Crowd
Credit: By James Cridland on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
As violence continues to flare in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the heavily-armed police response to resulting protests, the mainstream media has also come under criticism.

Initial reports spurred the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown – highlighting the portrayal of African-Americans by some parts of the US media – while others have criticised the coverage, or lack thereof, by other organisations.

But at Beacon Reader, a platform launched last year to allow journalists to publish work directly funded by readers, there has been a call for independent coverage by journalists reporting directly to their audience.

"We realised that readership inside of Beacon was definitely interested in getting more coverage," Adrian Sanders, co-founder of Beacon Reader, told Journalism.co.uk. "Usually the way it's set up is oriented towards writers getting more funding through their network and the stuff they want to do.

If I wasn't here I would want to know exactly what was going on and not just how mainstream news portrays itMariah Stewart, freelance journalist, Beacon Reader
"But that topic-oriented approach was something that came out of the situation in Ferguson, people saying 'do you have anyone on the ground there? 'Can I put money into Beacon and have that go towards coverage?' And we realised that we could do that very quickly."

As Sanders detailed in a blog post, Beacon put out a call on social media to readers and reporters and within two days had raised $2,000 (£1,203). To date, the project has raised over $3,500 (£2,106) from 99 backers looking for an alternative, direct source for their news away from the mainstream.

"They're largely looking to cover the macro story and convey a macro sentiment," Sanders said of mainstream media outlets' coverage in providing a snapshot of the bigger picture with reports, "because that's what drives attention and traffic.

"From a business side of things that's what is going to get shared and passed around, but what you get is a vacuum of all the other important stories. The kind of stuff that may go unnoticed in the heat of the moment but can be very important."

Mariah Stewart, a freelance journalist and recent graduate of nearby Lindenwood University, felt the need to document events in Ferguson after a neighbourhood shop was looted and burned on Sunday 11 August. She has been reporting from the scene since.

You have an opportunity, with crowdfunded journalism, to say this is what I want to know, this is what I'm looking forAdrian Sanders, co-founder, Beacon Reader
"If I wasn't here I would want to know exactly what was going on and not just how mainstream news portrays it," she told Journalism.co.uk, "but I would want to hear a first-hand experience and that's what the people want, that's why they're so interested, and we're getting these first-hand perspectives on it."

Stewart, joined by fellow Lindenwood alumni Michael Sprague and Brittany Velasco and experienced conflict reporter Peter Tinti, are filling the gap between broad-stroke mainstream coverage and constant stream of Twitter, said Sanders.

"In between those two spectrums of the tightly-controlled, very clear narrative of traditional media and the wild west and craziness of social media you have an opportunity, with crowdfunded journalism, to say this is what I want to know, this is what I'm looking for," he said.

"I'm looking for someone to give me context on a regular basis about what's going on there, someone I feel directly tied to and engaged with and that's what's been really interesting. A big part of the response we got from readers was that we want someone there after the initial craziness dies down. We want someone to tell us about what is going on."

While some of the coverage has been of speeches, town meetings and church events, at other times the situation has taken a darker turn. Stewart said the behaviour of both police and protesters could be "unpredictable" in the evening, which was possibly why some freelance journalists were staying away from the area.

All four reporters have been working late into the night, she said, while yesterday The Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux was "shot with bean bags/rubber bullets" and arrested, before police issued a warning that journalists "may be taken into custody".

Tinti was unavailable for comment due to his long hours, but having covered stories involving Nigerian militant group Boko Haram and been named one of the world's top 100 journalists covering armed violence, he has experience working in dangerous situations.

The issue of experience and protection of freelance reporters receiving funding from Beacon readers is one Sanders tries to ensure is factored into any project, a concern he said is often only afforded by the biggest news organisations.

"We are not the New York Times and we don't have those kind of resources," he said, "but we do have the ability to create this situation where a reporter can say 'this is how much money we need to raise to get this done in a safe manner'. We're doing as best we can to make it transparent to get the reporting done."

There's no reason that localities can't quickly crowdfund coverage where they don't have newspapers anymoreAdrian Sanders, Beacon Reader
For Stewart, the opportunity to work as a freelance and publish directly to readers gives reporters the freedom to report how events as they see them rather than through an editorial lens, and "feel more excited to report because I know the people I'm reporting for are waiting to hear it".

"I think this crowdfunding really does have a future in it because [readers] can pick out who they want to read and follow up on," she said.

And Sanders believes the opportunities for crowdfunded reporting will only increase as the effects of the digital revolution continue to take their toll on print outlets.

"There's no doubt in my mind that, moving forward, we will see more Ferguson-like things," he said. "There's no reason that localities can't quickly crowdfund coverage where they don't have newspapers anymore. Or they have newspapers that are inclined not to cover certain things.

"That's definitely something we face in America and so you have a really large workforce of highly trained professionals out there who are not always [working] full time, and you also have people who are clearly showing that they are willing to pay for the truth and coverage on things that they think are important.

"We'd like to be in the middle of that because we think really amazing things happen there."

When a lot of news and information reaches readers or viewers from distant television studios or monolithic news organisations, the effect can be "dehumanising" said Sanders.

"The best way to humanise [the reporting] is to feel attached to someone there who is doing this work," he said. "So crowdfunding is an amazing way to do that."

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