Romenesko brought my attention to this idea today. It’s intriguing, because the holy grail in journalism today is to find a new way to pay for it, now that the old business model that sustained newspaper journalism for generations has collapsed so spectacularly.
Interest in news and commentary is as great as always, but in the past, those who demanded such commodities were not the ones who paid for it — it was advertisers, who came to the newspaper for completely different motives. Now that marketing has changed so radically, turning from mass media to targeting messaging, how do you pay people to come up with the professional-quality content that the public still desires?
Here’s one way:
I call it the eBay of investigative journalism, and here’s how I envision it:
- Bring donors and investigators together in an exclusive online network, creating a forum where they could pitch ideas to each other.
- Donors in the network who want specific topics covered would propose stories and agree to fund the investigations. Journalists in the network would bid on the projects, outlining how much money they need. Multiple donors could contribute to each project.
- Project pitches would work the opposite direction, too, with investigative journalists outlining their own ideas and donors “buying in” by providing the funds. Donors could contribute the full amount to fund projects they really like or fund parts of multiple projects. Journalists also could pitch ideas as teams or recruit teams within the network.
- The network would have a team of editorial directors whose job would be to vet the donors, journalists and ideas. Only the best would make the cut, just like applying for media jobs.
Of course that only applies to investigative journalism — or more, broadly, what we referred to as “enterprise” stories: Someone (traditionally an editor) says “go out and look into this.” Traditionally, the journalist did so because he was paid a salary. Now that the revenue source that paid that salary has collapsed, this is an interesting idea for paying for a journalist’s time and expertise to pursue a subject.
Of course, there are real problems with it. Not every worthwhile story, not everything that citizens need to know, is marketable. That’s why it worked better to pay journalists salaries so that their scope of investigation was unlimited by what attracted a paying customer.
Then, there’s the fact that it does little good for the area of opinion journalism, which has been my specialty since 1994.
But perhaps most critically, it does nothing for the most fundamental, basic, bread-and-butter kind of journalism: simply covering everything in a community — crime, public safety, courts, politics, business. If you try to cover news according to whether someone wants to pay to see that particular story, it becomes PR.
But it’s still an intriguing idea.