Can crowdfunding help produce another WikiLeaks or Pentagon Papers?

There have been a number of interesting experiments in crowdfunding journalism recently, including topic-specific projects like Syria Deeply and the science journalism of Matter (a magazine co-founded by my former GigaOM colleague Bobbie Johnson) and donations help support other players such as ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. But could the crowdfunding approach be used to help an entire category of public-service investigative journalism such as WikiLeaks and its ilk? The founders of the Freedom of the Press Foundation — a group that includes legendary “Pentagon Papers” whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg and internet veteran John Perry Barlow, among others — are betting that it can.

As co-founder Josh Stearns of the non-profit advocacy group Free Press wrote in a blog post about the project, the foundation is designed in part to be a kind of one-stop shop for anyone who is looking for ways to support public-affairs or public-advocacy journalism, instead of forcing them to search the web for all the various players in the field and then donate to them individually. The foundation says it has chosen four organizations to highlight and raise money for — including WikiLeaks — and then will choose a new cohort to profile every two months. Says Stearns:

“The Freedom of the Press Foundation forgoes competitive grant-making and instead focuses on collaborative fundraising. The Foundation groups nonprofits into bundles and seeks funding for them together. It’s an opportunity to bring more unity to the nonprofit media sector and introduce new people to each outlet [and] lowers the transaction costs by giving people one place where they can support a range of journalism organizations with one donation.”

A response to the WikiLeaks donation “blockade”

Executive director and co-founder Trevor Timm, who has also worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the past (a group that John Perry Barlow co-founded in 1990), said on a conference call about the new entity that the main impetus for its creation was the financial “blockade” suffered by WikiLeaks — which was cut off in 2010 by most of the major payment-processing firms such as PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, even though neither the organization nor founder Julian Assange have been charged with any actual crime related to the release of classified documents.

According to a news release from WikiLeaks about the formation of the foundation, the blockade by payment handlers has caused the flow of contributions to the group to decline by more than 95 percent over the past two years. The release said that cash reserves at the organization have fallen to less than $1,000 from a peak of more than $1 million in 2010, and only an “aggressive attack” against this blockade will allow WikiLeaks to continue.


Timm said that even though the foundation’s website was only launched late Sunday night, in less than 24 hours it had raised over $32,000 for WikiLeaks and the other groups it is raising money for — a list that includes MuckRock, which specializes in helping ordinary citizens file freedom-of-information requests, as well as the National Security Archive, one of the largest repositories of declassified government documents in the United States. Timm said the “lion’s share” of funds have been going to WikiLeaks (those who donate can choose where their funds are directed). Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind one of the most far-reaching leaks of classified documents in history — the release of the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” which showed that the government systematically lied to both the American people and to Congress about the war in Vietnam — said that he joined the foundation’s board of directors because he believes that WikiLeaks is a fundamental part of an open and transparent approach to government oversight. As he put it on the conference call:

“This started with the idea that WikiLeaks is not only a legitimate journalistic enterprise but an essential one… and we don’t want to see it go down under government pressure. I think it is now an indispensable part of journalism, and we’d like to see other organizations come up with the same technology and the same approach. Unauthorized disclosure or leaks are essential, in finding out… that officials have lied to us, that laws have been broken, that the constitution may have been broken [and] what we know about those occurrences in the last decade has come entirely from leaks that the government tries to deplore and do their best to stop and even call treason.”

Secrets need to be exposed, says the foundation

Barlow said that the group believes that it is important to have public-oriented journalism that is responsible and well-funded, and the foundation is trying to do what it can to support that. The EFF founder said that he doesn’t believe in revealing every piece of classified information, especially when it might put the lives of people working in classified areas at risk, but added that the group also believes that “there is an awful lot of activity going on inside these institutions that is secret and protected from public view, and really needs to be available to the oversight of the people in whose name it is being conducted.”

Like digital-media veteran Dan Gillmor, who wrote about his support of the foundation at The Guardian, I think Ellsberg and Timm and the other co-founders of the group are right when they say WikiLeaks — and others like it — have a crucial role to play in public-interest journalism. NYU professor Jay Rosen called WikiLeaks “the world’s first stateless news entity,” and regardless of what we may think about its leader Julian Assange, having that kind of organization around is hugely valuable. Even former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller — who has had a fractious relationship with the group in the past — has agreed that WikiLeaks serves a purpose and deserves to be defended.

Whether crowdfunding can fill the gap for WikiLeaks and other public-interest journalism outlets remains to be seen, but if it doesn’t succeed it won’t be for lack of effort. In addition to Barlow and Ellsberg — who wrote about their support of the foundation in a piece published by the Huffington Post — the group’s board of directors includes Boing Boing blogger Xeni Jardin, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and actor/activist John Cusack.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Stuart Miles and Shutterstock/Rvlsoft