Reporting in Public 3 – Leaping From Lily Pad to Lily Pad

I’ve done it! With the help of 125 supporters, I’ve raised $7000 to finance this story through the online non-profit Spot.Us, a site that helps journalists fund their projects. I also received two big grants to fund another story related to that one: $10,000 from the Nation Institute Fund for Investigative Journalism and a separate $10,000 grant from the Polk Grant for Investigative Journalism.

I feel great about having my work supported by the community and by such prestigious institutions. And I’m very grateful to all my supporters, those who contributed as much as $1000 to my fund (thank you Phil Rosenthal!) or as little as a few dollars.

How to stay alive as an independent investigative journalist

The whole process took four months, two months less than originally planned. Now that I’ve succeeded, I want to consider the benefits and troubles and necessity of this method of crowd financed journalism.

Long form investigative journalism is vulnerable in the shaky world of publishing. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of The Google-ization of Everything, remarked recently now that, through digital technology, we know how much time people spend on a page, it’s obvious what a small percentage of the public reads long form investigative journalism. One could consider this kind of writing a luxury good, he said, something that appeals to only a few people and costs a fair amount of money to create.

The distinction is that, in contrast to a Hermes scarf, long form journalism has a social purpose. A well-written, meticulously reported story can open eyes, change minds, and perhaps, change public policy. So, in that way, I can’t see it as a luxury, even though many magazines that are trying to hold on in a tough market obviously see it that way. They can’t see the economic justification for paying for it if it doesn’t sell magazines. Hence the need to fundraise.

When I started this process, I was cocky. I had the exhilaration of someone who was breaking free from the old rules and avoiding the gatekeepers and authority figures. Very quickly though, that changed.

Asking for money is humiliating, even if you believe strongly in the thing you’re hawking, as I did. One suddenly looks at one’s friends in a different way, along the Y axis of how much money they have and the X axis of how generous they are likely to be. This is not a kind way to assess friendships. The attitude I had about this, stated to myself and to others, was that I was grateful for any contribution. Yet I was of course assuming that some of my more prosperous friends would be very generous to me and the less flush one would at least give me something based on our long association.

My first salvo was a heartfelt email personally addressed to people who were close to me. That approach yielded quick results and some surprises in the ways people turned me down.

Many of my friends are just holding on as unemployment continues high, although you wouldn’t know it from the brave faces they display in their Facebook postings. A few people wrote back that they hadn’t worked in months or were about to lose their jobs and therefore couldn’t help me out. I felt really bad that my request just reminded them of how little money they had. As one friend wrote, “your continued appeals are humiliating at best. Take me off the begging list.” The begging list? I felt as though I had been slapped! Yet I also understood how that answer reflected my friend’s frustration with his situation rather than his opinion of my project.

Another friend explained that she couldn’t donate because her husband hadn’t worked in a year and it was extremely tough for them to survive in an expensive city as a one-income family. I felt terrible that I’d even asked her in that I knew her situation. This feeling persisted for a few days until she announced on Facebook that she and her husband were flying across the country to keep her birthday dinner reservation at Chez Panisse.

This definitely is the downside of raising money from your friends. I didn’t expect to be ignored by some of my close friends, nor did I expect to get involved in their personal finances in this way. Objectively I realize that people get to spend their money any way they choose and if they don’t want to spend it on me, so be it. Emotionally, I felt differently and it was a feeling I didn’t really want to experience.

The man who founded and runs  Spot.Us, David Cohn, said that I’d have to ask people seven times before I could consider them to have truly rejected me. Not only was it a bit embarrassing to be writing my friends asking them to support me, I had to keep asking them. I had to become a pest.

In the end, more than half of the small contributions I received came from strangers, which was very gratifying to me. Now that it’s done, I see that it can work, but I also know that it’s not really something one can do very often.
I can be grateful for broad support from the community, but in reality the substantial contributions came from close friends. I can’t ask my friends for money for something like this more than one every few years or it would strain our friendship. The contributions of strangers were mainly between $5 and $10. I suppose if I was willing or able to wait for a year or more to raise that money, I could have done it through accumulating many small contributions.

That means, however, that I’d have to figure out a way to support myself for a full year waiting for this $7000 to write this story. In the end, that’s not a way to sustain my life as an investigative reporter.

As pleased as I am to have succeeded in this experiment, it does reveal how shaky the world of investigative reporting has become. I thought of it more visually, as leaping from lily pad to lily pad, staying quick and nimble in order to keep doing the kind of work I love to do. I suppose all of us are doing that in one form or another in this economy.

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