MinnPost.com Experiments with Journalist-Specific Fundraising

I’m digging the fundraising experiment MinnPost started running today: Readers can help fund a specific writer: David Brauer.

As it’s set up, you can contribute in increments of $10 or $25 toward Brauer’s writing. All contributions up to $10,000 will be matched by a generous donor.

This type of funding makes a lot of sense to me. Reporting is unbundling from a combination of comics, classifieds, and news down to narrow consumption based on specific reporters, topics, or even keywords. Some will prove to have a viable market (my guess is Brauer fits this category) and others won’t be sustainable. When not tested against the market, they were held up by the mothership. Once they prove not to be directly sustainable, funding will become even more creative.

This type of funding will likely break down at least two different ways: funding specific reporters and funding specific topics. On the topic side of things, I think there is demand for coverage of events that mainstream news sites never touch. For example, I bet five parents at a typical upscale private school in the Twin Cities would be willing to chip in $20 each per PTA meeting to receive well written summaries that may or may not ever be publicly published. That’s at least a $400/month one weeknight a week opportunity for an underemployed reporter.

As Joel Kramer mentioned in the comments on MinnPost.com’s BrauBlog experiment, donations are coming in. Do you think they’ll find the 400-1000 (combination of $10 and $25 contributions) donors they’re looking for to take full advantage of the $10,000 matching donation?

21 thoughts on “MinnPost.com Experiments with Journalist-Specific Fundraising”

  1. Ed – I’m skeptical but hopeful this proves out. It was me and my big mouth at a dinner with Joel suggesting we have a lower price point in our donation structure. (You can donate any amount to MinnPost, but we don’t explicitly encourage donations under $50 until now.)

    I do hope this works because I’d like to try it to get things we *don’t* currently have. For example, a fund drive to bring Britt Robson’s sports blog would be great. It’s not the sort of thing Britt would want to do on his own, so that’s our potential value-added, and our course, his high-quality content would be value-added to our site.

    Thanks for writing about this and encouraging us.

  2. I’m trying to get my head around the concept. It seems like a good idea. But what if — and I’m separating this from David, who I know is above such things — reporters who are paid by the audience, begin to write more toward what they think the audience will pay for.

    Yeah, I know, that does sound stupid. Why wouldn’t you want the reporter to write about stuff that people will pay for.

    Then I go back and remember how frickin’ long it took for anyone to give a damn about what Woodward and Bernstein were writing in 1972.

    Would reporters work as hard in unearthing stones as they would for the quick payoff?

  3. Bob, great point. Some forms of journalism may not work well under this model. In the case of political investigations, I really don’t know how it would work. It doesn’t seem like there is any shortage of funding for digging up dirt on political opponents, but how that is presented isn’t typically traditional reporting.

    While MinnPost is making an admirable effort to keep David from knowing who his financial supporters are, David’s not stupid. He has access to other forms of data that tell him where the money’s at. For example, he can see how many views each of his stories receives. Page views = ad impressions = $. That must have some influence on what topics he tackles going forward.

    Balancing personal, financial, and community interests becomes more difficult when you have access to more information.

  4. For most kind of readers who’d fund writers, I don’t think they’re looking for specific coverage or formulaic stories so much as the application of particular skills and sensibilities. This is more an endowed chair model than a royalties model — fund David and let him do his thing, not send him another 65 cents every time he pleases you.

    And so what if some do want to fund a Britney Spears “journalist”?

    I don’t read the Deets because of YP crusades and TP folding, but because I know Ed’s approach to the world will continue to surprise and delight.

  5. I actually think this approach could work for political reporting. It is rare that a journalist is working on only one story at a time, and I would think that the short pieces can “subsidize” the longer-form stories that are the meat of political reporting. That is, a reporter can do Watergate-style reporting, but simultaneously do the shorter day-to-day stories that keep readers reading while they wait for the long-form pieces. In other words, I would pay specifically for Seymour Hersh as a journalist, because I love his investigative reporting, but I think for this model to work for someone like him, he would have to publish some “smaller” stories more frequently while still working on the big political exposes, to keep other paying readers tuned in.

  6. Bob and Ed,

    Our matching donor, Ruth Ann Harnisch, said she doesn’t even read MinnPost because she’s not local; her interest is in how good journalism gets funded in communities across America. But even for her gift, how is this different from a major underwriter of a news program on public television or radio, or a major advertiser in a newspaper? The truth is that journalism costs money, and the money comes from somewhere, and that always creates the risk of both the perception and reality of influence. The solution is the integrity of the individuals involved on both sides of the transaction. And for micro-donations, of course, there’s really no issue at all. Even if you believe that reporters are for sale (which I do not), could they be bought for $25?

  7. //could they be bought for $25?

    I’m trying to resist channeling Jack Benny here. (“Your money or your life?” … “I’m thinking… I’m thinking.”)

  8. God loves irony…and I can’t help seeing irony in how David is kept clean from knowing his funding sources so he can be unbiased in putting words together on his blog.

    Yet our entire political process is COMPLETELY funded by special interests and the words they are putting together impact pretty much everything in our life.

    Am I the only one finding the irony in this? Brauer is supposed to be hidden from access to the 10s of thousands of dollars…yet, how much is being spent on candidates these days?

    Forget this stuffy junk (I cleaned this up, nice of me, eh?), you like his work, stuff greenbacks in his pocket at the coffeehouse, I don’t care.

    If you really really think it unbalances him to know–I suggest you clean up government first and then you can apply this high-faluting principle to writers, who are practically paupers by comparison to politicians.

  9. Other Mike – I get what you’re saying; I was merely trying to practice what I preach at politicians. On some level, I probably can’t avoid knowing (given people outing themselves on comment threads and on Twitter), but I’d like to try to avoid obvious influencing anyway.

    Ed is absolutely right that there are other corruptions at work – I follow my traffic far too closely, and have to actively work not to have it influence me excessively. But at least that’s the public speaking, not monied special interests.

    Charlie – I like the endowed chair model. A group-endowed chair. That makes me feel noble.

  10. A colleague inquired today as to whether she would be “going Brau-less” if she didn’t contribute.

  11. @Brau-less…sorry, who can pass that up? My point is EVERY carries a bias, for a journalist to pretend otherwise is as dishonest as just disclosing it and writing on. Consider it transparency in journalism, full disclosure…that if I receive Target sponsorship of X dollars/year, this article on Target’s latest mis-guided marketing campaign just might be as softly written as humanly possible…but at least it is being written, and locally, instead of being piped in from some Clear Channel affiliate in Houston or some such.

    Trust us, we get it…that is the blessing of the internet, less rubes who revelle in their rubedom.

    This is fund-raising, this is MPR-lite, this is Bill Moyers finding money so his program goes on the air…allllll media is funded somewhere, right? Ask for the money, take the money, disclose the money, and do your job. Quit trying to be the only person in the media who dresses in sack-cloth and stays holier than thou, all while trying to cover the most devious elements in society.

    When I want to read the writings of St. Brauer, sorry, I’m not going to to click into MinnPost. But when I do want the best in local news, I have ignored as best I could all the obvious biases in the Strib for years and still found myself on their annoyingly auto-refreshing (not content refreshing) pages on occasion, and occasionally was glad I did, regardless of their other failings.

    My advice–Take any money, disclose it freely, and just be the best Brauer you can be without fear of any bias-claims. I’ll trust you, you trust me…deal?

  12. As the president of the Harnisch Foundation offering the matching grant, I am (as the kids say) ROTFL at the thought of influencing minnpost.com content.
    I used to earn my living as a journalist. I know how money influences content.
    I can still hear the general manager of the television station where I worked as a consumer reporter saying, “There are thousands of stories you can do. You are not doing this one. You heard me right – this is not running. I am telling you to find one of the thousands of stories out there that does not involve (insert name of major automotive advertiser here).”
    We were also assigned stories that were referred to in our newsroom as BBJs (the first word was “broadcast”), flattering feature stories about the businesses that supported our annual telethon.
    So, please, rest assured, not only do I have zero interest in the content of minnpost.com or the blog, I consider this method of funding content the cleanest possible way. If all content were paid for in $10 or $25 increments from anonymous contributors, matched by uninvolved philanthropists, wouldn’t that be the best way to assure independence?
    As for getting journalists to stop compulsively checking their stats and responding with content designed to make them ever more beloved, well-read, and famous, well, good luck with that.

  13. Ruth Ann, thanks for sharing your background. It definitely helps explain your passion for the state of the media and how it’s funded.

  14. Yes, thank you, indeed. Now could you tell us how we can leave journalism and become presidents of foundations? Just in case. (g)

  15. How can you leave journalism?
    1) Better than you found it
    2) Do as I did – work from the age of 16 (RIP Buffalo Courier-Express), have numerous employers that undergo ownership changes, management changes, format changes (too many call letters to mention), wait for your last employer to go out of business (RIP Nashville Banner) and then stop

    How can you become a foundation president?
    1) Check out the help-wanted advertising in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (you’ll find more openings for fundraisers than presidents, but they’re in there)
    2) Do as I did – take your own money that you could have spent on stuff for yourself, put it into a private foundation, and spend it on projects and ideas you hope will benefit others. Having a spouse who supports you – priceless; don’t leave home – or journalism – without it.

  16. Folks, awesome discussion, especially the St. Brauer part. My rabbi great-grandfather is rolling in his grave.

    I bet I look good in sackcloth and ashes, though. Gray flatters me.

    As for disclosure, this is an experiment for me, too. Still undecided about the wisdom of my action, as sincere as it was. Appreciate the perspectives.

  17. Remember to roll the first ‘r’ in St. Brrrrrauer. 😉

    I see and appreciate Ruth’s point, is it okay if I call you Ruth…it seems too informal, but maybe more so after referencing St. B.
    *add a genuflection here*

    I just think it might be too noble for the real world. But, my full disclosure is that I have zero journalism experience (other than reading it). People will ice David out of stories if they don’t like his angle even if he is purely funded, right?

    And after all, wasn’t Woodward a CIA plant to control the media production of the Watergate story anyway…in other words, isn’t there always a way to game the media and it is up to us poor citizens out of the know to filter multiple stories like mad to try to unwind the truth from the spin?

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