Why it’s smart of the HuffPo to partner with Beacon Reader in crowdfunding a reporter

The Huffington Post and Beacon Reader — a crowdfunding platform for journalism that we’ve written about before — announced on Wednesday that they have formed a partnership to fund and train a citizen journalist who is currently writing about the protests taking place in Ferguson, Mo. after the shooting of an unarmed black man. This announcement triggered a rather snarky response from a number of media writers, most of whom argued that the AOL-owned news outlet should just hire and pay the reporter themselves instead of asking readers to pay for it. But I think the HuffPo project is a smart idea, for a number of reasons.

One of the main reasons has to do with the point of crowdfunding, whether it’s on Indiegogo or Kickstarter or on one’s own website, as a number of journalists have done. Part of the idea behind asking the “crowd,” or a potential audience, to help finance a specific project isn’t just to avoid having to pay for it yourself — it’s to connect that reporting directly to a specific group of interested fans or supporters.

That connection in turn does two important things: One, it helps to create a powerful two-way relationship between the reporter and the people who have funded their writing, a relationship much stronger than the typical “I read your stuff because it’s free and maybe I also looked at some advertising.” That relationship could be a very valuable commodity. And secondly, crowdfunding — whether with products or with journalism — is a way of testing the market for a specific topic or method of coverage before devoting millions of dollars to it.

Not freeloading but a partnership

The way that the Beacon Reader project has been spun by some outlets is that the Huffington Post is freeloading by asking the crowd to help pay for a citizen journalist to cover Ferguson — so that it can use that content on its site and generate ad revenue while contributing nothing. But the AOL-owned entity is providing training and resources to help reporter Mariah Stewart develop her skills, including a commitment to have her work side-by-side with HuffPo writer Ryan Reilly covering the investigation into the Michael Brown shooting.

For Stewart, the “fellowship” with Beacon Reader and HuffPo means she will get $40,000 that she wouldn’t otherwise have had, plus the opportunity to work with Reilly, develop her journalistic skills and have her writing featured at the Huffington Post. For the HuffPo, it’s a chance to experiment with a different method of funding a reporting project, as well as potentially training a reporter they can later hire on full-time. Theoretically, it’s a win-win.

New funding models are a necessity

The backlash to this idea sounds a lot like the criticism the Huffington Post has gotten in the past for not paying its writers, or for taking advantage of “citizen journalists” during earlier partnerships like the On The Bus project, which covered the 2008 election campaign (and broke some significant news, thanks to Mayhill Fowler). For these kinds of critics, journalists being paid a full salary seems to be the only model that they are willing to accept — but the reality of the media industry is that those jobs are disappearing, whether we like it or not.

Also, the Huffington Post is hardly the only media entity looking to fund journalism in new ways: TechDirt may not be an AOL-sized property, but it also has a crowdfunded reporting partnership with Beacon Reader devoted to net neutrality, and both Gawker and BuzzFeed have programs where they take advantage of non-journalists who wish to write for them — Gawker has its “Recruits” project, where writers can get a try-out with the site and potentially be hired full-time, and BuzzFeed offers anyone the ability to become a “contributor” and be featured on the site alongside staff writers. The Gawker program pays based on traffic and BuzzFeed pays nothing.

So where is the harm in the HuffPo fellowship? Maybe the company should hire Mariah Stewart full-time right now, and maybe it should pay all of its freelance contributors $100,000 a year, but that probably isn’t going to happen. So the choice isn’t between HuffPo hiring Stewart and using Beacon Reader to crowdfund a salary, it’s between crowdfunding her fellowship and not doing anything. If it works properly, both sides benefit and everyone learns something about whether crowdfunding partnerships are a viable alternative to traditional ad-funded journalism. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholtz