When the Huffington Post announced it would crowdfund a one-year reporting fellowship to cover the aftermath of teenager Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, it incited a lot of sniping. Don Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media, a conservative advocacy group, summed it up in a blog post: “HuffPo isn’t some small, independent, underfunded news organization—rather it is owned by AOL, a Fortune 500 company with a market capitalization of $3.44 billion. And they couldn’t spare $40k to fund this project?” The Guardian US’s news editor Alex Koppelman cracked on Twitter: “Fyi, everyone, I’m crowdfunding my lunch today. I can totally afford to buy it myself, but I’d rather that you pay for it.”
In truth, the journalism world is divided on this issue. Some considered it a creative and harmless way to fund a worthy, and likely unprofitable, project. Others groused that it was unseemly for the multimillionaires who run HuffPo—Arianna Huffington and AOL’s Tim Armstrong—to solicit contributions from small donors. Still others fretted that if the effort was successful it might encourage media companies to start crowdfunding public-interest journalism they would previously have paid for themselves.
The detractors notwithstanding, HuffPo raised more than the $40,000 it needed (from 641 donors) to pay Mariah Stewart’s salary. HuffPo will cover Stewart’s benefits, and she’ll be mentored by the site’s justice reporter, Ryan Reilly. Stewart, 23, recently received her BA in journalism from Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, MO. She lives in another nearby suburb of St. Louis, and was previously working in retail. When Ferguson blew up, she went there and started tweeting breaking news. She got picked up by the Beacon Reader, an Oakland, CA-based website that allows selected journalists to publish their work and raise money from readers. Reilly, who went to Ferguson to cover the story, brought Stewart to the attention of HuffPo’s DC bureau chief, Ryan Grim. Grim, knowing that there was no room in his budget to create a reporter slot for someone stationed in Ferguson, floated the idea of crowdfunding it. According to Grim, Arianna Huffington, who still manages the site she sold to AOL in 2011, “loved the idea.” HuffPo partnered with the Beacon Reader to raise the money. Stewart will provide some stories on the side for her Beacon Reader followers.
‘HuffPost is a global media company with an annual budget, not my personal blog that I keep going with my donations,’ says Arianna Huffington in response to critics who suggest she should bankroll the reporting job.
There is a case to be made that crowdfunding for a reporter at a major news organization is fundamentally no different than other new models for funding reporting—and the fact that the reporting will appear on the site of a for-profit company is immaterial. Journalism is an unusual amalgam: a public good provided by the private sector. When an outlet does a deep dive and injects its reporting into the public conversation, it cannot capture all the economic value—because its competitors will summarize and comment on the stories—much less the non-economic value to society. So why shouldn’t concerned citizens help cover the financial gap between what shoe-leather reporting costs and what it generates? “I initially had a viscerally negative reaction: Why is a multibillion-dollar company asking for donations for a $40,000 project?” says Ari Rabin-Havt, host of The Agenda, a talk-radio show on SiriusXM and a former executive vice-president at Media Matters for America. “I changed my mind. Wealthy people and foundations have funded journalism for decades: ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis, the American Independent. Journalism is a public utility that is funded by private companies, mostly billion-dollar corporations. ProPublica gives an article to The New York Times and no one freaks out about it.”
ProPublica takes issue with the suggestion that its model is qualitatively the same as HuffPo’s crowdfunding, because its donors are not giving directly to the media outlets that benefit from ProPublica’s work. By giving to ProPublica, they support its mission of doing investigative reporting that has an impact, and publishing in a large outlet is a way of achieving the latter half of that goal. “The mission of AOL is to make money for its shareholders over the long run. I have a fiduciary responsibility that is completely different than that,” says Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s CEO.
There are publications, though, that support their coverage with donations, such as nonprofit magazines on the left (Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly) and the libertarian (Reason) and neoconservative (Commentary) right. Though most need foundation grants to support their operations, they all accept reader contributions, too. This isn’t even the first time that donations have gone to a for-profit publication: The Nation, while legally a privately owned for-profit, covers most of its losses with donations from readers. (Disclosure: I’ve been a regular contributor to The Nation, freelanced for The American Prospect and The Washington Monthly, and my current employer, Grist.org, is a nonprofit environmental magazine that accepts reader contributions.)
Yet somehow, soliciting donations for HuffPo seems different. As part of a publicly traded for-profit corporation, HuffPo is actually trying to make money. If Stewart’s coverage of Ferguson draws millions of readers and generates significant ad revenue, AOL’s shareholders—not the donors—will keep the proceeds. In theory, this would also be true of the consortium of rich liberals who own The Nation. But The Nation, unlike HuffPo, isn’t trying to make money—its owners are on the hook for losses, but in the rare years that revenue exceeds expenditures the money is reinvested—and it isn’t subsidizing its serious coverage with fluffy content that’s cheap to produce. HuffPo pays for its substantive journalism by surrounding it with photos of celebrities’ exposed “sideboobs,” aggregation of other outlets’ reporting, search-engine optimized headlines atop skimpy content, and the unpaid, sometimes ill-informed, musings of celebrity bloggers. “If you’re a Huffington Post reader, you say, ‘I accept the deal that the nip-slip slideshows and Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine craziness is the price you pay, because it supports Ryan Grim’s reporting on Congress,” says Mark Schmitt, director of the political reform program at the New America Foundation and the former executive editor of The American Prospect.
Tofel doesn’t necessarily see anything wrong with Huffington Post soliciting donations, especially if it is unprofitable. “When you’re unprofitable, and you’re supposed to be for-profit, you are under great pressure,” he notes. Profitability would seem like a reasonable metric, but it could be a more complicated one than you might expect. AOL doesn’t say whether specific websites are profitable, although the company as a whole is. A Business Insider report in December 2013 projected that HuffPo was expected to lose around $6 million on roughly $100 million in revenue for the year. But AOL executives said that was because it invested in growth, and that it expected to be profitable in 2014. (Arianna Huffington declined via email to offer specifics on the site’s profitability.) But plenty of organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofit, spend a lot of money on things that could arguably be cut to support more journalism. AOL’s Tim Armstrong, for instance, received more than $12 million in compensation in 2012.
Armstrong may or may not care about Ferguson coverage. But by her own account, Arianna Huffington, who kept a significant chunk of the $315 million AOL paid for The Huffington Post, does care. “We’re committed to using all the tools at our disposal to continue telling the story of Ferguson,” she told me. Wouldn’t that include digging into her own pocket rather than the pockets of her readers’? Huffington’s response is that, “HuffPost is a global media company with an annual budget, not my personal blog that I keep going with my donations.”
The idea of giving donor-sponsored reporting to for-profit publications, at least indirectly, has become more common in recent years. Where ProPublica’s model of sharing content with large, often for-profit, outlets was once unorthodox, it is now employed by many investigative reporting organizations, including the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimateNews.
In a sense, getting readers to donate in exchange for more coverage of topics they care about is on a spectrum with other new revenue models. Slate, for example, recently launched Slate Plus, a program in which readers buy subscriptions to exclusive content, like bonus segments on podcasts and behind-the-scenes descriptions of the process of reporting big features. Julia Turner, Slate’s editor in chief, says that while Slate has no plans to deploy crowdfunding, she can’t say that it never would. “A lot of journalism is indirectly crowdfunded through subscriptions,” she notes.
Dan Fletcher, a co-founder of the Beacon Reader, also makes the subscription comparison. In exchange for $5 a month or one-time lump sums that correspond to subscriptions of varying lengths, what Fletcher calls “backers” get access to content that may not be available elsewhere—and presumably the moral satisfaction of supporting journalism they care about. Readers are essentially subscribing directly to individual journalists, minus the intermediation of editors or a larger publication. Unlike with most paywalls, the emphasis is not on getting content that non-subscribers can’t. A journalist with a Beacon Reader profile is free to shop a piece posted there to another publication or cross-post it elsewhere. Most of Stewart’s work for the next year, for example, will appear in HuffPo, where it will be free to anyone, not just those who funded her fellowship. She will post on the Beacon Reader to alert her “backers” when her pieces go up, and she will also post extra content for their benefit. The Beacon Reader’s paywall is leaky, as social media referrals get access for free. Philosophically, though, Fletcher views the relationship as more akin to reader-subscriber than donor and recipient. If you agree with him, then HuffPo hasn’t even solicited donations at all—it has merely sold subscriptions.
Whether or not they agree that it is ethically no different from selling subscriptions, most journalists—even critics of HuffPo’s crowdfunding—do think there is an unmet need for deep coverage of Ferguson and other stories of race, changing communities, political power, and criminal-justice reform in American towns and cities. To ProPublica’s Richard Tofel, donations to support investigative reporting at even profitable outlets could be justified if the alternative is that the outlet wouldn’t pursue the project at all.
One fear some journalists raised is that newsrooms like HuffPo will start crowdfunding for stories or salaries instead of spending some of their profits. But at least if a fellowship is crowdfunded, the reporter will be paid. Too often, the answer to how to produce expensive, low-revenue journalism is to get the reporters to work for little or no money. The idea that readers or viewers should help pay for the content they want is hardly radical. No one thought it was unfair when the Sulzbergers and Grahams made their fortune from middle-class readers who paid for subscriptions and appealed to advertisers. As Stewart says, “Let’s be real: There are so many issues, if Huffington Post was going to pay for every reporter that was going to stay around the beat for a year, they’d be broke.”