'Community' or 'Crowd'?

As a writer and adorer of our motley English language I do like to amuse myself with the origin of words. For example, in English we have many lexical twins and triplets. Like ‘guts’ and ‘courage’, or ‘ask’, ‘question’ and ‘interrogate’. Their meanings are similar but their origins differ. I like to know these facts and to respect them, to geek out on the details and nuances. Hence I’m curious that in my post ‘The future of long form: an odyssey’, I cavalierly paired ‘Crowd-funding’ and ‘Community-funded reporting’ with a simple forward slash. I didn’t once consider they weren’t one and the same. But after talking to award-winning journalist, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of Masters in Journalism at the University of Melbourne, Margret Simons, I realise they are different.

When she was at Swinburne University, Simons was involved in a crowd-funding initiative, youcommnews.com. It was among the first of its kind in Australia, and based on the existing website, it seems to have lost its mojo. There was a flurry of activity in 2010/11 and not much since. I asked Simons, what happened. ‘We did prove the model worked. We funded two pieces of journalism on [it]. But certainly levels of activity on the site were a long way short of what we would want to see in order to call it a success. So we won some and lost some.’ Simons says.

The two pieces that were funded were well funded. One was by Simons herself about ABCNews24, and another by Toula Mantis about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. As one of Australia’s first forays into crowd-funding of journalism, youcommnews.com is still ultimately experimenting (and though it is dormant, Simons says it’s not dead). But with only two projects successfully funded, I wonder, are Australian readers ready for these kinds of entrepreneurial initiatives?

‘If you ask the question in the broad, “Will people fund journalism?” the answer may well be, “Well it depends,”’ Simons says. The two funded pieces were very focused, and already had well organised online communities. According to Simons, those communities ultimately provided the funding. She notes it’s early days, but says, ‘My suspicion is that if the reporting or the topic of the reporting is intensely relevant to the community that is funding it, [that project could succeed].’

Thus, ‘crowd-funding’ is the mechanism but ‘community-funded reporting’ is the appropriate label.

Simon’s states her insights are ‘tentative’ because they are ‘based on a very small sample’. But to me they ring true. The community is what gets word out, and those within it will not only read your work, but care enough to help you fund it. Elmo Keep’s successful campaign to fund a ticket for a KISS Cruise (research for her book on the band) is very much in keeping with this idea. It's a very specific subject, with a lot of fans.

So thinking of it as Community-funded reporting could bear fruit for those considering crowd-funding of their long form non-fiction. I like to parallel this way of thinking to that of a pitch. Before you pitch your idea to a publication you qualify it. You make sure that it’s a match, and (technically) you don’t pursue the idea until you have a venue for it.

Community-funded reporting is not so different. You just choose your community, rather than your venue.

I’ll be keeping you posted on more Community-funded reporting initiatives (and the progress of youcommnews.com).

If you’re in Melbourne and interested in funding models for news, head to the ‘What Cost News’ session.

Margaret Simons will be contributing to a range of sessions at the festival. I think she has great insights for those who haven’t trained in a newsroom. See this page of the MWF site for details.

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