The issue of funding in journalism – especially long-form, investigative pieces – has been the cause of much hand-wringing from the industry in recent years. Where the digital revolution may have produced more tools to pursue in-depth investigations, it has also undermined the revenue streams of traditional distributors.
To combat the issue, Israel Mirsky, founder of Uncoverage, believes investigative journalists should be assembling "funding followers" in the same way they currently assemble Twitter followers.
"Investigative journalism is the immune system of a functioning democracy," explained Mirsky. "When the funding model is broken it's equivalent to an immune disease.
"You don't die from that directly but from the secondary infections that happen when your immune system is damaged. As a civically-minded individual I can't sit by and let that happen."
Newspapers and television stations previously had a "monopoly on a large portion of global attention", Mirsky explained, through the printing presses and broadcasting technology that kept distribution channels behind relatively high-entry barriers.It's death by 1,000 paper cuts and if we can't figure out a way to increase the ROI of doing that kind of work then we're going to bleed outIsrael Mirsky, Uncoverage
The internet significantly reduced those barriers, he added, letting anyone distribute their message to the world.
"The portion of attention that commanded the opportunity to advertise to those people, and created value that the newspapers could then recoup in subscription dollars, just went away," said Mirsky.
With Google democratising revenues from advertising to anyone who can gather a big enough audience, the share of that revenue for newspapers goes down, leaving publishers to choose whether or not they want to pursue a story that "gets audience attention" for a higher return on investment, Mirsky said.
"It's death by 1,000 paper cuts and if we can't figure out a way to increase the return on investment of doing that kind of work then we're going to continue to bleed out through these thousand tiny cuts."
Uncoverage offers a potential solution for investigative journalism, Mirsky said, by providing journalists with a platform on which to pitch stories and write about topics that are in the public interest.
Pitches can include as much information and multimedia as a journalist wants to reveal, but instead of being funded by a commissioning editor the public will choose which projects to back and fund them with their own money.These are public interest issues and people are emotional about them for a reason because they are affecting people's livesIsrael Mirsky, Uncoverage
The pitch channel for funding works in a similar way to Kickstarter or IndieGogo, said Mirsky, but donations can also be made by topic or specific journalist.
"For topical funding," he said, "it's like if the public has an interest in changing an issue and they do funding around that." As such, he said, Uncoverage could, for example, turn an individual's concern about "financial corruption into an investigated issue."
Editors of the different topics would be in charge of any funding that is collected on an issue and be able to assign it to projects as they see fit, without revealing details of projects or stories beforehand.
Uncoverage is accepting applications and already boasts an impressive core of founding journalists, including financial reporter Roderick Boyd, Latin American expert Sibylla Brodzinsky and fellow freelancers Laura Ren Murray, Erin Banco and Jose Miguel Calatyud.
However, rather than start his own publication, Mirsky hopes to facilitate the funding of projects and partner with existing publications.
"I'm not trying to supplant their business models," he said. "I'm trying to provide something that infuses the work of greatest public interest with additional dollars such that they can continue to do it and do it at a level that they may not have been able to do for quite some time.
"My objective is to get the story the widest circulation and get the journalist the most amount of money. Because I don't have a primary advertising motive."
Depending on the amount of funding necessary for a project, Mirsky said there could be "hybrid models" of funding to support them. The cost of some investigations may be high, but Mirsky said the potential for getting readers to contribute is equally high in many cases, due to the level of interest or engagement the topic can inspire.We must fix this or we will be crushed under the weight of what happens when the public is not looked out forIsrael Mirsky, Uncoverage
"These are public interest issues and people are emotional about them for a reason because they are affecting people's lives," he said. "They're affecting the things they care about. They should be emotional about these things."
Mirsky hopes to launch Uncoverage in the first quarter of 2014, with a crowdfunding campaign for $55,000 (currently at just over $11,500) running on Indiegogo until 2 January. The allocation of funding is outlined on the page in an attempt to make the organisation as transparent as possible in order to restore trust in journalism, said Mirsky, and in turn restore its function as a public service.
"It's a global conversation about journalism as society's immune system," he said, "and we've forgotten that in the larger discussion about 'oh, there's so much noise' or 'the content quality is so low'.
"There is a really fundamental thing happening here that is analogous to an immune disease that we must fix, or we will be crushed under the weight of what happens when the public is not looked out for."
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