking the right ones. Instead – we act a bit like we are enamored still with crowfunding as a concept. We are well past concept phase. We are now waiting to see how things shake up and who owns what. And that’s just what bothers me. It feels like we are waiting….





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