Contributoria’s founders talk about why they are building an open community for crowdfunding journalism

Gigaom

There have been a number of attempts to bring crowdfunding to journalism over the past several years, including a venture called Spot.us and some high-profile journalism projects that have launched on Kickstarter. But while some or all of these have been successful at funding journalism or individual journalists, none have created a vibrant community for writers to collaborate in addition to helping them get paid — and that’s what the Guardian’s Matt McAlister and Sarah Hartley say they are trying to build with Contributoria.

While the site (which launched on Monday) is geared towards journalists and writers, membership in the community is open to anyone — it’s free while the site is in beta, although McAlister said a fee will be involved at some point. Writers submit their proposals and the fee they would like to receive, and then they seek support in much the same way a Kickstarter project does (although there are no rewards for different levels of support the way there are with some platforms).

Stories take shape in the open

Submissions and voting is the first stage of the process, which takes place over the space of a month. During the second month, pieces that are funded take shape in the open, with comments and suggestions from the community. Finally, the finished articles are published as a kind of magazine issue, with all of the content free to read and also available for re-use via a Creative Commons license.

In an interview, McAlister — general manager of new digital businesses for Guardian Media Group (see disclosure below) — said the site began in 2012 as a proposal submitted to a news-innovation competition that Google sponsored in co-operation with the International Press Institute. The idea took shape as he and Hartley talked about how they could expand on some of the “open journalism” efforts the Guardian had already experimented with, and combine some crowdfunding features from platforms like Kickstarter.

Bringing transparency to the process

“We were kicking around some ideas about things like a virtual assignment desk, what a Github for articles might look like, and how Kickstarter could be applied to communities of journalists,” McAlister said. So the two rolled those concepts into a prototype, pitched it to Google and the IPI, and won. It took a year to find a designer who could implement their ideas — former Flickr designer Dan Catt — and then the site began to take shape and was opened to the public this week. Said McAlister:

“We’re trying to put some transparency around the journalism process — the core premise being around collaboration with your peers, with other writers — and the mechanisms and the processes that journalists operate by. We wanted to create a platform that just sort of opened that up, so any number of people in the community could participate in it openly.”

Inspired by Spot.us and NewAssignment.net

Hartley, who has worked worked on a number of “open journalism” projects for the Guardianincluding Guardian Local, which was an attempt to figure out how a journalist could create a network of bloggers and other sources in order to better cover their community — said that Contributoria’s emphasis on community and collaboration is one of the things that makes it different from other attempts at crowdfunding journalism such as Spot.us and NewAssignment.net.

“It’s obviously going to appeal to freelance journalists, but it’s theoretically open to anyone — and the collaborative effort of the editing I think will really help people who haven’t as much experience in pitching a large organization, so it will hopefully help new writers and new voices as well.”

Spot.us, which McAlister said was one of the inspirations for the new site, was founded by David Cohn — now director of news at the mobile startup Circa — and was successful in getting a number of investigative or long-form stories published (including one in partnership with the New York Times) but didn’t really take off and was eventually acquired by the Public Insight Network. Cohn said on Twitter that the Contributoria model is one he finds interesting.

@MarkLoundy @jayrosen_nyu my .02 @contributoria = what I wanted to try when Spot.Us combined with Public Insight Network.—
David Cohn (@Digidave) January 01, 2014

A better solution than Kickstarter?

Contributoria isn’t just an experiment by the Guardian newspaper, McAlister said — it’s actually funded by Guardian Media Group, the company that owns the paper and is backed by the Scott Trust. That means Contributoria has to stand on its own as an operating business, which of course means eventually generating revenue.

And how is it planning to do that? In addition to the funds contributed by members, McAlister said potential sources of revenue include allowing advertisers or media companies to sponsor a piece of journalism, or to contribute money towards the pool of financing — as well as potential licensing fees for finished pieces. The one thing Contributoria plans to avoid is advertising, since McAlister said that would make the site less appealing for members.

McAlister said that he thinks Contributoria’s community-based approach is more likely to succeed than journalists pitching individual stories or projects through a general crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter:

“I think where many models have struggled is when you try to break down the relationship between the article and the reader into a commercial, one-to-one relationship. I don’t think that’s a very strong model, because I don’t think most people value an article enough to make a transaction of it… I’ve never been a believer that the micro-payment style relationship between the consumer and the creator of an article was going to be successful.”

Whether Contributoria can become a viable alternative for journalists remains to be seen. The real challenge will be in attracting enough of a community to make the site self-sustaining — although Hartley said there has been a strong response even in just the few days since the site launched, and there are already several live projects in addition to the ones that she and McAlister seeded the community with.

Disclosure: Guardian Media Group is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholtz



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